Bootstrap Business Reports: March/April 1984

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A bootstrap crabbing business can provide extra income.

I make trees from wire and bread dough and sell them at craft shows. Some of my creations resemble fruit and nut trees, and others are just painted and left bare-limbed and wintry-looking. My biggest expense is the wire: After all, some of the larger trees require over a mile of the material!

Well, I’d already purchased several spools of wire from a local supplier when I decided to see if the firm would swap some wire for several small trees. The owner laughed and tossed my letter in the trash. However, his secretary retrieved it and convinced him to give the offer a try. 

I received two huge spools of the specified-gauge wire in exchange for the trees we agreed upon . . . and the boss was so pleased that I was assured I could trade with his company anytime.  

You just never know who’ll be willing to barter!  


I’ve participated in many small swaps over the years, but I’d never traded anything of significant value until recently.  

My old Volkswagen sedan was sorely in need of both engine repair and bodywork, and since I had a truck that filled my transportation needs, I advertised the “bug” for sale. Well, one of the people who responded to the ad mentioned that he was short of cash. However, in talking to him I discovered that he was an experienced painter and paperhanger, as well as an auto mechanic. When he mentioned the possibility of exchanging his services for part of the price of the car, I started to barter in earnest.  

I had long been planning–and had been postponing for just as long–redecorating my kitchen by replacing the 30-year-old wallpaper and paint. We reached an agreement: He painted the ceiling and papered the kitchen walls . . . and welded new floor plates to the cab of my track. In return, he received one old VW, which he promptly restored.  

I’m more addicted to barter now than ever, and am constantly coming up with new ideas for trades.  


Trading has become an integral part of our lives since we’ve been living on our farm. However, we think that the arrangement we made a year ago with five other families took barter one step further.  

We got together one evening over a potluck supper and organized a labor exchange in which each family received 40 hours worth of tokens (made out of leather scraps).  

Now, when we face a large or tedious project, we don’t phone a contractor or hire help . . . instead, we simply call on the other members of our organization, who are then given tokens equivalent to the numbers of hours they work. (Of course, there’s no obligation to work if one of us is busy that day or just wants to relax.)  

During the first year, our group has re-shingled a roof… built a bathroom . . . cut firewood . . . put up fencing . . . waterproofed a leaky foundation wall . . . sanded hardwood floors . . . painted the exterior of a house . . . and helped complete numerous smaller jobs.  

As you can see, the labor exchange has helped us accomplish a number of tasks that would have been difficult or impossible to do on our own, and it has also helped us to get to know one another better through cooperation.  

Ontario, Canada

Reading about Robert F. Keller’s business of making and selling items fashioned from rattlesnake skins, I was inspired to start my own moneymaking venture . . . providing a reasonably priced supply of freshly caught blue crabs to the residents of my apartment complex.  

I already had four two-hoop crab nets, and I was able to locate two more that were repairable and free. To these I added 12 others that I purchased for 95 cents each, a pair of crab tongs that cost $1.89, and a convertible hand truck/cart that ran $9.99. A pair of plastic-foam coolers costing $1.99 apiece brought my investment in equipment to $27.26, an amount I was able to recoup (and then some) during my first day on the job. Then it was off to the store for a bundle of chicken necks, backs, and wings (these packs of bait usually cost about $1.80), and, after putting $3.00 worth of gas in my car, I was ready to go.  

The crabs I catch go straight into the cooler, and each layer of the clawed crustaceans is then covered with a sprinkling of ice. (It’s important not to use too much ice or the crabs will freeze to death.)  

Selling the live crabs for $7.00 a dozen brings me just about $50 net when I’m able to catch eight dozen, though I often snare nine or ten dozen and clear a bit more. The only advertising I use is word of mouth, and by going out once a week I’m able to make about $200 a month!  


I want your readers to know that good opportunities for swapping exist in the big city as well as in the country. My best barter took place when our three-unit apartment building (located near the center of Los Angeles) suddenly needed new vertical copper pipes, a plumbing job that was estimated to cost about $900.  

