Developed by Brian Hanley, Master's of Engineering degree candidate at Lehigh University

Trading Trash for Treasure

Trading is an art and practice that every entrepreneur should attempt, and ideally, master.

How to Trade? Easy. Choose a paperclip. Make a trade with someone, exchanging the paperclip for something you perceive to be of greater value. Continue to make trades and see what treasures you can acquire.

By utilizing my social networks and exercising systematic innovation methods along the way, I traded a Paperclip -> Mountainboard -> Nintendo DS -> Microwave & Clarinet. This is how it happened. 

Packed like sardines in my cream colored freezer were pre-cooked dinners. With no microwave to thaw them, I remained doomed to watch the calendar supersede their expiration dates. My ultimate goal for Trade Up was to acquire a microwave and thereby salvage the abundance of icy, rotting food in my freezer. A strange journey loomed in my future.






The Internet is a vibrant marketplace for new and pre-owned automobiles, but not necessarily for used paperclips. During Trade Up, Tony and I sought to capitalize on our market’s strengths. We created a webpage ( and applied bisocation to force associations between our paperclip and an automobile, hoping to garner customer attention and boost the marketability of our product. Much like a car dealer, we advertised the paperclip’s convenience and entertainment features, which were practically none. Still, the paperclip failed to entice an online customer base. Potential customers remained unimpressed by our attempt at humor, disinterested in a product as commonplace as a green paperclip.


paper clip


Graduation season upon us, I encountered a young Lehigh alumnus, a mutual friend of my mutual friend, hauling a heap of garbage down Hillside Avenue. Noticing treasure among his trash, I introduced myself and proposed a trade. “Hey, I’m Brian. I’m friends with some of your fraternity brothers. I’m in Lehigh’s Technical Entrepreneurship program. If you’re throwing out that mountainboard…I’ll trade you a paperclip for it… One of my assignments for class…” Long story short, he accepted the terms. We exchanged items and that was that.




As the weeks passed, I grew emotionally attached to the mountainboard. Tony became apprehensive that our inventory was gathering dust. He suggested applying Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats to stir-up our thinking and help mobilize our idle business activities. This particular innovation method led to a creative breakthrough. During the caution step, de Bono’s black hat, we predicted the negative consequences of trading versus maintaining the mountainboard. I was content with keeping it. The mountainboard was unique and a product I deemed valuable for recreational use. According to Google, a mountainboard’s retail cost ranges from roughly $88 to $649. Considering that the paperclip was free, I felt extremely fortunate about our first and only acquisition. On the other hand, several individuals expressed interest in trading for the mountainboard. Apparently they also recognized value in the product and were willing to trade, perhaps, for items of superior value.



Before bringing the mountainboard to market however, we applied painstorming to help determine which, if any, customers’ pains our product might remedy. We aimed to fill a customer need rather than create one—to maximize the perceived value of our product—and thereby facilitate more favorable trades. With that in mind, we concentrated on solving environmental pains from which customers needed relief. Lehigh’s campus, notorious for its mountainous terrain, poses numerous environmental problems that a functional mountainboard helps alleviate. The mountainboard, therefore, was well suited for Lehigh students and staff looking to navigate the campus more quickly, with greater ease, and who feel comfortable riding similar, four-wheel apparatuses. Painstorming allowed us to successfully identify the niche market to which we would ultimately target our product.
tradeaway FB


Both in person and online, we began promoting the mountainboard. We targeted members of Lehigh’s longboarding community and received positive responses almost immediately. A young man named Fungshuie seemed particularly interested. Fungshuie offered to trade a Nintendo DS (videogame console) for the mountainboard. In my opinion, the mountainboard was far more desirable than the console. However, Fran Puente (a third party member) thought otherwise. Fran was willing to trade almost anything for a Nintendo DS, but he had nothing that interested Fungshuie. To appease Fran, Tony and I accepted Fungshuie’s trade. We recognized the two-pronged opportunity in satisfying both Fungshuie and Fran’s needs in one transaction. We received the Nintendo for the mountainboard and then traded the Nintendo to Fran for a used microwave and clarinet. I secured the microwave I needed, Fungshuie the mountainboard, and Fran the Nintendo. The deal was advantageous for all parties involved. The experience reinforced that it is often valuable to accept a present “down” trade for a future “up” trade—to deliberately take a loss for the sake of moving on. I lost a mountainboard that I wanted but gained a microwave that I absolutely needed.


