• J. Woken

A Simbi(otic) Test Run

sym·bi·ot·ic (simbīˈädik) adjective 1. Involving interaction between two organisms living in close physical association 2. denoting a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups.

A couple of weeks ago I was convinced to try, an online index of people of varying talents interested in bartering out their services. Registration was easy. Deciding what services to offer and at what price to charge in Simbi credits was a little harder, but not too difficult.

In the first week, I was able to get some cheap IT advice from a guy who lives about 30 miles away, though the help wasn't quite what I wanted (i.e. to meet in person and have him clean up my hard drive so my laptop runs more smoothly). And right now I'm working on creating 10 characters for another fellow's fantasy-fiction novel in exchange for some Simbi bucks.

This free exchange is so far... underwhelming. What I was really looking for in joining the platform was real, hands-on help, like home maintenance, carpet cleaning, landscaping, auto repair, et cetera. Stuff I would otherwise hire out to a local business to take care of because I love to #buylocal and #shoplocal.

I don't doubt that in a densely populated metropolitan area, Simbi works wonders. But here, in rural Minnesota, the return so far has been less than rewarding.

New ground for expanding local commerce?

Even though by the looks of the comments of some of the users, the Simbi concept and the idea of bartering services is novel, I'd thought of it before. In fact, many people have, even huge companies, not just "little" freelancers like myself.

Last year I tried my first hand at bartering, and offered a local electrician 20 website blog posts in exchange for some rewiring work we needed done. The electrician declined, but that doesn't mean I won't stop trying to barter elsewhere. Since then, I've been trying to figure out a way to put bartering on the communal table for my town. The city already (kinda) dishes out Chamber Dollars, an in-town-only currency program intended to boost business.

Local currency not enough?

Sadly, I only found out about the Chamber Dollars ($CD) program accidentally. I couldn't find any information about the program on the Chamber website (is it a program that is only known to those "in the loop"?), and had to resort to emailing the Chamber directly for answers about what, exactly, $CD were. Here's their answer:

"The Chamber Dollar program was developed as a way to keep shopping dollars local. Anyone can purchase Chamber Dollars, but only businesses that are members of the Chamber of Commerce can accept them. Chamber members are reimbursed dollar for dollar on any Chamber Dollars they accept."

So, it's not really a bartering system. You still have to spend money to get $CD to spend. It's like going to a currency exchange desk to get special money, except you get $CD instead of, say, Yen.

After reading the explanation, I was less than enthused about getting in on the $CD program. First of all, I'm sure the system has its benefits, but in my mind it's not ideal enough to be tempting. In order to accept $CD, I have to be a Chamber Member, which would cost me at least $120/year. As a part-time freelancer who has more than enough on her plate as far as incoming business, the benefits of joining the Chamber just aretn' worth the monetary cost.

Secondly, I get the sense there is also a time cost to participating in this system. I don't have a lot of cash to invest and neither do I have much time to go to the Chamber office in order to exchange my $CD for $US. I mean, does the grocery store take $CD? Does the cafe? Does the thrift store? Can I reverse-exchange $CH for $US at my local bank branch? I certainly can't use $CD to pay my utility bills or my handyman to fix my toilet, that's for sure. But now I'm spending time to execute a program that I already pay into by virtue of being a Chamber member? No, thanks. Seems like a lot of extra work for not a lot of payout.

Third, I've shopped a lot (A LOT) in town and I've never seen a sign, image, or placard posted in any business, anywhere, encouraging me, a consumer, to buy into the $CD system. A giveaway of $700CD last November in a #shoplocal event failed to grab my attention or interest because I didn't know about the program -- AT ALL -- so my eyes literally glossed over it, my brain not putting it to memory or marking it as important information.

That's how branding works. Or, rather, doesn't work: People recognize a brand and either remember it as being "important", or they simply don't remember it at all!

And when Chamber Members aren't actively promoting the program it makes me wonder: Why?

Getting away from currency

The real problem I see is that people can't get away from a CURRENCY MENTALITY. The public is so used to passing paper or coin across the table to receive a service or product, they can't envision the legitimacy (or benefit) of bartering on a regular basis, especially for more expensive, "professional" services, like web design, tax consultation, legal advice, or home repair services.

Do people know there are more ways to boost the local economy and improve our town than by "keep[ing] shopping dollars local"? What about keeping services local? Isn't that also a crux of #shoplocal?

I'm sure lots of bartering happens under the radar. Still, it would be nice to know precisely which businesses are open to the concept instead of me blindly reaching out in hopes someone will say "yes."

Should there be a registry for people and businesses willing to offer goods for goods, services for services, without the exchange of a currency, US or otherwise? A "Simbi local," so to speak?

Maybe I'll pass the idea to the Chamber. Who knows who'll pick it up. Maybe they'll even let me handle it. #Project2018, anyone?

I call that seeing farther, for sure!

Consider this: Have you bartered for services before? If so, let us know how bartering works (or doesn't) for you!

This article originally published Feb 1, 2017.