JG is a very successful direct marketer. His business has soared while most of his competitors have foundered. About six months ago, I gave him — free — a marketing idea that he since said made him “more than several million dollars.” Yesterday, he invited me to tour his facilities as a “payback.” He walked me into every office, introduced me to all his key people, and showed me some very interesting marketing data. Some of it related to a new idea he had tested that was “doing gangbusters.” “This one is going to square us,” he told me with complete confidence. “You’re going to make a lot of money with this idea.”

Toward the end of the tour, he introduced me to KP — who did not hide his shock at learning that I was a competitor. “Why would you let the enemy see what we do?” he was bold enough to ask JG right in front of me. “Sometimes it pays,” JG replied. “How do you know it will pay this time?” the young man asked. “I don’t,” JG said, “but if I don’t try, my chances of it’s paying are nil.” JG could have told KP that the gesture had been paid back beforehand, but that would have really confused the young man. Too many people cannot understand the idea of cooperating and sharing in a competitive environment. Several of my clients, for example.

The idea that JG repaid me with is truly a multimillion-dollar idea — or at least it could be if it were exploited intelligently. And although I’ll suggest it to all my clients who could benefit from it, some of them won’t pursue it because of the source. They will be suspicious of an idea that comes from one of their “enemies.” “If it were really a good idea,” they’ll think, “he wouldn’t tell us about it.” Too bad. I’m not advocating that you divulge all your secrets to all your competitors, but I’m strongly in favoring of giving first — and with all the best intentions — with the expectation that in the long run you’ll get back as much or more than you have given.

It’s a universal principle that applies to all aspects of life. Many of the most successful people I know are “give-first” people. Such people understand that the best way to establish trust and good will is to give first and without requisite compensation. Once trust and good will are established, business and communication flow smoothly, deals are easily cut, agreements are quickly made, and success is much more abundant.

Like the “free offer” (which is the foundation of more successful marketing programs than any other strategy I can think of), this works well because:

1. It doesn’t cost anything, so it’s hard to say “no” to.

2. It establishes a relationship based on benefit for the recipient. This creates two positive impulses: trust and reciprocity. I see it this way. If I can surround myself with quality people and do business with them over time, I will eventually profit from it. So most of my initial efforts are directed at establishing credibility with those people and making them think of me when they think of business opportunity. How can I do that? There’s only one way: I make sure that from the get-go they experience positive benefits from doing business with me. SL, who runs one of the most successful direct-marketing companies in the country, feels the same way. He’s never told me so explicitly, but I know from how he treats me. From our first meeting, he’s made every possible effort to give more than he gets. I’ve done the same.

Needless to say, there is a great deal of good faith between us. And all this was done out of habit — for there is nothing I can think of that we can do together. Not now, anyway. But you never know. If and when an opportunity for mutual profit-making arises, we’ll be able to move forward quickly, dispensing with the normal testing and trial periods, the cautions and suspicions, the doubts and worries — all those negative thoughts and feelings that usually sink great chances before they’ve had the chance to float. And SL isn’t the only one. I’ve had the same experience with JS, another big-time direct marketer. JS and I meet at least once a year and pass tips back and forth.

So far, we haven’t found a way to do business together. But the tips are useful and the relationship is solid gold. And DC, who owns a billion-dollar business. The same is true with JA. And PR. And PH. And HB. And MM and BB. Don’t give foolishly. Never give more than you can afford to. And never give anything that you will begrudge losing. Give your time. Give your energy. Give your ideas — even your best ideas. And give everyone you value an opportunity to benefit from knowing you. Give first and give freely and give frequently — and you will be repaid. Not just once or twice but tenfold.