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No. You Can’t Pick My Brain. (kickingsand.com)
34 points by Adrock on Feb 28, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments

Time is a limited resource, so it makes sense to at least have some type of filter. Beyond that, I found this article to irritate me and to be complete shit. You NEVER know who someone is or even will be. Jobs and Woz were a bunch of weird hippies and Zuck was a college kid who came up with a new idea every few weeks. Keep your door open and always take the time to give some advice to those who ask for it. Karma can be a bitch, but it can also be a blessing. You never know when you'll need help.

On top of it, blog as much smart shit as you can. It will spread and odds are it will impact someone's life. A month ago or so, someone emailed me with the subject: You don't know me, but thank you. He read my article on email newsletters, and it was finally the push he needed to leave his job + start his first startup. He's doing really well so far. I'm by no means popular at all. I can't imagine the impact guys like PG have had, but it has to be tremendous. We need to keep spreading our ideas and encouraging people. Selflessness and the goal to see more entrepreneurs succeed is why our industry wins. We all started from nothing, never ever forget that.

Long live Rajeev's rule.

"When any sincere individual or group of people asks for my assistance in pursuit of their business dream, I will strive to help them in any way that I can, be it small or large."

Agreed. Altruism is rarely ever a bad thing. The issue is balancing the time requirements for charitable ventures and those for personal advancement.

Can we be honest for a second, it's almost never true altruism when you meet with someone to talk. I've been on both sides and in either case you almost always have some sort of potential benefit from it. That person might lead you to something good just as much as you might lead them to something good. I don't know everyone they know or everything they've done (if I did, I probably wouldn't be talking to them).

I found this article to irritate me

Amen to that. The problem is that this article makes us feel like suckers, because we do do things for free. However her entire argument hinges upon the assertion that

  As [compassionate people] 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. 
which, for us, is plain false. It's not that we're affraid to ask for compensation: we're not even considering that option. We don't want compensation. We love to help think through complex situations and puzzles.

The actual quote is, "As women (and compassionate people everywhere) ..."

"As women"?

That's irritating. Why the distinction? Are women different?

Some women believe that being polite or kind is tantamount to being a doormat. Such diseased thinking is apparently caused by a course in women's studies or speed reading self-help books.

It's strange that the author never mentions the conflict between the "Pay Me" idea and her initial anecdote. It sounds like Debra Cohen spent several hours talking to her and even gave her a copy of her book - all for free! Based on Jordan's post and Cohen's comment, it was a positive experience for both of them. Would either of them be better off if Cohen decided to save her conversation for paying customers?

Update: I posted this comment on the original article, and got a good reply from Nicole Jordan:

"What an excellent comment! Thank you so much because then it opens the floor to re-enforce a very specific point - The time I spent talking with Debra was NOT her giving me advice nor me asking for it. It was two women having a much larger discussion about the challenges that we can face, why I thought her book would resonate with many I knew and my expressing enthusiasm to help promote in my circles when it came out. Which is what I did when it first came out, and am doing again. To me, that is an enormous difference than someone saying to me: “Hey, I’m launching my company in a month and can’t afford any PR but can we go to lunch so I can PYB on how I can do it myself?”"

"When you present an idea to someone 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."

I would venture to say that people have a disproportionate amount of ideas as compared to time to act upon them. People taking your ideas/advice and making money off of them does NOT translate into money out of your bank account. This is the same logic the RIAA is using to prosecute illegal music downloads.

Be a popcorn machine, but don't let them get ahold of your power plug. There is much that we all can give to help each other that will in no way harm our own income or current bank account. Be smart in what you divulge.

I'm not sure there's a right answer on the whole. I wouldn't let some for-profit startup take up lots of my time on what amounts to free consulting, but you can err the other way easily. A lot of people overvalue their ideas, and while some are really a killer idea that maybe they should keep to themselves, I think on the whole "ideas are cheap". There are thousands of these idea-popcorn-machines. Hundreds of them are even bloggers, giving those ideas away for free--- and despite giving them away to anyone, most still won't pan out.

It's not quite the same thing, but it's a common bit of advice given to junior faculty to basically give away as many ideas as possible. People sometimes think they have one or two great ideas that will make their career, but if you're at all plugged in you soon have literally hundreds of potentially great ideas, and the bottleneck is doing the work to see if they pan out. Nobody is going to pay you just for the raw ideas; it actually goes the other way, you have to pay people to try them out (which is why postdocs and research scientists get paid).

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.

