My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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paying to get it, or why people charge $10K

A few years back, i got utterly irate with a friend when he came back from a cult-esque finding yourself seminar. He was convinced he understood the root of all his problems – he had acquired true insight in this program. “Oh really?” i asked, “tell me what you learned.” He then proceeded to tell me things that i had been telling him for years. I wanted to stomp up and down screaming. He hadn’t listened to a damn word i’d said for years but when he paid money to listen to some experts, he suddenly got it. This was the same story with all of my friends and their shrinks – they’d listen to the shrinks tell them exactly what their friends have been saying for years. Only they paid their shrinks (or their insurance did).

Now, a few years later, i have more appreciation for how he got it. Yes, it was about being in a situation where he could hear it, being open to being vulnerable. It was about having “experts” guide him through. But, still, i’ve never gotten over the fact that it took paying a self-help expert to finally hear things that he’d known and his friends had known for years. Why on earth is that revolutionary?

Lately, i’ve been watching this happen again, only in the work sphere. People come back from this obscenely expensive conferences with revelations. My eyebrows get all furrowed and i’m like, yes, i’ve been telling you this for a while now. And i’ve even been writing it down. Publicly. Still, there’s nothing like going to an event where you’re expected to learn and learning, simply by being open. But why on earth can’t people be more open to all forms of knowledge that come to them, not just the ones that they pay dearly for to hear the “experts”?

Part of why this bugs me is that i think that the “experts” (self-included) are overrated. Even when i take on that foolish role, i’m usually exaggerating to make a point, to be heard. And how does one get declared an expert anyhow? I know plenty of people more knowledgeable about a lot of topics than the purported or wheeled around experts. Ah, social networks.

My mentors are always telling me that i need to charge a ridiculous dayrate to be seen as an expert, to be listened to. As much as i would like to make more than student wages, i find this absolutely absurd. I used to make $4.85 an hour and i lived on that – the idea of making $100 an hour seems absurd, yet my friends tell me this is far too low to charge. I almost choked when i found out that one of my mentors charges $10K a day. What on earth can we say that’s worth $10K??

But i think that my frustration is the answer… it’s worth $10K because that’s enough to make the business people wake up and listen, to make them actually pay attention. And that’s why certain conferences cost $5K – people take them seriously at that rate – they actually want to make something out of it. (What does that say about conferences that i go to where people throw a hissy fit when the cost raises from $60 to $75? Ah, academics, how i do love thee.)

Still, as much as i can recognize that this is how the system works, it feels so ludicrous. Sometimes, i’m convinced that i truly do lack the balls to play this game. How on earth do i overcome that if i want to be heard? How do i actually transmit knowledge without having to be an expert ::cough:: pundit? Or is this a system that i really want to support and encourage? What does it mean to walk away from it?

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24 comments to paying to get it, or why people charge $10K

  • Mandy

    I found this site by your ani difranco site. I have been searching and searching, and I was wondering if you could tell me the name of the song that has the lyrics which go:

    “I just want to take a couple of vacc. for my away vacation. I’m gonna go ahead and go boldly because a little bird told me that jumping was easy and falling was fun. Right up until you hit the sidewalk, shivering and stunned.”

    I found these words written on a wall, with the name Ani Difranco under them and have been trying and trying to find the song that they came from. Thanks. – Mandy

    ~ Email me back at singsing416@yahoo.com if you can help me.

  • “How do i actually transmit knowledge without having to be an expert ::cough:: pundit? Or is this a system that i really want to support and encourage? What does it mean to walk away from it?”

    Nothing wrong with being an expert, but you can be the kind of expert you want to be. You don’t have you call yourself anything and let your work speak for itself. You can do all the expert-y things and charge whatever you feel is appropriate. The truth is, you probably won’t feel you’ve gotten very far with someone who feels they need to shell out 10k to get viable information. This isn’t the population that I think you want to be teaching. The best people to teach are the people who are listening.

  • I think, perhaps, you’re confusing what it is people are paying for. They’re not paying for information, they’re paying for reputation. As an academic, this may anger your sensibilities. To construct original thoughts, your job is to sort through reputation and originality, and you are rewarded for it. But most people don’t have the time for deep thought in their daily lives.

    The expert worth $10k vs the expert worth $100 isn’t a matter of content, it’s a matter of effective delivery. The expert worth $10k must have a reputation for delivering the information the client needs and at the right time. The client isn’t asking for understanding, they’re asking for direction.

    If you need proof, ask yourself what has killed the democratic party the last two election cycles. Does getting mad at the ignorance of voters change anything?

    So, get used to saying “Yes” when what you really mean is “Well, in certain circumstances, but in others no…”, but your reputation depends on it. My advice? Take the money and run; you’ll have more flexibility to do charity work later down the line.

  • Seth

    You know, I had the same thought all throughout SXSWi.

