Posted on 3 February, 2011 By 30 Comments

Freelancing: What to Do When Someone Wants to Pick Your Brain


My friend, Dawn Bugni, posted a link to this awesome slideshare presentation by Sheila Scarborough. I enjoyed it so much that I decided it was worth reposting here.

The presentation discusses people who want to take you out for coffee and “pick your brain” and how to handle that type of situation. Of course, “pick you brain” means get as much unpaid information out of you as possible.

I haven’t actually had someone use that phrase with me but I’ve had quite a few tell me that they have a “limited budget”.

The presentation also contains valuable information on how to turn the brain picker into a paying client.

I hope you found this useful. Do you agree with it? Is there anything you disagree with?

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Posted In : Freelance

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30 Responses to “Freelancing: What to Do When Someone Wants to Pick Your Brain”

  • Hi Kim –

    Thanks for the shout out!

    Setting up “brain pickin'” boundaries is not easy. Although the longer I work for myself, the more I understand the value of my time and my knowledge. One of my favorite value stories is this one:

    A French woman, upon seeing Picasso in a Parisian restaurant, approached the great master and insisted that he put down his coffee and make a quick sketch of her. Graciously, Picasso obliged. When he was done, she took the drawing, put it in her handbag, and then pulled out her billfold.

    “How much do I owe you?” she asked.

    “$5,000,” was Picasso’s reply.

    “$5,000? But it took you only three minutes!” she exclaimed.

    “No,” Picasso answered. “It took me all my life.”

    It takes years and years of study and practice to build expertise in any profession. Unfortunately, with that knowledge comes the appearance of ease and the perception by others (like the woman in the story above) that what’s being asked is “no big deal.” It’s up to us to continually reset the understanding of our value in helping other attain their goals — whether it be perfectly functioning websites or carefully crafted career documents

    Another thing I’ve discovered is, “I can’t afford.” or “I have limited funds,” for most, is a euphemism for “I choose not to spend my money in this way.” My favorite example of this was the caller, who upon hearing the investment level required for the services he sought exclaimed, “I can’t afford that. Miss Dawn, you have to cut me a deal. I’ve got a brand new truck, a brand new house and a house full of new furniture.” ’nuff said. :)

    Great post Kim!

    (A friend AND a client who happily pays for your knowledge and expertise!)

    • Hi Dawn – That’s a great example – I think I’ve heard it before. I also get asked a lot if something is “easy”. I always think, well I do but it doesn’t mean you will. It can be really frustrating.

    • Hi Dawn,
      Referent to Picasso; Although I have over 30 years experience as a real estate broker and appraiser, I get private asked almost every day about advice, assessment and proposals on people’s homes. I offer myself and always give them the best advice I can give. I’m fell fine, if I can help people. Maybe one day I have to ask them for a advice or…

    • You don’t consider unsolicited tips on blogs, such as Kim’s here, as pickings out of her brain? She gets her ideas from many sources, perhaps even questions people ask, so how is this blog not free unpaid advice?

  • How I wish I had emailed before this post. lol

  • I’m so glad that you enjoyed my presentation; I should have added a slide with something like, “This comes to you courtesy of years of screwing this up, then finally figuring it out.” :)

    It is hard to look people in the eye and demand that you be paid for your value, but you have to do it if you want to be successful with an independent business.

    • Hi Sheila – Thanks for making it – it’s excellent. I think most of us end up learning it the hard way.

      Now – I need to go ask my plumber if I can pick his brain over coffee ;-)

  • Sigh. I’m getting better at figuring out right at the start who is just trying to get advice for free, and who might actually become a paying client once I give them SOMETHING for free.

    • Hi Vered,

      So am I. Instead of fussing through a bunch of emails with these people I usually say “that starts at X amount”. The ones who are truly interested will reply and the others will never be heard from again.

      • Does the same hold true for friends/acquaintances of yours who know you are smarter than they in certain areas and ask you for that free help? Do you help them, or do you go the paid route? At what point do you charge your friends, if even a discount, if they need help and ask you for it?

