How to Respond When Someone Wants to 'Pick Your Brain'

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Warning: this article might trigger you (if you are someone who is always asking people if you can take them out for coffee to "pick their brain," that is...)

On the other hand, if you've got it going on and have built a reputation as an expert, you probably get "pick your brain" requests a LOT. If so, I wrote this for you.

I know this riles people up. If you're a consultant whose information and time are how you make a living, it can be quite annoying when people request free work in the form of help. Usually, they don't know any better, so let's not fault them. But I've seen enough posts on Facebook about this, from angry experts who are annoyed with even the request, to know that this is a constant issue for some.

Instead of getting angry, or taking them (which is usually not a good idea considering the value of your time and the lost productivity and income), I recommend having clarity on what they are, putting them in their place, and having canned responses that you feel good about and that add value for the person asking so everyone wins.

Because we all struggle with how to respond to somebody who wants our time (click to tweet). I know I don't like it mainly because I feel like I'm being put in a position to "be mean" by saying no. And some people will definitely think it's mean to not just give them your time, but you have to remember that's their issue, not yours. As long as you are polite and give them a way to get value from you, you are perfectly within your right to protect your time.

Your Time, the Most Valuable Thing You Own

Think about it this way: In the time it takes me to travel to and have coffee with a new acquaintance, I could have drafted an article for this column, something that hundreds if not thousands of people will read. Perhaps I could have come up with a way to automate another piece of my process, thereby saving me loads of time in the future. Maybe I could have read part of a book that inspired me to think in new ways about my business. I might have even taken that time to relax and regenerate, something most entrepreneurs could use and which often makes me more effective when I am working.

When you inventory your time, you find that coffee dates with new acquaintances is the least bang for your buck. Especially when the purpose of the meeting is for the other person to mine you for free information.

Instead start to think about how many valuable things you could potentially do in an hour or two, and then you'll start to value your time appropriately. When you finally get into that mindset, you’re going to want to do everything you can to protect it.

I implemented the Brandshrink—a one-and-a-half-hour interview and write up designed to solve branding problems—so I could have clear boundaries for these requests. Having a defined process and canned response means I don’t have to get caught up in trying to be polite, or worrying about what to say when people ask for my time. I'm quick to tell people—even friends—that if they want my advice and time, they’ll should schedule a Brandshrink! I literally have a product that solves the problem they have, why wouldn't they want to buy it?

Does that sound cold-hearted?

Au contraire.

This is not just for my benefit, it’s for theirs! Not only do these boundaries ensure that I’m not running around trying to help everyone else for free at the expense of my business and sanity, but I do it because people value things more when they pay for them. And because they value them, they’re also more likely to implement my advice effectively.

It’s a little uncomfortable, especially when I know the person isn’t purposefully asking me to do free work for them but, man, it cuts right to the chase by asking them to make a decision.

Missed Connections

“You never know who they might know”—the FOMO of the business world—is one of the worst myths entrepreneurs tell themselves. Sure, anybody could know some amazing contact for you who just happens to be looking for someone exactly like you to feature in their upcoming Fast Company cover story. Likelihood is low though.

In retrospect, I know why I would spend time endlessly meeting with people over coffee: these meetings made me feel like I was doing something for my business. In reality? I didn't know what else to do.

Now that I’ve learned how many other things there are to do, this isn’t a game I recommend you play. Not if you if want to build a business with longevity. Just because you're desperate for clients doesn't mean you have time to go have coffee with everybody who’s willing to have coffee with you. Quite the opposite, actually. Because you’re desperate for clients, you DO NOT have time to go have coffee with everybody.

This fact is more obvious for people who are still charging hourly rates (which you should stop doing). Think about it: if you're charging $50/hour, and you just spent three hours getting coffee with someone who will never be your customer, not only did you pay for the coffee and scones, but you just cost yourself $150 of lost productivity. At that rate, you'll go out of business before that golden opportunity ever comes.

This is like betting money on bad poker hands over and over just in case three more 2s happen to show up. You’re likely to be out of chips before you hit it big. Why not use all that time to create your own luck, instead?

I’ve done both: had coffee with all those people, and stopped doing the coffees to create my own luck by spending that time building value in my brand. I’d choose the latter any time and wish I had started earlier.

While I understand that meeting with someone face to face can build a stronger relationship than a quick phone call, I also question how valuable building that relationship is if that person has so much time to kill. I’m all about building solid relationships with valuable referral partners, but I save my time for those I know are valuable. Until then, you’ve got better things to do. You don't need to be crushing it to realize there are more valuable ways to spend your time.

Standing Up For The Way You Do Business

Part of being an authority is having clear boundaries. If you have a clear and pre-defined way to help people that asks them to put their money on the line, they’ll either hire you, or they won’t (click to tweet). And if they disagree or are somehow offended, then they definitely weren’t going to hire you or be a good client. Congratulations! You just dodged a bullet!

A few times, early in my business, I got a lot of requests to barter services. They give me copy, I provide them with a site, that sort of thing. But I always got the short end of the stick in those interactions, so I developed a ‘no bartering’ policy. This policy made it easier to communicate my boundaries. In my mind, if you really want my services and I really want yours, then I can hire you and pay you, and you can hire me and pay me back. But it’s important to me that checks are exchanged and deposited. You can consider that bartering and I'll consider that an agreement to do business, but I want those parameters in place.

If any of this makes you uncomfortable, I completely understand. It doesn’t feel good to think someone might think poorly of you while all you’re doing is trying to protect your time and business. I've had people straight up question if my values "aligned" with theirs when I didn't want to spend half a day trekking to have a free coffee with them, which stung until I realized the reason they wanted to see me for coffee is because they wanted to sell me something. You see? Cutting to the chase sniffs out the true intentions sometimes.

And that's why you can’t make decisions about your business based on how somebody might respond, because you never really know what is actually going on for them. Being worried about offending people doesn't mean you offended them. And it certainly doesn't mean you owe them your time. You can't help everybody, and especially not everyone who emails you to go to coffee.


Sometimes these coffee dates are an excuse to feel productive and busy doing the easier thing, as opposed to what can be mentally-draining biz dev work, content creation, etc... As entrepreneurs, we have so many things we could be doing, and sometimes it feels easier to blow off the things that need a lot of brain power for a cappuccino either to help someone out (so altruistic!) or because you never know who they might know. And it can be really easy to spend your days getting nothing done if you aren't clear on your big picture goals and value of your time. You owe yourself and your business that clarity and respect.

That’s what experts do.

If you want to find some middle ground between saying no and saying yes, make it easy for people to buy time from you with services like Clarity.FM. It lets people book time and pay by the minute. That's another way of letting people know you don't give away your information for free while still offering to help.

Time is the most valuable and finite resource we have. If you’ve ever done a visual representation of the time you have left on this earth compared to the time you still have available, it’s really quite limited. (If you’ve never done one I made one for you to download here— it’s a great exercise!)

If you need it:
I’m giving you permission to create a “pick your brain” session people can pay for.

If someone is a good fit for you and your services, they will go through your process. If they choose not to, they weren’t a good fit, and you just got back a few hours of your life. They are not bad people for requesting it, just like you are not a bad person for wanting to get paid for your expertise! But it’s up to you to define it.