Can I have $500?

One of the interesting things about being a consultant or entrepreneur is that people ask you for that kind of money all the time. I was reminded of this recently while catching up with a friend who (unlike me) is still involved in the daily work of running a web company. My friend had just received what I think of as a “can I have $500?” email, by which I mean an email that asks something like:

“I’d like your advice on my project. Do you have time to meet this week?”

“Would you be part of a brainstorming meeting with our team?”

“Can I take you to lunch and pick your brain?”

When you send an email like this to someone who earns their living by the billable hour, you’re asking them to give you money. When I was running Social Signal full-time, giving someone a couple of hours of my time cost me $500: the $500 I wasn’t billing during that time.

One of the delights of focusing our work on projects with an environmental or social benefit is that I usually feel like my donated time is helping make the world a better place. Many of the people who were (implicitly) asking me for $500 were doing so on behalf of organizations or projects that are largely donor funded. In giving my time, I became one more donor.

It’s in the nature of running a business that you have lots of conversations with lots of people, only some of which will turn into actual paying work. We all need to invest a certain amount of time in leads that turn cold, in developing relationships for their own sake, in providing other up-and-comers with the kind of advice and insight that generous business people once shared with us.

But there is a big difference between meeting with a consultant to assess whether you want to hire her, and asking her to simply give you a couple of hours to do the work you need. When you are talking to someone whose work includes analyzing problems, offering insight or making recommendations, “picking their brain” is the same as asking them to work for free.

Sometimes that is appropriate. Sometimes you really would ask someone for $500, because you are working on a worthy cause that depends on donations, and you are approaching someone who you think might share your belief in that cause. Sometimes you really would ask someone for $500 because you have a personal relationship, or think they’d be excited about your project, or because you really really need their help and just don’t have the means to pay for it.

Just be crystal clear about what you are asking. If you wouldn’t ask someone to contribute $500 in cash to your project, don’t ask for $500 of their time. And if you do want to ask for that time, make your request with the same care and courtesy you would put into asking for a cash contribution. Make it clear you realize you are asking for a favor. Locate and schedule your date at their convenience, not yours. Pay for the lunch or the coffee, as a gesture of appreciation; don’t think you are paying someone for their time. Ask how you can reciprocate, or look for an opportunity — maybe with a referral or a speaking invitation. Take the time to plan how you will use this donated hour effectively, and send a thank-you email that explains the difference that time has made.

That sensitivity isn’t just a matter of being courteous or considerate of the consultants and entrepreneurs you are approaching. It’s a mental shift that will help you make the most of the time and meetings people do give you for your projects. It will change how you see an hour of your own time.

Even though I no longer live by the billable hour, the experience of earning a living as a consultant still affects how I see both my time and others’. (It probably helps that I still do enough work with Social Signal that the billable hour isn’t entirely an abstraction.)  When someone asks for an hour of my time, I think not only about whether that hour would be genuinely useful to them (usually, though not always, I think it would) but abut the opportunity costs that hour represents. Who else could I help with that time? What projects could I move forward? Will that hour require me to move other work into my evening hours, in a way that affects my family? All these questions help to focus my time on the meetings and projects where I can help remove a bottleneck or solve a problem for someone in a way that saves hours or days of their time.

The billable hour isn’t a tyrant that should keep us from helping one another. It’s a discipline that ensures we all appreciate the pro bono help that so many consultants and entrepreneurs generously provide.

Do you have trouble saying no to requests for your time? Read 4 ways your computer can help you protect your time.