Hey Cheapskate! Quit trying to "pick" my brain!

As a consultant, I've found one consistent truth. People think because you work for yourself that you'll give away all your knowledge for the price of a cup of coffee or a veggie burger. Why is that?

This isn't just something that I've found to be the case in my life, but I've heard the same thing from many other solopreneurs. Just because someone doesn't have an expensive sign posted outside a high rent commercial property doesn't mean they're hoping to give away all their professional experience for free.

So, why do people always want to "pick my brain"? Am I living in a world of hungry zombies? My noggin' isn't a plate of cheap hors d' oeuvres.

I've spent years honing my skills. I've made sacrifices. I've stayed in to work and to learn, while others have gone out to play. My knowledge is the result of my commitment and discipline. I've worked hard for it.

My words here echo the sentiments of many men and women who have hung up their own shingles and started their own businesses. I hear it all the time. The lack of a fancy lobby doesn't mean we want to give away all our tricks of the trade for a $4 latte.

That said, I provide lots of free guidance to folks in my online networks. Mostly those who are either operating nonprofit enterprises or who are out of work. People who really need a helping hand.

However, those with means, please don't ask to buy me a mochachino so you can pick my brain. It's insulting. My consulting rate is $100 per hour. So, yeah, it sounds perfectly equitable to me that I sit with someone for 60 minutes dispensing free advice in exchange for a warm cup of Joe.

Pick my brain? Forget that. How about paying me my worth? I have bills to pay just like everyone else. More than that, I have skills that the "picker" obviously doesn't have. You want 'em? Pay for them. Is that too much to ask?

Do you run your own business? Ever had someone ask to pick your brain? Eager to give away all your professional knowledge for free? Let me hear your stories. I know you have 'em.


  1. While I agree in the general sense... there are a lot of people out there who claim to have answers they don't actually possess. A little "brain-picking" can be the beginning of a know/like/trust dynamic that builds a relationship. I find the people who are the most reluctant to toss out an idea or two are those who only have an idea or two.

  2. Amber,
    You have struck a nerve with me on this one. From long, extensive emails explaining "symptoms" to wanting me to walk them through how to fix their $59 vacuum cleaner that they bought at Wal-Mart (No, Eureka/Dirt Devil/Hoover does not pay our bills or give us money to talk to you on the phone. We only make money if we sell something).
    In my private counseling business, I have implemented policies as to how many emails you can send me before I charge you for them. In our business, we struggle every day with offering good customer service and good-will vs. doing things that will actually allow us to pay the bills.
    I could trade you a new vacuum for a couple of hours of your time....:)

  3. Okay Amber....I can' t wait to send this to my mother. She has a very specific skill set/knowledge that people are CONSTANTLY picking away at...whether it is someone just trying to get it for free or those who call her for an interview (she was laid off the day before I was...ugh!) and then ask her, "so how might you tackle this problem?"...only to have her share her ideas and then not be hired because they handed her wonderful ideas off for someone else to execute........I am totally with you on this one...

    By the same token I don't completely disagree with Don, although I think that is the exception rather than the rule. I guess the real challenge is in trying to figure out the balance on just how much info to share.

    Have I told you today how much I love your blog?: )

  4. I do agree with Don. Those that are reluctant to help with an idea or two usually do only have an idea or two. But Don, I don't think that's what Amber is saying with this post. The reason I know that is because she has helped me on more than one occaision when I've asked her a question when first being a newbie on Twitter and then again when I recently tryed my hand at blogging.

    I also have to admit right here that I virtually STOLE Amber's created Twitter wood: Re-gurg-a-Tweet and use it whenever the mood or tweet comment suites me. When pressed though I do give her credit for it. She put it on air as a freebie...I would have charged for it. Especially on Fridays. lol

    I have customers who want to "pick my brain" all of the time. If it is in the realm of consulting them on the product I sell for my employer and that they are hopefully buying....no worries. But "picking my brain" about non work related stuff is a priviledge I will continue to mete out as I see fit.

    Amber, you rock as usual.

  5. Interesting theory. In my experience, people ask to pick my brain because we have already established that "know/like/trust dynamic" and have already created that relationship. That's why I think they feel comfortable asking me.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Don!

