Advice is Always Free, Part 1

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So, I’ve had this policy unofficially for most of the time I’ve been in business.  I’ve been actively promoting it for a couple of years or more.  I “borrowed” it from my friend Ilene.  I tell people to call me or email me anytime they have a question or an issue they think I can help with, and I’d be happy to discuss it with them.  I think it’s a great approach to business and I’ll tell you more about why.

Today, for what seems like the hundredth time, I heard a very accomplished author and speaker, Scott Ginsberg say a version of “don’t give away your time for free.”  Those were not his exact words, but I believe he said, “you can’t ‘pick my brain,’ but you can rent it.”  Ok, that’s fair.  I enjoyed his presentation quite a bit and he really helped me get over the tendency to make my writing a lot lower on the priority scale than it should be.  He’s obviously very successful and I’m sure I would learn a lot from him if I “rented” his brain.  And don’t get me wrong, he was very generous with his time and his knowledge today, and he struck me as a guy who sincerely wants to help people.  And he got me thinking about my “free advice” policy.

He also reminded me that some other smart people, whom I respect and consider friends, like Thom Singer, Scott Ingram, and Sheila Scarborough,  have written about this topic as well.  From Sheila’s presentation, it seems as though she’s in the same camp as Scott Ginsberg. After giving it some thought, I recognize that there is a difference between free help over email/phone, and free help in person.  And there are also differences in the “let me pick your brain” requests; some are about “give me advice to help me get to where you are;” mentoring kinds of requests.  The other kind are about your specific area of expertise. But I’ve decided that I don’t really have a problem with any of these.

Personally, I love “can I pick your brain?” requests.  I’m happy to give away advice for free, and usually I do it over phone or email, but if you’d like to meet somewhere, I will if my schedule allows.  Over the next few days, I’ll describe the main reasons that I think people are suggesting that you don’t do this, and why those reasons just don’t seem to apply to me.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll come back tomorrow for what I hope will become an interesting discussion! (And feel free to reach out if there is something you think I can help you with!)

Also, if you’re interested in more on this topic, you might be interested to pick up Chris Anderson’s book, Free.

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  1. Meeting with every friend of a friend who calls wanting to “pick your brain” is not scalable when the calls come too often.

    Plus, there is a difference between networking (building a long-term, mutually beneficial relationships) and “brain picking” (i want to take from your advice). By its nature one is give and take (mutual), the other is one sided. For a networking relationship to happen both parties must be interested in creating a meaningful connection. That does not mean a networking relationship is always “give and take”… and they are rarely equal. But the intention is both have an interest in knowing and serving the other.

    If you are going to brain pick you should put some thought in advance of what you can give to the other person.

    Plus some people’s business is consulting and coaching people. If their advice is valuable to someone, then paying for it is not a bad thing. I have paid several people for their points of view on my business and life. Some were worth more than I paid, some were not.

    I have also been helped and counseled by people for free. But the purpose of the relationships was different from the start. I cherish the people who have given me their time, and I “pay it forward” by doing the same then when it makes sense.

    I don’t think it matters which side of this discussion you are on (or somewhere in the middle, as I think I am)…. as I do not believe there is a wrong or right policy. It is about being respectful of the other person and THEIR policy. If their business model is tocharge for their consulting (which is what it is), then pay or don’t pay. People should not judge that they charge. If nobody pays, there is no business model anyway.

    It is like the speaking industry. Some speakers speak free to fill the pipeline for other lines of business and sell books and products. Some speakers charge a fee for the presentation itself. Neither is evil, and both can lead to very successful careers. If you want a “free” speaker, go get one. If someone has a “fee” for their presentation, don’t be offended they charge for what they deliver, just decide if you will pay or move on.

    I was a wedding photographer early in my career. I had many people I knew socially ask if I would photograph their wedding for free. I was never offended, I just said no and told them my price. Do you walk into your doctors office and ask them to waive your co-pay? (Good for you if you do!). If you ask and they say no, you are free to stay or leave, but is the doctor wrong for charging for his expertise?

    Is it rude to ask for free consulting? Maybe, maybe not. But it is rude to assume the other person is doing something wrong in not giving you the free stuff if their business is consulting.

    I am curious to see the feedback on this discussion. I don’t believe there is a wrong answer, just one that works better for some people and another that works for others.

  2. Nice article, Maura!

    I don’t make judgments about an individual’s policy on fees for services or if they give any of it away for free. There is no right or wrong approach, in my opinion.

    I find it easy and painless to give away free advice in my field (graphic design). It helps that my work has tangible results: “No, I will not design your brochure for free. Yes, I will tell you that stacking lowercase type is a crime against humanity and should be avoided at all costs.”

    The trick is being firm about how much time I’m willing to spend and if that time fits into my schedule. For the past several months I’ve scheduled any non-client meetings to occur where I have a weekly co-working group. I’m there every week, and if someone wants a bit of my time, they can schedule it on a Tuesday. I generally like to schedule a beginning and ending time, just to clarify my boundaries in advance.

    I am clear on what’s free and what’s not. I think a lack of clarity is what makes some people nervous about the whole issue.

    • Thanks Ilene and Thom, for your very thoughtful comments! I agree with you both, there is no right or wrong answer – no judgment here! I was just compelled to reconsider my policy after hearing what other people had to say on the topic, and make sure I was still comfortable with my own decision. I could certainly change my mind and Ilene, I do address “double-duty meetings” in the future parts, which you’ll see later this week. I think it’s a great idea. I hope you’ll both read the next two posts and add anything you think is relevant. Thanks again!

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