By Deborah L. Cohen
CHICAGO (Reuters) - As a student at top U.S. universities, Norwegian entrepreneur Fredrik Maro quickly learned it's not always what you know but who you know that can advance your career.
So he and three fellow Harvard business school alumni set out to build a company based on the premise that everyone should have a shot at reaching advisors with direct knowledge in their field at an affordable price. Their online startup, Evisors (http://www.evisors.com), provides a range of consulting expertise for aspiring students, entrepreneurs and others.
"I realized there could be a business model here built around democratizing the access to all these great people with all this great know-how, making the people you need to know available to everybody, not just a select group," said Maro, who was introduced to costly and exclusive consulting networks in niche areas such as hedge funds during his own stint at the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
Maro and his cofounders began developing Evisors as MBA students, eventually bootstrapping the venture with less than $25,000 of their own money. To keep costs down, they outsourced site development to engineers in India.
"We were very focused on a lean startup model," said Maro, noting that much of the online platform had to be rebuilt once the venture began scaling up. Realizing they couldn't start off being all things to all people, the cofounders focused first on what they knew best: helping aspiring students with admissions strategies for elite schools and career moves.
The topic had particular resonance for Maro, who spent countless hours studying for the SATs during mandatory army service in Norway.
"I got into Penn (University of Pennsylvania) despite what must have been a terrible, terrible application," he recalled, adding that Evisors consultants are enlisted to help with everything from mock admissions interviews to resume reviews.
Expert advice, bargain price New York-based Evisors, which launched in beta in September of 2010 and went live about a year later, has amassed about 1,200 experts who charge anywhere from $30 to $700 an hour for advice in the form of a phone consultation or email.
The average rate is about $100, far below elite consulting networks, Maro said.
The venture has to date sold more than 1,000 sessions. Evisors takes a cut of the proceeds, typically 30 percent for first-time users, in exchange for facilitating the match and handling details such as toll-free phone calls, file sharing and billing. Michael Mayhew, chairman of Integrity Research, a research advisory firm to institutional investors, said Evisors has tapped an un-served market.
Other online consulting networks such as Zintro are focused squarely on financial services, he said. "I do think there is a going to be first mover, branding type advantage," Mayhew said. Surprisingly, the site hasn't had to work too hard to recruit advisors, relying instead on its founders' network and word-of-mouth referrals. Consultants set their own rates and are later evaluated, with their scorecard made public to potential customers.
Ben Schumacher, a Harvard business school alumnus and director of strategy for the teachers' network Teach for America, is among the site's highest-volume consultants, offering career advice to recent graduates and mid-career executives alike. "When I see clients succeed, I get addicted to their success," said Schumacher, who recently finished his 90th consultation and typically charges $195 per hour.
Access to seasoned alumni from top schools has been appealing to a variety of universities, which have contracted Evisors to develop proprietary consulting networks for their students. The University of Cambridge was the first of some 20 schools, said Maro, whose company gives the universities a break on rates due to volume.
Business connections Beyond career advice, Evisors has progressively honed other sweet spots, with entrepreneurial consulting emerging as its second-biggest area. A quick glance at experts in this area revealed a host of startup founders as well as a project director at a large museum.
"A conversation or two with the right individual is very valuable," said Alan Mark, a member of the New York Angels, among the investors that have provided nearly $700,000 in startup capital to Evisors.
"This can be really helpful for small business and individuals who otherwise wouldn't have access to these experts." Dr. James Maisel, a retina surgeon and serial entrepreneur, found an advisor with specialized venture capital expertise in medical technology to help with a pitch to potential VC investors.
The total cost: less than $500. "We got the IT advisor from a New York venture capital firm that has been in the business for a number of years and was familiar with our space," said Maisel, whose venture, ZyDoc, uses speech recognition to aid in medical transcription.
"He could not have been more well-suited to help us." Those are the types of success stories Evisors is betting on for growth.
"We're getting these people into schools," Maro said. "We're getting startup funding. We're getting people into their jobs."