This Woman Is on Track to Trade a Hairpin for a House

Demi Skipper is recreating the red paperclip experiment, fifteen years later.

Demi Skipper with hairpin
Demi Skipper shows off the hairpin that started her Trade Me Project.

Demi Skipper

If Demi Skipper's plan works out, she'll have a house by the end of summer—and will have paid for it with a hairpin. This ambitious young entrepreneur from San Francisco decided a year ago that she would try to trade up from the smallest thing she owned to the biggest thing she could think of, and so far she's on track to achieving her goal.

This challenge may sound familiar, and that's because Skipper is recreating what a 25-year-old Canadian named Kyle MacDonald did in 2006, when he traded a red paperclip for a house. It only took him 14 trades in under a year and the story became a worldwide sensation—and a book

After watching MacDonald's TED talk, Skipper decided to see if she could do the same. She tells Treehugger: "I was really interested to see if it was possible to trade your way up. For me, it was more about the journey."

She created some rules for her new Trade Me Project: No money could be exchanged; she couldn't buy anything, apart from paying for shipping costs when necessary; and she couldn't trade with people she knew. 

The hairpin went for some earrings, which went for four margarita glasses. These were traded for a vacuum cleaner, which went for a snowboard.

Then Skipper got an Apple TV, her first branded item, which made it easier to trade. These were switched for some Bose headphones, then an old MacBook Air, a camera with lenses, and several pairs of collector sneakers.

The last pair went for a new iPhone 11 Max, followed by a disappointing minivan that broke down. She down-traded for an electric skateboard, went up to a new MacBook, an electric bike-powered food cart, a used Mini Cooper, then she had another disappointing trade with a diamond necklace.

From The Guardian:

"She thought it was worth $20,000, but she was quickly told that although it was worth that amount when made, it would only be bought for $2,000. The necklace’s appraisal value was $20,000, but as she quickly learned, this is not the same as the resale value. 'It was a soul-crushing moment. I’d just traded this really nice Mini Cooper that was probably worth like $8,000, and I pretty much cut that in a quarter.'"

From there she got a Peloton exercise bike, an old Mustang, a Jeep, a tiny cabin, a Honda CRV, and three vintage tractors. Her latest acquisition is a Chipotle celebrity card, which offers unlimited meals at the fast-food restaurant for a year and a catered dinner for 50. She calculates it to be worth over $18,000.

Demi Skipper's trades
Two of Skipper's trades—a Peloton exercise bike and a vintage tractor.

Demi Skipper

When asked about her favorite trade so far, Skipper tells Treehugger the tiny cabin was the hardest thing to part with. 

"This item was super unique and was essentially a small one-room cabin on wheels. While I found it so amazing and unique, people had a really hard time visualizing what they would use the cabin for," she says. "It felt like it wasn't a quick livable cabin, but it also wasn't set up to be a food truck, etc. The couple I traded it to had plans to turn it into a personal outdoor bar during COVID, which I thought was pretty inventive!"

Skipper says she enjoys hearing the stories of the people she trades with and why they want a particular item. One that stands out is the woman who traded the diamond necklace for a Mini Cooper. "She was a mom of two, looking for a more fun car to use for herself. she even had her license plate changed to TRDMEPRJCT!," shares Skipper.

Skipper has over 5 million followers on TikTok and several hundred thousand on Instagram, which means she has to sift through countless offers for trades—more than 1,000 messages daily on Instagram alone. People are eager to be part of the Trade Me Project, and that makes her experiment quite different from the one MacDonald did fifteen years ago. 

"Kyle didn't have access to much social media like we do today. He absolutely didn't have 5M followers on TikTok and has said that he actually was using the phone book to reach out for potential trades," says Skipper. "While he did have a different economic climate, I do think people are much more willing to trade and recycle products than they ever have been."

Another big difference has been doing this throughout a global pandemic. "Kyle was able to trade for more experience-based products, like a role in a movie," says Skipper. "Given the pandemic, Trade Me has had to really stay focused on physical products and things that can be traded at a distance."

It's fun to see a project play out that's so at odds with the traditional model of working and saving money for years, even decades, in order to buy a house. It's bold and clever, with just enough of that stick-it-to-the-system rebelliousness to keep people intrigued. Plus, there's something so appealing about a barter system, where everyone walks away with something they want, feeling richer than when they started. We could all benefit from doing more of that, as indicated by the rising popularity of swap sites and Buy Nothing groups online. 

If you want to follow along with Skipper's journey, check out her TikTok here. She's got some impressive momentum and it's not hard to imagine she'll be unlocking the door to that house before too long.