There's been a bit of press recently around a new start-up called Abrams Research, the eponymous creation of Dan Abrams, until recently the chief legal correspondent for NBC News. The goal of Abrams Research is to build a global database of journalists, bloggers and other media professionals who were willing and able to consult to corporations on media-related issues, but also to do such things as investigative reporting or related background research on behalf of clients.

Abrams Research immediately brought to mind another firm called the Gerson-Lehrman Group, which has been enormously successful in bringing together subject matter experts with investors. Investors tap into the Gerson Lehrman network to get quick brain dumps from top experts in virtually any field to get up to speed quickly on specific industries, or to validate a more general investment thesis.

My own personal experience with Gerson Lehrman offers some useful cautions about this type of business. Gerson Lehrman started with a very personalized approach. Clients would communicate their needs by phone or email to staffers who would search their in-house database for a qualified expert, or go recruit one if needed. A fabulous business able to charge huge fees for its bespoke services was the result.

I got enlisted into the Gerson Lehrman network only about a year ago by a breathless recruiter who said he had an investment bank that urgently wanted to pick my brain. That assignment never materialized, but the recruiter urged me to become a formal part of the network. I agreed and quickly found that Gerson Lehman had morphed from a highly personalized service into an automated "web platform." I dutifully created an elaborate profile for myself and waited to see what would happen.
I've received a number of email inquiries since then, always indicating a client with an urgent need for my expertise. I was supposed to respond to not only indicate my interest, but to sell myself to the client as to why I was the best expert on the topic at hand. That's all fine and dandy, but since these clients never wanted more than an hour of my time, there's only so much time I can justify spending on any one of these inquiries. In addition, Gerson Lehrman has sent an endless stream of emails urging me to post more and more information about myself in order to attract a greater number of projects. Instead of doing the matchmaking itself, Gerson Lehrman now apparently wants it clients to source and qualify experts directly. It finally dawned on me: Gerson Lehrman had evolved from an exclusive, personalized network of experts to a B2B version of - an online dating service. From my perspective at least, Gerson Lehrman has been an unsatisfying experience, and I have to believe some of their clients must be feeling the same way.

Giving customers the ability to "self-provision" through an online web interface can be beneficial and liberating for all parties for certain types of services with certain price points. But when you build a business based on high fees, lots of service and an air of exclusivity, I'd suggest moving to a web platform that is somewhere between a buying guide and a dating service isn't the optimal strategy.

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