        • It’s not an issue – I don’t have any friends ;-) And I’m certainly not smarter than anyone …

          That’s a difficult situation – it depends on what they are asking and how frequently. Someone recently asked me to review an article before he posts it – I will do that as soon as I have the chance. If it’s a big coding issue than I will have to charge or get to it whenever.

          Most real friends see the value in what I do and offer to pay me or barter for services. Acquaintances, especially online ones, can be a little more difficult. They tend to be polite and patient but I can’t help over and over – I usually recommend resources for learning or that they might need to pay to have the work done.

          I have also offered help to people who I thought might need it. One friend was unemployed for quite some time and I offered to make him a website and even host it for him so he could try to sell some of his artwork online to at least earn some income. He didn’t take me up on the offer – he said he needed a business plan first … ok.

          I don’t know – I’m rambling because it’s complicated and I have no set one way of dealing with “friends”. I don’t usually ask friends to do free work for me – I have a friend who is a photographer – I might ask her a question about what camera she likes but I wouldn’t ask her to take free photos for me …

  • I think there are definitely situations where you can give away information and still come out ahead. One that I’m thinking of is in the context of a referring business. I have a buddy that I give info to all the time, and I frequently refer business to him. He also refers business to me, and I think giving information just builds on the good relationship to encourage referrals. What do you think?

    • Hi TJ – That’s a little different – you already have a working relationship with your friend. I have a number of friends and clients like that too. This is more for the people who come out of nowhere, ask a lot of questions with the idea of maybe hiring you and they never follow through. It eats up a lot of time.

      I also offer a lot of free information on this site that has helped people accomplish things without having to hire me ;-)

  • Sheila, a great presentation. I like your response strategy. My question: do you apply this only to face to face contacts, that is “having a cup of coffee,” or also to online marketing? I think there is a balance between giving free value online and getting paid for your work. This may actually depend on where you are in your business growth, and also on your personality. I have heard people argue both sides. What is your take

    • HI Kai – It sounds like your question is for Shelia rather than me.

      Personally, I provide free material in my tutorials and on Facebook.

      • Hello Kim, thanks for your response. How does your blog fit into your business? Do you feel that you could monetize it more? I am just pondering this question, so I will appreciate your experiences and thoughts on this perennial topic of internet marketing.

        • Hi Kai – I started the blog before my business – the business was a result of it. I provide a lot of tutorials here that people can use freely or hire me to implement for them. I suppose the blog shows that I know what I’m talking about ;-)

          The ads were added more recently as a way of offsetting the cost involved in answering the questions I get here and through email. I only have them on the blog part of the site – not on the services or about page.

          I, however, make money via services not through blogging.

  • I actually feel appreciated and honored when someone says they wanna pick my brain. I would never reject such an offer.. but I could understand if you’re someone like Seth Godin, or Warren Buffett where your advice could probably be worth millions. As for me, I find it hard to find friends, so anyone who would wanna pick my brain for business ideas, I’d definitely say Yes, I’d even pay for the bill!

  • Ah, Kim, you’ve written about the phrase that creeps me out more than any other. I envision people with little tiny tweezers picking around in my head. What a turnoff. Unless it’s a really good friend….in which case I ask that they never EVER say that again….I generally tell people I’ll chat for 15 minutes. Anything after that is billable at my hourly rate.

  • haha Good post; reminds me of the one you did for me yonks back ;)

  • Great slide! At least now I know how to differentiate between those who just want to get information for free and those I really do need to help.

  • I’ve found that when strangers find out I am a fundraising consultant and immediately ask me for free advice, they always want a business card. I’ve stopped carrying cards. I tell people that my website is my name (is my email address) and to google me. Almost nobody follows up. (Plus, I save money by not printing cards.)

    Actual qualified prospects? I get their contact information and follow up; they also usually remember to track me down, too. Funny how people who are seeking actual help and value it enough to pay for it are the only ones motivated to follow up.

    I have a friend who tells people that she won’t donate her services, because that’s how she makes a living, but if they want her support, she’ll write them a check as a donation. I don’t think anyone has ever followed up to ask her to donate!

    • Hi Andrea – The people who want the free help seem the least motivated to find your email address or contact info – they want everything done for them. I don’t use business cards either and say my website is my name.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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