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Lots of Advice on the Net, but It's Not Perfect

Q&A sites have rosters of experts to field questions, but the quality and cost vary. The lesson? It's buyer beware.


There's no shortage of advice for small-business owners on the Internet. A slew of question-and-answer Web sites provide tips on topics ranging from stock options to taxes. But finding the right expert can be a hit-or-miss proposition.

Each site has a roster of experts available to answer questions, usually by e-mail. claims 5,000 experts on business topics, accounting for 45% of the activity on its site, which also covers such areas as gardening, parenting and fitness.

On most sites, experts answer simple questions for free but charge for detailed responses. says the highest fee charged to date was $1,200 for a business plan review. Most sites make money by taking a percentage of the fees.

Operators of the sites say the chief benefit is convenience. Many small businesses lack legal and human resources staffs to handle ticklish questions. And Greg Schmergel, chief executive of, said: "If you're in Los Angeles, you might know where to go for advice about the Internet, but what if you're in Iowa or Luxembourg?"

But few of the site operators verify experts' background or experience. An expert who claims to be a certified public accountant may not be one.

And the quality and cost of advice varies, as I found when I posed these questions to experts at four Q&A sites.

* If my company gives stock options to full-time employees, what should it do about part-time employees?

* An administrative assistant loses her temper and yells at customers on the phone. Can she be fired right away?

Jon P. Goodman, executive director of EC2, a business incubator at USC's Annenberg School for Communication who helped write the questions, said there are no simple answers to them.

"What you want is an expert who is going to ask you a lot of questions back," she said. "Any reasonable consultant will ask more questions . . . tease out information, to provide an answer."

I e-mailed the stock-option question to five experts at, whose hourly rates for advice ranged from $30 to $200. (Average hourly fees for answers to business-related questions range from $60 to $75.) After four days, the only response came from an expert who couldn't answer the question.

"Unfortunately, I don't think I can be that helpful," the e-mail said. "I haven't seen companies giving equity to part-time employees, so I can't propose an options package."

No answer, of course, is better than an inaccurate one.

An expert from, another Q&A site, said there are two classes of options--one for full-time workers and one for part-timers. That's wrong, Goodman said. And the expert said independent contractors do not qualify for options. But, in fact, courts recently have held that independent contractors should receive options under some circumstances, Goodman said.

The expert said he learned about options as an employee of two companies that underwent IPOs.

"Legally, it's up to you, I think. I am not a lawyer," wrote an expert in response to my stock-option question. The expert referred me to his Web site, a so-called legal HMO that provides advice for a fee.

I also e-mailed two experts, but neither responded.

The Q&A sites do not guarantee the accuracy of their experts. They liken the sites to commodity exchanges where information is bought and sold. "If you do research and buy a stock and then the company doesn't meet its goals, you don't sue Nasdaq, you sue the company," said spokeswoman Cindi Perez.

Like most Q&A sites, rates experts based on consumer feedback. The ratings are posted along with the experts' profiles. has dropped some poorly rated experts from its site, Perez said.

Besides rating its experts, verifies professional credentials, such as whether an expert is a CPA. But, like other sites, it does not confirm the education or experience of its advisors, said marketing director Dustin Sellers. differs from competing Q&A sites because it connects users by telephone. Once visitors select an expert, the site immediately arranges a phone call between the expert and the person who needs information. Sellers said rates range between 5 cents and $10 a minute. The average rate per minute is 74 cents.

Advice on is free. But its experts may negotiate deals with small-business people or consumers who contact them for help. Udai Shekawat, marketing vice president, sees the site, which boasts 30,000 experts, as more than an information exchange. For businesspeople, "it is a way to get qualified leads," he said. has 5,600 experts. CEO Schmergel said much advice is free, but experts may charge a fee. Experts must present relevant degrees, work experience or other credentials to qualify for the site, Schmergel said. ExpertCentral doesn't verify the credentials, though.

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