Secretive Expert Network Industry Sees Soaring Venture Capital Investment

Fat profits and innovative technology drive approximately $350 million of venture investment into the sector during 2021.

After years of soaring growth and hefty profits, the discrete expert network industry is suddenly one of the hottest sectors for venture capital investment.  Rapid industry growth, fat profit margins and a handful of noteworthy liquidity events are enabling a number of technology-focused upstarts to amass significant war chests. 

What are expert networks?

GLG consulting invite
Spend much time on LinkedIn and you’ll probably receive invitations to consult with expert networks like GLG, which recently filed to go public.

Expert networks facilitate deep and rapid research into a company, product or market by connecting their clients – mostly investment managers and management consulting firms – to ‘experts’ with significant and current knowledge of the research subject.  Expert network consulting is frequently used to shape investment decisions, conduct due diligence or set strategy recommendations.

The experts are usually former employees, customers, competitors or key influencers (such as doctors or former government officials) of the research topic.  The typical consulting project is a one hour call between the expert and the client, where the client will want to rapidly download the facts on the ground from people who know the company best.  

Many firms charge clients $1,000 or more to facilitate these consulting calls, with experts often earning hourly rates that can regularly exceed $500.  Many firms also regularly coordinate paid business surveys for clients.  (If you’ve spent much time on LinkedIn, you’ve probably been approached to participate in a paid consulting opportunity with an expert network company.)

The expert network industry was born in the late 90’s, with pioneers GLG and Primary Insights taking advantage of an SEC crackdown on the sell-side research practices of invest banks, following a number of scandals.  The firms grew rapidly by directly connecting investors with executives with firsthand knowledge of the companies that they were considering investing in.  However, the young expert networks soon found themselves at the center of several major insider trading trials and making unwanted headlines of their own.  

While these high-profile cases seemed likely to kill off the industry, it instead responded by building large compliance teams tasked with implementing more rigorous compliance policies and monitoring for clients.  Compliance became a feature to sell to clients (and help justify sky-high pricing).

The industry returned to steep growth over the next decade, with over 100 new firms sprouting around the world.  It remained mostly out of the public eye, with a just a handful of early stage venture capital investments or late stage private equity deals — until the dealmaking floodgates opened at the start of this year:

A dozen firms reported approximately $350 million in venture capital investment this year:

So what’s driving the sharp increase in venture capital dealmaking?

Most of the capital investment went to firms developing technology to better identify and source new experts and streamline the process of matching experts to client’s project criteria.  This should enable firms to scale without hiring armies of recent college grads to endlessly scour LinkedIn for qualified profiles.  Several firms are also shifting towards self-service marketplaces for clients to select and staff experts on their projects at a fraction of the cost of traditional expert networks.

While a new firm seems to now be born every week – many of them touting more competitive pricing – the industry remains enormously profitable.  Many firms still charge $1,000 per hour or more to speak with an expert.  GLG, the largest firm in the industry, revealed eye-popping 73% gross margins in its recent S-1 filing.

The expert network industry reached $1.9 billion in revenue in 2021.  It has recorded double digit growth annually since 2015, with growth accelerating to 20% during 2021.  Two expert networks made the top 20 list of the highest paid investment research providers for the first time this year.  Meanwhile, a number of firms continue to make inroads into the corporate strategy market, which dwarfs the size of the industry’s traditional investment manager and management consultant customer bases.

While most firms in the industry have long been closely held, several firms established a path to liquidity in 2021.  GLG recently filed for an IPO, where it expects to raise $100 million, and Capvision has also filed to go public on the Hong Kong stock exchange in early 2022.  VisasQ debuted on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 2020 and recently acquired industry stalwart Coleman Research for $102 million, perhaps kicking off a long awaited bout of industry consolidation.

Coleman Research Review – The Pros and Cons of Consulting for a Global Expert Network

Receive a mysterious LinkedIn message or email with an invitation to consult with Coleman Research Group? Wondering if it’s a legitimate opportunity, what to expect and where to set your hourly rate? Dive in to our comprehensive Coleman Research review.

What is Coleman Research? 

