No. You Can’t Pick My Brain was referenced in quite a bit of commentary across the web, especially on my blog and in the entrepreneurial and creative circles. It was re-tweeted hundreds of times and drove more than 9,000 visits to my site.
Two sentences seemed to especially have struck a chord with my creative peers: 1) Creative ideas and connections are the real currency in this digital economy. 2) Strategic and creative counsel is one of the most under-monetized aspects of being in the communications and marketing business.
As Ron Antonette commented, “Agencies give this away for free in the form of new business presentations to win the business. Until the industry stops permitting this to be the “cost of entry,” strategic counsel from experienced pros (other than crisis comms) will continue to be considered worth less than the social media optimized release the account executive writes.”
JessieX said, “the concept of deliverables for payment is still part of the economy, of course. But it’s the *thinking* that is most valuable.”
I was particular taken with Richard Nienaber’s observation:
What I think you were trying to say (and what I got out of your post, whether you intended it or not) is that there is a difference between giving away advice and giving away ideas. I still think ideas cost nothing. Advice, however, is a combination of education, insight and experience and is worthy of compensation.
Some were offended thinking I was suggesting one should not give their time away – that this was counter to the ways of the social web and start-up/entrepreneur life in general, more than one citing Rajeev’s rule. Not surprising these comments largely stemmed from those very people who are typically asking for that free advice. And, hey, I don’t fault them. They are hustling to make a dollar stretch. It’s up to the other side of the table to determine what they will give away.
Annalie Killian said, “Some of these coffees lead you to new ideas. perspectives or connections just as you do for others- and that is why you do them.” And I agree wholeheartedly. I believe in giving time away but have learned, and am still learning, what my boundaries and reciprocal wants are.
I personally suffer from taking a call with someone, coming up with ideas of people they should talk to or something they should do and all of the sudden I’ve found my short, friendly PYB experience turned into action items for me afterwards. And that’s where you can get hooked and start to get drained, unless you communicate clear boundaries and know what you want in exchange, if you care for the business at all.
Since so many people shared advice and experiences I thought a general observations and advice from peers on how to deal with PYB situations.
First up, some main themes:
- The term “pick your brain” is despised and makes people’s skin crawl. Don’t use it. Ever. Ask for their advice, insight, counsel or opinion instead.
- Social media has increased the amount of PYB requests from people who are “internet friends” and not personal ones. There is a difference. There is an emerging sense of entitlement that has frustrated more than one peer who has been expected to help someone just because they have a decent size twitter following.
- We feel flattered that people want our opinion and insulted when the value of them isn’t understood and giving it away for free only re-enforces that. Liz Macniven wrote that “people always value it more if they have to pay you something, even if a really nominal amount.” And Shelly Kneupper Tucker added that she’s “found that if people don’t pay you anything, they assume you aren’t worth anything. “
- We need to value our skills more and not be afraid to ask to be paid. Contractors can be especially guilty of this. Some are fearful the prospect will balk at the asking rate but, if they do and aren’t willing to discuss, you don’t want to work with them anyway. Don’t be afraid to ask.
- ..and this can be an interesting adjustment for new contractors. When you’re being paid by a company and giving advice away it’s one thing. When it becomes your livelihood you protect it more. Jim Bennette sums it up well with his comment. “Until recently, most of my career has been as an employee of a company who provided me with income. Hence providing this advice on the side was not that big of a deal. Recently, I have started to do consulting as my main source of income and in doing so I have had to begin to monetize my “popcorn machine”. It does take a little getting used to telling people that they must pay for my value.”
- A little goes a long way. If a PR/Marketing/Creative/insert-blank-here does a favor for you, say thank you in some way. It doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy but do something to show you recognize their time is valuable and you appreciate they gave some of it to you. Marie Williams coached a friend on how to pitch a story for coverage on a major tech blog (he succeed) and then he took her to lunch and got her a gift to say thanks. She says, “he showed that he was the type of friend that is worthy of such an investment by repaying me with a few small but heartfelt gestures (it’s trite, but true: it’s the thought that counts).” It matters.
- We don’t spend enough time asking for things in return. For many I know, and myself, this doesn’t occur, but it should. More on that below.
- People are starting to more safely guard their time, allotting more of their non-work time for me-time. This is impacting the criteria of what makes a meeting worth it enough. Maria Ogneva said, “Life is short, and I hold myself accountable for each day. I’d rather spend the time volunteering than frittering my life away on people who only appreciate you when you have something to give.”
That’s all fine and good you say, but how do we deal with these situations? Here’s what your peers had to say:
Ask for something in return. We are entering a barter economy after all.
- If you’re (that’s YOU, PYB’ers) asking for favors at least offer something in return. Tony Adam says, “I’m okay with someone asking for a favor or two or even picking my brain for an hour, as long as there is value. For example, I’ve done this with a few people and they offered to write testimonials, where as others, didn’t offer the same, let alone, to this day continue to ask for favors constantly.”
- But this also means that all those creatives out there need to start ASKING for something back. Tyler Crowley wrote:
I have a simple 2-word solution — gorgeous dinners
“Will brainstorm for Kobe” or… “I don’t drink coffee, but I do eat Kobe” or… “you know I’ve noticed that I really give my best advice when I’m eating Kobe, and I wouldn’t want to give you anything less than my best”
Tongue in cheek or not. He has a point. And it’s only fair. It’s OK. What do you want in exchange for your time? A steak? Champagne? Tickets? Don’t be afraid to ask.