  6. Jeanie, I bet you're kind of like a doctor in that way, huh? Here are my symptoms, please tell me how to fix the problem?

    Probably seems harmless to them, but as you say, you need to pay your bills, too. And, yes, it's a total tap dance to foster good will while not taking an active role in your own bankruptcy!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Jeanie. Always good to hear your insights!

  7. I hear ya, Rachel. Been there, done that! It's not a fun place to be.

    When you talk to your mom, tell her she did a swell job raising you! You always add great value to the comment section here! And thank you so much for your continued support. It means a lot ;-)

  8. Thanks for chiming in, Cheri! Always great to hear your take on things.

    I appreciate you acknowledging the free advice I do give very regularly. There are a few folks, like yourself, who are simply trying to learn. I don't feel exploited by that and it's very different from the scenario I've written about above.

    There are, however, a half dozen people who keep me in their rolodexes (so to speak) and email me every time they want me to do their work for them in exchange for a quick meeting over coffee. Those very same people also know I'm trying very hard to make my business work and keep my head above water. I have no respect for that.

    Thank you for your kind support, Cheri. Know that it's appreciated.

  9. Thank God for Tweeple...LOL

    And I will let my mother know...: )

    Thanks so much! But you make it easy...

    Your Biggest Fan!...lol

  10. Always a difficult area... I generally use a time limit to decide if I'm billing for a chat or not - if a client calls me up and we chat for 15 minutes about something, its free. But if we talk for much longer, I consider it hourly. Unless I've initiated the call because I'm trying to drum up work.... so many gray areas... like any relationship

  11. I work for a small company (4 man operation) and clients are ALWAYS trying to get free consulting. We run a CRM company called Ivinex. It really bugs me that people think they can just call me or e-mail me any time they want and expect free work out of me or the company.

    Pay us what we're worth!

  12. Re: "I've spent years honing my skills. I've made sacrifices. I've stayed in to work and to learn, while others have gone out to play. My knowledge is the result of my commitment and discipline. I've worked hard for it."


    Yes, I've most certainly experienced this. On the design side (people asking for discount after discount). And on the coaching side people asking to get together for lunch, coffee, etc. IN THEIR AREA (not even yours). Yes, because I'd LOVE to sit in traffic for 1.5 hours, to sit and have lunch for 1+ hours on my expense to top it all off.

    I don't do coffee and I don't do lunch. In the past, I remedied this by hosting a monthly luncheon at a cafe in the Sherman Oaks area. At our peak we had 23 people show up (two agents event drove up from Orange County). That was probably one of the most fun meetups ever. And everyone benefited all around, including myself. I didn't sponsor it. I merely organized a meeting of the minds, if you were interested, you showed up and it was as simple as that.

  13. Ahhh! I couldn't agree more. I wrote about this a few months because I was pretty fed up too. If anyone asks me that question, I say "sure, it'll cost you." Haha! Works every time because I'm also tired of meeting for free.

    Well done Amber!

  14. My husband runs into this problem all the time, and since he's a giving guy, he's had a hard time setting limits. He's a freelance graphics, media and marketing guy, and at one point friends and acquaintances were asking him to create pieces for them or give them advice at least once a day if not more. We wouldn't dream of showing up at our chiropractic friend's office and saying, "Hey, since we're buds, give me an adjustment." He finally set a boundary, his friends totally understand, and he's increased both his cash flow and his time to work with other clients. Besides, people value more what they pay for.

  15. This is a tricky one - we (not solopreneurs but a little operation of usually 3) often provide advice free of charge in an initial consultation, especially to start ups or when the info is of a general nature. We work on retainer and much of our business is via word of mouth so making people comfortable and sharing some of our expertise often gives them the confidence to come on board as a retainer client or, in the case of startups, to do so a little down the track when their itty biz gains momentum. This also generates a lot of positive referrals for us but it's a fine line to balance between what you give away as a PR type move and your bread and butter work which for us is combination of services and specific and strategic consulting. Blogs (like yours and ours) function this way a little bit, make the prospective clients more comfortable and confident in your level of expertise and what you have to offer them. I guess the difference is that blogs are general info and for people to have highly specific and strategic nuggets of brilliance applied to their situation they need to pay for that!!