Coleman Research

When business managers and investors need actionable information to make decisions, they contact Coleman Research. An expert network with offices around the world, Coleman connects clients to best-in-category subject matter experts who can offer timely industry insights that will drive decision-making. Coleman also keeps clients up-to-date on changes in our fast-based information economy, giving them an edge over the competition. 

Founded in 2003 by Kevin Coleman, Coleman Research is headquartered in New York, with offices in Boston, Hong Kong, London, Raleigh, and San Francisco and a network of 260,000 consultants. The company generated $43 million in revenue over the past years through 1-on-1 phone consultations, hosted events, and surveys. 

The company employs a multilingual integrated team that provides services to several sectors, including business and financial services, consumer goods and services, energy and industry, healthcare, legal and regulatory matters, media and telecom, and more. The Coleman expert network consists of current and former C-suite executives, managing directors, senior managers, and other industry professionals. A notable recent milestone was the announcement of Coleman’s partnership with management consultant group Inspire, allowing Inspire’s client base of non-profits to connect with Coleman’s global expert network. Coleman has also been instrumental in helping clients during the Covid-19 crisis, providing critical insights regarding the pandemic’s impact on markets.

As Coleman Research continues to expand operations, it needs a steady influx of talented specialists ready to share knowledge and experience with their clients. Intrigued? Then let’s dive in for a closer view at the expert network industry and what working with Coleman might look like for you! 

VQ Acquires Coleman Resarch

On August 18, 2021 Japanese expert network VisasQ (VQ) announced that it was acquiring Coleman Research for US$102 million to expand its global footprint. Once the transaction is closed in October, 2021, VQ will have relationships with 400,000 expert consultants to serve more than 1,000 clients. The combined company has stated that is goal is to become the largest expert network and will maintain offices in Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, London, New York City, Los Angeles, and Raleigh.

Under the acquisition agreement, Coleman Research will be a subsidiary of VQ. Kevin Coleman will continue to be CEO of Coleman Research and will join the VQ Board of directors. Eiko Hashiba, CEO of VQ, and Hidetoshi Uriu, COO of VQ, will join Coleman’s board of directors.

“VQ and Coleman have a shared strategy: to become a top global expert network,” said Kevin Coleman, CEO of Coleman Research. “I am excited about partnering and collaborating with VQ, the leading expert network in Japan, and accelerating the execution of our growth plans. We look forward to working jointly to provide our clients with unrivaled service to meet their needs for rapid access to knowledge. VQ’s investment in Coleman is great news for our employees, clients and experts around the world.”

Overview of Expert Networks

Believe it or not, the concept of “expert networks” is still relatively unknown to the average American. And yet, it’s a burgeoning ~$2 billion-a-year industry, working at breakneck speed behind the scenes to give businesses and investors a cutting edge in an increasingly competitive market. 

Laypeople might not know about groups like Coleman Research, but savvy companies do. They rely on expert networks every day, but they don’t go around advertising that fact! Instead, businesses keep a low profile when it comes to how they source intel. They want to receive their consultations discreetly, away from the public eye. Coleman and other similar agencies understand that. They’re not operating in secret; they simply don’t make a big show about their services. In fact, most people who’ve heard of expert networks learned about them from someone who works for one or after seeing an ad (or getting an invitation) on LinkedIn. Expert networks used to recruit via word of mouth, but today they utilize the power of professional networking sites like LinkedIn to find and contract talent. 

As Coleman puts it, they are “information matchmakers.” Another way to say it—they’re middlemen. They find the clients for you to consult, and they get a hefty commission for making that connection. Specifically, Coleman facilitates “meaningful conversations between some of the best minds across all industries.” They look for qualified experts in a wide range of sectors who are willing and able to share opinions and advice in exchange for a generous fee. The advisor sets their hourly consulting rate, then Coleman marks that up and keeps the difference. It’s that simple. 

Businesses face an array of daily problems, and they often seek outsider help before making decisions. Investors also consult experts before deciding on how to position themselves. Coleman saves these types of clients time and energy by finding and vetting the right people who can provide useful information. This is done through a 6-Step process:

  1. Clients present Coleman Research with a project designed to help answer a question or solve a particular problem. 
  2. Coleman filters their vast talent pool to find suitable advisors. 
  3. Interested consultants might need to answer a few questions and submit a brief proposal. Clients will review submissions and choose from the candidates. 
  4. Coleman makes all the arrangements for the call.
  5. Clients talk with their chosen advisor. 
  6. Coleman releases payment and requests feedback. 

