This is not the story of the man who started with a red paperclip and—through a series of barter exchanges—ended with a two-story house, although that's the story that got me thinking about this blog post.
For Kyle MacDonald's seemingly apocryphal but amazingly true story, click here. For my take on what the story illustrates, read on…
When I'm consulting with clients in the areas of sales, customer service, or management, the topic of "value" inevitably surfaces. Why do people buy? Because they perceive that a product will bring value to their personal or professional lives. Why do they participate? Because they expect that the experience will yield some measure of educational and social merit. Why do they strive? Well, you get the idea.
But as soon as anyone tries to define "value" in absolute terms, it becomes evident just how slippery the concept really is. What is true value? Does it even exist? Impact Learning Systems offers a course called Sales—The Other Side of Service™ which proposes that there are some universal values which everyone shares: We want to be healthy, we want to save money, we want peace and security in our communities, and so on.
In any given sales or service situation, however, these universal values give way to very personal desires and needs. Why else would someone trade a movie role for a snowglobe? This is what the red paperclip story so charmingly illustrates—and what makes a free market system simultaneously elegant and confounding.
The right price, the right product, the right experience—they're all defined subjectively. So, our efforts to present a value proposition (be that in the world of commerce, family life, politics, or society in general) must be recalibrated on an almost person-by-person basis.
The truth is that we never really know what someone else will perceive as valuable, and it serves us well to respect this diversity. (On the flip side, almost everything is of value to someone—another reason to keep an open mind.)
Postscript: An update on Kyle MacDonald's website reveals that he's looking to trade in the red paperclip house. Value, it seems, is as transient as it is indefinable!