5 Reasons You Should Give Away Your Trade Secrets

The trade secret is the long-heralded differentiator between brands, right? It's what makes Crest better than Arm and Hammer or Ford better than Chevy (I don't believe either, by the way). Thing is, in the social marketplace, it doesn't work. People want transparency. They want to know how to do things, especially in the handmade world. Those who keep their techniques "close to the vest" are wasting a massive opportunity to give something to the community, and by doing so, amplify their brand. Don't buy it? Here are my top five arguments in favor of it:

1. People remember generosity far longer than they remember a product. In the social landscape, your product is secondary. You are selling YOU first. You develop far more street cred by being known as a giver, rather than just a seller.

2. It's your small chance to make a difference. Maybe someone wants to make a scrabble tile pendant. They've seen them on Etsy and they would love to make one with a picture of their dog on it. They find your tutorial (the only one out there from a person who also happens to sell Scrabble tile pendants on Etsy). Two things happen. One, that person gets to learn a new skill and will probably share it with other people. Two, you get instant respect (and probably a recommendation) for giving away a valuable secret. Both are far more valuable than any immediate money you would have made from a sale.

3. Giving things away pays respect to the craftspeople that came before you and shows that you care about the community that you are a part of. Helping other people "win" is the first and best thing you can do to increase your own chances of success. Just look at how well this is working for Gary Vaynerchuk.

4. Value is the new black. If you aren't pumping out things that are valuable to the community and giving some of them away, you aren't really doing business. Yesterday, I was reading a blog post about online marketing and I clicked on a link to another article about Search Engine Optimization. I was dead-sure that I would be redirected to a shopping cart page and be presented with an opportunity to buy their ebook on the subject. I wasn't. It was a dozen pages of super valuable, free information with no strings attached. Will I now amplify that website through every social media outlet at my disposal? Yes, I will.

5. You can monetize it. I'm not saying that you have to give away everything that you've worked so hard for. All the hours you've put into learning this or that technique should be worth some cash in return. If your readers feel that your first impulse is to be generous, they'll happily spend money to support your other efforts. Remember though, they can tell the difference between someone who is using giving to get ahead and someone who really feels that giving is important. Giving is not a strategy, it has to become part of who you are.


  1. Love this - I've realised recently that I'm all about the gift economy to the extent that I'm really struggling to find moral, emotional and physically viable ways to make money.

  2. So true. We own a winery. We often get questions from hobby winemakers which we answer openly and freely. And we usually get them as very loyal customers. The reasons?
    Hobbyists are there because they appreciate a product and want to experience it. Hobbyists do their best with the tools and skills available to them, but usually have a limited budget for specialty tools. So, even with all the good advice they will come to you when they want the skillfully crafted product. Or because they don't have the time to put one together. Or merely because you helped them out. And they will bring their friends.

  3. Valuable information, Paul. You have such a knack for putting into words the thoughts that haven't quite yet gelled in my own mind... thank you.

  4. Kirsty - I hear you, sister. We are all in that boat, but some of us are rowing harder than others. I think you're one of those.

    Anon - Thanks for making a point that I couldn't quite get into this post. No worries about hobbyists, they're going to come to you anyway. You still make the sale.

    Ann - Thanks for the kind words and for taking the time to comment!

  5. i agree with this. IN 2005 or 6 I put together a tutorial on long stitch bookbinding. Not a hard binding, but done the way I do it. I've gotten a lot of comments on that entry and a lot of people who have come to me becuase of that, when they don't have time. that's valuable.

  6. Another thoughtful post from you Paul. I was discussing this with my marketer brother just last night (mainly in reference to big companies) but also regarding the how tos I've shared.

  7. A great article, but on some levels a bit misleading.

    After all, in our position, how to make soap isn't really a "trade secret". I like doing tutorials, and we have done quite a few, and I am eternally grateful to the soapers who have gone before me and produced tutorials of their own that have helped me learn my craft and expand my skills.

    What is a trade secret however, are things like our recipes, our formulas for products, etc. I wouldn't give those away, because our ingredients, our recipes using them, those are our trade secrets and part of what makes our business unique.

    So, while I do agree with the article, I just felt like the difference between a generic, "Let me help you get started with this How-To" and "Have a glance at my recipe book"... one is a technique, the other is a secret. :-)


  8. I agree. I once went to a women's small business conference and asked a speaker what I could do find a mentor. She answered me with a question: "What have you contributed? You can't expect anyone to want to share their knowledge with you if you're not making the effort to share yourself."

