ChargeCards for warthogs: The brave new world of buying through barter

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on January 7, 2014

From The News Desk

Nomad once bartered eight of their ChargeCards for this African warthog

Bright eyed, bootstrapping new founders are the most fun to interview. They just get so excited about everything. They haven't been beaten into brand submission by a PR agency yet, so they're full of random stories and anecdotes that have nothing to do with their product. In said stories are sometimes nuggets of gold: Weird little habits or lessons they've acquired that are worth exploring but would never make it into a product launch press release.

That is the case with Nomad, a company that makes the ChargeCard and the ChargeKey. The product itself is far from revolutionary. It's an iPhone or microUSB connecter. It's either lithe and minimalistic or fits perfectly in your wallet, depending on which version you want. The cable converts into a USB, that way wherever you go you can charge your phone. At this point there's loads of similar options, but Nomad's designs are by far the slimmest and easiest to carry around.

It's not exactly a curved television set worthy of a high-profile, botched Michael Bay presentation, but it's useful.

What's more interesting than what they sell is how they sell it. You can buy the ChargeCard or ChargeKey the boring way -- paying $25 per card online. Or you could buy it the awesome way -- through Nomad's barter system.

The Nomad founders came up with this new payment idea early on in the company's history. What if they let potential customers pitch them on a "barter," trading goods or services to get a ChargeCard or Key?

They put the barter-buy option up on the website in October. "It wasn't like we were launching something that we knew would be successful," Dentzel says. "We had a new office in San Francisco and thought we could barter for things we needed, like espresso machines and snacks."

But it has turned out to be much more than a temporary office-stocking option.

Since rolling out the barter system, the company has wound up giving away their product in exchange for everything from website design work and VC pitching advice to an original photography print of John Lennon and $350 worth of board shorts. The craziest thing they ever got was an African warthog skull, which hangs above their office door. It cost eight charge cards. "[That customer] went hunting in Africa and ran a taxidermy shop," Dentzel explains.

It's the sort of wacky, not particularly profitable idea that might make a VC roll their eyes and immediately shut it down. Fortunately for Nomad, the founders have elected to forego venture and they're solely bootstrapped, having raised almost 400 K in crowdfunding and even more in sales. They're like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone: They've got the run of the house. If they want to barter their product there's no one to stop them.

The co-founders believe they've gained immeasurable value through some of their barters. Dentzel says the lead stylist at L'Oreal, who cuts hair for Apple's C-level executives, offered to show the execs the ChargeCard product. In another barter, a senior back end developer at Netflix helped Nomad with their programming infrastructure. Dentzel and his fellow co-founder Brian Haun believe in the system so much so that they've dedicated a part of their website to explaining it, fully integrating it into company culture and policy.

They've had everyone from Goldman Sachs financial advisors to VCs barter for ChargeCards. "A lot of these people who are well off, they can afford to buy a ChargeCard if they wanted one," Dentzel says. "But it's not too often they get to interact, trading something they do that has value with something we do. It's fun."

The bartering system is part of a bigger alternative payments trend we've been seeing lately with startups. From bitcoin to paying-by-tweets, companies are experimenting with taking new forms of currency than plain old boring money.

BitWall is one such company capitalizing on this trend. It offers a service paywall that publications can throw up in front of posts. In order to view the post, users must choose between paying Bitcoin, tweeting the story, or watching an ad. It's three different forms of capital: fiscal, social, and labor. "How can we drive someone's business forward with what we're doing?" BitWall's founder Nic Meliones told me. "It's a way for customers to support material they approve of."

ChargeCard's barter system largely relies on the exchange of knowledge capital. Although frivolous barters are fun for Nomad, the real benefit comes from getting advice from designers, investors, financial advisors, engineers and other senior experts in different industries.

What's the one barter they're still hoping to get?

"A sailboat," Dentzel says. "Or a Tesla."