Never give the secrets of your trade away for free. It’s a view I had drummed into me by a previous boss who thought that pretty much any idea on collaborative thinking was a fools errand and a fast way to throw away competitive advantage.
Turns out that this was just about the worst piece of advice I have ever received.
Let me lay out the case that there is indeed such a thing as a free lunch. Yes, you really can give something with no apparent or immediate sense of return.
Sticking with a culinary theme, have you ever heard of: Gordon Ramsey, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson. Of course you have. And why? Probably because you’ve seen them on TV, giving their culinary secrets away for free.
Rather than losing competitive advantage by broadcasting their ideas they are a great deal wealthier than they would have been had they jealously guarded the art of mastication.
It’s a point well made about US super chefs by 37signals.com in their “What’s your cookbook?” blog: “The more they give, the better off they are. The more they open up, the better off they are. The more they let you inside their kitchen the better off they are. These chefs have built empires by making their knowledge available to the public.”
A pièce de résistance of good advice I would venture. What’s more it’s not only the chefs who are at it.
A related point was put to me by a tennis coach, “Just because I give you a tennis racket it doesn’t make you Rafael Nadal.” A cruel blow to my sporting prowess but a bitter truth nonetheless. For the lesson was clear: if I wanted the skill I needed to learn it.
You see, there is a devilish fact in business, as there is in life, and that is that the more I know, the more help I need. The better I become, the more I need people to help me keep it up.
It’s for this reason that businesses need to get a bit savvier at giving ideas away, not out of some misplaced sense of noblesse oblige, but because it is a sure fire way to help you along the road to success.
A big barrier to achieving this mindset is simple confidence in your own abilities. If the magician shows you how to perform the trick then the magic is surely over?
Not a bit of it. Truth is, if you give some things away you are likely to make yourself more, not less, essential.
My own sector is public relations. At the pitch stage we give away pitch documents that more often than not have tens of thousands of pounds of completely free IP that we share in order to get the business.
Many in the consultancy sector think we should charge for this as our advice could be used without us. I disagree. Chances are those ideas couldn’t bedelivered with the same sense of vision, flair or expertise as those who originated them.
In turn, in a world where knowledge really is power, it is the originator who stands best placed to reap rewards – at least most of the time.
The world is changing. Businesses once stood as island fortresses defending against ideas such as “free” and “collaboration”. Today those ideas are undone because open and sharing styles of business have stormed their shores.
Take the tech sector. Lots of free stuff here. I love the idea of hackathons where programmers intensively collaborate on software projects, using the power of up to a week of collective talent to crack problems.
Or the idea of freemium pricing, where digital products and services are provided free of charge, but a premium is charged for advanced features, functionality, or related products and services.
I read a great musicblog, New Music Strategies, where the author gave this advice to an artist: “You’ll find it very hard to make money if all you do is give things away. But equally it’s very hard to make money unless you give things away.”
So, my advice to you is to put pen to paper and give something good away for free.
I write a lot. I don’t write for money, because I don’t charge for it. But I’ve certainly made money because of it. The more I give away my ideas the more I get to charge for what I do: my time, my advice, my creativity.
That’s enough of the free ideas. What’s for dinner?
Michael Hayman is co-founder of the public relations consultancy Seven Hills.
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