Your time is valuable, and needs to be protected from people who want to take it without giving you anything. Ideas, OTOH, are worthless without ability and perseverance to actually turn them into something. Don't be an idea rat - share your stupid ideas and the person you share it with might improve it for you.

I get asked a lot to chat with people about their new payments startup. I'm generally interested in new ideas, so I am definitely interested. But the conversation won't last too long unless there is genuine innovation there (which isn't usually the case for them - yet), or the company understands that it needs to be mutually beneficial.

Some folks just don't know better. Others basically want every piece of data from Tipjoy for free. The former is excusable, and the latter is maddening.

I try to get pretty quickly and transparently to talk about becoming an advisor, but I don't think I've found my groove yet.

My personal hack to stay open without losing too much work time is 'office hours'. I try to accept every request for a chat, but schedule everything on a Tuesday. Maker's schedule style, my day is shot anyway with the 3 or 4 must-have weekly meetings, so filling up the day with another 5 or 6 doesn't hurt my productivity. It does leave me pretty shattered if I get that many of course!

Nicole's points seem to waver between / be both:

- Don't give ideas away, they're valuable, and your creative skills should be as valued as much as a lawyer's legal skills.


- Giving ideas to people when they're not going to give you anything if they do well with them is letting yourself be taken advantage of.

I'll leave the former to others, but I think the latter, especially, really misses the point that getting compensation isn't the only way to benefit from helping people. Nicole talks about the tendency of women "(and compassionate people)" to like to help, but not value their help enough to ask for compensation.

I think a related tendency, especially when women feel that they have to project an image of being ultra-capable / self-sufficient within the startup world, is to not ask for others to give / reciprocate favors. It's not a bad thing to ask for people you've helped in the past to help you.

As a woman who gave away lots of advice/information for free for many years and didn't get much back, I can sympathize with part of her point about "Pay me". I am still trying to figure out how to monetize what I have to offer. It's clear that I do some things very well that other people usually don't do so well and that there is a "market" for what I know. But, yes, I feel like I've been used and I don't like it. I feel that way in part because I have had people give me flak for having ads on my websites. There does seem to be more expectation that women are supposed to just give away their time, energy and knowledge than there is for men. I'm a person with a generous nature but I'm becoming rather burned out and cynical. So far, being kind-hearted and generous hasn't done anything to solve my financial problems or further my career goals, at least not that I can tell. I sometimes wish I could grab someone by the collar and go "What is the goddam SECRET???!!!" Of course, that wouldn't get me anywhere.

In short, I can understand why a woman would post this point of view. Men frequently complain about having to pay child support in a divorce. In such discussions, both men and women seem to largely overlook the fact that it costs women a great deal more financially than it does men when kids come in to the picture. Women have lowered salaries, take more time off to care for the kids, lose out on career opportunities, and it is generally assumed that if she has a kid and gets a job, the child-care expenses are part of "her" costs of having a job (not "their" cost or "his" costs). I think this underlying assumption probably influences a lot of social transactions, from both sides: Other people assume "she" is supposed to give out of goodness and not expect anything in return, and "she" assumes she can't ask for anything in return either and/or doesn't know how to do so effectively. I think women are probably going to continue to struggle with this thorny issue for many years to come. We definitely don't have gender equality yet.

I get ten-ish emails a week from people who literally use the phrase "pick your brain"

Do you refuse them?

I used to meet, especially when I was between jobs. Some good meetings, but a lot of people were confused and confusing.

Now, I generally ask them to write the questions in an email.

... and then get accused of being blunt?

Bizarrely, I am almost always thanked for my opinions. Moreso when I am harsher and more blunt.

I have to disagree. I find the more I share ideas and advice, the more I get in return. The free flow of ideas benefits the giver as well as the receiver. As an added bonus, the more good advice I can give and the more ideas I can share, the more ideas and advice come my way.

You could make an argument that once you've "made it" this exchange becomes asymmetrical. However, I'm grateful for those interactions I've had with people who have "made it" and wouldn't begrudge that to others when/if I have.

I'm reminded of a quote from Howard Aiken:

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats."

It's a market question. Is there a market for your ideas? Is your time in demand? Then you can charge what the market will support.

But it's also a social question, one of balance. Even if your ideas have a good market value, where's the harm in a little free advice? The harm is only in an unreasonable amount of free advice. If you're a smart person whose ideas mean a lot to others, it's only being a good neighbor to offer a quick opinion on a few things if you aren't busy. But by the same token, a good neighbor only asks within reason.

eh, for me, building a 'personal brand' has been really important, and giving free advice is one way to get that. (well, if you are trying to build a brand as a person who knows a lot about X, giving free (good) advice about X to people who are likely to talk about you is a good place to start.) But then, I'm a product business, and I'm in an industry where marketing is the dominant cost, so having a personal brand monetizes well, and without much extra effort on my part.

