Setting Boundaries for Sharing Freely

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how sharing my expertise for free ultimately helps me earn more money as a consultant. Being generous with your knowledge builds your reputation and helps prospective clients find and trust you. However, it’s only possible to do that if you have some limits. Setting boundaries on when and how I share freely means I try to strike a balance between helping others and still being able to pay my mortgage. In general, I try to give away my expertise when multiple people benefit and the advice applies to a range of situations. If someone needs personalized advice for a specific situation or project, that’s when it crosses the line and becomes paid coaching or consulting.

Setting Boundaries for Sharing Freely
AI-generated image: A woman sits inside a single large bubble working on a laptop. Around her are flying multiple objects representing tasks and projects, but they all stay outside the bubble.

The image above was created in Ideogram and edited in Affinity Designer.

One-to-many interactions are (usually) free

For my own boundaries, I usually follow a guideline that most one-to-many interactions are free. That is, if I as a single person am sharing with many others, it’s probably not going to cost the audience anything.

One-to-many interactions include:

  • Writing blog posts
  • Podcast interviews
  • Free webinars
  • Low-cost webinars (like local ATD chapters)
  • LinkedIn and other social media

Local ATD chapters sometimes charge a little bit for webinars and special events, or it’s covered by their member fees. For those, no one is making a huge profit, so I don’t mind doing them for free.

Exceptions for sharing with groups

Paid courses

The most obvious exception is my paid courses. Those have a small cohort of participants (no more than 30) so I can provide a significant amount of individual feedback. Even though I’m working with a group, there’s a lot of one-on-one interaction. Within my branching scenario courses, participants create a scenario, delivering part of it each week and building it over time. I personally review and provide feedback on every one of those assignments, and that’s time consuming. While there is specialized content within the paid courses that I don’t share elsewhere to keep the value of the course higher, much of what people are paying for in a course is that individualized feedback and coaching.

In-person conferences and events

If I need to travel to an event, I have to pay for my hotel and airfare. That means there’s still a cost involved for me. Yes, it’s all a business expense, but I’m still a one-person company. Part of the tradeoff for that is getting a free registration to the conference. In that case, the conference registration is the “payment” (and given the cost of conferences, that’s not an insignificant amount–often $1500 or more). So, while it isn’t technically income, there is some payment involved. At a conference, I’m also getting value through networking and for my own professional development.

Customized for specific audiences

When I do customized workshops and presentations for organizations, those are generally paid. If I need to spend 10+ hours adapting an existing presentation or workshop for specific audience, that’s a larger investment on my part. In those situations, even though I’m presenting or teaching a group, that’s a paid engagement.

One-to-one interactions and creating deliverables are paid

For the most part, if people want one-to-one interactions or for me to create some deliverable, those are paid.

Creating elearning and other deliverables

If you want me to create something for you, that’s pretty clearly a consulting project. I typically do a free discovery call at the beginning of the process, and then I send a proposal and we have an agreement for payment based on the scope. It’s usually pretty clear what’s a paid project, and I don’t get requests to do those for free. That boundary is pretty clear.

“Pick my brain” requests

I will generally answer specific questions via email or message for free. If I write up even several paragraphs in a response to a question, I can often reuse some of that answer in a blog post. Therefore, that’s OK to do for free.

But if someone wants a phone call to “pick my brain,” that’s generally a paid call. For example, I send a link to pay per minute for calls to software vendors who ask for a 15-minute chat for market research and my feedback on their tool. Most of them aren’t far enough along in development to have any budget for market research, and that’s fine. When they get further in development, then they can come back to me and I’ll do a paid call, or they can talk to someone else who doesn’t get so many of these requests.

By the way, if you’re making these sorts of requests to people for information, please read the advice here about how to make your “pick your brain” requests more reasonable. Do some research first and ask specific questions rather than vague questions. It’s obvious when someone sends a message without doing a quick search on my blog first. In those cases, I just send a link to the relevant blog post in my reply without much else. If someone doesn’t invest much effort in the question, I’m not going to invest much effort in my reply.

Individual coaching

I also provide one-on-one coaching. When people need specific advice tailored to their specific situation, rather than the general advice I share elsewhere, that’s when it hits the boundary of becoming paid coaching. When I do coaching calls, it’s either for a single hour of conversation or for a small time period like 5 hours total over several weeks. My coaching is usually either for helping someone with their ID career (transitioning into the field, looking for a new job, planning how to upskill) or for specific advice on a project.

Sometimes someone just needs a little help to get “unstuck” on a project or get past a specific roadblock or decision, so a single hour of coaching can provide that solution. They don’t need to hire me to create a whole project for them, but they do need really hyper-specific advice.

Boundaries evolve over time

Earlier in my career, I did more free one-on-one calls, portfolio reviews, interviews for students, etc. I had the time to do that. But at some point, I started to get a lot more of those requests. There was even a trend of people asking for free long-term mentoring for a while (which thankfully seems to have died down now). It reached a point where I needed to be more deliberate and clear about setting boundaries and having limits for what I would do for free.

Your boundaries?

Setting boundaries is inherently very personal. What works for me might not work for you.

For example, plenty of other folks in the field are willing and able to do the occasional free interview with a grad student. There’s also a group of free mentors through L&D Shapers.

It’s also different for me as an independent consultant than if I was a salaried employee. It’s easy for me to set up payments and to invoice people, and the need to have billable hours is more obvious. For salaried employees, it may make sense to do more free work.

How do you set your boundaries? Do you have intentional limits on when and how you work for free, or do you decide based on each individual situation? Let me know in the comments.

Leave a Reply