“When people have real idea, they have real funding, and pay you real money.”

Quite often, I receive an email that looks something like this:

Hey there! I’ve started a new company, [catchy name], and [boilerplate compliments, pitch, and feel goods].

This is a great opportunity for you to expand your circle, and get in early on a startup that’s going to be gargantuan. Of course, we can’t pay you, but we will give you stock in the company, notoriety, and all the Turkish delight you can eat.

For some reason, this kind of request always resounds with my entrepreneur side, and I undoubtedly start a dialog about their product and what they’re looking to do. I’ve even said yes a few times! Each time I’ve gone down this road, I’ve learned the same lesson: working for trade or equity is fools gold. Most anyone who’s taken the opportunity will echo a similar sentiment. Of course this kind of request isn’t limited to freelancers; I saw the same applications come through when I worked for a design agency. While it is possible to have a successful relationship, every time you take up the endeavor you risk the bad, the ugly, and the dangerous pitfalls associated with trade work.

The bad: They can’t pay you

It’s painfully obvious, but for a number of reasons it’s never made to be as daunting as it should be. Here it is. They have no money. Take a second to internalize what that really means. You’re about to sign a blank check on your time and talents to a person whose only compensation will be a theoretical futuristic something? It’s a bad joke; don’t get caught on the wrong end.

The ugly: They can’t respect your time

Simple. They can’t respect your time because they know they don’t have to pay you. One more time; they know they don’t have to pay you. This means that you instantly become wholly accessible to every whim that comes to mind, no matter the burden it will place on your shoulders.

Because they’re not paying for your time, they can’t respect that you have other obligations. They (however unintentional this may be) will always try to take advantage of the situation, demanding more time, more revisions, and more priority on their project.

The dangerous: You can’t deliver

The final, and perhaps most volatile piece of the equation is the fact that you can’t deliver. You’ll never be able to justify all of the resources the project demands of you, especially when you have a line of clients waiting to pay you good money for your time. The project slides to your night and weekend pile, then to your airplane travel time pile, and finally you come to the conclusion that there’s no way you can serve the project effectively. Heaven help those who signed a contract.

Trade sucks

Now, hold back your lil’ haters. Again, I’m not saying that it’s impossible to work for trade. There are obscure circumstances where trade really does have mutual benefit, but they are a rarity, not the norm.

When people have real idea, they have real funding, and pay you real money. The world of trading is for industries built upon a foundation of fantasy and bad ideas – not real potential. Don’t get caught in the trap of trade. Instead, work on increasing your value so there’s always people lined up to pay you hard cash for your time. Amen.