Regularly, I’m approached by people who would like to see me for a chat or a coffee. Sometimes I know the person in question, and sometimes I don’t. Usually, the topic of the chat/coffee will be:
- tell me about their product/startup/idea and get my feedback on it;
- discuss common business opportunities.
Now, first, let me state that there is nothing wrong with informal chats about things. But it can be quite a can of worms when you start putting your nose into the issue of “what do I do for free, what do I get paid for?”
I’ve written at least two articles on the topic (both in French). One was a rant about being asked to do things for free (or almost) again and again, and the second more recent one is about giving away 80% of my work for free.
Do you see the contradiction? Therein lies the can of wriggly worms.
There are situations where I do things “for free” and am very happy to do so. Usually, at least one of the following applies:
- it’s my project or idea (blogging is the most obvious example)
- it’s for a close friend or somebody I have a close “two-way” professional relationship with
- there is an obvious long-term benefit in it for me.
As you can see, all this is very “me-centred”. To be honest, if I don’t see what I’m getting out of it, then it feels like work and I am going to charge for it (so that I get something — cash — out of it).
Now, there are a few other things to take into account:
- there are limits to what I’ll do for free even for close friends or colleagues
- I’m happy to provide “brain time” in social settings like conferences, apéros, etc. — because of the “networking” atmosphere which allows me to manage my involvement comfortably, and because I’m there anyway
- I don’t usually take time to go and take a “networking coffee” with people I do not know unless it is clear that we are discussing a concrete business opportunity for me, or I have a specific reason for wanting to get to know them (I prefer to spend my available “coffee time” seeing my friends)
- I see a lot of new products fly by me and rarely stop to investigate beyond a cursory glance unless (a) that cursory glance “hooks” me (b) my network keeps drawing my attention towards something (this means I don’t pay any attention to press releases or “pushed” information about new stuff)
- the amount of current paid work I’m doing clearly has an influence on how flexible I am with my “brain time”
- “mutual business opportunities” can be more or less one-sided (ie, be of more interest to one party than the other) — for them to be “mutual” my interest needs to be pretty obvious to me from the start (and it usually is — if I need to be convinced or talked into something, it’s usually a bad sign)
- I rely on “gut feeling” rather than hard-and-fast rules.
So, here would be my advice to people getting in touch with me and who are not part of my “inner circle”:
- if you’re approaching me for paid work or a concrete business opportunity, be upfront about it in your intial contact (or I might imagine you just want to pick my brains for free)
- if you’d like to pick my brains for free, arrange to meet me in a social setting (conference, Bloggy Friday, apéro, p’tit déj, networking event, etc.) and bear in mind that it will remain superficial — picking my brains until there is nothing left is a privilege people pay for 😉
- don’t ask me to do for free things I normally charge for (consulting, training, speaking, writing, setting up websites/blogs and managing them, promoting events…)
This sounds very restrictive for somebody who believes in a marketing model based on providing roughly 80% of her value to the world for free. At least, it does to me — but only if I forget that things work pretty differently for the “inner circle” mentioned above.
I guess that’s the hard truth: how much we know each other has a great influence on what I’ll do for you for free.
But that’s kind of how the world works, isn’t it?