The trade thing

I had a conversation this morning with an up-and-coming consultant who I’m sure will set the world on fire once she finds her stride. It was a conversation about bad things happening to a good someone with even better intentions.

She was burned as bad as I’ve heard someone getting burned with a trade agreement. It was a harsh learning experience for her, the kind of pill anyone who’s a free agent has been forced to swallow at one time or another. She asked for my perspective and since I had never articulated my guiding principles for this kind of thing, it was something I learned from as well.

Here’s what I told her. I (and she) would love to hear other approaches as well.

I approach trading services for services like I approach loaning money to friends. It isn’t a loan. It’s a gift. If I decide to help a friend out with some cash, I expect it to not come back. If I don’t want to or can’t give it, I don’t give it.

Likewise if I decide to do something for someone without being paid for it, I assume it’s not quid pro quo. I’ll do it for friends without a return, or I’ll suggest an actual business arrangement. Even if they press for some kind of trade, I refuse to accept it. If they’d like to do something for me out of the goodness of their heart later, fine.

The problem with trade agreements is that they’re entirely too vague. How much time writing is worth how much time planning? What’s a logo design worth against technical advice? And how many revisions will I get until it’s right? What happens when I think I’ve put in enough hours but you haven’t received the value you hoped?

These are the kinds of things that can sour otherwise perfectly good relationships. If it’s a free value-add for a friend from the outset, then those issues aren’t nearly as important. It’s the difference between a favor and an obligation. And I try to keep those very distinct.

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