Harvard’s Adams Enlists Economist Charging $5,000 for Advice

Expert Insight’s CEO Brandon Adams
Expert Insight’s CEO Brandon Adams. Source: Brandon Adams via Bloomberg

Lots of bandwidth and $5,000 can get anyone an hour with Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker.

A couple more computer clicks can also remake a tennis serve, fix a golf swing and provide tips on how to out-bluff the poker world’s top pros.

Becker, a University of Chicago professor who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1992, will be selling his time on ExpertInsight.com, a website offering one-to-one video chats with leaders, which opened yesterday. He’ll join people such as economics professors Jeffrey Miron of Harvard University and Laurence Kotlikoff of Boston University, “Freakonomics” co-authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, poker celebrities Patrik Antonius and Tom Dwan, and tennis coach Jeff Salzenstein.

“The idea is to bring this coaching model to everything,” said Brandon Adams, Expert Insight’s 32-year-old founder and chief executive officer.

The site’s roster blends the interests and contacts of Adams, a top poker professional who taught undergraduates in Harvard’s Department of Economics for the past eight years. Adams, the primary research assistant for Michael Lewis’s book “The Big Short,” began giving one-to-one poker lessons over the video-chat service Skype in March 2010, charging $300-$400 per hour.

“I was amazed at how easy it was to drum up business,” Adams, a regular in some of the world’s biggest cash poker games, said in a telephone interview. “I realized that one-to-one teaching was a great opportunity to monetize content. What you’re doing is searching the world for that small slice of people, maybe 15 to 30, who are willing to pay a high price for your content.”

Nobels, ‘Freak’

In exchange for an equity position, Adams sought help from Greatest Good LLC, a business and philanthropy consulting firm founded by a group that includes Becker; Levitt, who also teaches at the University of Chicago; and Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton University professor and 2002 Nobel economics laureate.

“Ultimately, the Internet is about reducing what economists call ‘search’ costs and ‘transaction’ costs,” Levitt, who will charge $3,000 per hour on the site, said in an e-mail. “There may be only a handful of customers scattered around the world willing to pay the fees that top experts or celebrities might demand. Before now, there was no easy way to find each other. The search and transaction costs were prohibitive. Now there’s a market.”

Expert Insight spent $450,000 to build the website and expects to become profitable in late 2012 or 2013, Adams said. Experts will set their own rates and schedules, giving 30 percent commissions to the company.

Mountaintop Tennis

One of the site’s pros will be Salzenstein, a 37-year-old former Stanford University tennis All-American who was No. 100 in singles in 2004 in the ATP World Tour rankings. He said he got into video coaching a couple months ago when a woman in Portugal, Alexandra Franco, commented on his blog, seeking advice on her serve. He suggested she send him some video and later began giving her advice over Skype.

“Here’s a woman on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, we’re sharing Skype and she’s learning things she’s never heard before,” he said.

Salzenstein, who will charge $200 per hour on Expert Insight, uses video clips from top professionals such as 16-time major champion Roger Federer and top-ranked Rafael Nadal to teach proper strokes and movements without “the distraction of hitting a ball over the net.”

Internet Coaching

Franco, who lives among six houses on a mountaintop in Quatrim do Norte, about 175 miles (281 kilometers) south of Lisbon, said she sought top coaching locally before turning to the Internet.

“Even the best coaches here are not getting the detail that Jeff is getting with the video,” Franco, a 47-year-old former professional basketball player, said in a telephone interview.

Jerome Andrews, a proponent of video coaching who in 2007 was named one of the top 20 U.S. golf instructors under the age of 40 by Golf Digest, also will be on the website, as will some of Adams’s poker-playing friends, including Phil Gordon, who’s had $2.8 million in tournament winnings, and Rafe Furst, who won an event in the 2006 World Series of Poker.

Adams has taken Twitter bids on sessions with Antonius and Dwan to launch the site. Antonius has drawn an offer of $3,200 and Dwan $3,000. Dubner, 47, and Becker, 80, held a chat on the service yesterday, its opening day.

Gambling Crackdown

Last week’s crackdown on poker gambling websites by the U.S. authorities probably will hurt that segment of the business, Adams said yesterday. Founders of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker were among 11 people charged by the U.S. last week in a case that seeks at least $3 billion in forfeitures and penalties.

“The indictment of the major poker sites by the Department of Justice will definitely hit our poker coaching business very hard,” Adams said in an e-mail yesterday. “Long term, I’m 100 percent sure that the appetite for poker in this country is very strong and will reassert itself somehow.”

Other experts available include political blogger Nate Silver at $1,000 per hour, Miron at $400, Dubner at $3,000 and Becker at $5,000.

James Katz, a professor of communication at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, said he knew a Wall Street banker who had a monthly lunch with a Nobel Prize winner, paying $2,000 for advice on life and business.

“It might be fun for someone to spend $5,000 to talk to a very smart person,” Katz said in a telephone interview, cautioning against over-reliance on such experts. “What I find is that smart people tend to be smart in a subject area or domain, and just a regular person for all the other things.”

Down-Market Move

Adams said his company’s plan is “to make a managed move down market over time,” trying not to risk alienating his high-priced roster.

Internet video chat has potential to be used for services ranging from tutoring and counseling to home repair and psychic readings. It may also help the world’s biggest celebrities interact with fans.

“I’d pay a lot of money to give my daughters the chance to video chat with Taylor Swift,” Levitt said of the Grammy Award-winner singer. “I can’t see any way that will happen other than Taylor Swift signing on with Expert Insight.”

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