Life under quarantine in the coronavirus era has given many people a commodity that was previously hard to come by: time. Some have used that time to read books or play music, while others are figuring out how to bake the perfect loaf of sourdough.
For 29-year-old Demi Skipper, inspiration came by way of a TED Talk and a red paper clip.
The TEDxVienna Talk speaker in question was Kyle MacDonald, a Canadian blogger who is perhaps better known as the "One Red Paperclip" guy. About 15 years ago, he had the idea, starting with one red paper clip, to trade his way up to owning a house. On July 12, 2005, MacDonald, then 25 years old, embarked on the mission. In one year and a mere 14 trades, he had a farmhouse in Kipling, Saskatchewan.
Now, Skipper — who works full time for the restaurant app OpenTable while also running a wedding dress rental company — is bringing the “trade up” challenge to the TikTok generation. After 21 trades since May 18, starting with a bobby pin, she currently has a Peloton exercise bike and 4.5 million followers on her TikTok account, @TradeMeProject, to show for it.
The 'old woman on TikTok'
The rules to the Trade Me Project are simple: Skipper must find people that are interested in trading; she cannot trade with anyone she knows, and the trades cannot include money.
“I think I'm just honestly mind-blown at how many people are resonating with this and how many people are so interested in following it like a TV series almost,” Skipper, who lives in San Francisco, said. “And with every trade, I surprise myself because I'm like, ‘Well this is the best trade.’ And then the next one comes and I'm like, ‘No, this one by far.’ And it just gets wilder and wilder.”
Nearing 30, Skipper called herself the “old woman on Tiktok” after learning that the majority of her viewers are 11- to 15-year-olds. She recently surprised a sixth grade class taught by her friend via Zoom and was met with screams of, “Oh, my God, the Trade Me Project lady is in my class!” They believed she was the first person to take on this challenge.
That 'One Red Paperclip' guy
Trailblazer MacDonald, now 40, had to make do with the internet of his time, when social media was in its infancy. His tools of choice? Email and Craigslist. Even phone books were part of his arsenal.
“It was like sticking my thumb out hitchhiking," MacDonald — who today does public speaking and operates an online art merchandising website — told TODAY by phone about the experience. “I didn't know what was going to happen. Every morning I'd wake up to new adventures and opportunities every day.”
The initial trade that set everything into motion was for a fish-shaped pen. From there, some of MacDonald’s most notable trades included a panel truck, spending half a day with rock legend Alice Cooper, a recording contract and a Kiss snow globe that he famously traded to “L.A. Law” actor Corbin Bernsen.
“It was the year 2006 that Time magazine Person of the Year was a picture of a screen that said the Time Person of the Year is you,” MacDonald said. “I think it really hit that zeitgeist of just how the internet was going to change things. And this paper clip guy was one example.”
Tricks of the trade
When Skipper started the project, she planned to use TikTok to document each of the trades as a way to look back on her journey — not as a path to internet stardom.
But once she posted her first video to the popular social media app on May 18, Skipper woke up an overnight sensation. Within a week, her TikTok account had over a million followers. Though she’s now deep into her journey, Skipper gets asked the most about how her first trade went down, when she traded away a bobby pin for a pair of unused earrings.
Skipper put advertisements on eBay, Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist that read, “Hi! Really random, but I’m looking to trade a bobby pin. Watch the video if you want more info. But would love do my first trade with any of you!”
It was enough to persuade 30-year-old Atlanta native Abbie Collie, who works in pharmaceutical law. “I was ‘quarantine cleaning’ and making a Goodwill donation pile and had a new pair of earrings,” she told TODAY in an email. “I thought that earrings would be a good jump start for her to make her next trade. I commented on her post hoping that I would be the first, and I was!”
That was all Skipper needed to set her project into motion. Since then, she has made 20 other trades that have largely consisted of tech products.
Shortly after receiving the earrings, Skipper was able to trade them for a set of four margarita glasses, followed by a Bissell vacuum cleaner and then a snowboard. By trade 11, Skipper had Off-White Nike Blazer sneakers valued at $850.
“What's funny is, like, I've always sort of been like a side hustler. None of my friends are really surprised," Skipper said.
The good, the bad and the unknown
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. For Skipper's 15th exchange, she traded for a car that was in less-than-stellar shape. A family pulled up in their 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan after driving all night from Minnesota to California in exchange for Skipper’s iPhone 11 Pro Max. But the minivan was now leaking a red fluid and wouldn’t start. On top of that, Skipper did not have a parking permit, which meant the city would tow it if she could not find a trade within three days.
“I really was thinking about scrap metal at that point,” Skipper said. “But luckily I found a guy who was best friends with a mechanic; he FaceTimed his mechanic friend. He was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can fix this; no big deal.’ And we traded the car. Without him, I don't know what I would have done.”
Skipper said she sifts through thousands of trade offers a day and spends hours researching the value of products. Since there are many people that send fake offers via email, direct messages and in many of the thousands of Facebook groups she has joined, she will often require them to send pictures of the product. Once Skipper determines a product is legitimate, she will FaceTime with the individual for further verification.
Most recently, Skipper traded for what she thought was a $19,500 diamond and sapphire necklace, only to be told by 10 separate jewelers that the real value was closer to $2,500. Although she traded it for a Peloton exercise bike, Skipper was disappointed in the necklace's drastic value drop.
In 2005, MacDonald, too, encountered false inquiries. But rather than make his email less accessible on his website, he posted his personal phone number and soon found that only serious individuals dialed him. He recommended that Skipper try the same tactic.
Sifting through the thousands of offers is a time-consuming venture, but knowing the best objects to trade for versus the ones that appeal only to a niche market is a vital distinction. In the latter category, Skipper says she turned down offers for a commercial-sized soft-serve ice cream maker, and oddly enough, family pets.
Someone even offered a plane ticket across the world, but Skipper had to turn it down amid travel concerns due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
MacDonald said that once items reached a certain value, they were harder to trade than concerts or a recording contract. He added that he does not envy the difficulties Skipper must navigate surrounding the pandemic. Once it is safe, both said they would be open to sitting down and sharing their stories.
The challenge lives on
One of the highlights of the project for Skipper has been seeing other people try to trade up. She noted that one girl is trading up for her college tuition, while multiple users were in a race to acquire an ice cream truck. In fact, the trend has gone global, reaching Indonesia, South Africa and the U.K., according to Skipper. A quick search for the #tradechallenge hashtag yields hundreds of videos on TikTok with people giving it a go.
Although Skipper has already gone beyond the number it took MacDonald to complete the challenge, she is hopeful she can get a house in less than a year. Skipper and Collie, the woman with whom she made her first trade, have already spoken about their plan.
“We joke that when we get the house, we'll both be there and frame it and hang it up in the house,” Skipper said.
Already, Skipper said the journey has been much more than she ever could have imagined and has determined when — not if — she gets a house, she will donate it to a follower in need. MacDonald famously donated the Kipling house after living there with the woman who is now his wife, Dominique, for a few years. Today, the house is aptly named the Paperclip Cottage Cafe.
MacDonald said he looks back fondly at the entire experience and especially treasures the “housewarming” party that brought hundreds of people to a town that today only has 1,074 residents, according to the Kipling website.
“Trading away that paper clip was the best thing I ever did,” MacDonald said. “The whole metaphor is every long journey starts with a first step. So, trade away your paper clip, and if it doesn't work out, it's just a paper clip.”