Ever been plugging away at your desk when a random “Can I pick your brain?” email from someone you’ve never heard of (or barely know) pops up?

While the free lunch or drinks might be tempting, some people actually pay for this type of information exchange: It’s called consulting. And unless you like to get paid in spring rolls, you should be asking for cash money.

So from now on, anytime you hear “pick your brain,” envision dollar signs. Here’s how to get paid for what you know.

Recognize the Language of Consulting

While “pick your brain” is perhaps the most obvious (and pervasive) indication that you could be making money off this exchange, other cues are less subtle.

“I do get more long-winded requests for broad advice,” says Ann Friedman, a freelance journalist. “A recent email: ‘I am writing to you with the hope that perhaps you can illuminate a direct path to success in the writing, editing, and media world.’” Some clients have offered to pay her up front for her time, but usually she sees general inquiries or questions on behalf of an institution or company as a consulting opportunity.

Other times, gauging the relationship of the curious party is key.

“When someone you’re not particularly close to presses on the question, ‘But how did you do it?’ it’s usually code for, ‘Tell me step-by-step exactly what you did so that I can do exactly the same and have the same results as you did,’” says Sarah Pappalardo, co-founder of Reductress. “If [their inquiry is] something that can’t be answered by just Googling it, that’s usually a hint that what you know has value. The more you start talking about detailed execution over vision, you’re getting into consulting territory.”

Have a Rate and Monetize Your Time

Figure out what you would charge: Pappalardo suggests asking friends and other consultants in your industry (with more and less experience) to get a ballpark figure.

Friedman, who has a day rate and an hourly rate, recommends asking yourself: “Do you feel good about earning this amount of money for a day’s work? If consulting is taking you away from other work, like writing, how much will you need to make per hour in order to fairly compensate yourself for the time spent consulting?”

However, you should exercise some flexibility. “Adjust your rate based on company size as well as the broad range of rates offered in your particular field,” advises Pappalardo. “Once you know where you stand in terms of experience and what you can offer, ask for 10% more than that. If people really want to work with you, they’ll negotiate with you if you come in a little high.”

If you’re coming from project-based freelancing, it’s imperative to rethink how you earn money.

The “time is money” mantra is especially true here. “Now that I think of consulting as one of my many revenue streams, I’m better about steering certain requests in the direction of paid work,” says Friedman. “I’m trying to shift my thinking about how I’m compensated from how much I’m earning per assignment to how much I’m earning per day or hour. Being able to articulate a baseline day rate has really helped me manage my time better.”

Use Work Terms When Responding to Inquiries

The next time you get a friendly “May we take you to lunch?” email from someone who found you on LinkedIn, reply that you would be happy to work with them—and use the term “work.” Reply with a brief overview of your “consulting business” and what “services” you aim to provide “clients.” Tell them you’d be happy to discuss rates over the phone and get a better idea of their needs.

The trick here is to mirror the interested party’s enthusiasm while introducing very specific professional language to let them know that your ideas come at a price.

Don’t be surprised if you never hear a peep back. Often times self-professed brain pickers aren’t looking to cut checks. You’re better off. But, who knows? Maybe one will write back to say they’d love to be in business with you.

Add a Consulting Page to Your Website

For-hire consulting is not the time to play coy. Your professional website should be reflective of all your for-hire skills, including consulting.

Friedman, who has a “Rent My Brain” section on her website, says that while she doesn’t think a consulting page is necessary for all freelancers, “I’ve found that it’s good to use your personal site to feature everything you do. And everything you’re open to doing, if the price is right.”

While she does not “actively” promote herself as a consultant, acknowledging this skill along with her other professional experience sends an important message: “I added that consulting tab so people would know that this is a service I provide—and, perhaps so that those who ask me for free advice would understand that this is something I usually get paid for.”

And if you’re still too timid to advertise?

“You’re not getting a salary anymore, girl! You can’t afford to not believe in yourself!” says Pappalardo.

Know When, if Ever, to Give Free Advice

Of course, not every question from a friend or someone in your immediate network is cause to send an invoice. Friedman responds to inquires from former colleagues and “up-and-coming journalists who cold-email me” without charge.

“I feel I have a professional obligation to help people who entered the profession later than I did, as well as an obligation to share knowledge with my peers. I am flexible on my rates for friends and people who are doing work I want to support,” she says.

Pappalardo echoes that sentiment: “If the person asking is a close friend, I wouldn’t view it as a consulting opportunity.”

But just because an answer is free doesn’t mean you have to respond immediately. Friedman specifies, “I’m happy to provide my opinions or advice to certain people for free, but I am also protective of my time.” She tends to save a lot of the free requests for when she is on plane or when she can reply to a crop all at once: “I don’t feel pressured to respond in a timely manner. And I almost always say no to in-person meetings or one-on-one calls.”

And remember that just because you’re working for free or at a discount doesn’t mean you can’t ask for something instead of money.

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Updated 6/19/2020