Deciding to Offer Web Design in a Gift Economy Changed My Life. Here’s How.
Last weekend, someone who is very important to me wrote something kind about me on Facebook, and since then many people have tried to get in touch with me.
Like, a lot of people. From everywhere.
The person was author and speaker Charles Eisenstein, and the kind words he wrote about me had to do with the website I designed for him.
Here is what Charles wrote:
The fact that people have reached out to me from around the world, seeking help with their website projects, simply because of these words, is a great example of not only the power of social media, but the magic of working in a Gift Economy.
Let Me Explain.
I’ve built websites for people for about 13 years now, the first 11 of which were done in the typical “here is my quote, I need this amount in deposit, and at the end, here is my bill” type of model. It is the same model most people experience in the business world, and it is composed of two totally opposing forces: the seller attempting to take as much money as possible while giving as little of the product as possible, and the buyer attempting to take as much of the product as possible while giving as little money as possible.
People have described this model to me in a variety of apathetic, shoulder-shrugging ways, like “That’s the way it works.” or “That is the American way.” or “It’s a dog eat dog world, what did you expect?”
I don’t know…what did YOU expect? What did you expect when you were a kid? What did you expect before the “realities of life” taught you otherwise?
I always expected something different. It’s why I struggled so much on the inside in my earlier careers, despite achieving significant professional success. I talk about when I reached the tipping point in this blog post, but the point is, I could not continue to work that way.
This past weekend, I received many requests from people who felt like they could not continue to work that way either, and they wanted to know how to work like I am.
So, How Do You Do It?
In 2011, I read Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein, because a dear friend told me I must. At that time, I was already almost a year off the corporate treadmill, but I did not know exactly where I was going. The ideas in the book blew my mind. The concept of a Gift Economy was immediately compelling to me, but I was terrified that it would fail or that people would just take advantage of me.
Despite many reservations, I decided to put up a website describing my willingness to build websites for people in a Gift Economy — basically that if we decided to work together, that I would build you a website as a gift, and after I was done, I would give it to you. Then you would consider what the finished project was worth to you and choose something fair to gift back to me. There would be no contracts, no negotiating, no pressure.
And, in contrast to the traditional model where all the risk is on the buyer, the way I was set up, all the risk would be on me. There was every chance that I could build you a website and you could just say “Thanks!” and never gift me anything at all in return.
So, I did not advertise, or tell many people outside of my Facebook friends about this project. I was worried that people would scam me and have me build a website for them and then never offer anything back as a gift. Also, I thought I would do maybe 1 or 2 websites a year like this. I was actually pretty sure the thing would end in disaster.
I Was Very Wrong.
First of all, the project went from an experiment to a full-time job in just a matter of months, totally driven by word of mouth, and soon I had a constant stream of clients. I ended up doing 22 websites in 2012, all by myself, all in the gift.
Secondly, every single client has supported me in whole.
Every. Single. One.
Most clients gifted me with payment, and the payment is more than I ever received in the traditional model, which was based on negotiation and the lowest bid wins, instead of the Gift model which is based on mutual respect and fairness.
Working in the gift does not mean that I work for free, or that I give my work away without care. It means that people trust me to build them a website, and I trust them to support my work as they believe fair.
Is this Gift Economy project of mine enough to support a family? It became so after about 6-9 months, which I think is good for any new business. However, the project could have gotten that strong that much sooner if I was not so worried and skeptical in the beginning.
For me, I had 2-3 champions that I knew already on Facebook who really bought into what I was doing, gave me work, and promoted me to other people, and that got the ball rolling. This was really they key to getting things off the ground.
But the reason it spread so fast is because, as I alluded to above, the Gift Economy changes the entire business relationship. Instead of a situation where the client is skeptical and fears getting ripped off because they don’t understand web design and yet are being asked for a 50% deposit up front, causing the client to argue for the lowest possible bid to lower their risk, the Gift Economy places all the risk on me. I built many of my websites this year without any deposit at all, and when I was finished I turned the entire site over to the client 100%. Always, and without any strings attached.
Working this way was so revolutionary to so many people, that when friends of theirs said “I need a new website” they would refer me with “you have to call Adrian, he is great and you can totally trust him.” I don’t know that I am great, but I try really hard to get everything right; I do know, however, that you can trust me 100%, and that when we are finished, you will be more than satisfied.
Trust became the medium of exchange, not HTML, not money. Helping each other became the purpose, not profits or returns on investments. Establishing a community who believed in me and what I was doing became the goal, without worry over profit margins, because eventually I received the most important gift of all: a true faith in people to be honest, fair, generous, and supportive.
So, I guess, the basic lesson I learned is for a gift-based business to thrive, it needs a community around it to help it grow, but the community does not need much to get going. People are desperate for a New Story or a new way to do business, something not so toxic, something fulfilling. All you have to do is take the leap and believe people will be there to catch you. And they will. And then, the more you give, the more you just let go and give away, the more will come back to you.
That was my experience, anyway.
Here, Charles says it better than I do:
If you are interested in working this way, I would urge you to give it a shot, but there is no need to quit your regular job right away. Read Charles’ books. Test it out like I did, but don’t be surprised if it becomes so big that you have no time for anything else, because that is what happened to me!
Hope this is helpful, and would love to chat more. Let me know if you have any questions I did not cover.
Oh, before I forget: Happy New Year!