Stop giving it away

….Are you giving away your expertise?

“Actually, I get paid to do that.”  I hear this every day in a client’s story as they lament a prospect expecting to get their thinking for free.

I say this every day in my own head too.  And, I’m betting you mutter it under your breath as well.

And yet, most people struggle with finding the words to tell yet another “prospect” that what they’re asking for isn’t free.  It’s actually the most rare of fruit that only comes from years of experience, study, real life trials and walking through the fire with a lot of clients.

You wouldn’t call a plumber and expect him to come to your house and diagnose and fix your problem for free – and yet every day, professionals, especially professionals of the creative class (doctors, lawyers, business coaches, marketing professionals, accountants and other knowledge based workers) are being asked to do that very thing.

If you’re a professional who draws on complex bodies of knowledge and experience to solve specific problems – you’ve probably faced this issue.  So how do you keep from having this recurring problem impact your business?

Actually – it’s a marketing issue.  And here are some ways to communicate away the situation.

Stop giving it away: This first suggestion is certainly the simplest in theory and the hardest in practice.  If you keep rewarding the bad behavior, you will just get more of it.  When someone asks you to share your expertise for free, you need to have a practiced and comfortable answer.

That answer should be based on your organization, your brand and your comfort level.  It should respectfully and clearly explain that your advice is not free, in fact that’s how you make your living.

Set the expectation early on: Long before someone ever gets you into a meeting – you need to establish the rules.  On your website, in your brochure, as a part of your “get to know us” PowerPoint – spell it out.  Be very clear that your thinking time/expertise is delivered for a fee.

You don’t have to list prices if you don’t want to get that specific.  Avoid being too nice and push yourself to be blatant that there will be a cost.

Don’t run after them: If they balk at being charged or try to get you to reduce your fee, be polite but stand firm.  (This requires being fair when you set your pricing to begin with).  If they walk away – let them.

I know this is tough when you really want the project – but they have just told you what value they’re going to assign to your years of experience.  Is that really a client you want?

Give it away but with intent and purpose: One way to demonstrate the value of what you sell is to give it away. (I’m not contradicting myself, I promise!)  So go ahead and give it away to a non-profit or a start up you’re sponsoring. (like our adopt a charity program)

Use that generosity to set the contrast for prospects.  “Now as you may know, we did this same sort of XYZ plan for charity 123, but naturally, in that case, we actually donated our expertise.”

Next time you find yourself grumbling about this problem, remember – you ‘re actually the one giving it away.  And only you can keep it from happening down the road.

Addendum:  Someone just shared this post with me from Kevin Dugan.  He’s ranting about the “can I buy you coffee and pick your brain” call, much in alignment with the post above.  See — it is something we’re all facing.

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43 comments on “Stop giving it away

  1. Cyndi Papia says:

    I think we’ve all been guilty of “giving away” free time and/or advice. In a way, it’s kind of nice that there are people who, inside, want to help everyone. But, of course, that doesn’t pay the bills and it’s like rolling moss, if you start allowing it, it just continues. I have a stickie note on my computer reminding me people pay for my experience, skills and 18+ years in business. Great post!

    1. Cyndi,

      I think most people give it away now and then. But you should get to do it on your impetus, not someone else’s.

      We need people to be delighted when they get something for free, not expect it.


      1. Cyndi Papia says:

        I do, that used to be a big thing with me…if I could I’d do everything for free. But real-world bills don’t stop coming in, so I keep my stickie front and center! 🙂

  2. Carol says:

    For as long has he worked at CMF&Z, Rick Mayes had a sign on his wall that said: “Once you give it away, it’s gone.” You’ve given me an important reminder of what I should clearly know.

    1. Carol,

      And he was right… you can’t retro bill someone for something once it’s come out of your mouth or you’ve given them a great idea.

      I have done that more times than I can count. And no one has ever whipped out their wallet and handed me money!


  3. Shelby says:

    As someone who often looks to others for their expertise, I assume the business will tell me when we’ve gone past idea sharing and into “billable hours.” Is that a fair assumption?

    1. Shelby,

      I think when someone asks if they can “pick your brain” about something or sends you a link to their website and asks for your opinion of it — they don’t want to pay for the cow, they want the milk for free.

      Which is different from idea sharing, I think. Can you give me a specific example?