    The answer seems pretty obvious — by paying money, time, etc, people have a personal investment. Just because they can get that advice for free doesn’t mean they’ll believe it. What they’re buying isn’t advice, it’s peace of mind about an externalized decision.

    And yes, that surely seems stupid, if you have the answer, but that’s only assuming that they’re paying for the answer. It sounds as if in the case of your friend, the answer was obvious. Consider the money as a symbolic exchange instead. It’s a sacrifice that ties you to an obvious answer that you then have to act on. It’s not about what the answer is, it’s about being tied to it.

    Same thing applies to big corporations that want to pay you as a consultant or what have you. They’re paying for authority and for a decision. The act of providing a decision often does a whole lot further toward the goal then what the decision actually was (those are just detailed). This is especially true in a corporate environment, where practically any amount of money is worth it to grease the bureaucratic wheels.

    You and your friend’s psychologist aren’t just getting paid because you’re experts. (Although that’s part of it, of course. But it’s more of a threshold test.) You’re also getting paid to be catalysts and to help people do things that they might be too timid or confused to do on their own. Weird as it might seem, that’s pretty valuable.

    $10K a day valuable? Maybe not, but the more they pay, the more they’ll get out of it, in a way.

  • Seth

    “does a whole lot further toward the goal then…” = “does a lot more to advance the goal than…”

    Editing good, Preview button good… Editing good, Preview button good…

  • Just think of all the psychiatrist parents who have exactly this problem; their kids, who get advice for free, don’t value it, but their patients, who pay by the hour, value it highly.

    If you’re interested in more of these interesting psychological quirks about people and how they are influenced (or how to notice when you are being influenced despite your better judgment) definitely check out Cialdini’s book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0688128165/qid=1111806978/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/102-3968808-2682516?v=glance&s=books).

    Another example of a strange psychological things people do: once they’ve made a public statement about something, even if they’re tricked into an admission, they will take ownership of the statement and try their best to argue for it.

  • tony

    Well, u could charge them $1000/hr and send $900 of that to me…

    or you could always donate it to a worthy cause.

    It’s a normal thing to value advice for which we paid for, especially since money has a cost to us(our blood ,sweat and tears).Free advice doesn’t cost us anything,therefore it has no value.

    Why we don’t listen to family,friends, dogs,cats…

  • Hippolyte

    Michael Porter, famous for his HBS courses on competitive strategy, has written that buyers not only have difficulty assessing the value of something before buying but often cannot gauge the performance of a service even after the service has been consumed.

    Porter writes,
    “In some, if not many, industries, signals of value are as important as the actual value created in determining realized differentiation. This is particularly true where a firm’s impact on buyer cost or performance is subjective, indirect, or hard to quantify, when many buyers are first-time buyers, buyers are unsophisticated, or repurchase is infrequent. Good examples would be legal services, cosmetics, or consulting.”
    (Competitive Advantage, 1985, p. 139)

    Maybe Porter should add therapy, conferences, and cult-esque finding yourself seminars to his examples.

    Porter’s short list of “signals of value” include: price, reputation, appearance and personality of the service providers, and attractiveness of the office, among others.

  • bfelice

    About the 10K day, is that an 8 hour day? Is that a 6 hour day with working lunch? Are we talking 10-1 and 3-5? Maybe the final hour could be an exit interview, perhaps with the assistant?

  • Jonathan Tregear

    I can’t help but be tempted to use your argument as stated in this post against you in the value of Wikipedia debate. After all, the authority of the refereed literature and expertise you value over the free expertise available in Wikipedia is based on the validation that $10,000/day consulting fees gets those authors and experts who write in authoritative journals and encyclopedias. It is this perceived value that gets them invited to contribute to authoritative journals and encyclopedias in the first place.

    This argument doesn’t address all of the perceived and real problems of Wikipedia, but I can’t help but think that at some level it colors your perception of the authority of Wikipedia (i.e. how valuable can Wikipedia expertise be if it is provided for free?)

  • Tom

    I don’t think price has anything to do with whether people “wake up and listen,” nor, for that matter do I think listening is the problem. My experience it that it can take two or three repetitions — usually a few days to a few weeks apart — before people “get” a novel idea. And I’ve experienced this with exceptionally bright people who know me and the way I think; it an take even longer with strangers. It is, quite simply, difficult for ideas that have been birthed in one conceptual framework to make enough connections so that they fit into (and hopefully destabilize) different conceptual frameworks. And it is that ability to deliver ideas across conceptual gaps — especially in a single sitting — that is so valuable.

    Consider the price issue from the other side. Regardless of what you’re being paid, if you give a 1 hour talk to 200 people who make $50 an hour, you’re talking 10K right there. Or if you do a day long workshop for 25 people… well, you can do the math. I’d say charge what you want — and if it makes you uncomfortable donate your honorarium to the local homeless shelter or grad student fund — but when you walk up to the front of the room there is collectively quite a lot riding on your ability to communicate effectivel. It is thoughts like this that make me work hard to be a better speaker.

