I am a mid-career, self-employed copywriter and I’m often approached by acquaintances and aspiring writers to sit down for coffee so they can pick my brain. I feel guarded about offering knowledge and contacts that have taken me a decade of making mistakes and lived experience to acquire. The industry is competitive and I feel the need to protect the way I do business in order to stay in business. Am I wrong for having this attitude? How can I field these requests without coming off like a jerk to others in the industry?
The first answer
Billy Anderson, founder, the Courage Crusade, Toronto: As a business owner, I often get this, too. It reminds me of the people who helped me when I was starting out.
Do you have time to help these people? If not, stop doing it. Do you want to help them? While helping others feels great, I believe that anything we do in our lives for free needs to feel exciting and/or rewarding in some way. Otherwise, we’re not effective at it. If it’s someone you want to help, decide how much time you’re willing to invest: a quick e-mail with some tips, a few links to articles or blogs for them to do their own research, or a phone call or coffee if you’re keen.
While I have no problem giving away advice based on my experience, I do not share my IP (intellectual property) for free and I’m also hesitant to share my contacts. I often say, “I’m sorry but I don’t refer anyone who I don’t know personally or haven’t worked with.”
I would try to worry less about “protecting” your business in order to stay in business. I believe if we work hard, continue to hone our expertise and treat people well, life (and business) works out.
If people are coming to you for advice, that’s a potential business opportunity. You could create an article, short book, or online course to sell your advice. Then you can refer those resources to the people you’re less keen to talk to.
And if anyone in your industry thinks you’re a “jerk” for being strategic with your time and expertise, they don’t know much about running a business.
The second answer
Eileen Chadnick, principal, Big Cheese Coaching, Toronto: I understand your need to stay competitive, but I’d challenge your assumption that to do so means you must withhold offering advice to others.
You’ve worked hard over the years. You’ve established relationships and have likely built a reputation for good work. A little generosity with others shouldn’t compromise your success. It might even bolster it.
High achievers (including those in freelance and traditional career contexts) don’t go it alone. They network, they share, and they connect with others in a give-and-take reciprocal manner. In fact, many professions have associations that facilitate this.
This doesn’t mean you share all your trade secrets and contact list but there must be some advice you can offer, such as how to build a portfolio, develop a niche, approach business prospects, etc.
Being generous can help you, too. It can raise your profile. And you never know when someone you’ve helped might circle back with their own goodwill. Perhaps they’ll someday be able to refer opportunities to you.
You don’t have to give it all away (time or knowledge). Be discerning. Set boundaries. Perhaps be more cautious with those who only take. If someone asks for coffee and you don’t have time, offer a brief phone chat instead. But do give what and when you can.
Your good work and relationships should continue to serve you well. Add a reasonable dose of generosity and you may find some surprising rewards – tangibly and/or with that good feeling that comes with giving back.