How to Handle the “Brain Pickers”

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This post is dedicated to the service providers: writers, publicists, web designers, graphic artists, marketing consultants and others who want to help businesses succeed. We are the ones who want to rescue David from Goliath, i.e., help the little guy. Am I preaching to the choir when I say that there are some new business owners you ought to avoid at all costs, because even though their market presence cries out for help, they may not be ready, willing and able to pay for advice.

Let me tell you a story.

My anti-hero’s name has been changed to disguise the identity of a solopreneur who doesn’t do the work (whether through design or lack of know-how), and then complains he’s not getting enough leads. Let’s call him Nullen, of the firm Nullen Void. Nullen is an amalgam. Have you met him yet?

He’s a nice enough guy, really, but at heart, he’s a slacker. He barely squeaked by in college, never cracked a textbook until the night before an exam. He got his girlfriends and starving student ghostwriters to write his papers for him. Professors cut him slack because he was on the football team. He’s a firm believer in his own “likeability,” and has been trading off of it for years to get what he wants from people.

After years of working in middle management jobs for a series of small service businesses, Nullen decided to start his own business. He does just enough work to pay the bills, though he often dreams of bigger things. He puts in an 8-hour day, five days a week, doing paperwork, getting his annual CEU credits, hanging out in local leads groups (getting leads, but not giving much), answering the phone when it rings, hoping it’s a new client, and little else.

But the phone rings less and less these days, and he’s become increasingly frustrated, because suddenly, it’s not easy anymore to get new business. He had to do something to drum up business, so he called me for a free, 30-minute consultation to “pick my brains.” (That’s code for someone who wants your advice but doesn’t expect to have pay for it. Good old Nullen.) He invited me for lunch and offered to pick up the tab, which is a first for him. And he played the, “You’re an old friend, and you’re brilliant” card. He almost sounded like he was begging, which is also a first. So I took pity on him and agreed to meet. Maybe he’d since realized the world wasn’t beating a path to his door, and maybe our pal, Nullen, was growing up. Maybe this time, he has a budget.

Before our meeting, I researched Nullen’s internet presence, knowing what I’d probably find. Sadly, I was correct.

Nullen’s social media is a ghost town

I found him on Facebook and LinkedIn. He posts occasionally (not personally, however), mostly curated content. Most posts have two or three likes, always the same people who work at the social media firm he hired because they were cheap. The posts are inane, either with little relevance to his business or not noteworthy in any sense. Whomever is posting on Nullen’s behalf has little understanding of the business he’s in and/or the audience he’s trying to reach. Further, evidence suggests that Nullen isn’t engaging with anyone on social media—there are no “likes” or “comments” from him on anyone else’s posts. What he’s done, obviously, has handed over the keys to student drivers.

Nullen doesn’t understand social media. He never studied it, never tried to figure out what channels are most strategic for him. He just figured it’s something he ought to be involved with, because everybody’s doing it. In truth, he doesn’t believe in it and thinks it has no value. It’s like sausage, he figures. He doesn’t need to know what goes in it. And so, he doesn’t participate. Too much work, anyway.

His LinkedIn profile is glaringly incomplete. No summary. No descriptions of his previous positions. His photo is obviously a crop job. I can see a friend’s disembodied hand on his shoulder.

When he buys me lunch, I will give him the “you’ve got to engage if you want your social media to be effective” speech. I will ask him why he’s using social media in the first place and what he hopes to gain. And I will say, “No, Nullen, I will not do it for you, unless you’re willing to pay my going rate.” Brain pickers usually run away at this point.

His web site is static

His home page seems to say, “Move along folks; there’s nothing to see here.” In the “about us” section, he lists his products and services but tells us nothing about who he is. There’s very little substance, no interesting content, no blog, no newsletter.

The red flags were everywhere. I don’t need to look at the rest of his marketing communications to know that Nullen is just phoning it in. I’ll let him buy me lunch, give him my dime-store advice, then walk away, hoping to have made a difference.

Have you encountered people like this in your search for clients? How do you handle requests from people who want to “pick your brains?”