Trading up and dreaming big

Telana Simpson's ambitious plan to trade a single matchstick into offices has been an amazing five-year rollercoaster ride. Thus far.

Tamaryn Watkins
By Tamaryn Watkins
Johannesburg, 03 Feb 2012

Telana Simpson has made nearly 400 trades as part of her quest to turn a single matchstick into offices. Along the way, she's made a movie, worn a T-shirt every day for over a year, and traded in diamonds, frogs, pens, hot air balloon rides and much more. Simpson has vowed not to rest until she has the office space of her dreams.

About a matchstick

“A matchstick is such a poignant symbol as it has the potential to light a candle or a bonfire, through the application of energy to create that spark,” Simpson (aka the Matchstick Girl) observes, as she remembers how it all began.

She recalls how she'd been reading about a Canadian who'd managed to turn a red paperclip into a house, through a series of trades, in just under a year. “It blew me away,” she says. “It just showed me that, with the right kind of dedication, you can get whatever you need. When I thought about what it was that I needed, it was immediately apparent that I needed office space. I'm an entrepreneur, and, at that point, had already been working from home for two years. It was time to take my business to the next level, but I didn't have the money to rent office space. So I decided to have my own paperclip experience. Looking around me, I noticed matchsticks lying on my desk. I love candlelight so I always have matches to light my candles.”

Sometimes the most wonderful things in life happen when you just show up and participate.

Telana Simpson, One Matchstick

That matchstick went on to become Simpson's inspirational icon, her business card and was also the subject of her first trade. “Once I'd settled on the matchstick, I created a blog and started writing about what I was doing, e-mailing everyone I knew and invited them to trade with me. After receiving a number of offers, I decided to make the trade for an ordinary green pen, with an accountant, Nikki Viljoen. The condition attached to the trade was that it should take place at a networking event that Nikki was hosting. Since the matchstick project is all about perceived value, this added a lot more value to the trade as it meant that I would have access to a room full of people to tell my story to. That presented a lot more value for me than, for instance, the bottle of vodka I was offered.


“Most of my trades have come from offers people have made through my blog, on Facebook and using Twitter, although a fair number have happened through a series of synchronistic events, a case of me simply being in the right place, at the right time and talking to exactly the right people,” she says.

Along her journey, Simpson has traded in green ballpoint pens, books, crates of wine, weekend getaways, R3 000 in cash, a hot air ballooning experience, a party for 150 people with a DJ, and 375 Springleap 'One Matchstick' T-shirts, and diamonds, all of which were traded off individually. Now that she's left with the profits of those trades, it remains to be see what the Matchstick Girl's next trade will be. At this stage, she refuses to give even a hint, for fear of ruining the surprise effect.

“People don't realise how much strategy is involved in what I'm doing. I need to be able to trade what I have, for something of a higher value, with someone or something that can take me the last few steps toward my vision of office space,” she clarifies.

Telana Simpson has told her story to thousands of people, not only through her blog; she's appeared on 5fm and on Jenny Cryws-Williams' Radio 702 Show. She's even made a movie of her story. In 2009, a friend of Simpson's encouraged her to enter a competition. The prize was a corporate video made by Missing Link. “The news that my entry had made it to the finals was both exciting and nerve-wracking. There were two finalists and we were to appear at an event and give a one-minute speech to motivate for the prize,” Simpson recalls. “In those days, I was terrified of public speaking. I practised all the way there in my car, but it turns out my nerves were for nothing. The other finalist didn't pitch, so I won anyway. Which goes to show that sometimes the most wonderful things in life happen when you just show up and participate.”

Simpson then decided to make One Matchstick: The Movie and used her prize as part of her ongoing publicity campaign to share the story of her journey to date. The movie premiered at an event in Johannesburg and then in Cape Town, by public demand.

Giving back

“Aside from strategy, I've learnt a lot about negotiating and people. I feel I can negotiate anything, with anyone,” Simpson says. Her dream of office space is not a selfish one, as Simpson has a vision of a large enough space to share with other entrepreneurs. “They won't have to pay rent, as I'll already have paid it with a matchstick,” Simpson notes, “and they can stay for a few months until they're able to get their own offices, and make space for the next wave of entrepreneurs. This is simply my way of giving back.

“Anything is possible,” Simpson says, “but nothing will happen until you put energy into it.

“How long it takes me to get to my offices all depends on how people respond to me, to what I have to trade and how much energy I put into selling my dream. It's hard work, but anything is possible.”

To read more about Telana Simpson, or to see what she's trading now, visit

First published in the Dec/Jan 2012 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.