Of all the things you can say in a business context, “Can I pick your brain?” has to be one of the most loaded. In many cases, people really do want to help. They may have solicited help from mentors and colleagues as they built their businesses, and they now want to extend the same generosity to others.
People find me very approachable, and I wouldn’t trade that quality for anything. I connect easily with clients and fellow entrepreneurs, which in turn sends business my way and opens up opportunities for collaboration. It also means that people feel very comfortable asking to pick my brain. They may want specifics about how I run my business (so they can use it as a model), help networking and making connections, or advice about entrepreneurship and careers. While I do find it extremely flattering that people come to me, I’ve learned that I, unfortunately, can’t say yes to every single person who asks to pick my brain for free. If I did that, I eventually wouldn’t have a business for others to take interest in!
As someone who values connection, I’m interested in finding a middle ground. I want to be able to do favors for others without worrying that it’s chipping away at the success of my business. I also want to take some of the awkwardness out of the equation. I know some people find it hard to ask for favors, which makes it especially hard for me to let them down by saying no. And when it comes to asking for favors, some people may actually feel uncomfortable offering compensation in exchange. How much should they offer? Will it be insulting to offer compensation, especially if the number is way too low?
It’s not an easy thing to navigate. There are, however, a few tricks I’ve seen to make it go more smoothly. Next time you’re considering asking for a business-related favor, see if one of these ideas fits the bill.
Before you ask someone for a favor, explore their free resources first.
Many business professionals are accustomed to people asking them for advice, and in response to that, have developed free resources that anyone can utilize. While you might think these resources are solely for the purpose of driving business, many of them are actually multipurpose and have value for aspiring professionals as well as prospective clients. Some professionals have an entire library of resources! If anything, it’s a good place to start before you reach out to someone for a favor.
Consider whether you can provide something in exchange.
When my friend Danya Shults, founder of Arq, reached out to me asking for my feedback, she suggested an equal trade of time and expertise. As Danya said to me, “I was asking for your feedback on something that you might actually charge folks for as a consultant, and I wanted to be mindful of that, so I offered a trade vs. straight up asking for you to help as a favor.” I really appreciated this gesture, and I think it’s an incredibly smart way for entrepreneurs to support each other, especially when they are building and growing a business. “Time is money, but I'd rather give that right now than money for quicker, smaller things when possible — it's part a preference, part a logical decision for me and my business,” she says.
Be open to the possibility of the person saying yes, but understand if they say no.
It’s great when someone is willing to do you a favor, and it’s not uncommon either. I’m open to having brief phone calls with people, many of whom are initially connected to me via friends. Having a 20-minute call is logistically easier than arranging to meet in person, so I usually opt for that route. If we start chatting and discover there’s a possible mutual benefit to talking further, we might then decide to meet in person. Some great relationships have come out of these conversations, and I’m glad I took the time to talk.
And of course, it’s nice to be able to say yes. According to Shults, she’s open to phone calls and meetings with people for a number of reasons. “Either it's because I'm interested in the person and just want to help them because it feels good to do so or I'm interested in the topic and it's fun for me to discuss or, frankly, I think they could return the favor at some point and it's good for relationship-building,” she says.
If you want to reach out and ask for a favor but are feeling nervous, remember that the person on the receiving end can always say no if the terms don’t work for them, or if they’re just not able to do any favors for anyone at the moment. If they do decline, know it’s more than likely not at all personal. Not in the slightest. It might be the eighth email of its kind they received that week. Or the tenth. Or the 20th. Don’t be discouraged — just move forward. One favor does not make or break your business.