board trade


The application of creativity and innovation methods was necessary but not sufficient in the trading process. Applying bisocation, for example, we took a car dealer’s approach to marketing our paperclip. In the end though, our application of bisocation proved feeble. We ended up trading the paperclip in person to a mutual friend. On the other hand, the combination of De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats and painstorming helped tremendously to mobilize us during times of stagnation, allowing us to indentify new trading opportunities. Overall, it would be simplistic to attribute the entirety of our trading success to the application of innovation methods. Imperative to our success was the combination of creativity techniques and the maintenance and utilization of strong social networks.


For the purpose of continually incorporating innovation methods into my development of new products and services, I have created a creativity chart. Listed in the chart are: False facts, Bisocation, Kano, Trimming, Scamper, Melting Pot, Biomimicry, Blue ocean, Fishbone, Lotus, Painstorming, Six hats, Lateral benchmarking, Learn by discovery, Roger’s five factors, and Circle of opportunity. Imagine, for instance, that I decide to develop new mountainboard designs. I can systematically run each design through the chart, apply all of the aforementioned innovation methods, and generate a creative storm of ideas. Charting the creativity techniques allows for a systematic approach to and application of each innovation method. A more comprehensive, systematic approach to innovation methods results, on average, in richer, more diverse product conceptualization. In both my entrepreneurial studies and entrepreneurial career, I plan to cultivate a concerted approach to innovation through the systematic methods previously discussed.


Upon completing Trade Up, I learned that my negotiations were more effective when dealing with the three F’s (friends, family, and fools) rather than complete strangers. I also learned that my networks were strong in certain sectors and relatively weaker in others. When it came time to marketing the mountainboard, for example, I knew personally 20 to 30 potential customers. When we acquired the clarinet, on the other hand, I knew practically no dabbling musicians. Not surprisingly, I traded the mountainboard effortlessly. The clarinet, however, remains in my possession. The lesson learned is clear. There are major advantageous to trading with and selling to customers in markets with which you are personally familiar. I know hundreds of skateboarders but few clarinetists. Going forward in my entrepreneurial career, I will be more inclined to develop products that I enjoy personally—and more likely to target customers whose problems I understand thoroughly.


Taken alone, creativity and innovation methods are critical to but insufficient in defining successful entrepreneurship. Such methods inspire businesspeople to challenge uniformity, question norms, and tackle complex problems with outside-of-the-box solutions. For those reasons, I plan to incorporate innovation methods, not only in my entrepreneurial endeavors, but also in my everyday life. When, last week, my neighbors complained about excessively loud music, applying false facts, I discovered that lowering my volume was but one potential solution. I decided instead to soundproof my room’s ceiling and walls. My apartment is now practically impenetrable by sound.


Trade Up taught me both to loathe and appreciate the everyday hustle that entrepreneurship demands. Trades and sales do not just happen. People make them happen. When I became emotionally invested in the mountainboard, complacency overtook me. I had to learn to separate the product’s sentimental from its monetary value. Once Tony and I liquefied our assets, we received bigger and better acquisitions. Going forward, by charting and systematically applying innovation methods to problems that I encounter, I can remain multiple steps ahead of my competition.



2 Responses to “ Trading Trash for Treasure ”

  • Hey Brian,

    I was checking out your blog after seeing your post on LinkedIn. This is Chris Coleman we went to Cheltenham together. I really liked your Trade Up post and ironically I have a tech startup called Savyswap that is doing exactly what you did and talked about in this post.

    I would loved to be able to chat with you about your one paper clip experience.

    • Chris, great to hear from you. Looks like we have a lot in common, I’d love to learn more about Savyswap. I spent this past weekend in Chicago at the National Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization conference and made some great contacts. Let me know how I might be useful to you and your venture. Cheltenham alumni/entrepreneurs stick together.


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