- Ryan Born asks for a stock option agreement after determining whether or not they have cash to spend on advice. “It’s worked out really well and I do the same in return when asking to pick brains.”
Giving it away without giving it away
- Jordan Mitchell suggests starting with a test. “Slap a consulting process and rates around it, have the first phase be called PYB, and have a mutual out after that first phase. Key part is to give them just enough to leave them hanging a little in the first meeting.”
- Josh Morgan gives the first one away but after that it’s time to talk. Read his post on the subject.
- Limit the amount of time you give for “follow-up:” Marie Williams shared a story very different from her appreciative friend who took her to dinner. She met someone at a conference, simply suggested he submit a byline article as a way to help his company and then she received emails asking for help crafting said article and sent list of questions for advice on positioning. ”…I spent about 2 minutes to reply with a few high-level thoughts and left it at that. If you’re not a cherished friend or an employer who pays me for my ideas, you get the 2-minute response from me. I find that to be a good rule of thumb for such situations.”
- Set boundaries. Jim Smith said he gives “30 mins, by phone, or a time and place convenient for me; a declared takeaway; and no commitment to anything beyond the meeting unless there is clear mutual gain.”
- Jennifer Goldin puts aside a percentage of her time for requests for advice. “I choose to devote about 15% of my work week to meetings and calls where I happily make my brain available for picking. I feel safe and good about “popping” away – because in my experience, whenever I’ve needed help with a creative challenge or advice, I’ve a long list of people that are happy to take my call or a meeting. I view this 15% as an investment in my bottom line and it has paid off in dividends with a steady flow of referrals for new clients and projects. It’s been a long-term strategy. “
- Professional storyteller, Shelly Kneupper Tucker, has a wait list for her donated time. “My solution (because I do like to donate to worthy causes) has been to allow myself one “donated gig” per month. I’m able to tell clients that if they would like to get on the list I’ll consider their requests for a future time.”
- Bob Schwartz has a different twist. I’ve known Bob for several years and he’s a generous guy. Well respected in the VC and entrepreneurial communities. He’s deluged with requests and has a creative way of feeling even better about the time he gives away. “There are those who you want to extend a hand to and I often send them an email afterwards that includes a few links and a “if you’d like and found value in our meeting, feel free to make a donation to one of these foundations in my name” (ones that are specific and i like to give to like University of Washington Crew Team). Sometime I let them know this before the meeting.. Good for them, good for charity, for for me and Karma.”
How to help while maximizing your time
- If you’re someone who is frequently consulted, turn to your blog as a way to benefit anyone struggling with the same thing. Janet Scarborough Civitelli did this and said visitors send her questions and she chooses which ones to answer.
- Anita Harris also mentioned something similar and cited how it would help her professional brand. “I’m planning to write some blogs on social media for beginners–to which I’ll be able to both refer such inquiries and publicize my skills–and will blog on other topics to both answer questions and publicize my business.
- Eric Hammond used to think it rude when people turned him down for a PYB session, until he became a much sought after resource himself. To help he started a public discussion group around his area of expertise -Running Ubuntu on Amazon EC2 – cloud computing). “The group is now over 1,300 members and gets hundreds of posts each month. When individuals send me a private email with questions, problems, or requests for advice, I often explain that I am unable to provide free consulting and ask them to post it to the public group. When they do this, it benefits everybody.” A side benefit – you look like a rockstar. Eric adds, “Having a body of work that proves your expertise in a domain and your ability to address issues and provide solutions seems to be a great marketing tactic for a technical consulting service as I get many unsolicited requests for paid assistance.”
The $$ dance
- Robert Richman makes the point that if you want the business create packages to further investigate. “If you’re truly interested in the business, the transition should be seamless… [Say] Actually I have a package I offer for that. It’s a 2-hour lunch in which I give you my best thinking, knowledge, resources, etc.” And then you charge whatever your time is worth.”
- Deana Goldasich offers, “I’d love to discuss your project. I now have a ‘pre-paid’ hours program if you’re interested.”
- Christine Koh explains her professional services in the context of what they are asking for. “Then [I] offer something like a 10% discount on my rate as a nod to our personal relationship. Another recent tweak is that if the person works at a non-profit, if there’ s no budget and I really like them and their mission, I tell them I can do a 15 minute phone call gratis.”
- Deb Rox suggests brainstorming a bit, and then say “”I’d love for you to think about signing on as a client, and then we could really move some of these ideas into actionable concepts and strategies for you.” One of my colleagues has a firm policy–”I’d love to do some consulting with you on that topic, and my first half hour is free so we can both see what might be possible. I’ll bring an NDA and contract with me in case we want to formalize a relationship.””
- Ron Northcutt has a “coupon” for a free 20 minute consultation on the back of his business card. “This is enough time to establish that:
A) I do know what I am talking about
B) I can offer great advice and service
C) Its worth paying for my time
If I can’t convince them to pay for my time in 20 minutes, then its not a good fit… and usually by the end of the conversation, I am creating an “Action plan” to get to the next step and get things rolling.”
- Nichole Bazemore makes one of the most important points – “Be OK with them walking away: to get very comfortable with losing prospective clients, because if they don’t see my information as valuable enough to pay for, I don’t really want them as clients anyway.”
Now how’s that for sharing? Look at all this awesome collective advice that was dispelled without any harming of brains. Thanks to everyone who contributed. Let’s keep up the conversation.