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Law of equivalent exchange in business

The law of equivalent exchange is a principle with its origins in alchemy. In this medieval forerunner of modern chemistry, the idea was that you couldn’t create something from nothing and that if you did make something, an item of identical worth had to be exchanged for it.

It is a concept that can be applied to many areas of life. In personal relationships, it’s the idea that we should give as much as we receive; but what about business? Can this ancient and somewhat mystical principle be applied to the struggles and challenges of the modern organisation? Can we put it into action in real, actionable ways?

I believe we can, and that it can inform our decision-making in everything from pricing strategies to customer relationship building to sustainability initiatives. The entrepreneur Malcolm S. Forbes, the founder of Forbes Magazine, famously said ‘A little reciprocity goes a long way.’ That’s as good a way as any to think about this theory in modern business terms – it’s a kind of reciprocity.

Anyone who does business in Dubai and the wider GCC understands the region’s cultural emphasis on personal relationships and building mutual respect. In these dynamic business environments, a little reciprocity really does go a very long way.

So, let’s look at why you should be considering this approach throughout your business.

Finding the balance between you and your customer

To my mind, building trust with consumers, particularly those who have never interacted with your brand before, is always front and centre. Giving something of value away for free establishes your industry authority and demonstrates that you have their best interests at heart. This is why many companies offer free trials that allow users to try services before buying. How many of us have signed up for a free Dropbox or Amazon Prime trial and found them so invaluable that we end up paying a subscription? It’s about giving away part of the product for free so the user understands the value and eventually becomes a paying customer.

But that value doesn’t always have to be the free use of a service or product. Many industry authorities regularly share their expertise through blog posts, videos, infographics and guides, helping their current and future customers. This is also an exchange of sorts, whether it’s HubSpot’s free courses or Shopify’s academy, there’s a long list of companies giving away valuable knowledge as a way of building trust over the long term. The goal is always the same – to let users become comfortable with your environment and ultimately return as paying customers.

So, this type of marketing based on reciprocity essentially involves offering upfront value to encourage existing and potential customers to reciprocate with something beneficial. It helps build a closer connection with your audience and provides valuable insights as you learn more about their preferences and behaviours. It enhances interest in your brand and positions you as a leader in your field. In the end, it encourages customers to keep coming back and fosters that sense of mutual respect.

The law of equivalents and the people in your organisation

When employees perceive that they are receiving fair compensation for their efforts, they are more likely to exhibit higher levels of commitment and productivity. This isn’t just about monetary compensation; it includes benefits, work-life balance, recognition, and opportunities for growth. Employees gauge the value they receive against their input, and when there’s a balance, it fosters loyalty and a willingness to invest themselves fully in their roles.

It also promotes a culture of reciprocity and mutual respect, where contributions are acknowledged, and rewards are aligned with these contributions. Whether it’s in the dynamics between teams, the relationship between leaders and their employees, or the company’s broader social contract with its staff, embracing this principle can lead to a more harmonious, productive, and engaged workplace. It invites a re-evaluation of how value is perceived and rewarded, encouraging practices that sustain long-term organisational health and employee satisfaction.

By thinking about the concept in reference to the people we work with, we’re able to take a more holistic view of the work environment and come up with new ways to work together more effectively.

Ethics and making your business sustainable

Beyond mere transactional exchanges, the law of equivalent exchange in business has profound ethical implications. It demands an evaluation of how your business practices affect all stakeholders. Modern businesses understand that the pursuit of profit cannot be the sole focus, and there must be a harmonious exchange that does not exploit but contributes positively to society and the planet.

This is particularly pertinent in discussions about sustainability – a central tenet of many GCC countries’ long-term plans, including Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and the UAE’s ‘We the UAE 2031’ initiative. Businesses are increasingly expected to provide goods and services in an environmentally friendly, socially responsible, and economically equitable way. In this case, the law of equivalent exchange becomes a guiding principle, ensuring that the benefits businesses reap are not at the expense of future generations or the planet.

This might entail investing in electrical vehicle production or solar-powered housing developments, but they can also be at a much smaller level. Take TOMS as an example – they operate a ‘One for One’ model where the company contributes a pair of shoes to a child in need for each pair sold. It’s a simple approach that exemplifies the use of reciprocity and, in doing so, enhances customer commitment. It also ties in with what the younger generation of consumers care about and allows the company to create more favourable customer relationships.

Long-term transformation

Implementing the law of equivalent exchange is not without its challenges. Market dynamics are perpetually in flux, influenced by factors like consumer preferences, technological advancements, and global economic conditions. Businesses must continually adapt their strategies to maintain a balance between giving and receiving. This requires innovation, foresight, and a commitment to ethical practices.

In fact, the subjective nature of value can complicate this balance. What is considered fair or equivalent can vary widely among individuals and cultures, necessitating a nuanced approach to business transactions. Companies must strive to understand their clientele, tailor their offerings accordingly, and communicate the value clearly and effectively. In the competitive markets of the GCC, demonstrating a commitment to reciprocal benefits can differentiate businesses, driving growth and facilitating successful regional and international collaborations.


The law of equivalent exchange in business is a principle that transcends its alchemical origins from long ago, embodying the fundamental tenets of fairness, reciprocity, and ethical responsibility. I believe it champions the idea that a successful business is not just about the accumulation of wealth but about fostering a balanced and mutually beneficial relationship between providers and receivers. It needs to be at the top of your mind whether you’re a brand-new startup or an experienced CEO guiding a multinational corporation.

As businesses navigate the complexities of the modern marketplace, this law serves as a timeless reminder of the importance of maintaining equilibrium in the world of exchange, ensuring that what is given is always equal to what is received. When used correctly, it has the power to build strong, enduring relationships with all stakeholders, fostering loyalty and trust into the future.

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