Hey, Can I Pick Your Brain? Stop Giving Your Ideas for Free

Your expertise may be a byproduct of the hours you put into your business, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t capitalize on it.


Let’s make one thing clear: There’s nothing wrong with clients who want to pick your brain once in a while. It’s also fine when prospects want to buy you coffee and ask for expert advice.

The problem starts when they expect you to part with your best ideas or even a fully-fledged strategy for free.

Learn How to Spot the People Who Want to Pick Your Brain

Your best line of defence against the kind of person who wants to “pick your brain” is being able to sniff them out from a mile off.

Here are some red flags you should look out for.

1. A Brain Picker Doesn’t Care About Your Time

Notorious brain pickers ask for 5 minutes of your time and push the envelope as long as you allow it. They send inconspicuous e-mail requests with just a handful of “at your convenience” questions, only to ping-pong the conversation until you’re dry.

Time is your most valuable asset. There’s no reason why you’d spend it frivolously while there’s business to run and personal matters to attend to.

2. They Use Flattery to Win You Over

Consciously or not, brain pickers often use flattery for leverage. They might say “that website design you did for X was amazing” or “we can see that you did great work for Y, care to share your thoughts on our approach?”

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When someone asks for your professional opinion and attempts to stroke your ego at the same time, that’s a red flag. While not every kind word comes with malicious intentions, be wary of calculated flattery.

3. Brain Pickers Ask Vague Questions

Some brain pickers have no specific agenda. They prefer to ask open-ended questions, probe your brain, snoop around and see what they can learn from you.

You throw them a bone after bone, but they’re never satisfied with what you have to offer. Once you’ve flipped all your cards, they just ride off into the sunset. “Sorry pal but that’s not what we’re looking for.”

Why It’s Tempting to Let Somebody “Pick Your Brain”

There are several reasons why small-business owners fall victim to brain-picking, even when they see it coming. The goal here is to learn how to turn these situations into sales so you don’t have to give up your ideas for free ever again.

You’re Afraid of Losing a New Business Opportunity

Take this garden-variety scenario: You receive a call from a potential client who heard about your work from a mutual contact. They are thoroughly impressed with your portfolio and want to discuss how you could help their business.

You’re pumped and agree to give them some pointers for starters. After all, it seems like a great opportunity to score a gig and sell your services (pro tip: it is!) But as the conversation unfolds, you realize their intention might be to get free information rather than hire you.

So, what do you do?

Intuition tells you to pull out, but the urge to prove your work is worth their money is too strong. You go all in and try to impress them with your expertise by giving information they should normally be paying you for. Of course, the offer never comes up.

You Don’t Want to Upset Your Clients

Brain picking can happen with regular clients as well. Except, when an existing client reaches out and wants to pick your brain, there’s even more pressure to keep a valuable business relationship intact.

If they request work that goes beyond the usual scope, use that situation to upsell. Your clients should know the value you’re bringing to the table, so be comfortable with discussing that point-blank.

You Try to Please Everybody

Once you’ve made a name for yourself and achieved some recognition in your niche, fellow business owners will notice. They will find your work, appreciate your content and maybe even reach out for business advice.

Being viewed as an expert in your field is, by all means, a good thing, but it can also lead to unsolicited “can I pick your brain” requests streaming in. Professional courtesy aside, responding to those request won’t pay your bills.

You Enjoy Talking About the Thing You Love Doing!

The most human reason to unwittingly let your ideas slip is because you’re simply passionate about your work. When somebody wants to talk about it, it can be engaging and exciting enough for you to open up too much.

These conversations can make you feel smart and accomplished. You might even enjoy grand-standing a bit. But afterwards, you walk away realizing that you got all caught up in the moment and gave away valuable advice and information.

How to Stop Giving Away Your Ideas for Free

Develop Tactics to Turn “Brain Picking” into a Sale

If you struggle to play your cards close to your chest, you need a solid plan for when people start pushing for freebies.

1. Create a Point of Reference

One of the most effective ways to fend off brain-picking requests is to create a reference material you are willing to send to prospects.

Here are several assets you should have at your disposal:

  • A solid online portfolio for showcasing a cross-section of your best work
  • Curated social proof samples like testimonials and business reviews
  • A stock of case studies to prove a successful track record with previous clients
  • Free content (blog posts, Q&As, tutorials, whitepapers) to back your expertise
  • An estimate or proposal template to outline your services and prices


When you’re just starting out and have no previous experience to show, sometimes you have to throw a meaty piece to impress. That said, you should aim to build up a solid reference material as quickly as possible.