      1. HENRY FLYNN says:

        But it is ok if they ask ok if i buy a cup of coffee and pick your brain getting paid just not what it is worth you can op out

      2. Shelby says:

        You’re probably right about “brain pickers” wanting freebies. Although it could also be their way of starting the conversation and deciding whether or not to buy the milk or who to buy the milk from.

        In my previous question, I was thinking of a recent twitter conversation I directed at an acquaintance who I know to be an expert in blogging (a.k.a. people pay him for his expertise). My question was a short and simple request for a recommendation. Even though he appeared to eagerly offer help, I later worried that I had overstepped by asking for his opinion for free. Because he didn’t tell me I was out of line (and in fact offered for me to call anytime), I assumed he was okay with it.

        I can see how this is a slippery slope for many people, especially as social media opens up opportunities for people to share information. Glad I’m not someone who has to draw the line in the sand.

        1. Shelby,

          I think we all do that — all the time! Reaching out for a quick piece of information isn’t the sort of thing I was talking about. Heck — we’re supposed to be resources for each other. It’s one of the reasons we’re online!

          And of course, someone could and should kick your tires a bit before hiring you — so that’s reasonable as well. I think when people get frustrated about this situation is when someone is looking for a couple hours of their time — to give them free counsel when that counsel is what they get paid to do.


  4. Great post Drew. This is something of which we need to be reminded. One of my early mentors used to tell me that we will be judged by the intelligence of the questions we ask, not by spouting off what we know. Experience has taught me that this is a great sales strategy.

    I ask lots of questions, I answer questions with questions. When people stop answering my questions and ask me what I think or what they should do, I respond with, “let me share with you my process.”

    This method makes it clear that going further means establishing a formal client relationship.

    1. Jeff,

      Let me share with you my process. Nice turn of the phrase. I may have to borrow that.

      It’s human nature to want to be helpful. But sometimes we can really stick it to ourselves!


  5. Kneale Mann says:

    Another brilliant post, Drew! I (like millions of others) have given far too much away for far too long. The requests for free advice or “can you have a quick look” happen several times a day but my response has changed.

    I now – with decorum and respect – remind them that I provide business intelligence for a living and if they have a budget in mind for this work then we can discuss deliverables.

    It’s funny how many of them never return that second email. It’s best not to offer the work when the person asking for it only values it when it’s free.

  6. Kneale,

    How do you phrase that sort of thing? And has it actually generated work for you?

    I agree — once they get it for free, that’s about what they think it is worth.


  7. Vishal Mehta says:

    Nicely put, Drew. I completely echo as a victim of the same syndrome. And still it’s a struggle at times during every new prospect and “free” request…

    1. Vishal,

      I think it’s a fine line that we walk and there’s no absolutes. I’m always going to err on the be too generous side but there has to be a limit.


  8. Jason Alba says:

    I wrote a similar post in January, about people who want to take me to lunch to pick my brain. I lay out the scenario in the post, and my logic to why it doesn’t work for me anymore…

    I found people who have knowledge and services agreed, and those who don’t STRONGLY disagreed. It was interesting to hear those who have never been in this situation to get so angry that someone like me would even think of charging, and not take the rich opportunity to dine with them (at their expense).

    The post here 🙂

    Glad to see this topic on your blog…

    1. Thanks Jason,

      Good to know it’s not just me! Your post was spot on — sooner or later it changes from being a nice guy to being a poor guy. It’s a balance thing for me. I do want to be helpful and generous. But I also know there are only so many hours in the day.

      I think, when reading the comments on your post and Peter’s, that people mistake good business behavior with arrogance. Which is probably why more people don’t raise this issue.


  9. Cyndi Papia says:

    I was thinking about this overnight, maybe it will be helpful: If you’re giving “free” advice/assistance to someone who is in business to make money, why then are you helping them for free to make money off your advice…..if a potential client can’t see the “value” but only price, you don’t want them as a client, they drain your time, they drain you mentally.

    1. Cyndi,

      Very true. And of course, we haven’t even gotten into giving your time away to paying clients on occasion, which I think is important too. That’s part of the value add.


  10. Drew – I’ve done the ‘coffee consultation’ rules for Jason’s ‘brain pickers’, along with other approaches like Drew (tell them it costs money) and Jeff (ask questions, which points the way of advice anyway). It is necessary to fend off the tire kickers, part of it.. if someone flinches at the thought of paying for services, or is caught like a deer in headlights unable to answer basic questions about what they want and need and why, those are some very red flags in my book.

