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Originally published Monday, April 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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No cash? Barter for services with "dibits"

In a struggling economy, bartering is making a comeback, and Dibspace.com, a Seattle-based online marketplace, is riding the trend. Participating business owners create profiles and earn "dibits" by offering their services, then use those imaginary monetary units to purchase services from others.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Dibspace.com

How it works

SEATTLE-BASED DIBSPACE.COM is based on the premise that small businesses, particularly those that charge by the hour, have productive time that goes unfilled. This online marketplace allows business owners and individuals to create profiles and offer services in exchange for "dibits," or currency units, that can then be spent on other services offered on the site.

dibits: These are valued at one per U.S. dollar. For instance, a dance instructor who would normally charge $40 for a series of classes can charge 40 dibits on the site.

Transactions: Participating businesses offer their services on the site, and other providers indicate their interest, paving the way for a transaction. For example, a carpet cleaner offering services on the site sees the dance instructor's offer and decides he wants lessons. The two iron out dates, times and confirm the price. Afterward, the instructor sends an online invoice to the carpet cleaner, and the appropriate number of dibits are transferred from his account to hers. But the dance instructor doesn't necessarily need carpet cleaning, so she can use those dibits on any other service offered on Dibspace.

Getting started: Businesses get 100 dibits for signing up. They can earn another 100 by posting offers (10 dibits for each of the first 10 offers they post). Recruiting other businesses earns even more dibits.

Tax issues: Bartered transactions are considered taxable by the Internal Revenue Service, so Dibspace.com says it will tally and calculate each user's earned dibits and send each a 1099-B form at year's end.

Source:Dibspace.com

Marc Ramirez

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Something didn't feel quite right, and Amber Tande knew it.

For a long time, she'd considered hiring a feng-shui adviser to help streamline the energy in her Wallingford home, but she wasn't prepared to pay for it.

Then Tande, owner of Rain City Yoga, discovered Seattle-based Dibspace.com, a modern-day spin on the age-old practice of bartering, and one of many such exchanges fueling a global revival.

Before long, she'd hired interior redesigner Gwen Williams and, two consultations later, wall paintings were moved a few inches, certain porch furnishings got ditched and Tande's sanity was restored — all without her having to part with any cash.

"Everybody who walks in here says, whoa, it feels really good in here," said Tande.

Instead of money, she paid for it all with "dibits," the alternate currency traded among the small-business owners and individuals who create profiles on Dibspace.com.

With economic times gone rough, bartering has re-emerged from the days of the Great Depression, when communities turned to networks of friends and neighbors for survival and support.

Two months ago, with that in mind, Dibspace founders launched their online marketplace, aiming to link small-business owners whose services they saw going unused in a recession-challenged society.

With Dibspace, they hope to offer a place to unite the roofer sitting around with time on his hands and a client with a hole in his roof but no cash to repair it.

"It's not that there's not enough supply and demand," said Dominic Canterbury, an independent marketing consultant who started Dibspace with Aaron Brethorst and Dave Richardson. "The currency has dried up."

But arranging one-on-one barter transactions, they knew, could be tricky. What if the person with the services you need doesn't want the services you have to offer? "It's like dating," said Canterbury. "You have to have a match."

So, say you're a piano tuner, and another Dibspace user, a cooking instructor, takes you up on your offer to tune her piano for 100 dibits. You send her an online invoice, and 100 of her dibits are transferred to your account.

But you may not necessarily want to take her cooking classes, so you can save those dibits for something else on the site. Hmmm, a yoga class sounds good. Or maybe bicycle repair.

Canterbury knows the machine can't run without some lubrication, so Dibspace users get 100 dibits when they sign up. Users can then earn another 100 by posting offers — 10 for each of their first 10 offers — and even more for recruiting others to the site.

In two months, more than 600 mostly Seattle-area users have signed on, offering everything from photography and remodeling services to dream interpretation and acupuncture.

Last month, during a cocktail social at Capitol Hill's Vermillion, Dibspace founders preached their message to about 30 interested small-business owners, including a psychotherapist, project managers and sellers of hair products and chocolate.

Those who came were curious about how the system worked and how to deal with the Internal Revenue Service, since the IRS considers bartered goods and services taxable.

Canterbury says Dibspace will tally each user's earned dibits and issue the appropriate tax forms at the end of the year.

To avoid scammers, Dibspace lets users dispute a charge or nonpayment of one. They can also post reviews.

Canterbury says he will pony up the dibits for unresolved disputes, but that users repeatedly involved in such situations will be booted from the site.

The site as yet generates no revenue, and Canterbury says he's prohibited from saying how it eventually might. But one idea, he said, might be to charge for "premium" services in the future.

For now, Dibspace makes sense to user Jacob Sayles, who runs Capitol Hill's Office Nomads, a community office space. He plans to take ornamental welding classes from artist and former neighbor Mimi Riley, who runs Georgetown's Studio Steel.

Riley can then spend the dibits she gets from Sayles on whatever appeals to her — "even if my bank account says I can't afford it," she said. "... I can still get a massage. Things like that, when you're tightening your belt, are the first to go."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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