Fortunately, we’d just replaced our station wagon with a smaller car, declining the dealer’s trade-in offer of $300 in favor of selling the older vehicle ourselves.  

When the plumber inquired about the fate of the old car and told us he was looking for an auto for his son, we happily agreed to trade the car for the installation of the new pipes!  


When we gave up the big-city rat race for our 40-acre homestead a few years ago, we found that barter soon became a part of our lives. For example, I rewired our house and traded all the old wire and boxes with my barber for a year’s worth of haircuts, and–the next spring–swapped an old water tank for my spring plowing.  

However, my best barter took place when I helped an 80-year-old locksmith and small-engine repairman in exchange for the privilege of working with him and learning his very valuable skills.  


Even though my husband and I enjoy many outdoor sports, we’ve found that the cost of the specialized equipment required to indulge in some of them is–all too often–prohibitive. Then, one day while we were fishing from our raft at a local lake, we stumbled upon a solution.  

The water was swarming with wind surfers, and we were both dying to give that exciting-looking sport a try. However, the $35-a-day rental fee for the boards was out of our league, and buying an outfit was completely out of the question.  

However, when one of the sailors asked us if we ever did any white-water rafting, my husband’s eyes lit up. Within minutes he had made arrangements to swap equipment the next weekend.  

Our newfound friend arrived at our place on Friday evening with everything we needed to enjoy a couple of days of wind surfing . . . including a car-top carrier. He left with all our white-water rafting gear and as much advice as we could give him about the sport.  

On Sunday afternoon, all of the equipment was returned to the respective owners in perfect condition, and arrangements were made for another weekend swap.  

Nowadays, my mate and I are constantly on the alert for outdoor folks willing to swap sports equipment. We’ve traded the use of our downhill skis for the cross-country variety … snorkeling gear for fishing tackle … and a toboggan for snowshoes. We take care of the borrowed paraphernalia as if it were our own, and have found that our swapping partners do the same.  

We are now able to enjoy a lot of outdoor activities that we thought we couldn’t afford … through barter. [EDITOR’S NOTE: For more ideas on reducing the high cost of play, see A Low Cost Outdoor Gear Guide:  Hiking, Backpacking And Camping Equipment.

J M.B.B.

Three years ago I was mulling over the idea of starting a home business when I read the article Yo-Yo Shawl. Now I’d long been selling the doll blankets, pillow tops, and doilies that I made, but the article in MOTHER EARTH NEWS started me thinking about the entrancing things other people make . . . and about the possibility of giving such folks a sales outlet.  

Starting with $20 worth of fliers–which I distributed to get out the word–and a painted sign nailed onto my house, I set up business on my front porch. I carried items on consignment for a 20% commission . . . and soon my enterprise had grown to the point where I had to move to a small rented store downtown. This, it turned out, was also temporary: Before long I was forced to relocate the business to an even larger (4,300 square feet) store that I now rent for $200 a month. I raised my commission to 30%, and I sublet part of the store, for $100 a month, to a friend who runs a knitting nook. Advertising costs only about $6.00 a month, and after deducting this and my utilities from the store’s income, I’m left with approximately $250 . . . a far cry from my old income of $1,300 a month. However, I no longer suffer the stress and the chest pains that were brought on by my previous job.  

My stock consists of items crafted by 138 individuals and includes such things as lamps, deerhorn buttons, paintings, sculpture, jewelry, baby clothes, pillow slips, sweaters, clocks, pottery, and a myriad of other objects. (I also make braided rugs and chair pads to sell in the shop.)  

E. H.

My wife and I wanted a milk goat but didn’t feel that we could afford the initial costs of fencing and housing in addition to the price of the animal. However, our wish soon came true . . . through a series of swaps.  

You see, I was passing one of the barns on the beef cattle farm where I work, when I heard goat sounds and discovered a Toggenburg cross with a bag full of milk. On further investigation, I learned that a fellow employee was moving and could no longer keep the goat, so she was looking for a buyer. We offered to help the goat owner move, and–in return–she gave us the milker plus a registered Saanen.  