    On giving it away for free, Gini Dietrich did a good post on that. Want to ‘pick my brain’ then read my blog or if you have them, case studies, white papers, e-newsletters, etc. Many consultants share a lot of quality advice for nothing everyday on the web, so it is best to establish the rules and manage expectations earlier. Now I’m flashing to one of my fave vids, the one on Vendor/Client relationships.. funny b/c it’s sadly so true. FWIW.

    1. Davina,

      I suppose at the end of the day, it’s also a respect thing. If people respect your time and talents, they won’t expect to get it for nothing. But of course, it’s all a judgement call. Sometimes the calls that I think “I really shouldn’t do this meeting for free or whatever” turns out to be an awesome connection, client, referral source or all 3.

      I don’t think there’s a black/white on this issue. Plenty of grey in the middle! And I agree with Gini — many of us who are discussing this issue do share a great deal already. Which is why, I’m sure people assume we can afford to share even more.


  11. Karen says:

    Love this post. This is such a chronic problem. I have an ebook (which oddly enough I give out for free) that addresses this and other “newbie” coach/consultant issues. It’s called…Everyone wants a freebie. Learning to handle the freebie ask is an essential survival skill.

    1. Karen,

      Will you share the URL for your ebook with us please?


  12. Drew,

    Great post. I’m a new freelance graphic designer and was using the “eager for work” mentality when seeking new clients. My new mentality is that I need be paid for the value I am providing for my clients, new or old.

    Thanks for reminding me of this. Really needed to read it. (I’ve printed it and taped to the wall next to my computer so I can read it over and over again.)

    Thanks for the suggestion and post.

    Melissa Burkheimer

    1. Melissa,

      I believe it’s important to be generous and share your talents. But, you just have to find your balance and perhaps your own criteria for when/when not to give it away.

      Congrats on launching your new business!


  13. Good stuff Drew…as always. Thanks for the reminder. People will pay for what they perceive to be valuable information or advice…ask any doctor or attorney.

    1. Warren,

      Amen! But I will bet you that every doctor and lawyer wrestles with this issue too.


  14. Karen says:

    Hi all,
    The ebook does not have it’s own site/link yet. I’m in the middle of revamping a couple of my sites. So, if you go to the main site and fill in the contact form with an email where you can receive a PDF I will send one out. Put “freebie book” in the purpose field. (see another lesson–don’t delay your web updates, wink, wink)

    1. Karen,

      Done — looking forward to seeing it.


  15. neilperkin says:

    Hi Drew
    I agree with what your saying – it’s easy to lose sight of the value of what you impart. But I’d like to add a counter-weight to this by saying that I also believe in the value of paying it forward. I work for myself so my time really is my money. But I still value spending a proportion of my time on things that I am doing because I want to, or because I think it’s the right thing to do. I had an approach recently from someone who’d recently lost their job, and was after advice on interviewing with a potential employer. They were offering to pay me a fee for a mentoring session – I refused the fee but did the mentoring because I thought it was the right thing to do. That person then pro-actively returned the favour by introducing me to a senior (and useful) contact at the business he’d just left. We’re all here to make a living sure, but I’ve lost count of the number of times when a little (non-paid) thoughtfulness has given me far more return than I could ever have expected and often in ways that I could never have foreseen. The famous Creative Director Paul Arden once said: “Do not covet your ideas, give away everything you know and more will come back to you.” It’s a philosophy that has stood me in very good stead in recent years.

    1. Neil,

      Without a doubt — it is about balance. I think most creative class professionals give away their time/talents all the time — out of choice. As you say, we either want to or it’s the right thing to do. I think that’s the key — we choose to do it. I spend many of my Saturday mornings meeting with college students and aspiring marketing types — listening to their stories and giving them some advice, helping them make connections etc.

      My post wasn’t really about that. It was about the fact that you could literally do coffee and lunch all day, every day and never make a dime. It’s really about where do you draw the line.


  16. Karen says:

    Regarding paying it forward…
    One of the reasons I think we need to be careful about “accidental” free clients is that it drains our ability to choose to freely and happily give time when we want to as we see fit. For example, if your day is filled with non-paying meetings that you stumble into when your church or charity calls for help you may not be able to afford to give–because you need to chase paying clients instead.

    1. Karen,

      I think that’s a lot of it. Professionals want to be able to choose who/where to help, as opposed to feeling obligated to do so.