    I love that you give away your stuff to the people who really need it - what a positive contribution!

  16. Sounds like a good starting point, Michael. As you say, lots of gray areas.

    I think if the person is already a client, that makes it a bit easier in some ways. Granted, they want as much from you as possible. However, they're not asking for a total freebie.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject, Michael! Always great to hear other people's opinions on these kinds of issues ;-)

  17. Hear hear! I'm with ya!

    Do these people think Bill Gates or Donald Trump got the penthouse suite by working for free???

  18. That's a great idea, Ricardo! Provided, or course, that the attendees have something of value to offer and aren't just there to listen to a free sermon ;-)

    As for your scenario, isn't that the truth? It's also about time. Not just the time you sit there, but the overall time out of your day. Time is money, baby. No one built an empire by ignoring that fact.

    Thanks a bunch for adding to the dialogue here, Ricardo!

  19. Always a difficult decision. There are often people you want to help out for whatever reason: they helped you in the past, they need a bit of hand, you like to help, you're in a good mood.... but how do you decide enough is enough? I work with the veterinary industry & they are constantly faced with this challenge. What would you do faced with a much loved family pet that needed a life saving operations but the family just couldn't afford it? One solution I've suggested to vet practices is to set up a 'freebie budget'. Allocate a certain amount to your budget so when you want to give something away you don't feel guily as you've already allocated $ & when your limit is reached you won't feel so guilty saying 'no' as you've already used up your freebie budget. Works really well with soft hearted vets!

  20. Yeah, way too many of us can identify with this, huh? How unfortunate.

    It's beyond being unaware, it's just downright disrespectful. I have something you want. If you want it, too, be prepared to do business. That's the American way. Geez!

    Thanks for sharing your insights, Sukhraj!

  21. Thank you for sharing your opinion of this subject, Miriam. It is a tricky one.

    I, too, have given away a lot of information in an initial consultation. Enough to show them that I know my stuff, but (hopefully) not enough for them to execute without me. It's a challenge to find that line that brings in new business, without making yourself unnecessary.

    Thanks for weighing in this. I always appreciate hearing other people's experiences.

  22. Where do you draw the line becomes the obvious question yes?

  23. Great input, Ellen! Thanks for adding to the conversation here.

    Yes, you're absolutely right. Limits are important and some people will just always try to take advantage. Kudos to your husband for standing up for himself and saying "no more"!

  24. That's a fascinating idea, Judy! Kinda works like some kinds of grant money in that you want to hit up people at the beginning of the year. At the end of the year, it's all gone!

    That is, indeed, a very interesting way to set a cap on your giving. Thanks so much for sharing that with everyone. Great input!

  25. You tell it! Everyone wants everything for free. But you deserve the going rate. I can't buy my doctor or lawyer a coffee to get free advice! I happen to know you are highly educated and you should be compensated for your skills just like everyone else.

  26. Excellent analogies, Trish! Can you imagine asking your doctor if you can pick his/her brain? Dream on!

    Thanks for the kind words of support, Trish. You're a doll ;-)

  27. I really like this idea...and I would take it one step further....I would ask them to pay whatever they can afford - I mean even if it's like only $100 or so - and this way at least your fund will not run out as quickly....and DEFINITELY encourage them to pay it forward...I know this all sounds idealistic...but there is no harm in putting the thought into someone's head...they need to be reminded that the generosity you are showing them is that much less generosity for the next person in a similar situation...so if they can ever pay it back or pay it forward...it is worth it to implant that thought in there heads.

  28. It's interesting...many years ago when I had money and was toying with the idea of starting my blogs I had a friend who was a graphic designer and web designer. I definitely needed help with the graphics and offered to pay him but under no circumstances would he take money...but I liked his work so figured I would get him at some point...lol...anyway..turned out that I couldn't really get what I was looking for out of him and because he wasn't accepting payment, I felt that I couldn't say anything because then I would look ungrateful. ugh! so complicated.

