Consultant Thursdays: No, You Can’t Pick My Brain.

The original post is from Nicole Jordan, a Public Relations and Marketing consultant out of Los Angeles that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, and she a great asset in the tech culture there. She writes a blog called Kicking Sand, but more importantly, wrote this blog post over at BlogHer.

The reason I cross-posted the post: I work as a consultant and her post resonated with me. I don’t have the luxury of depending on a full-time job for the paycheck and do volunteer work.

I get requests to help people out, whether it’s setting up a website, doing a usability study, or connecting someone at a company (“Hey, do you know someone at…”).

It’s rather frustrating because my work has real value (the work I do is for the largest corporations in the world), and I have proved countless times it leads to better user experiences, tangible business goals and real results. That’s what I do.

The best way to describe me is my job is to “come up with shit.” I come up with ideas. Some good. A lot bad. But hopefully one will take hold and have a value much larger than the cost of hiring me, and that’s why I get work.  And lot of the time, the requests are for more than the idea: building out the website, an offering of partnership, the promise of a connection that may never pan out.

But here’s the rub.

Sweat equity doesn’t pay my rent.  volunteer projects doesn’t pay my rent. Promises don’t pay my rent. Cups of coffee don’t pay my rent.

Consulting and ideas do. I practically guarantee good results, and that has real value in today’s results-driven culture.

It reminds me of a quote from Mad Men. The Conrad Hilton character was asking the Don Draper character for free ideas.

Don said, “Connie, this is  my profession, what do you want me to do?”

Here’s Nicole’s post. Read on.

I was reminded of this post, which has sat in a Word doc on my desktop for two months, while reading “Can I Pick your Brain,” by Kevin Dugan. Thanks, Kevin, for inspiring me to finally get it posted.

I'm not sure where to start with this topic, because I feel like it might offend many people who know me who have asked the very thing.

For close personal friends, I can make an exception, but there has to be a line drawn somewhere.

Several years ago, I had upgraded myself to first class on a flight from LA to NYC, where I was living at the time. As the plane was boarding, I was flipping through the current issue of Wired. Highlighted in the magazine was a book called "Ambitchous" (has since been changed). It was, ultimately, about how the female psyche can hold one back in business. How we can under-value and under-appreciate what we contribute and our desire to not push too hard or ask for too much because we don’t want to be “the Bitch.” The author interviewed hundreds of women and is a career psychologist of sorts, as well as having a strong background in business.

I felt a tap on my shoulder, and it was my travel partner handing me a note. I opened it and it said: "Turn to page 76. That's my book."

It was the author, Debra Condren (@debracondren) of Ambitchous, seated directly across the aisle from me. The author of the book I just dog-eared a magazine page for to remind myself to buy.

I immediately got up and went to her and engaged in conversation that continued some during the flight and finally into the baggage terminal at JFK. She gave me a galley copy of the book, which I found a huge honor. I devoured it. There were so many eye-opening examples that simulated behaviors and ways of thinking that I'd found myself trapped in. But one chapter hit me the most.

I like to call it “Pay Me.” I would cite it, but I loaned the book out ages ago to other powerful females I know but my takeaway was this: Time is valuable, and creative thought is even more so. Don't undervalue either. As women (and compassionate people everywhere), we like to help and can get trapped in giving our time and ideas away for free because we’re afraid to ask for compensation. Or just don’t realize it’s within our right to do so.

When you are a creative individual who is a "popcorn machine," as my mom says, who spits out ideas on a continual basis, doling out advice is no big thing. It's easy to have coffee with someone whose company I enjoy, most who will ultimately take my ideas and somehow help benefit their business. Whatevs.

I used to do this a lot more than I do now, because here's the thing that I finally came to terms with that helped me start standing my ground: My popcorn machine has value.

Creative ideas and connections are the real currency in this digital economy. We are bombarded with fragmented channels to communicate with, audiences to communicate to and many masters to serve on the business side. Having someone who can view this entire ecosystem, understand your market and then advise you on what is wisest for your company to build brand and business is an invaluable resource. But those advisers are typically under-appreciated and under-monetized.

I am asked on a weekly basis to meet with people for coffee or lunch or cocktails. Requests range from asking if I know someone for a position to resources for an interest to the need for creative advice and consulting to helping to promote an event. There are a lot of needs in LA (and beyond), and it shows this industry is raring to go and bursting with ambition. But, I can't help everyone.

I do have my own work schedule and my "life balance" that I attempt, and they leave me little free time to "donate" to others. I appreciate that I am seen as a resource for the community, but some of the requests have shown me a repeated trend — people need ideas. A lot of them.

Strategic and creative counsel is one of the most under-monetized aspects of being in the communications and marketing business. Would you ask a lawyer to coffee to "pick his brain?" Do you think a professional — as ruthless as they are known to be, and whose services are enlisted regularly and paid well for — would dole out an hour of advice to you for $3.50? Unless he's your dear friend, what's in it for him?

I see this as an increasing problem in LA and I'm sure in every city across the country. It’s especially rampant with start-ups. Let's call it the "Pick Your Brain (PYB) syndrome."

You meet a nice smart person at an event, and you have coffee, and then they start to PYB. And take notes, because what you say makes sense. You are pumping out advice and ideas. And it ain't no thing to you, because you're a popcorn machine, right? Pop, pop, pop. And they soak it up and then off they go, and you’re left holding an empty drink.

I got into a recent Twitter back-and-forth with someone about the value of releasing ideas into the world. Someone cited @jason to me: that you can give ideas, but it doesn't matter if they can't execute (I'm paraphrasing), but I wholly disagree. When you present an idea to people and they recognize it as good, they will take it with them, and they will eventually make money off of that idea. But you will not.

So this is what I started doing, especially for people that I do not know well: I tell them I am happy to meet, I am flattered they asked, and that because my time is valuable I don’t do these PYB sessions for free. Most the times when I’ve said this, they’ve understood and honored it. The ones that got a little ruffled are the ones who will suck you dry and likely leave you paying for your own coffee. And theirs.

Run. Fast.

How often are you asked to have your brain picked? Got any words of advice or examples to share?

Remember, nothing is for free — you just aren’t paying for it.