How to switch ‘Can I pick your brain?’ requests into paid work

When your living comes from your intellectual property through freelance work, being asked to ‘pick your brain’ feels like giving away your livelihood.

Joan Westenberg collaborates on content creation and strategy in the startup space (and is Medium’s top blogger in the Asia Pacific).

This startup space, where running lean and collaborating is the norm, pushes those potential clients to sniff out content solutions advice for free.

“It happens all the time,” Westenberg told The Pulse. “People are always asking me whether they can sit down with me, so they can pick my brain. I know when I go into those, it’s probably not going to lead to much.”

So many corporate folks asking her to give away her ideas for free led to a blog post called “f**k you, pay me”, and she linked people to that.

“Have I burnt a few bridges by doing that? Probably,” Westenberg admitted. “If they’re bridges that wanted to get free stuff from me, then I’m happy to burn them.”

READ: More on professional services and consulting

Whatever industry, it’s a frustration felt by many in the freelance consulting game.

At what point does providing a bit of free advice make you shake the piggy bank to pay your rent?

While working for a good cause means she might work for free, Westenberg’s first step is to quote her rates to the potential client/collaborator to see if they can afford her advice.

But when they just want a bit of advice (not contracting a larger scope of work) she’s hit upon a unique solution to generate value – getting a drink out of it.

“I have a list of my favourite cocktail bars and cafes. When somebody says they want to pick my brain, my response is, ‘Absolutely, you can buy me a drink. Usually a Campari’,” said Westenberg.

“I would have gone to those places, gotten a drink anyway and hung out. So if they’re willing to buy a drink, I’m happy to talk.”

Extracting value from these probing chats isn’t always as cut and dried – but others see it as an opportunity to build work.


How to have a quality conversation when asked to pick your brain


Keith Dugdale, Managing Director of The Business of Trust, takes a different approach.

His consultancy advises how to manage client relationships and create new business opportunities. Their first step to get ongoing work from a brain-picking session is to know if you want to speak to these contacts in the first place.

“What I find,” Dugdale told The Pulse, “is that most businesses really need to have a three-year plan on the type of client they want to attract to the business.”

If you know who your ideal customer base is, you know who deserves your valuable time and who doesn’t.

If they don’t fit the profile, there’s nothing wrong with handballing them to a potential rival.

From there, Dugdale says it’s pivotal to show that you’ll go above and beyond by asking what the client’s problem really is.

“In all likelihood, they’ve called four other people and they’ve got an information dump and a sales brochure from them,” said Dugdale.

“Go back to them and ask them why they’re asking the question. What do they actually need advice on? That opens a more robust conversation.”

“We never talk about the thing we do in the first meeting – ever. Instead, we talk about the problem the potential client is facing.”

READ: Forget selling. Focus on trust.

He said that there’s no really good way to turn a brain-picking into a sale immediately. Instead, use your time to foster a relationship.

“If you’re the only one providing that, then you’ll be front of mind when it comes to more advisory work because you’ve already built some sort of relationship,” said Dugdale.

“You’ll also be front of mind when it comes to lower-order work.”

In both Westenberg and Dugdale’s examples, it depends on how you value the exchange from a brain-picking session.

Is it a way to open a higher-order conversation or do you enjoy a drink or two?

Both are valid approaches – whatever your approach, it’s important to plan how to turn it into something of value for your business.