Guest post by Laura Scholz, president of Scholz Communications.

When you first start your solo PR practice, bartering services can seem like a win-win. You get amazing experience, exposure, and valuable services; your “clients” get your professional expertise at virtually no cost.

During the past three years, I’ve traded for web design, haircuts, Pilates and yoga classes, personal training, head shots, nutrition advice, office space, and more than the occasional meal. Having started my business with zero savings and zero capital — in the middle of a divorce, no less — these types of relationships were crucial to helping me manage my budget AND move my business forward. And I would say the same was true for those on the other end of the barter.

But as my business continues to grow and my time becomes more limited, I’m starting to question the value of trade for all involved. I think everyone enters trade with the best of intentions, but with never-ending to-do lists and nonstop schedules, you have to set priorities. And that means paying clients come first – often to the detriment of good relationships with quality people who have nothing but the best intentions. So, how do you decide if trade is right for you? And if it is, how do you make it a truly mutually beneficial relationship? Following are five tips for business bartering.

  1. Be selective. Choose your trades carefully. Go with businesses and people who represent your brand and reputation. Remember  you don’t have to accept every trade opportunity that comes your way. It’s okay to say no.
  2. Be realistic. We’re all busy professionals, juggling client work with personal and professional obligations. It’s easy to take on too much, and unfortunately, unpaid work can fall to the bottom of the priority list. Be selective about your clients but also realistic about what you can accomplish for them given your other responsibilities. Over-promising is the easiest way to ensure a relationship goes south.
  3. Sign a formal contract. In the early stages of my business, I did entirely too much business with nothing but a virtual handshake to seal the deal. Not any more. Every one of my clients signs a contract stipulating terms, duration, and deliverables. It may seem like a formality, but it gives both parties clear boundaries and expectations.
  4. Establish boundaries. Every project and every contact needs a beginning and end point, with clear goals, deadlines, and outcomes. For example, my contract with my Pilates and yoga studio is for six months at a set amount of studio credit per month and outlines specific deliverables. This ensures  I complete the work for them in the allotted amount of time, but it also means we can renegotiate terms or choose to part ways at the end of the contract. Which brings me to my next point, which is…
  5. Have an out. There’s nothing worse than an open-ended “I’ll help you if you’ll help me” agreement. While entered into with the best of intentions, it breeds laziness on both sides and sets you up for an unpleasant parting. Unfortunately, I’ve been there, and it’s really not the ideal way to end a friendship or a business partnership. Be clear about the terms of your relationship, but also give yourself and your “client” an out so you can end the contract if either party is unhappy – without permanently damaging your relationship.

What are your experiences with trade? Other lessons you’ve learned or tips you’d add? Any success stories you’d like to share?

Laura Scholz is the president of Scholz Communications, a boutique firm that helps creative sector entrepreneurs brand, promote and grow their businesses. When not busy working or writing for her own blog, she enjoys running marathons with the Georgia Chapter of Team in Training, consuming massive quantities of cheese dip, and virtually celebrating wine:thirty with the Arment Dietrich team.