Expert Insight: A fascinating new business that allows you to buy personal advice from a Nobel Prize-winning economist or…

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June 13 2011 10:59 AM

Rent-an-Expert

The fascinating new business that allows you to buy personal advice from a Nobel Prize-winning economist or a poker champion.

Poker expert. Click image to expand.
For a few hundred dollars an hour, you can get one-on-one advice from professional poker players

A faded starlet dancing at an oligarch's birthday bash. A chef preparing a dinner party in a stranger's kitchen. A best-selling author entertaining a conference hall filled with oil executives. Reputation has always been another form of income, and successful people have long found innumerable creative ways to monetize their time. Now a start-up called Expert Insight is trying to make the process far easier, enabling the more famous or distinguished among us to sell their expertise by the hour, from the comfort of their homes, while dressed in their pajamas.

Expert Insight is the brainchild of Brandon Adams, a Ph.D. graduate of Harvard Business School and the research assistant for Michael Lewis' The Big Short. Prospective customers go to a website and peruse the many experts available—mostly economists, poker and chess players, and sports coaches, along with the occasional relationship expert or writer. Most list their per-hour rates, though a few require customers to call to request them. Customers select an hour or two from their chosen expert's schedule, and then pay online. They receive the expert's proprietary email address for correspondence before the appointment. Then, when the time comes, they log onto a Skype-type video chat system and ask away for the purchased hour.

Prices vary significantly by level of expertise, by field, and by fame. (Currently, experts keep 70 percent of the per-hour fee.) Want to have a professional chess player teach you a few moves? It will cost you as little as $100, with instruction from Alex Betaneli. Want to know what Nobel laureate in economics Gary Becker thinks of the renminbi, U.S. trade policy, or Brangelina? His thoughts are yours for $5,000. Freakonomics author and economist Steven Levitt elected not to list his hourly rate and has yet to sell an appointment. "The amount I would charge is so outrageously high, I worry people would think badly of me," he told New York. "I have four young children, and I like to play golf. I would have to charge a really high price to make it worth my time."

Is Expert Insight worth your time? The idea makes more sense, and is more democratic, than you might think. You have probably already paid outrageous sums of money to attend a college or graduate school where the putative point is access to some of these very same minds. Yet at a university, you're subject to a set curriculum, limited to the available professors, and have to share their time with all the other students. Trade groups and corporations also pay such experts enormous sums to advise and speak. Individuals cannot ordinarily do that.

Given how much we already pay for expertise, and how inefficiently we do it, is it really crazy to think that there's a market for expertise-for-cash transactions that are transparent, simple, and relatively effortless?

Imagine a struggling business owner hiring a famed economist to talk through her problems directly. Or a tennis enthusiast who doesn't have the time or money to attend a fancy camp forking over a few hundred bucks to get a former pro to watch a video of his serve and offer tips. Right now, such transactions are rare precisely because they are so cumbersome. Adams believes that if they cease being cumbersome, they will also cease to be rare.

He recognized the potential of the expertise-for-cash market, and the barriers to it, while surfing around online poker forums. Good players often offered lessons on message boards, and he decided to join in, charging hundreds of dollars per hour to coach ambitious amateurs via Skype. But "that's an inefficient way of doing things, and I knew this market was in its infancy," he says. "I had the thought to design a single platform where every aspect—scheduling, payment, and actual audio-video—could be done."

He sketched out a business plan, which piqued the interest of a number of his friends in the poker world and his contacts at Harvard Business School. Now, dozens of them advertise their time on the site. When Expert Insight officially launches on June 30, there will be about 150 experts available, he says. (The site is already fully functional—it is just that the roster is not totally filled.)

So far, though, it has attracted far more interest from people looking to sell their time than from people looking to buy it. Adams says that the company has sold only an appointment or two a week during this beta phase.

Part of the problem, he says, is the crackdown on online poker. In April, the FBI indicted the owners of the three biggest Internet poker companies, charging them with money laundering, fraud, and illegal gambling offenses. That effectively cratered the $6 billion U.S. market, composed mostly of amateurs, Adams says, and dampened interest in online instruction.

But other challenges loom. The experts on offer might not lower their prices enough to make a market. Even if they're happy to receive the occasional $1,000 appointment, that might not be enough to sustain Expert Insight as a business. For that reason, Adams has plans to expand the site—and in the meantime has encouraged the experts to lower their prices into white-shoe-lawyer (and affordable-luxury) territory. What's the site's best value for your money, in his mind? Famed Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, available for $400 an hour.

Another problem is that nothing stops Adams' experts—or any others—from offering private video consulting, advice, or instruction on their own websites, where they would not need to give a third party a cut. (Skype and PayPal are all you would really need to make it work.) One could also imagine niche trade, fan, or industry sites—jazz pianists, Python coders, bocce players—setting up their own marketplaces, attracting the leaders in the field, and advertising to their pre-existing fan bases.

One way or another, even if Expert Insight falters, Adams is right that the Internet provides a naturally fluid, responsive, and big marketplace for such previously niche services. Maybe you won't be asking Steven Levitt all your hard questions on video chat anytime soon. But if you are looking to up your chess or poker game, you'd be foolish not to look for help online.

Annie Lowrey is a contributing editor for New York magazine. She can be reached at annie.lowrey@gmail.com.

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