  • Joe

    I can’t help but think (and post) a variation on a famous Zen saying: “when the student is paying, the teacher appears”.

  • So, danah, are you saying you think we should have paid you something for your Yahoo!/360 visit the other day? Perhaps something other than breakfast, lunch, and some schwag. :-)

    On a serious note, I went through this same transition more than a few years ago. One thing to keep in mind: Those 10k/day clients are few and far between – that’s one reason you need to charge so much.

  • The world we live in seems to be a game for making the highest amount possible while minimizing the least amount of time and effort possible. While this is great for explaining monetary gain, it has little value on helping another person.

    I empathize with your comment about people hearing – just remember, that a person can only hear what they wish to hear. Listening seems to be a lost artform in american society.

    Remember – you had to plant a seed somewhere in each of these peoples lives, many times it will sprout somehwere down the road, in the most bizarre ways – many times 6 months later with someone exclaiming they had an epiphany of sorts.

    you can’t put a price or a dollar on helping someone move forward. Only they can choose how much they wish to spend to hear the same message.

  • Your post reminds me of this (and also of Zeldman’s intro to SXSWi in which he said pretty much the same thing). People love to be told they’re right.

  • I sometimes act as one of those experts – at a substantially bargain basement price – however, I did learn something about people paying for what they get and getting more out it of when they do.

    I used to conduct past-life regressions, and it was a difficult process, and I didn’t really want to do it any more, so I doubled my price. When I doubled my price from $60 to $120/hour, my number of regressions doubled, and suddenly I was doing twice as much of what I didn’t want to do in the first place.

    Eventally, I just stopped accepting appointments because no matter what I charged, people showed up with the money. The higher value I placed on myself, the higher the customer valued my work.

    I’d like to be fair and charge a reasonable rate, but nobody wants me when I do.

    –sandy

  • as Freud apparently said, the fee is part of the cure…

  • If you want a real I-told-you-so experience, anytime anyone engaged tell them not to get married. You’ll usually be almost the only one saying it, and 1/3-2/3 of the time they’ll come back 2-3 years later and tell you you were right.

    You lose your friends when they get married anyway, so that’s not an issue.

    I also do suicide counseling and offer to find a nice rope.

    I’m free, because I enjoy my work.

  • Gina

    Everyone’s path to ‘the’ answer is diffent. Some need guidance from 10K experts while others may simply need a spiritual leader. In my experience, I’m just happy that they ‘got it’.

  • I contend that those going to the 10K seminar or consultant are, mostly, from big rich bureaucratic corporations; hence, their use of money in this particular context is severely skewed. A 10k would be a source of status and a way to legitimize innovation, change and implementation of new ideas, rather than means to acquire knowledge.
    Bottom line: if we charge 10k for telling corporations how to start blogs and wikis, we are going to be heard, unlike what would happend if, instead, we were to do it for a mere $100.

  • danah,

    re: $10k fees and what you’ve got to say; think context, subtext; think McLuhan. You concerns are valid, your drive for integrity admirable. Issues of packaging and promotion (of which price is a sub-set) are really issues of social identification, right? “I’m a serious researcher” versus “I’m going to help you get [rich:thin:laid]”, right?

    A message with a $.02 price-tag and a message with a $10k price-tag can be identical at the level of denotative content while varying wildly at the level of connotation because of disparities in context, just as “No” with a smile and a lilt to the voice can easily been recognized as meaning “Yes,” yes?

    Academia or commerce; you’re not the first to be skewered on the horns of that dilemma. I believe, however, you work in a field that may move us as far as anything can toward a world where that particular bull can transmogriphy into something better.

  • I like your line of thinking.

    I don’t know how receptive my spouse is going to be when I present her with the bill that will bring credibility to my POV ;)

  • Dav

    I’ll pay for your beer sometime and promise to believe everything you say while you drink it :)

  • Wow, that was a great post. I’ve been struggling with finding my place in the consulting world, and it’s good to hear someone else honestly express the frustrations and fears that come with that territory.

    I think that you’re making a bit of a mistake in how you think about the fee. You have to remember that when you consult, the customer is investing in you. Let’s say you can tell a big company how to save 1 cent per transaction. If they perform a million transactionat a day, that’s $10,000 a day they can save. Your fee should be set accordingly.

    Yes, it gets harder the more abstract your expertise is. How much do you charge to help the CEO set up a blog? Take a look at how much the customers spends on advertising. Point out how all their advertising hasn’t helped them build credibility. Then ask them how much this credibility is worth to them. Set your fee accordingly.

    Wow, I almost sound like an expert there. We’re all groping in the dark, sometimes. The trick is to consistently get better at it.

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