Why I Charge People to Get Coffee With Me
When you ask to pick someone’s brain, you’re basically asking for free consulting services
Recently, a startup founder cold-emailed me with a request: Would I mind taking a look at a beta version of his product, and then take a call to share my thoughts? I was an expert in his sector, he explained, and he’d love to use my insight to help him shape the direction of his business.
In other words, he was asking for a piece of consultancy work minus my day rate.
Pick-your-brain requests like these, from strangers or tenuous connections at the periphery of my network, are among the more curious asks that slide into my inbox. Pretty much without fail, I’ve ended these calls or left these in-person coffee meetings feeling taken advantage of — like I’ve just given away a service I should have charged for.
I replied to that email from the startup founder explaining that I could do what he asked, but I’d need to be paid for it. As a freelancer, I explained, it simply wasn’t viable for me to help pro bono, but if he wanted to hire me as a consultant, I’d welcome the discussion. He said he’d get back to me with a budget.
Six months later, I’m still waiting. In the meantime, I’ve become an outspoken proponent for the pick-your-brain fee.
It’s a controversial stance, I know. I do feel like a miser sometimes — we all like to be helpful, and we all like to get help when we ask for it. I occasionally wonder if I’m hindering myself: Research from Wharton professor and organizational psychologist Adam Grant, who wrote the workplace-altruism book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, has found that being helpful at work can actually help you get ahead.
But Grant is a tenured professor and not a freelancer like me who trades time for money. It’s a lot easier to be altruistic when you’re coming from a place of security. “I regularly find that people in paid employment can forget that time is money for those who work for themselves,” says Lauretta Ihonor, founder of the career change platform The Ambition Plan. “We are literally losing money when we stop focusing on our work to provide advice for free.”