Six Steps to Stop Giving Away Too Much for Free

We all get them: the dreaded, “Can I pick your brain?” requests. No matter how long you’ve been in business, seems like someone is always willing to ask you to give away your skills for free. Every business person has to learn how to handle these requests gracefully and in a way that generates more paying customers.

1. Create paid products.
Seems pretty obvious, but surprisingly, many online freelancers have no structured products or packages. Besides knowing your hourly rate, create packages of your most-requested services.

2. Consider the relationship. Of course you’ll give your best friend more than someone who calls you after you just met. Be prepared for that.

3. Offer some free resources the right way. Offer your paid products first, then offer a free alternative second. That could be a blog post of resources or a paper handout with some tips on doing it yourself.

4. Set limits on your free help. Many people use 15 minutes of your time, or will answer two questions before drawing the line.

5. Give away the “what” and charge for the “how.” For example, you can tell people all about why Facebook is a great platform for business. But when it comes to how to apply that in their business, it’s time to turn on the meter.

6. Get comfortable with the right words. Phrases like “time to turn on the meter” can help you convert free requests into paying clients. If you haven’t built in the other five steps, though, it won’t stick.

Work through all six steps, and the next time someone asks, “Can I pick your brain?” you can answer with a smile, and maybe even a new client.

If you’d like more instruction on how to draw the line between free and paid, I’ve developed a toolkit with more on the six steps, worksheets to complete and a short audio demonstration.

Image credit: Spiders

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Becky McCray
Becky McCray is a small town business owner, with a retail store and a cattle ranch in Oklahoma. She publishes Small Biz Survival on small town business issues. She has developed a toolkit on How to Draw the Line Between Free and Paid.


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  1. “Time to turn on the meter” _ amen!! Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to join a committee … with intention of me doing all PR/Marketing for group. This tends to be a big pull for giving it away for free. I’ve learned to only agree to serving on such committees by following your tip #5 – Give away the “what” and charge for the “how.”
    Thx for post Becky.

    • Kathy, that is true too often, especially with some nonprofits. It’s like they budget for trash service, but not for certain professional services. I think you draw the line well!

  2. Here is another one Becky – never speak for “free”. You don’t want to be the girl/guy who goes around speaking for free. At best you might do a fee-waived presentation, but don’t ever call it free. And always negotiate something in return for waiving your speaking fee. A contact list, a table to do other marketing of your products right after then event, etc.

    I am a new member of the National Speakers Association and I am having to get in the mindset that what I have to say is valuable. I don’t want to sound money hungry, but momma always needs a new pair of shoes. I spend time researching and learning the information that I share. So us professional speakers (of which you are too ;) ) have to top giving away the farm (ha! see what I did there) for free.

    Never speak free. Always “fee-waived”

    • Patrick, you know I agree with you! And your terminology about “fee-waived” can be used by people in any industry, not just when speaking. Thanks! (Bonus points for the farm joke!)

  3. These are great ideas…while the term “turning on the meter” is a great way to say “are you ready to start paying for your time”…I still think it’s important to realize that letting people pick your brain is a great business development tool. I blogged about this very topic last week. I think we’re both saying the same thing, but in different ways. Here’s my post, coming in at a slightly different angle.

    • Jessica, thanks for sharing your perspective. It is extremely important that consultants not react violently whenever someone says, “Can I pick your brain?” But limits are still important. I think Alyssa will be sharing a longer case study on limits in her first newsletter from the Bonfire.

  4. I have a rule that if it won’t fit into the same space as a blog comment or a Twitter conversation, it’s not free. The only exceptions are the people who know my real name, my real phone number and my real IM handle. (Believe me when I say that group is fairly small.) But “free” is relative. I do all sorts of things that may not bring me immediate payment but there’s plenty in it for me anyway. The key is to always remember to ask yourself “What’s in it for me?”

  5. Becky,
    GREAT article. You point to the new business consultants’ ultimate quandary – “when does the free info stop and billings begin”. Demonstrating competence and providing information to secure an engagement without giving away the store is essential for any prospective engagement. Most inexperienced consultants do not know where the selling stops and the billing begins! Their intrinsic value to the engagement can be lost. You must remember your relationship is not transactional it is client fee based.