  17. Becky says:

    This is something that a lot of biz professionals struggle with. Especially with the “educational marketing” campaigns where you do share a lot of information…for free as a way of getting potential prospects introduced to your product or service.

    It is so important to have it clearly designated in your mind…This is what I offer for “free” and This is what I expect to be paid for!

  18. Darlene says:

    Volunteers do not get paid. And there or organization who believe in giving away their advice for free, even as professionals. Plenty of lawyers too give away their time and expertise probono.

    I am one of those professionals who believe in giving away my most valuable asset which is my time, to those who are struggling in this industry. My choice and I love every minute of it.


  19. Kyle says:

    Thanks for making an awesome list of tips to help “not giving our info away”. it is very hard, especially since blogging is kind of branded as a free way to get info, but i think maybe its time to change it to a degree kind of like you are mentioning!

  20. Meri says:

    People end up taking free work when they think it can build their expertise or portfolio. The free work ends up in most cases being more than what was estimated leading to frustration and potentially damaging friendships. The customer is always demanding and often shows little understanding that the work was done for free; people’s needs don’t change. Also, once you’ve done something for free to someone it is very difficult to ask for compensation when the round two comes.

  21. nahum says:


    Thanks for writing this article, it helped me to get rid of some irrational thoughts.

    Here’s my story:

    I like to help people, because, it is in my nature to “try” to solve people’s issues. And, when I rode something that might help them, I just cannot stop my mouth to come with an answer: in Life or in business.

    It is my personal background.

    But then, a few years ago I thought to get into Advisory, Consultancy, Article writing and more than anything else, to make a living with my knowledge since I like to read and write about useful things and methods.

    So, when I was learning about Advisory, Consultancy and Information Marketing, I noticed that “The more I know the more valuable I become”

    Then, old the game (¿or is it vicious circle?) of solving people’s problems in business or life, changed.

    And contrary to this article “I Couldn’t Stop Giving It away”, because I didn’t know how.

    Until now.

    This writing is important to me because it offered me a lot of guidelines to complete my business start-up and it helped me to notice why I failed.

    And everything comes down to this article’s name: Because I was giving it for free.

    I posted this comment because I wanted to stop and say: Thank you Drew.

    When I was reading your article, my eyes popped like if I was Bart Simpson, and then I had a personal aha! moment thanks to it.

    Now, I will try to be very careful with the words coming out of my mouth.

    thank you very much Drew, I really really wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

    1. Thanks very much for taking the time to comment and share your story. Glad I could contribute in a small way to your aha moment and future success!



  22. Robert Germanovich says:

    I often joke about internet trolls getting people’s goat but I continuously fall for the nice-guy showing his hand trick. Someone mentions a problem and rather than quickly dispensing a sales pitch, i start solving their problem for them. I would be one of those wealthy Consultants if I could shut up.

    1. Ahhh, Bob, we speak the same language. I often give away what I should sell. At my age, you’d think I would already know better!


  23. Cythnia K. says:

    NEVER, EVER, NEVER WORK FOR FREE. Sheeple do not value free. They treat you like a chump. A freebie seeker/cheapie seeks the educated, pollyanna doormat. Once they get free–you cannot get paid. Your value=0. Pick my brain, you pick my pockets. That includes so called “non profits” and other “charities” with PAID directors, and paid project officers,etc…When their non- profit toilet clogs, do they send in the free plumber? Does the “non profit” director get paid, their boss collect a paycheck? How about their CPA that files their 990 tax forms–are they doing it for that farcical “exposure” schtick. Do NOT do any lunches, coffee tymes, or disgusted other brain picking sessions with these leeches/moochers. Do NOT provide counsel, advice, strategy sessions, tips, bone throwing, whatever—YOUR education was not free. Your rent is not free. All those american taxes/surcharges are NOT free. Your food, gas, insurance, continuing ed are NOT free. They either want to HIRE you for money (coffee carsds, sandwich, and BS exposure are NOT payments) or not. No spec work, no BS promises of future work. If you have termites in your house, you get an exterminator—you dont ask what the extermininator is going to do, or decide if you need an exterminator post termite damage–you just hire them (dinero). Watch Harlan Ellison’s spot on pay the writer video too. Just say no to brain pickers and other moochers. You must be like a prostitute. Show them a little ankle, a lil wrist, but NOTHING else. IF they want more—they must pay. No exceptions.

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