Should We Give Advice for Free?

Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

Great. She’s gone all Sunscreen again. Well, not quite. There comes a time in every entrepreneur’s life, or indeed, parent’s, when they become the go-to for friendly words of counsel.

I’m not a parent, so I guess that makes me an ‘entrepreneur’. In recent weeks, people have been asking me for advice. Me. She who cannot fry an egg. To name a few:

  • The lovely Samantha Vandersteen of Red Boots Marketing asked about freelancing
  • A chap in Colombia messaged to ask about switching careers
  • Somebody filled out an actual contact form and asked me how to start #Write52.

adviceThe pros and cons of offering advice

It’s a tricky balance. On the one hand, somebody asking you outright is quite the confidence boost. Is there a better feeling than knowing they succeeded thanks to your tips?

On the other hand, there are commercial dangers. How can you tell the difference between a valuable exchange and somebody who’s just out to rip you off? If you’re revealing the tricks of the trade, are you, like poor Phoebe here, shooting yourself in the foot?

I spoke to six experts to find out. Nobody charged.

“Importance and value”

Between accountants, videographers and marketers, there was a resounding theme – others have helped them, so they should do the same. Sam Borrett, MD at legal marketing agency Legmark, says:

I love being able to help people with my knowledge. I still get advice from mentors, so I know the importance and value of doing likewise for others.

It’s particularly rewarding when we consider that not everybody has the same privileges. Leanne Gunns, founder of Excel Accountancy Norwich, says: “I think everyone deserves a chance to make their life better, whether they’re from diverse backgrounds or deprived areas, have disabilities, or just face difficulties in general.”

Indeed, for some, it’s this lack of advantage that spurs them on. Videographer Josh Gudgeon says: “I enjoy being able to help people as I had to figure it all out myself.”

Everyone’s a winner

We’d be lying if we said the only incentive was the feelgood factor. There are, of course, commercial benefits to giving out free advice. Fiona Bradley, founder of FB Comms, says: “I like giving help where I can. One day, I might need their help, or if they need professional services, I’d be the first name they think of!”

Tony Hallett, founder of Collective Content, adds: “I think it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes it leads to good business but more so it’s good to pass on useful advice.”

impart wisdomRaising your profile

In some cases, not only do we impart our wisdom for free; we pay to do so. Take the main image above. On more than one occasion I’ve paid in time or money to dispense advice – be it a podcast, Twitter chat or webinar.

Many of us acknowledge the commercial perks. Jeri Williams, who runs Smooth Accounting, uses multiple channels to guide others — from direct messages to Zoom meetings for aspiring accountants.

Likewise, Leanne Gunns runs a free Facebook group for entrepreneurs, which acts as a portal to paid sessions and other resources.

Then we have designated content, for example, Legmark’s yearly report on law firm marketing or Josh’s YouTube tutorials.

All of this takes up our time, budget, or both. So, when should we say no?

“Favours and free labour”

Helping others may raise our profile or lead to sales, but could it be detrimental to business? My blood boils when I think of an old swindler who led me up the garden path. He told me about his “big plans”.

We spoke on the phone. Emailed. Another phone call. Another. Another. Before long he’d pretty much blagged a whole marketing strategy for free. As soon as I mentioned money…he bolted like Gary Barlow from the taxman.

If only I’d known Fiona at the time. She says: “I post blogs and tips on LinkedIn so that people find my content valuable. If someone I didn’t know well asked for a marketing plan or loads of really specific info, I wouldn’t oblige. There are favours and there’s free labour.”

Jeri adds: “There is always a line, hence why I offer paid webinars. I think you should value your time enough to charge for it.”

Sam suggests taking each situation at its merit, while Josh is blunter. “Some people will take the piss and want it spoon-fed. I don’t like that.” Feels, Josh. Feels.

Forget about the price tag

So, we’ve seen that there’s a commercial line when it comes to advice. At some point, we have to charge. But does a price tag make it more valuable?

“It’s tricky but I would say so. We’ve all downloaded a free guide but never read it, particularly for professional services. Far more of us will want to make a success from something we’ve paid for,” says Leanne.

Josh and Fiona add that paying for advice gets you that much extra – be it more time or more in-depth research. But in some situations, money doesn’t always equal value.

“Sometimes, you’ll have a boss or someone else who thinks that if it’s not paid-for then it can’t be valuable. Context is everything,” says Tony. Indeed, Sam warns that some of the worst advice he’s seen clients act upon was paid-for.

The consequences of counselling

It’s fair to say we shouldn’t advise on that which we know nothing about. Just look at Jez in Peep Show. Not only was his life coaching garbage; he even broke up that poor, fictional couple.

Thankfully, many of us see those warm ‘n’ fuzzy benefits first-hand. Jeri recounts a story in which she mentored an aspiring accountant – leading to a job win. Likewise, Josh and Fiona have seen their marketing guidance in action, and Sam notes marked increases in conversion rates.

That’s not to say that everybody takes our advice. Josh says: “Honestly, you can tell people exactly how to do something yet most still won’t.” Tony adds: “I’ve seen people not take my advice and things go awry. No one’s infallible.”

The winners

Hate to say I told you so. Still, I can hold my hands up and say I wouldn’t be where I am without asking questions. Ellen Forster at Content by the Sea, for example, gave me that final push to go limited.

And what about the others? Jack Hall, who sometimes pops up in my DMs to discuss Cola Bottle Content, says:

I would say there isn’t a single facet of my business that I haven’t asked someone about.

(Apart from the name, of course.)

There’s no shame in asking for it either, as Samantha Vandersteen says. “I used to think it would look bad to ask for help. Now, I don’t think twice.”

Any tips for choosing your mentors? “I don’t ask anyone who’s just going to agree with me or tell me what I already know,” says Jack. “I appreciate candour above anything else. You need to take it on the chin if it’s not what you wanted to hear.”

Samantha adds that it’s all about choosing somebody you trust, admire, or who has the right experience. Now I feel fuzzy again.

You want my advice?

I can’t promise you an epic newsletter a-la-Dave Harland. The rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience:

Give advice if…

  1. You want to nurture beginners.
  2. It has commercial potential.
  3. It raises your profile, for example, podcasts.
  4. You want to see people succeed – they will remember you!

Don’t give advice if…

  1. You’re not qualified. Would a mechanic do that?
  2. You’ve not considered the consequences, Jez. Or…mechanics, come to think of it…
  3. It’s taking up more time than you can afford.
  4. You suspect somebody is out to take advantage.

A huge thanks to all my contributors for their indispensable advice.

Wear sunscreen.

Katie Lingo
by Katie Lingo
7th March 2021