A couple of years ago, I was facing a significant issue with how my free time was being spent. MarketBeat was growing like a weed and I had become involved in a variety of non-profit volunteer roles. At the same time, I was getting all sorts of requests for coffee, lunches and other meetings where people wanted to ask me for business advice. Honestly, it was overwhelming. There were some weeks where I had as many 20 different meetings in a week and 5-10 different requests from people that wanted to have coffee and “pick my brain.”
At the time, the solution that I had come up was to charge a fee for the “Can I pick your brain?” coffees. The thought was my knowledge and advice have an economic value for business owners, so I should be able to filter out people that aren’t serious about their business by charging a fee to meet with me and get my business advice. For about a month, I responded to anyone that wanted to pick my brain with a pre-written message that was along the lines of “I’m unable to offer free advice due to constraints on my time, here’s a link to book a paid coaching session if you’re interested.” I even had a few people take me up on the offer, but I didn’t feel great about those business relationships.
Helping People for the Sake of Helping People
Helping entrepreneurs launch their business is not an endeavor for those seeking profit. In fact, I probably spend $20,000 to $30,000 each year of my own money to run Startup Sioux Falls and sponsor a variety of business and startup events in my community each year. I’ve always been doing “the entrepreneurship thing” because I genuinely want to help people see how starting and growing a business can positively change their lives and the lives of those around them. I just didn’t feel good about asking people for money when they were trying to get their businesses off the ground. Entrepreneurs that are starting businesses should be leveraging whatever capital they have to launch their business, not paying a coach to tell them what to do. Plus, I didn’t need the money anyway. After about a month, the experiment of paid coaching came to an end and I started giving people free advice again.
Since then, I’ve been giving advice to pretty much anyone that asks for it. In order to keep my schedule under control, I’ve put a cap on the number of these meetings that I’m willing to take in a week. If I already have a total of ten meetings on my calendar in a week, I simply schedule any additional meetings on my calendar for the following week. Sometimes I get booked out a few weeks at a time. It hasn’t been a problem though because it’s hard for people to say “I need to meet with you right now” when you are meeting them to give them advice in exchange for literally nothing in return.
I’ve also expanded the number of things that I give away for free. I’ve given away hundreds of copies of my books at Zeal, to college students and to pretty much anyone else that says they want a copy of my book. One of my books is completely free on Amazon in e-book format and I’m toying with the idea of making them all free on Amazon. The videos, blogs and other content I produce on MattPaulson.com are given away totally for free with no kind of paywall or membership fee. I don’t charge for any of my in-person events, such as the Startup Sioux Falls Social we are having in September. I like helping people and I don’t need their money, so I’ve simply made everything I do as free as possible for the end consumer.
The Challenge I Have with Professional Coaches, Experts, and Gurus
There are a lot of people that make money under the notion of helping someone else launch their businesses. There are local business coaches that offer professional coaching relationships, a variety of training programs and online courses, and full-time content creators that teach other people how to achieve business success. While many of these experts are genuinely trying to help people, there are somewhat strange financial incentives at play. When you put money into a mentoring, teaching or coaching relationship, the financial incentives change, and the mentor and mentee can become out of alignment.
Coaches make money when their clients book more coaching sessions with them, not when their clients have business success. Business gurus make more money when you buy more of their books and other products, not when you’ve made it in business. Online course creators make more money when their customers buy more online courses, not when their customers achieve business success as a result of what they’ve learned in their courses. The dirty little secret in the online education space is that 90% of people that buy online courses never complete them. This means 90% of the people that pay them ultimately derive no value from their product. Ouch.
The coaching and training industry needs to figure out how to better align itself with the goals of its customers. Ideally, coaches and trainers would get paid when their clients are successful. If a coach’s clients aren’t successful and the client receives no value, should they be making money off them in the first place? Maybe not. I don’t want to find myself in a situation where I’m making money off people under the guise of helping them with their business and have no accountability as to whether or not the people that are paying me are successful, so I’ve simply opted out of the paid advice and training industry entirely. This includes MarketBeat as well, which provides news and research tools to investors, but offers no training courses or professional advice to its customers (although some of our advertisers do).
Inevitably, I will draw some criticism from this post because giving pretty much everything away for free is a luxury that I have that not everyone does. I’ve had significant business success, so it doesn’t really matter if I make money off any business coaching that I do. The uncomfortable corollary to this is that if a business coach hasn’t had significant business success themselves and needs to charge for their advice, one has to wonder how much business advice they should be giving out in the first place. Most of the business leaders I’ve met within Sioux Falls that have done very well for themselves will gladly meet with aspiring entrepreneurs for coffee for free (and usually they’ll pay for the coffee, too!).
Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly some professional coaches that are worth their fee for an ongoing coaching or mentoring relationship. I had really good success getting healthy and losing weight with Chris Buckley who was my health and fitness coach for a time. Unfortunately, there are just as many coaches that I simply could not recommend because they don’t have the prerequisite experience and history of success for the coaching services they are selling.
Why Offering Free Advice is More Profitable Than Selling
My plan is to continue to give away as much as I can for free for as long as I can, primarily because I can help more people that way. I also think I’ll make way more money by building a personal brand and becoming somebody that other successful people want to do business with than I will by simply being yet another guru that sells books and courses about how to build a business online. I’ve had many investment opportunities come my way because of the role that I play in the small business and startup community. I’m not sure if those deals would have made it to my desk had I not built a personal brand as a leader in the local startup ecosystem. Over the last several years, I’ve made numerous investments with individual businesses, private equity firms and non-profits in my community, and I think I’ll see far more rewards, financially, spiritually, and otherwise, from these investments than I would from selling books and courses. It’s too early to tell whether or not this bet will pay off financially, but it’s been a lot of fun hearing people’s stories and encouraging them to move forward over the last several years. For the time being, the price of my expertise and advice is and will continue to be free.