This runs counter to "Rajeev's rule" which I quite like.

Ideas and advice are worthless without execution. This is why so many successful people are perfectly happy to have their brains picked.

IMO, the best strategy is to develop a very rapid & robust "cluelessness filter". I don't get many requests to pick my brain via email but it does happen a lot face to face. At networking events, the first 30 seconds of my interaction with someone is essentially focused on testing for cluelessness.

If it's clearly worthless to have a conversation with them, I'll disengage and politely decline further requests to meet up. If there's even a spark of something interesting, I'll generally meet the again for coffee and the half hour of one-on-one time determines whether they're worth regularly touching base with.

I don't know how to do it via email, maybe ask them to set an agenda for the meeting before you agree to do it and use their reply to that as a filter.

I've gone to enough startup events that I really don't feel guilty anymore outright snubbing the clueless. There's a virtually 100% certainty that they won't amount to much of anything so why waste your mental energy on them.

Seems like VC/angels have a good set up: it is in their interest to have their brains picked by the people running the companies they invest in. Rather than ask for direct compensation, maybe this person should ask for a stake in an opportunity.

Excellent post.

So here's a question, why don't you pick their brain back?

I'm intrigued with the idea of having a /conversation/ with someone over coffee and not being able to get anything in return out of them. It is almost as if they are asking her to coffee and then interrogating her, (which doesn't seem to be a very good ebb and flow of a conversation anyway). If these really are intelligent people, they must have something of intellectual value to offer in return.

If they are actually looking for a consultation, make it clear what your fees are. I think that that would be polite and maybe even an easy way to make some cash. That, or make sure that they take you out to a really nice place for dinner.

I would have to expect that if you were giving the advice away, and it is helpful advice, you might be able to better negotiate a favor out of the person at a later time. It might be a good idea to keep a record of these types of meetings.

Disclaimer: No one ever asks to pick my brain, but if I were asking to pick someone's brain, I would expect some sort of quid pro quo...

I think there is the expectation of quid pro quo, but that the vast majority of people asking to pick your brain don't have a lot to offer. I started getting asked this as soon as I started a company and it took me awhile to feel confident saying no. I felt like, who am I to strut around like my time is so valuable?

But from experience I've learned to be extremely wary. There's been a class of people who aggressively tried to push me off of my idea and into working for their secret idea (seriously, they would try to keep it secret). There was a class of people who thought that meeting might lead to some sort of business--but it never does. Then there's the class of people who want a partnership where we do free work up front and then they make some small amount of money down the road (and I never see how we make any). Looking back--the highlight was talking to people who had just left failing companies because it helps explain what not to do.

What happens when you are so well read that the only way you will benefit from the conversation is if they are in an entirely different area, and one that you are currently upskilling on? That may sound arrogant, but imagine trying to have a quid pro quo conversation with a rails noob about rails, after many years of constant rails apps. It's a purely one way conversation, and the same thing applies to any field.

I think that is a good question, but I assume that as a rails noob you probably had some mentor(s?) who pointed you in the right direction when you did stupid noob stuff. (Even if you learn mostly through books and blogs like I do, your knowledge is still beholden to someone else's instruction).

Maybe the exchange is an understanding that when the person you are teaching is an expert, he will pass on the information to another person.

That is a higher level exchange than the quid pro quo exchange, as it is more of a communal sharing of intellectual resources. Sometimes there is information that is important above and beyond its utility to me. It is important for me to share it.

Which I suppose gives an insight into why I feel the way that I do about intellectual property. Yes, it is important that people are rewarded and compensated for their hard work and effort put into researching new things, but the real reason that you research and learn new things is so that you can pass it on.

We're social animals, and we shouldn't let go of that.

"the real reason that you research and learn new things is so that you can pass it on."

That's not why I do it at all. I love knowing things that others don't, and use that knowledge as competitive advantage.

What a load of bollocks.

- If you don't like the person don't help, don't talk, walk away. Save your time.

- If you are not going to execute the idea give it to someone else so at least you'll help the world to be a better place (assuming you are not working on efficiency of drug smuggling)

- If you are going to do the idea yourself you don't say it to anyone, obviously!

- If you like the person and if you are not going to do the idea by yourself and still refuse the share ideas. "What's your problem?"

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