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Invasion of the Brain Pickers: 9 Ways To Deal With Bids For Free Advice

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When Amy sent me a message that began with “Remember me?” I pictured her the night we met at my workshop. She was nodding, beaming, and filling her notebook with my tips on how storytelling can build your brand. Her email got straight to the point: she needed a “compelling, amazing” bio for her application package to a management training program. She was crossing her fingers that I’d critique her package. For free.

I enjoy helping other women: friends who need a sounding board, motivated beginners with more vision than money. Recently I volunteered a $2,000 workshop to a women’s organization, but I’m running out of patience with people who are not my friends or protégée, who can afford the trappings of the good life and claim to value my 40 years’ worth of storytelling expertise—just not enough to pay for it.

When I told Amy I charge $200 an hour, she did her best to play the guilt card. As she told it, I might have remembered someone who helped me when I was starting out, so I’d have felt “compelled” to help her—as if the impulse to be generous could be frog-marched into action. She was grilling me about my services until, to my immense relief, she found someone to do the job for free.

The High Cost of Freebies

No matter what business you’re in, odds are everyone from long-lost classmates to the gang at the gym is on your case for freebies. And there’s just no avoiding the question, “Can I pick your brain over coffee?” It sounds like such a small thing and you feel churlish saying no. But in fact, it’s a pretty big ask for three reasons:

Your brain gets you billable hours, and it needs time to refresh. Every hour given away is an hour you can’t spend serving a client or enjoying whatever feeds your spirit.

“Coffee” is code for consulting. Marketing consultant Andrea Kennedy is often told, “I’d like your ideas for my logo,” but creative concepts don’t just rise from her brain like steam from a latte. Says Kennedy, “There’s a broad gap between the result that people appreciate and the hours of work it takes to get there.”

Coffee is a time suck. With prep, travel, and follow-up time, it can take the better part of a morning. When one entrepreneur added up all the time he’d given brain pickers, he came up with a dismaying 150 hours. At $1,000 a day, that’s almost $20,000 a year in freebies.

Advising isn’t what it used to be

I remember being proud to give free advice. Information interviews were part of my job as editor of Chatelaine where I counselled aspiring journalists in the comfort of my office. Nearly all sent thank you notes; one even made a charitable donation in my name. Every time a bright light found a job, I felt that I was touching the future.

With today’s brain-picking meetings, I often wonder why I bothered. Too many are about as businesslike as a midnight bull session between roomies. Remember that girlfriend who bent your ear about Mr. Wrong and then ignored your advice to ditch him? She’s back as the muddled businesswoman who gets you brainstorming and never follows up on your tips.

The Action Plan

Helping others should lift you up, not drag you down. Here’s how to set boundaries that protect your bottom line and let you be generous on your own terms. If you have staff, make them part of the plan so that rejected requests don’t land on their desks.

1. Remember, your experience is valuable—that’s why people want a piece of it. My friend Nina Spencer, a sought-after keynote speaker, used to sit down with pretty much every would-be speaker. When she told me she’d begun to feel resentful, I suggested she start charging for her time (the kind of free advice I love giving). Today her business has a coaching arm whose hourly fee of $250 is no deterrent to professionals investing in their future. Says Spencer, who’s now eyeing an international clientele, “Those who book me usually become repeat clients.”

2. Have a good reason for giving your time. Chances are exposure doesn’t cut it. For a financial planner seeking to stand out from the crowd, writing free articles might make sense—but only if she has a flair for distinctive stories and is reaching her target audience. As bestselling author and speaker Jon Acuff sums up, “If someone asks you to work for free because it will be great exposure, ask them to specify what that means. If they can’t, don’t.”

There are better reasons to work for free: a prospective paying client, a potential joint project, the buzz of meeting someone who’s likely to stretch and delight you. Best of all is the chance to make a meaningful difference.

3. Be clear about what you’ll do for free—and what you won’t. A friend of mine, also an interior designer, tells anyone wanting a brain-picking date, “Let’s grab a few minutes now before I start the clock.” This makes it clear she keeps tabs on her time. She’ll give big-picture thoughts on the run, but not ideas for a kitchen reno. As for names of tried-and-true contractors or the use of her trade discount card, both are perks for paying clients.

4. Close the door on repeaters. Watch out for brain pickers so thrilled with your help, they keep coming back for more. A friend of mine happily donated hours of record-sleuthing expertise to help a single mother prove she deserved a big increase in child support. But when she sought his help a second time, he said, “I’m busy.” Free work should be a gift, not an entitlement.

5. Don’t give your prime hours to brain pickers. Talk with them by phone or Skype while you’re waiting for a plane or having a slow day between deadlines. With a scheduling app such as Acuity or Schedule Once, you can limit meetings to 15 to 30 minutes.

6. Find helpful ways to say no. The last time I declined a free speech on workplace mental health, I recommended an excellent speaker who promotes the cause as part of her job. Many brain pickers need something even more basic—a blog post, book, or podcast (preferably yours) that will answer their questions and get them up to speed for a consultation. By deflecting fuzzy requests, you separate prospective clients from tire kickers.

7. Make freebies work for you. If someone can’t pay you, what can she offer instead? Introductions to five paying prospects? A chance to sell your book or DVD at her event? Every free speech deserves a sales opportunity. If you build her website, can she cater your next party? At the very least, ask her to like your Facebook page and recommend you on LinkedIn.

8. Submit zeroed-out invoices for freebies. Most brain pickers have no clue what your time is worth. You’re wise to tell them. When a designer friend volunteered to create my visual identity, her zeroed-out invoice sent a powerful message: I’d received a $2,000 gift, plus a further $1,000 in printing she arranged at cost. I’ll be following her lead with my next free project.

9. No more Ms. Nice Girl. Soon after Kennedy launched her marketing business, she said no to a prominent local businessman who wanted free communication services for his new client. Hinting that paid work might eventually follow, he said he was doing her a favour: “I know lots of people. This could lead to lots of work.” Yet he was bringing nothing concrete to the table while she’d been asked to bring her best work. Four years later, Kennedy shares the story with young women she mentors. “Women undervalue themselves shockingly. They don’t want to seem greedy.” You can help change that—starting right now.

Now over to you, feminist entrepreneur. How do you cope with brain pickers? Do you have a story or a tip to share?