    A consultant’s primary product is unique knowledge, experience, and “proprietary” advice. A seasoned consultant will provide a great appetizer without giving the dinner away, and will always get premium rates for the dessert. I advise you to “wet their appetite and leave them wanting more, make THEM request the next meeting
    If you show / provide too much in the way of free advisory services you cheapen your product and image. Prove competence; but let your prospective clients understand your services are exclusive to their needs and will provide a unqiue solution, but it is not free and your time is money. It also makes collecting your final billing a snap!

    • Jason Gregory

      Becky, how about entrepreneuers that can’t afford to pay someone? How do you view a barter arrangement where both sides get something for giving something?

      • Jason, I’m going to answer in two parts. First, the “can’t afford to pay.” If you really can’t, you need to fix your business, and fast. In general, every entrepreneur has to be frugal and we all go through rough patches, but I think we also hold on to a “can’t afford to” mindset much longer than we should.

        Second, bartering. If both people want to exchange valuable knowledge or advice, go for it. But that means both are willing and both bring value, not one side taking valuable advice in exchange for something far less valuable, like lunch. And depending on the person, it probably falls under #2 above: consider relationship. I’m more likely to exchange value with people I have a deeper relationship with, partially because I know them well enough to value their advice.

        • Jason Gregory

          Thanks for the answer Becky, I think your advce will be very helpful for some of our Bonfire members who are trying to gauge what advice is worth paying for and what advice may fit better into a different arrangement.

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  7. Great tips, Becky, and also in the comments! I find that people ask less frequently to “pick my brain” about my area of expertise (public speaking) and more frequently about how I became a public speaking coach.

    This is tricky because they technically aren’t asking me to give away information I normally get paid to share. But they are still asking to take my time for information and knowledge about the coaching business that I’ve spent years gathering, and am still gathering. Sometimes they want to take me to lunch, but most of the time there is not an offer of reciprocity.

    I want to help my fellow entrepreneurs, but they also need to do a lot of that legwork for themselves, so I’ve developed some good boundaries… I think. I will only talk to someone on the phone briefly (up to 15 minutes). Otherwise, I’m happy to answer a couple of questions by e-mail (and I have developed a collection of copy-and-paste boilerplate responses). Not always sure I’m approaching this sticky situation correctly.

    • It’s a fine line…I think it often comes down to the relationship point. What is your relationship with the person asking; what is the history there; and what is the potential future? Seems harsh sometimes, but I’m not sure how else you can protect your time if you don’t have boundaries.

      • You’re absolutely right, Alyssa. Some people come out of the blue, and some come through a previous connection. I find I’m more generous with those who have attempted to create a relationship with me. I also get a lot of people asking me to review their books on my blog. Without a previous relationship, it’s pretty unlikely I’ll do it.

  8. How I wished I saw this post yesterday! At times it can be so hard to tell if folks are genuinely interested in working with you or just want to pick your brain and run because they can sense you know what you’re abouy. I’ve had this happen to me at leasst 5 times this year but yesterday’s incident was such a stinger.
    I had one woman email me about 5 times yesterday for marketing and video support. She said she saw my videos on YouTube and knew I was ‘the perfect fit’. There was such a sense of urgency in her emails, I agreed to talk to her on a Saturday (much to my hubby’s annoyance) , a day I don’t do any work. After giving her an extra 30 minutes on my 30 minute consultation, she emails me today to say she’s backing out. She only now realized she could not afford the hourly rate. Not surprising, after all I basically gave her the blueprint over the phone. I don’t mind taking the time to share my knowledge, but I wished she could have just asked for some advice and direction. I would have gladly fit her in at a time that was convenient. Oh well, you live and you learn, I guess. This is an excellent post and this week I will be working on putting together my paid product and building some free resources. They can either buy something or get my freebies.

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  10. This is really helpful for someone just starting out as a freelancer. #5 especially is a useful one to remember. Your time is money, so if you’re giving it away for free you’re losing out.

    Thanks for sharing this!

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