At what point would you pay $20 for a piece of advice—rather than just searching online for an answer? According to some research, consumers are becoming more amenable to paying that much, on average, for some face time with experts in the field.
Mikel Graham ’08 uses Helpouts for math tutoring.
While video tutorials have long saturated the web, the market for live chats with experts has grown exponentially thanks to better bandwidth and a glut of tech-savvy experts. Many MIT alums now showcase their expertise in virtual marketplaces as a means of gaining consulting experience, making at least part of a living, or being charitable with their time.
Mikel Graham ’08 is an engineer in Atlanta by day, but in his free time he uses the Google Helpouts platform to share his expertise in math with high-school students, parents returning to school, and college students preparing for exams.
Graham started out by offering his service for free. Over 100 students have taken him up on it, and he has used the platform to develop a reputation and get experience. “Being able to interact with someone live and ask them questions is invaluable,” Graham says. “You can’t compete with that.”
While working on startups of his own, Matt Palmer ’03 advises other aspiring entrepreneurs on Clarity.fm, a site that offers live video-chats with over 30,000 experts for prices ranging from $0 to $500 an hour and more.
“When people have a business question that can save them time or boost their revenue, they seem willing to pay to get an expert answer,” says Palmer, who earns some income from the site, which also offers ways for experts to redirect their payments to charity.
Mahesh Bhatia SM ’99 has offered advice to entrepreneurs on Clarity for over a year. Bhatia says live online help sites may soon be the way people do business with any service provider, at least initially. Experts may use such sites to begin conversations with potential clients who then sign up for full consulting services offline.
But even that may change. “If virtual reality technologies (courtesy of Oculus, say) or 3D holograms end up becoming mainstream over the next decade, we might start making less of a distinction between online and in-person meetings,” Bhatia says.
Stefan D’Heedene PhD ’05 founded Wizpert in 2011, a site offering live-help sessions with expert techies. Wizpert now boasts 6,000 experts and 30,000 users. Instead of experts charging users by the minute or hour, Wizpert’s platform lets users determine pay scales based on the usefulness of the advice. And the payment is in virtual coins that experts can cash in via Paypal. This flipped model, D’Heedene suggests, creates more of a community feeling than competing sites that are more purely transactional.
Wizpert founder Stefan D’Heedene PhD ’05.
“We are the first platform that matches and connects users for an instant conversation with an expert in a fun, low commitment and community-driven environment,” he says. “We’re more of a quick, fun help desk than a tutoring platform.”
For two years, Michel Rbeiz ’04, MNG ’06 managed Probueno, a site that sought to create even more of a community platform in the expert services field. Punning on pro bono, the site offered experts the chance to donate their services to entrepreneurs and non-profits in need of business advice, coding help, or other talents. Though he has since moved on to other projects, Rbeiz says the market for paid, individualized advice will continue to grow.
“We’re seeing this unbundling in marketplaces,” Rbeiz says. “Over time, a number of startups have essentially unbundled Craigslist. Now if you want short-term rentals, you use Airbnb, or guitar lessons, TakeLessons.com…but it’s still not that easy to give money or your talents. I see that these specialized [expert] sites will allow you to give all or part of your earnings to charity.”
What about the newly-minted college grad? Will she someday be able to market her expertise online right out of college and make a living by it? “I think they’re a good add to income,” Rbeiz offers, “but I don’t think they’ll ever be income replacement.”