Today I was delighted to read a post that was a topic bouncing in my brain for some time. Karima-Catherine beat me to it , (and it’s all kind of awesome) but in essence, it relates to the plight social media professionals have when we get that email asking, “Can we grab some coffee so I pick your brain?”
How many times have you gotten that question? I believe this happens to all kinds of freelancers and other professionals. For me, it’s common, happening several times a week. For the price of a cup of coffee, the sender (maybe innocuously) thinks it would be great to sit and let me share my ideas, tools, and strategies. Suffice to say, I’ve gotten more tight-lipped and cautious about what I share, often just referring people back to the web. My insides want to jump about and share everything, but I can’t, or rather, I shouldn’t. Why? Because I have spent a small fortune in time and resources to become sharp and knowledgeable in the spheres in which I consult. As professionals, that’s our duty. If I share all I’ve learned in a free chit-chat, what would be left and what value have I placed on my work? Precious little.
Before you say, “What a selfish statement!”, first consider this: would a gift basket company tell you where to find the best baskets and goodies to fill it? How many franchise sellers share with you all the you the ins and outs of running your own franchise, without the hope of selling you said franchise? How many graphic designers will sit and give you their best ideas and concepts over a cup of joe — all for free? Precious few. Isn’t this really a form of spec work?
Experience has taught me two things: when someone is feverishly taking notes, asking you question after question and “How do you do this?” or “What would you recommend I do for this?”, you can bet one (if not both) of the following will happen afterward: they will either try to do it themselves, pelting you with emails and calls for more “guidance” or worse, they’ll hire someone cheaper than you, fueling them with your ideas.
Don’t get me wrong, I do LOVE supporting, sharing, and the lovefest small businesses can create using tools like social media. That’s not the point. The point is how much of your own intellectual property are you willing to give away? How much value are you placing on your craft, no matter what that craft is? What is your end goal in doing so?
A casual chat is one thing, but a fact-finding expedition is quite another. For the sake of your business, learn the difference and think about this next time someone wants to “buy you coffee.” It could be an innocent enough request, but it could also be a brain-picking session where you come away exhausted and poorer for the experience. I believe in helping people (and do it every single day), but I also believe that if people really want expertise, they need to be prepared to pay for it. If they want a little help, but don’t want to pay, there is an enormous resource in the Internet, and as we like to say, Google is Your Friend. My legwork and experience makes things easier for paying clients, not people unwilling to do the legwork themselves.
I want to leave you with a couple of solutions to manage the scenario, should it come your way. Solution one: have the meeting, buy your own coffee, and see just how much they want from you. If for one moment you feel uncomfortable about the questions (your conscience says “Hello! We normally charge for that information!”), you can reply, “I completely get your question, and that’s the kind of consulting my clients hire me for. Maybe we need to set a time for an actual consult.”
The other solution: Reply with an email and ask what questions they have. Find out beforehand if this is indeed just a chat or if they’re really wanting an hour’s worth (or more) of your time — gratis. If it’s the latter, tell them you can talk by phone briefly, that way you can control the tempo, direction, and temptation to give out more information than you wish. It should reveal enough for you to decide whether or not you want to proceed or set a time for a real (read: paid) meeting.
Helping people is really a beautiful thing, so don’t stop doing that. Just learn the difference between helping and giving away so much that you run drastically short on billable hours at the end of the month. You do have a business to run.