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

Your expertise is your number one asset. Think before you give it away.


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?


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

  1. Rona. I agree completely with your observations and advice. As a career writer and editor you expect to be paid for your expertise and it must be galling to be exploited and guilt-tripped by those who presume, especially friends.
    A very close friend of mine has won every fiction prize in the country and the most I have asked him for is a reference in my application for a residency. He is, like you, bombarded by complete strangers for free technical help.
    Humility and patience are no longer the virtues of aspiring writers. Many are presumptuous and delusional, and there are far too many of us!

  2. Excellent advice, beautifully written (of course), Rona. I sometimes do the coffee thing with new grads as a way to “pay it forward,” but not usually with business people. They need to value the work we do, and not expect us to labour for free or for “exposure.” As a friend of mine says: “Exposure? I could die from exposure!”

  3. As a publicist,exposure is the last thing I need, so when people offer to do that for me it’s a flat out no. However there are some wonderful people that I reach out to on occasion for advice, but I always ask if they need me to pay for their time- even if it’s just a few minutes. I feel it shows respect for their time and skills, and that I’m not asking for anything free. More often or not they will give me advice gratis because they know that it will be returned. And if it is too much to ask then they will tell me how much they need. There is something to be said for helping people but I too have been taken advantage of under the guise of possible work. One person I know was bombarded with requests for tips so he set up a page where you can ask 5 questions or tips and he’ll answer them in an email or phone call- after you push the paypal button for $10.00. Even something like that can show that your talents are to be valued. The price of business shouldn’t cost us more than it already does!

  4. Good points, Rachel. If someone shows respect for my time and a willingness to pay for it, I doubt I’d bother to charge for a short conversation. What I resent is the expectation that I should be happy to share my hard-earned expertise with anyone who asks.

  5. absolutely great advise which runs contrary to our inner nature as sharing beings. we are valuable–are talents are worth something–and we do not need to feed into the “75 cents to a dollar value” compared to males. thank you for the words to support my beliefs in me!

  6. Perfect summary of why not give away our hard earned wisdom for free.

    What I’ve found is that people do not value your advice IF you’re not charging them your normal fee. Nor do they do not feel obligated to take your advice as they’re not paying for it!

    I have that girlfriend who married the guy I repeatedly said to break up with since they were constantly fighting….. they are still fighting. So can so relate to this article!

  7. Thank you for this excellent advice, Rona, and especially for your practical tips. As a professional who has been a “pickee” as well as a “picker,” I have a strong sixth sense around the moment when being helpful crosses over into being taken advantage of, but you have helped define that moment with precision. Your suggested action plan is fab: strategy #8 in particular. I’m going to start zeroed-out invoicing right away.

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