Then we turned to the matter of feeding and housing our new acquisitions. A neighbor was going to pull down his picket fence, so we dismantled it in trade for the pickets . . . my wife arranged to “relief milk” for a nearby dairy in exchange for all the hay, grain, and straw we needed . . . and we tore down an outbuilding for half the good lumber, which became our new goat shed.  

Now we have two goats–and their bed and board–without having had to lay out any cash . . . thanks to barter.  

A.F. & J.F.

I have always been a trader, but my most unforgettable swap occurred last year. I had added on to my house several years previously but could never seem to accumulate enough money to cover my patio. Every time it rained, the water came in the back door!  

Well, I had just purchased a 380 Suzuki motorcycle for $100 to repair and resell. Then my brother, who had been out of work, got a new job, but lacked transportation. It also happened that about the same time, my neighbor–a builder–was remodeling his house and needed the services of a tile setter, which just happened to be my brother’s profession.  

You guessed it! I fixed the motorcycle for $40 and traded it to my brother . . . on the condition that he would do the tile work on my neighbor’s bathroom. In turn, the builder erected the cover over my patio, a job which would normally have cost me more than $700.  

We all benefited from our three-way barter, but I still feel that I came out on top!  


I don’t claim to be an artist, but my ability to produce simple drawings allows me to barter for useful products and services.  

Community bulletin boards often contain many rather uninteresting scraps of paper advertising home businesses, so I decided to do myself and these enterprises a favor: Now, I copy the information from the ads into my notebook . . . go home and design an original advertisement for each one . . . then make a phone call to the owner and offer to trade a set of these custom-made notices for a sample of the product or service they advertise.  

Since most of the home entrepreneurs are impressed with my product, I’ve been busily arranging swaps. Sketches of Paul Bunyan earned me some firewood, which I traded for badly needed car repairs. I exchanged another set of drawings for the services of an experienced typist, and a single drawing of a tot for eight hours of free child care.  

Other people benefit from my swaps, too. Since–for example–I have no trees to be trimmed or roof needing repair, I’ve asked a local agency to find worthy recipients when I get these services in exchange for my ads. However, I definitely plan to use the results of one deal myself: I’m taking piano lessons!  


While my friend and I were traveling through Scotland last year, I discovered that bartering is universal.  

We were hitchhiking around the Isle of Skye (my middle name happens to be Skye) when I spied a silver pendant that I thought would be a perfect memento for my companion. Since our funds were low, I mustered my courage and approached the jewelry store owner to propose a swap.  

I’d noticed that the shop’s signs were crudely printed and did not reflect the beauty and quality of the merchandise for sale, so I offered to paint some new ones–in calligraphy–in exchange for the piece of jewelry.  

We were all pleased with the trade: My friend had a memento . . . the merchant had new signs . . . and I left a part of myself on the Isle of Skye!  


Even though my husband and I shared the fantasy of owning a Tudor-style stone house with a pond in the backyard, the first home we could afford was located on a main city street, had a tiny lawn, and was in need of extensive repairs.  

However, we continued to dream and look. Then, as we were taking a ride in the country one day, we found our fairy-tale house. It was of stone construction . . . had a private lake . . . and had more moss than grass in the yard. It reminded us of a small Scottish castle (even to the slate roof), and the inside was unique, with slate floors and a very large fireplace.  

When the real estate agent asked us if we were interested in the house, my husband said (in jest), “Sure, if the owner would like to trade homes with us!”  

You can imagine our surprise when the realtor called us two weeks later to tell us that the owners of the stone house were interested in relocating to our area. They inspected our little cottage . . . told us what changes they would like to have made . . . and we immediately started the renovations. We painted, installed a new kitchen floor, sanded and refinished the kitchen cabinets, and made many other major and minor repairs, swapping labor and skills with friends and family.  

Two months later we exchanged homes, to the delight and satisfaction of both families. Who says you can’t barter for dreams?