Why Are You Giving Away Your Expertise for Free?

A hot topic amongst my List network this week has been, "How do you handle it when people want to just pick your brain?" Per usual, this group of women had advice... Cindy Gallop sent this article and Meredith Fineman blogged this one.

Since I started consulting, I get asked a lot. How'd you do that? What do you charge? Is your office cool with it? So here's the deal...

In 2012, I had launched AARP's social media team the previous year and I was a first-time-manager of a rogue posse of type-A digital stars (six women, one office, always on... it could have been a reality show.) I was traveling a ton - both to learn about what other organizations were doing in social and content strategy - and to talk about what a powerhouse of trans-media we were building for AARP.

All of that alone was a lot to handle. But, on top of it, it felt like every person I had worked with in the past wanted a piece of my time. So I was also talking social strategy at coffees, lunches, happy hours and dinners. For free.

But there was a cost. I was doing these at the expense of my personal relationships with friends and family. I wasn't making any time for dating. I wasn't even making enough time for basic things like cooking dinner or walking my dog or reading important (or just fun) things.

I remember so clearly sitting by the pool the day after TEDActive 2012 ended. We'd been working our tails off and instead of soaking in the Palm Springs sun all week, we'd been inside watching TEDTalks, brainstorming health innovations and meeting new people. It was an inspiring week, but I was exhausted and stressing about returning to the office. I was probably talking about The Busy Trap. And, my new friend, Rachel Sklar looked me in the eye and saying, "Why are you giving away your expertise for free?" And, something in me changed.

Honestly, setting up a consulting business sounded insurmountable. Would people even pay me? What the hell would I charge? I don't have time to set up a website? Hell, I barely know *how* to do HTML...

Listen... there are a million reasons to put something off, but Rachel urged me to set a rate and gain control over this part of my life. I went back home and talked to my boss who was supportive as long as it was ok with our organization's general counsel's office. Our ethics lawyer told me that as long as I don't do it on work-time or with a competitor, I'm good to go.

Now what?

I set a rate in my head and when people asked me for help, I'd nervously say, "Great, I'm consulting on the side now. Let me know if you're interested and what you'd like to achieve." To my shock, that lead to, "Great, we want to do/learn X. What's your rate?" And just like that, I had my first clients.

What to charge?

One thing I've learned is that there's no right answer on rates. I'd advise to figure out what your hourly rate is for your salary and then double it. After all, if you have to take vacation time or miss dinner with your friends to finish a project, it needs to be worth your time.

As time goes on you will figure out if it would take more money - or a cause/product that you are passionate about - for you to spend your personal time talking about work.

How does it feel?

Honestly, it's still hectic. But I choose more purposefully how I use my time. If its someone or something that I truly care about, sometimes I still do it pro bono. But it's definitely cut down on the requests from people who want free advice or information for their clients (who have budgets.)

If you're on the fence, talk to your boss, talk to people you respect (hell, you can talk to me for $5 a minute) and just go do it.

What do I wish I had known?

  • Read Lean In. Seriously. I wish I had read it a decade ago.
  • Update your social networks. Google yourself. You are your brand. Make sure it's reflected.
  • Consider applying to be a part of the Clarity consulting network. 
  • If you aren't ready to build a web page, consider About.me 
  • Connect to networks like, The List (for women entrepreneurs, digital media innovators and general awesome people), Levo League or other groups that will support you, introduce you to people and give you advice.
  • Read this post on how to set your rate by Everygirl.
  • Talk to your accountant, if you have one, about how this will affect your taxes.
  • Need to do face-to-face meetings, but travel is a challenge? I use Google Hangouts daily for my team meetings, trainings and consultations. It's so much more personal than a phone call - and you can screen share, play videos, take polls, chat and more.
  • Speaking of Google, don't forget to list yourself as a small business so that people searching for your skill set in your area can find you.
  • Need legal documents, invoices, etc? Legalzoom was fast, easy and affordable. Once I downloaded the initial document, I customized for my needs.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing - this has certainly been a challenge in my life, and have instead retracted from what is a truly energizing and creative space. Perhaps it's time to rethink. Any client is fortunate to have your expertise at any rate!

Lauree Ostrofsky said...

Hi Tammy - great post, and love your suggestions at the end. I may copy your $5/minute offer! Fantastic idea.

The real point I'm seeing in all of this is to just do it. Put out there what you want and see what happens. You did it, and now look where you are.

Re: rates, my coaching professor said once that she charged whatever she could say out loud without throwing up. I used that a few times, especially when starting out. When I could barely say the price I knew I was at the right level, especially because other people didn't bat an eye at it.

Re:becca said...

I swear we are twins separated at birth....

Lisa Shapiro said...

Congratulations, Tammy! I'd love to know more about what makes someone a Social Media Strategist. I wonder if I have what it takes to learn.

Laurie said...

I'm about to jump into this myself in a more organized way, and this is the most useful post I've read in this process. Thank you so much.

Sonya said...

Fabulous!! I also use a great tool called Schedulicity to set appointments.. This I will check out the Clarity Network.

Shaw Girl said...

This is a damn important post and I am so happy you wrote it. Equally as happy to hear you're finally taking the leap to consulting. You are a whiz and you should be compensated for your amazing badassery!

Next time you're in NYC, let me know!