  29. Rachel, I've been in that boat. Someone offering to help and then not being able to get what I really needed. I thank them profusely for what they did, however. I have no right to complain; at least, I wouldn't feel right doing so.

    However, as you might have read in my post "Am I a nice guy or a chump?", some people have no problems complaining incessantly when someone's doing pro bono work for them.

    What to do? What to do?

  30. I have people who want me to write things all the time. If I've got a few minutes, I usually will. I know I don't have to, though, and I'm not afraid to say no.

  31. I hear ya, but don't you think it's human nature to want to 'help' someone out? The challenge is, we all have to eat and at the end of the day, who is going to pay me for my time?

    Sometimes in the process of developing relationships you are offering bits of advice or experise but ultimately you have to decide where is this going and am I getting what I expected out of this? When do I decide I'm in it just for the relationship or do I just move on?

    Ultimately you have to be able to establish value to the proposition; first and foremost. What can you do for them that will make their life easier or increase their profitability. If you can discover their 'why' and establish value, then cost becomes secondary.

    Money is not a bad thing; earning a living is not a bad thing; charging for your time and expertise is not a bad thing. I've said this in other posts, you have to have 'walk away' power. Don't get sucked into the black hole. Stand your ground and align yourself with the people who value you what you do. Your model won't be for everybody, so don't waste a lot of time on the people who don't 'get it'.

    That's my two cents for what it's worth............

  32. Hi Anita. I've had people ask me straight out to write things for them, too. That is not my objection as much because at least they're being forthright. Sometimes I help; sometimes I don't or can't.

    My issue is more with the "pick your brain" mentality. Someone who just wants to get as much free advice out of you as coffee time will allow. Pick your brain people are generally not folks you hang out with, they just come out of the wood works when they want something from you. Pick your brain people know you have knowledge they don't and they want the benefit or your skills, thinking if they offer you a coffee that your consulting rates don't apply.

    I'm glad you're not afraid to say no, Anita. Neither am I ;-)

  33. Hi Bill. Thanks for the comment. As I wrote not too long ago in "Am I a Nice Guy or a Chump", I do lots of pro bono work. I am no stranger to helping people and I do it almost every day.

    There is, however, a difference in helping people with a question here and there or doing some freebie work and the kind of people who want to pick your brain. It's a mentality that offering up a latte is adequate compensation for your expertise and your time. I find that insinuation offensive.

    If someone wants a bunch of advice, but isn't willing to pay the going rate for it, they have three options. One: Save up until you can buy the help you need (does your plumber let you pick his brain on how to fix the plumbing yourself?). Two: be honest and say you just want some free consulting and ask if the person would be willing to provide that. Or, three: barter. Bring something, anything, to the table in exchange.

    There are always takers out there. It's been my experience that the pick your brain people are generally takers.

  34. Ouch! This is a tough one!

    At the end of the day I think you have to make a decision based on your gut feeling about the person or situation and balance it with what you can or are willing to do.

    My best friend is a graphic designer and frequently gets requests to "have her brain picked" or to work for free. I have encouraged her to create boundaries she is comfortable with; occasionally she will do projects for free but overall has been pretty successful in putting the breaks on having her brain picked.

    Keep fighting the good fight Amber!

  35. Ok, at least it was a velvet glove slap and not barehanded; you have my attention now and sorry I got off topic but it's hard to do when I have all these great ideas in my head. It's all about me, right?

    I'm so tempted to just 'ask' a question or two from some of the doctors I know and it's probably pretty norm in many professions. Setting up a 'coffee' just for that..................hmmmm, little bit of a stretch.

    I know some attornies if you do this, they will bill you for their time. Try that once or twice and you'll find out how serious they are, huh?

    I'll try to pay better attention next time; here, let me make it up to you, why don't I just RT this for you...................

  36. Indeedy. Boundaries are super important. There's a fine line between nice guy and doormat ;-)

    Thanks for weighing in on the issue, Katie!

  37. Ha ha. No need to make anything up to me in the least, Bill.

    And, yes, it IS all about you, baby! Don't let anyone ever forget that ;-)

  38. You're welcome Amber! Excellent analogy nice guy v. doormat :)


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