“Hopefully through The Pixel Trade, I will be able to inspire others to start thinking about the world and people around them in terms of their attributes, not their wallets.” 

“Hopefully through The Pixel Trade, I will be able to inspire others to start thinking about the world and people around them in terms of their attributes, not their wallets.” (Photo from www.ThePixelTrade.com)

A couple years ago, Shantanu Starick was a professional freelance photographer running a successful business. And today, 187 trades and 5 continents later–and without earning or spending a farthing–he still is.

Meet Shantanu Starick. In the world of freelance photography, he’s pretty good. In the world of social media buzzery, he’s freakin’ huge.  And while we’ve never met, we have a love/hate relationship with Shantanu. You see, he’s succeeding at not succeeding in the business of photography. And so far as we can tell, it’s all semantics.

Screen-grab from shantanustarick.com

Not long ago, Starick was travelling the world, taking photographs, and making a decent living (so far as we can tell). However, today, Starick is living a much different story. You see, he stopped charging his clients actual currency and started shooting for ‘trades.’ In June of 2012, Starick launched a project called ‘The Pixel Trade’ (http://thepixeltrade.com) and has been bartering his photography for a host of other valuable, but non-financial things. And over the past 29 months, this creative freelancer has completed 187 of these trades, and visited FIVE continents. His goal is to reach all seven.

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 10.37.47 AM

Screen-grab from ThePixelTrade.com

We don’t want to come off too snarky, because we really do enjoy following his progress, and we are cheering for his success – like we do for all professional photographers. However, we are skeptical of a few things. 

Here’s where we would like to clarify for you, our dear readers. While Shantanu Starick is doing something incredibly interesting, clearly creative, and profoundly endearing, it is not not-commercial photography. That’s a double negative, we know. This project is being billed as something other than professional photography, and to the best of our ability to assess it, it simply isn’t. He’s still a photographer in business, getting paid for his work, and networking his way into the next shoot. He’s not setting his prices, but is open to trades of any sort.  Every trade is a transaction. Transactions are business.

So let’s break it down.

1.  What is business?
It’s the transactional exchange of something of value for something else of value.

2.  What is Shantanu Starick doing?
See #1

3.  But he’s not charging MONEY, so it’s better, right?
The barter system is kind of like money, only not as good.

4.  What can we learn from this?

Lesson 1: Starick is a marketing genius

He applied his marketing creativity with his photographic ability & came up with a business model that is almost self-marketing, and then he began marketing it really hard. At the core of his model is the self-propagating nature of his networking construct. He merely asks that, while he is sleeping, you find his next client.

“While I’m snoring under your roof, I ask that you send carrier pigeons or phone calls to friends and associates that might want to trade with me down the line. This way The Pixel Trade gets to continue (and I also won’t be in risk of starvation and/or homelessness).“

Benjamin Franklin famously said that “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” So imagine yourself hiring a photographer, and then being duty-bound to provide for their material needs (toothpaste, toilet paper, bed & board) until you find and transport them to their next client. So the moment Starick landed his first job, he could be reasonably sure that that client would find his second, and so on. And if they don’t find him another client, it’s cool, he’ll just camp out in their home indefinitely.


Now let’s apply this same kind of thinking to your business model. When you land a client, and you take their photographs, they have agreed to pay you, which is great. But they haven’t agreed to find you the next client. (Also, they haven’t agreed to support you until that next job comes along, or give you a ride to it. Unless they’re your mum, in which case, yeah, she kind of did that.) 

Lesson 2: He’s still in business

Bartered goods still cost money. His clients have to earn money the old fashioned way in order to pay for the homes he sleeps in, and the food he eats. So while he may feel somewhat insulated from the currency world, he is only one transaction removed. Which means he’s still swimming in the same stream that we all are. The one with the money in it. And that’s okay.

Lesson 3: Business is good

Starick still has real, financial needs. His cell phone bill, his website hosting, maintaining or upgrading his photo gear, some thought of a retirement fund… So while his short-term needs are perhaps being met through creative barters, his long-term needs require a bit more creativity. And we suspect he’ll need to occasionally accept a bit of cash for his work.

For you, as a pro photographer out hustling to grow your business, when you get paid, you turn that money into many things. Part of it goes away in the form of taxes – taxes that fund the goods & services that make our society work: roads, police, justice system, healthcare, little things like that. Some goes back into your business as marketing money, gear, insurance, education, a subscription to Engage. Necessities. And the rest goes to fund your excessive and lavish lifestyle – like that moderate flat you call home, and the responsible auto you motor about in, and the food, etc…

The Take-Away

So in conclusion, this guy is still very much in business, he is still very much marketing himself, getting paid, and spending what he earns to fund his life. However, he has made one massive barter, and he’s hoping it pays off. (And frankly, we are too!) He has traded the stability of his own flat for the excitement of something new every few days. If he’s completed 187 trades over 29 months, that’s an average of 4.6 days with each new client. (Only slightly over Ben Franklin’s 3 day mark.) He has created a concept so novel that he can force his current client to find the next one. And if they don’t, they have a permanent houseguest.

That’s marketing genius we could all learn from.