And yes, it’s really important to set boundaries for yourself and for your business so that you don’t undervalue the work that you do, or undermine the qualifications you have as a professional. Anyone who has been in business for any length of time will tell you that you have to value your time and expertise and be willing to draw the line at giving away too much for free.
Enter the “No you can’t pick my brain” theme across the internet. Undoubtedly you’ve read one of those posts or three. There might even be one here lurking in the archives somewhere.
The problem in this discussion, as with many other things, is lack of context. Is giving away your knowledge for the price of lunch or a cup of coffee a sound business strategy? Not in a sustainable sense, no.
It’s not smart either, however, to look at every one of those opportunities the same way and dismiss them out of hand. The arrogance of blanket value statements notwithstanding, there are plenty of good reasons to take an hour out of your day to talk to someone who can’t or won’t pay you a dime. You aren’t going to be able to give away the secret codes for the silos in an hour, anyway, but if your first reaction is to think about your hourly rate when you’re getting prepared to talk to someone, keep these things in mind too.
The next generation of professionals in your chosen field helps shape the future. If you care about how those people are going to make an impact on your career and work, it can pay dividends to invest time and energy in helping show them the way.
Mentorship can be incredibly rewarding and be a powerful networking opportunity for a group of people who will be the power play of the next layer of the workforce. That doesn’t just go for young graduates, by the way, but consider talking to professionals who are transitioning careers later in their life who are hoping to understand a bit more about what you do and why. You never know where they might end up in your network in the future, and you can influence their perception and perspective about your industry from the get-go.
2. Giving Back
Have a cause? Several? I do. (Animal rescue and preservation of the arts in education are mine, for the record).
I raised funds professionally for many years, and it’s true that non-profits need to build themselves like businesses in order to thrive, and that means taking on the proper kind of expenditures in order to get expert advice when they can. Which isn’t always. But it’s still good to invest.
As a professional, though, I do get great joy from helping an organization that stands for a cause I care about. I consider it a contribution to my community, to the cause itself, and to the organization who would otherwise have to spend that precious cash on yet another hour of someone’s time. If they’re going to hire me to do long term work, we’ll come to agreement about my being compensated for my time. But I can always spare a few hours a month to give a few words of experienced input to people who ask nicely and spend their time working hard to make the world a better place.
Plus, you may be able to deduct some of the time you spend on pro bono work from those pesky taxes (I am not an accountant, so please see your tax professional for the real deal rather than trying to tell the IRS that Amber told you it was okay).
3. Mutual Learning
When we discuss the “brain picking” thing, we typically make the assumption that we are the ones teaching, and someone else is simply learning from what we know.
Why does that always have to be the case?
What does the person that’s asking you know that might be useful to you? Can you trade knowledge, or spend time sharing different experiences? I know that I’ve learned a ton about business from people who have asked me a few questions from my point of view, but then I’ve gone on to learn from them. One local business owner asked me for a few minutes on the phone to get some really basic social media advice, and in return we ended up talking for quite some time about the changing nature of the retail and local business landscape. That information might not be applicable in this second, but it adds to my brain stores of valuable business insights and may just come in super handy.
4. Good Old Sales
Business development is an investment.
In the modern world of content marketing, we talk a great deal about the value of “giving it away” and “being helpful” in order to have people tap you for deeper and more custom insights that you can then charge for, either through a product or services. I believe in that philosophy deeply, but not just online.
I’ve been “giving it away” in some form or another for years when it comes to business knowledge. Brain-picking sessions, speaking engagements that I don’t get paid for, simply a sit-down for networking purposes or to get to know someone better. The expectation isn’t always closing the deal at the table, but imparting a bit of knowledge that can be helpful to someone in this moment so that in a future one, they might hire me to do more.
Do I have filters for those? Absolutely. I know what the right potential client looks like, or an opportunity feels right for another reason. Maybe it’s just that I like someone, and want to give them a hand. It’s a choice and one made deliberately. And it has always, always worked.
The ultimate in “being human” in business is to get people to know, like, and trust you over a drink or a salad and not just if they click your junk or agree to $200/hour just to ask you some questions. The business world is very much one of invest and return, but not always in parallel. You do indeed reap what you sow, and there is a fine line between being smart about where you spend your time and being utterly stingy with it.
So. To sum up.
Giving away the farm? Not good. Always working for nothing? Not sustainable unless you’re a trust fund baby set for life.
But you’ve got to consider brain-picking opportunities as strategically as you do anything else. Not all are created equal. Some are just plain fun or worthwhile. Your filter will vary, and the opportunities that are right for you will look different than mine.
If however you always have your eye on the invoice, you might just miss an outstanding opportunity to tap into something more.