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Get smart about free-loading brain-drainers

By Glenn Burkins
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, an online news site targeting CharlotteĀ’s African American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor.

Show me an entrepreneur who has launched a successful business, and I’ll show you a long list of hopefuls – some of them aspiring competitors – waiting to “pick his brain.”

So what do you do when that call comes in, the one from a stranger or casual acquaintance inviting you to meet for coffee, hoping to get a mental download of all your hard-earned knowledge?

Do you schedule the meeting in the spirit of “paying it forward” and helping others? Or do you fashion an excuse to avoid sharing too much?

Marie Forleo, an Internet maven who has made a name for herself dispensing business and lifestyle advice, says there’s a third alternative: Charge a fee for your time and knowledge.

“Your experience and your expertise are valuable,” she says in a YouTube video that has racked up nearly 70,000 views. “If they want to pick your brain, ask them to pick a time and method of payment.

“At the end of the day,” she says, “if you want people to value your time, you have to put a value on it.”

That advice triggered an online debate a few weeks ago among a group of Charlotte entrepreneurs who had watched the video. While all acknowledged the central issue – the need to value our time and knowledge – they divided just about evenly over whether to charge when meeting with proverbial brain-pickers.

As for me, I’ve leaned more toward being generous with those who seek my advice, recognizing the many individuals and mentors who have helped me during the various stages of my professional and business career. (Ironically, some of the most successful people I know were also the ones who gave most freely of their time and advice.)

But now, after hearing the stories of others, perhaps its time to rethink that approach.

Take Stephanie Nelson, for example. She owns SBN Marketing, a Charlotte company that helps other small businesses with their social media marketing. Nelson said she started the company after someone who was already in that line of work encouraged her to venture out on her own.

“He said, ‘There’s more than enough business to go around,’” Nelson recalled.

But when Nelson agreed to a brain-picking session with another aspiring entrepreneur, she ended up regretting her generosity. Nelson said the brain picker wanted to asked questions about how she found new clients and set rates.

Nelson said she freely shared this information. Only later, Nelson said, did she discover that that brain picker had used the information to undercut Nelson’s prices and steal potential clients.

“It was paying forward, honoring the person who told me to get out on my own,” Nelson said. “She went in and undercut me and presented her rate to the people I had been talking to. Obviously, she got the business and not me.”

“During the conversation it didn’t seem wrong,” Nelson said. “It didn’t seem like I was making a bad choice.”

Nelson said she now guards her knowledge much more closely.

For Jenifer Daniels, who owns the Bridge PR, a Charlotte marketing and public relations company, the problem is not so much potential competitors but potential clients seeking free advice. Her customers are mainly political and nonprofit groups.

“We’re always in a situation where people want to pick our brains, and they use that term, but really they want more,” she said. “So for a long time I allowed people to pick my brain, and I allowed them to do it for free.”

She recalled a recent situation where she spent hours doing research for a non-paying acquaintance who was looking to rename a business. In other instances, she said, requests for brain-picking sessions have put strains on friendships.

She said she now takes a harder line on such requests.

“I can’t continue to let people continue to use my service and have it turn into free work for extended periods of time.”

Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, a news site for Charlotte’s African-American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Observer business editor.
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