    She was right. I might not have known much about business then, but I did know a little about sewing and toy design, so I started to share my knowledge about those subjects. It led to dozens of new connections with people who were more than happy to share their business skills and knowledge with me in exchange. And it turned out to be a great business move, too, because my contributions boosted my cred as an "expert" in my field.

    One issue I always hear brought up on this topic is: if I give away my secrets/techniques, other people/manufacturers will use it to put me out of business. I would submit Hugh McLeod's argument here that if you aren't innovative enough or good enough at what you do that this is actually an issue, you probably won't stay in business very long anyway.

  9. I took a class from a woman locally, who then had kits made up if you wanted to go beyond what you had done in class. I bought one. I like to keep my mind and crafting fresh. When I got home, I saw the images that were preprinted (vintage images) were off kilter in the kit. So I went back to the store (an hours drive) and asked that I get a corrected one printed and the woman told me that was the way they were supposed to be. On the wall were the finished products and none were off kilter prints. She then proceded to tell me she had paid all this money for these images and she could not give them away free. I just wanted what I thought I was paying for, not anything extra. She didnt budge. Later that night while looking for similar images so I could print out something usable, I found "her " images she said she was sole owner on. It was a vintage image disk for 5 bucks from Joann's on clearance. They had holidays, cats, valentines etc and sure enough, each season this woman offers one of these classes with her sole ownership of the images. I went back recently and was talking to the owner of this shop and informed her that I could never take Nancy's classes again and why. I then pulled out the discs and showed her. Another stunned proprieter but the classes sell out and how many others will be pulled into the fraud. These images were all in the public domain but who really knows to find that out. Just as most techniques have been done before, its the spin we put on things as individuals that make them fresh. I had a girl tell me recently she invented the Prismacolor/Gamsol Technique. Seh was 15.

  10. I work in tech support and I have written articles as well as led free classes for the community on how to prevent most maintenance problems and get the most out of your computer. The good will we got out of it was great and did nothing but give us more business as the word spread that we were about helping people and not just taking their money. We were never really concerned with losing money by customers fixing their own computer because, let's face it, computers suck.

  11. Thanks for the comments all!

    Les and Kirsty - Thanks for chiming in. Glad to hear that others are thinking about this stuff too and that it's working.

    Amy - Call me reckless, but I mean what I said. I will open up my recipe book to whoever wants to see it. Like the poster from the winery said, mostly the folks interested in your recipe are hobbyists and pose no danger to your livelihood. I also believe that you can either live in a world of scarcity, where people will steal your things, or you can live in a world of bounty where new ideas are plentiful and everyone shares them. I think it's mostly a choice. At the same time, I totally understand why you would be reluctant to do what I'm prescribing. It's scary.

    BizMiss - Thank you for supporting the above argument with the perfect MacLeod quote. Man, that guy is cool.

    Jan - That sounds terrible. Sorry it happened to you. Thanks for the comment.

    Tim - Glad to hear it and super glad that companies are confident enough to put the wheels in motion on a program like that!

  12. Any crafter knows that making a product is the easy part. It's the packaging, the marketing, the mailing (and the taxes. etc.) that are the hard parts. I put nothing but tutorials on my blog without restrictions. If you can use something I've blogged about and make money on it - mazel tov. Nothing is really completely original anyway. We are all building on things that have gone before us. I hope I provide inspiration as others have and are continuing to inspire me.

  13. Gail - Thanks for that. True-true. I agree.

  14. This is fantastic. Most of my favorite Etsy shops I've come across via tutorials. I usually end up finding a tute I love, completing the project and in the process falling in love with the seller's words, design or style. I usually head right to their Etsy shop for more! I'll be linking to this article. Really great food for thought.

  15. Maybe we can organize a Tutorial Share Week or something....I love trying things I find online, and wouldn't mind sharing one of my own crafts.

    (As a side note, I've recently become obsessed with your blog. I lurk and spend countless hours going through the archives. I'm de-lurking to tell you I only follow five blogs regularly, and yours never disappoints. It's your attitude and the quality posts/links you provide. Good work!)

  16. Rachel - High praise indeed! I love your blog! Thanks for linking!

    bex - wow. What an amazing compliment. You absolutely made my day! Thanks for taking the time.