04/24/20 | Career, Menu-Homepage

No, I (still) won’t let you pick my brain

Before the pandemic, at least weekly I would get asked some version of, “Can I pick your brain? I’ll get the tab for your coffee.” With stay home orders and a tricky economy, the requests have become even more frequent.

Offering to pay for my $4 coffee tells me that the person knows they’re getting value from me. Yet, my coaching rate for the advice they seek is 10 times the price of a coffee.  

There’s a gendered unevenness to this as well. Female business leaders, entrepreneurs, and consultants in my circle regularly get asked to give free advice. I have yet to find a male peer who is similarly asked to give away his best thinking for free. 

People who want to “pick your brain” will never hire you

Taking “pick your brain” sessions is a common mistake. But the truth is, if someone doesn’t want to pay for an initial meeting – they are not going to hire you later. Don’t count “pick your brain” coffee sessions as business development. You may meet fascinating people, but you will most likely not gain clients.

If it’s a clear business development opportunity, the request will usually be extremely clear: “we need to hire someone like you ASAP; can we have coffee to see if it’s a good fit?” Or,  “I need your expert opinion; what’s your rate for a 60m consultation?” Look for words that start the money conversation.

How to respond [no] to “pick your brain” requests

If someone really wants to learn from you – and they don’t have some comparable knowledge, intrigue, or trade factors to add that makes a meeting mutually beneficial – then they need to add cash. That’s what money is for. To make it a fair use of people’s time. 

When you reply, do so with grace and finality. Kick off the money conversation, carefully woo them on the off chance they do want to become a paying client, and state your boundary about not working for free:

  • “I’d love to help you with that. Right up my alley. My clients pay $X so if that’s what you’re imagining, let’s talk dates.” 
  • “I’m not sure if this is what you’re asking, but I promised myself I wouldn’t do any more free meetings. My hourly rate is X. Here’s how to book something on my scheduling tool if that works for you..”
  • “I would love to connect with you about your questions – but I’m too swamped right now with paying clients whom I need to put first. If you want to pay for hourly coaching on this – it’s $X/hour. Otherwise, as a starting point, you may want to check out my articles/podcasts.”

When should you advise people for free

In spite of my hard line about not letting folks “pick my brain” for free, like most good professionals, I do occasionally talk to people pro bono. 

Like when it seems we will both walk away smarter, more connected to the industry, and more inspired, “I saw your talk and I think we would have a lot to learn from each other’s approaches. Any interest in meeting for coffee?”  

If someone isn’t a peer in the field, I look to see if there is something else I can gain from the conversation to make it more balanced (i.e. genuinely worth it for both of us). It’s easy to say yes to a “pick your brain” session if the person asking is from a fascinating place or generation that I want to know more about. In which case, I reply by saying something like, “yes, let’s meet up. I have wanted to learn about your industry / home country / how someone like you in Gen Z would respond to something I’m putting together. Could we do a skillshare-like swap and spend a bit of time on what we each want to learn from one another?” 

It’s also really easy to say yes if the person seems like an interesting individual outside who I would normally meet and/or (pre-Corona) is suggesting meeting in a cool spot I’ve wanted to check out.

Also when folks don’t have cash they sometimes offer a barter. For an hour of advice from a consultant whose rate is $400, a $6 obviously latte doesn’t work. But, I have happily swapped my knowledge for warm introductions to individuals and companies I’ve been wanting to connect with. And during the pandemic, I swapped a spot in my digital mastermind for a 3-year membership to an exclusive online and IRL global womxn’s club that I’ve long adored.

Shouldn’t you mentor people – especially during a pandemic? 

Yes – I mentor and support a select number of women and other minority rising stars; I’ve increased this work on purpose during the pandemic. More often than not the folks asking to pick my brain have money, status, and privilege – they just want my business advice for free, like “I’m trying to enter the field but don’t know how to get big companies to hire me; can we hop on a call so you can tell me?”

Further, I also teach people the top questions I get asked (“how to get clients” “how do I survive in my bro culture tech office” and “how to become a thought leader”) in group coaching courses where I offer plenty of scholarships and buy one give one arrangements.

Emily Meghan Morrow Howe

Emily Meghan Morrow Howe

Femily (aka Emily Meghan Morrow Howe) is Silicon Valley's Gender/Equity Advisor. She is a management consultant and public speaker on gender in tech and other male-majority industries. She often speaks on and writes about how "good guys" can be great allies as well as allyship across all diversities.

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