If you don’t have a business website or an online portfolio yet, be sure to check out this FreshBooks guide on how to create one.

2. Conduct Client Research

Before you decide to dedicate 15 minutes of your time to discuss ideas with a prospect, take your time to check if they’re a good addition to your portfolio in the first place.

If you’ve been in the business long enough, you already know that not every lead you make contact with is a good client material. In fact, very few are.

If they receive consistently positive feedback on business review sites (like Trustpilot) and in social media, there might be a potential for a healthy business relationship. You can also use Crunchbase to gather intel on recent investments in the company and see if they can afford your rates.

3. Send Compelling Estimates and Proposals

Your time (again) is precious. It’s in your best interest to make a quick, confident assessment, see if the prospect checks all the boxes and move down the sales funnel. If they’re just pulling your leg and try to grab free ideas, move on.

Once you’ve sent an estimate, it’s paramount that you follow up with a proposal. Don’t know where to start? FreshBooks lets you create a professional proposal in a few easy steps. Jump over here for more details.

4. Maintain an Atmosphere of Generosity

Whether you’re dealing with prospects or existing clients, people don’t want to feel you’re miserly or withholding. That might put them off your business altogether.

Part of forming and nurturing relationships is a natural exchange of information. The trick here is to create an impression of generosity and sharing without giving away *too* much.

Here’s how you can create an atmosphere of generosity:

  • Throw them a bone casually: Share useful tips (even links to articles) that you think might be useful to clients
  • Start a newsletter: Newsletters are a great “controlled” way of sharing. They simultaneously build your authority and also makes you look like a person who “shares”. The extra value of running a newsletter is the ability to collect email addresses and generate leads
  • Look for “quid pro quo” opportunities: For instance, if a client asks to pick your brain about content strategy, see the opportunity to pick their brain about what their needs and pain points are. Come with your own questions prepared!

4. Don’t Undersell Yourself: Charge Appropriate Rates

The best way to avoid being taken advantage of is to charge your worth from day one. When you’re pitching a new client, you should always take the time to understand their needs so that you can craft a comprehensive estimate or proposal.

Brain-picking clients will often try to scope creep this phase by asking you for information or due diligence that would actually be part of the project. If your estimate/proposal is clear, you can easily push back and simply say “that will all be covered in Phase 1 of our project!”

You can test the commitment of potential clients by:

  • Asking for a deposit: Asking for a % of the project total upfront is a savvy choice on more complex projects and/or with new clients. This reassures you of their commitment to the project and to your services
  • Collecting payment in instalments: For longer projects that span many months, it’s good practice to put milestones in place at which an instalment payment is due. This has the same effect as asking for a deposit. But it also reinforces with your client that changes in project scope will impact the cost

The more often you do this, the less cumbersome it becomes. And once you’ve created a template for each of these scenarios, you’ll just rinse and repeat the process for every new client and project.

Many small-business owners feel awkward thinking about rates, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Be confident about discussing money with prospects and clients and never sell yourself cheap.

But, Sometimes, Be Willing to Say No

Not every brain-picking request has to lead to a sale. In fact, you should move away from any deal that gives you all kinds of bad vibes.

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If a prospect agrees to hop on a 15-minute call but pushes for more when the time’s up, that’s a red flag. If they don’t respect your time now, chances are nothing’s going to change down the road.

Put non-extendible limits on calls and meetings and see if the potential clients follow through. Make them play according to your rules to test their commitment before taking the relationship any further.

The bottom line is, awkward conversations happen so learn how to handle them. Be willing to say “no” and just let the prospect slip away when the situation becomes uncomfortable.

Conclusion

Since you run a for-profit business, your ultimate goal is to earn money. Your experience and talent is what sets you apart from the competition. If you give that up for free, you lose leverage and the position to negotiate.

“Can I pick your brain?” Sure, but it’s going to cost you.

This post was updated in October 2019.



about the author

Freelance Contributor Dawid is a freelance copywriter and blogger at OctoScribe where he helps B2B tech companies talk human instead of code. When he's not writing about tech, he's enjoying the simplicity of analog photography and daring bike trips with his wife.