These clients don’t mind paying hundreds or, in some cases, even thousands of dollars an hour for information that could potentially make or save them far more money than they spend!

What should you expect on a Coleman Research consulting call?

Coleman Research consulting process
Coleman Research has a well-defined process to match experts with clients.

Coleman Research takes great care to provide value-added information within the confines of legal and ethical guidelines. As the company states, “Our business is built on trust, transparency, and sound ethics. These values are the backbone of our compliance program.” That’s why it offers compliance training to new experts who join the network and screens all candidates to ensure no glaring conflict exists if the consultant take on a particular project. 

For 1-on-1 phone consults, Coleman contractors set an hourly rate, but technically, they’re paid by the minute to chat about an expert network project. There are three broad categories that a call might fall under:

Industry overview — Big data is easy to get, but broad industry overviews are also popular for investors gathering intel about a particular company, market, or sector. They can use what they learn to form a big picture which data alone can’t always paint. Then they can make informed strategic decisions based on that big picture and what it indicates for the future!   

Company deep dive — Deep dives focus on a specific company, perhaps a competitor for the client who’s calling. That’s why consultants aren’t allowed to discuss current employers since it would create a conflict of interest. Some deep dives examine only a particular area of a company, perhaps a problem or something they’re doing right. This can help clients either learn from peers’ mistakes or attempt to replicate a peers’ success.  

Consulting with consultants — Even consultants need help sometimes, which is why corporate consultants might reach out and “phone a friend” to glean some objective insights that’ll benefit their clients. 

To learn more about the ins and outs of high-paying expert phone consulting, check out our comprehensive Ultimate Expert Network Guide

Do I qualify as a subject matter expert? 

Sometimes qualified individuals worry that they won’t make the grade or that they don’t know anything that would be valuable enough for a client to pay for! Essentially, they don’t think they’re qualified for this type of work. We say, why not let Coleman be the judge of that? 

What is a subject matter expert anyhow? Typically anyone who has worked long enough in a particular field or for a certain company becomes an expert on at least something! There is no checklist that lets you determine clearly whether or not your knowledge passes the test to qualify as an expert, though. The true test is to try and see. 

If you’re worried about “imposter syndrome,” don’t be! Everyone has to start somewhere. Out of the 12,000+ consultants in Coleman’s network, they all had to cross that invisible threshold from being workers to becoming (well-paid) consultants!  

How do I set my Coleman Research hourly consulting rate?

Coleman Research consulting fees

Expert networks love to recruit via LinkedIn, and they entice potential talent by dangling a cash carrot. But do these companies really pay hundreds or thousands of dollars an hour? Yes, in some cases, they do! 

Actually, their clients pay the money, and Coleman just adds their own fees as a markup to whatever rate you decide to set. Remember, Coleman isn’t necessarily looking for cheap labor here. The more you charge, the more they can mark up your rate. So they want to find advisors who can command high rates! That doesn’t mean to set an inflated rate arbitrarily. Your insights carry value, but that value might be subjective. 

Generally speaking, if you held a mid-level role in a company for a few years and possess some information and opinions a client would pay for, consider setting a $100 – $150/hour rate. If you are a seasoned professional in a specialized role or position of authority, $300 – $500 an hour might be more suitable. Executives can often charge more than a thousand per hour since their insights can carry significantly more weight. 

Coleman encourages experts “to set their own hourly rates based on industry standards, commensurate with their level of expertise and experience.” The company offers guidance for those who ask. You can also review our full brief on how to set your expert network consulting rate

What are the downsides to consulting for Coleman Research?  

Every job has its fair share of pros and cons. The critical thing to remember here is—this is not a job! 

Coleman Research does hire full-time employers, however, their experts are contractors who may or may not ever get work. There are no guarantees you’ll ever be selected for a project and even if you are, sometimes projects fall through. 

The biggest complaint we’ve seen about Coleman from consultants who’ve worked for them is that there isn’t enough work. A couple of others mentioned a lack of feedback or clients canceling on them. But if you come into the process with some expectation management, you shouldn’t be disappointed. 

Glassdoor contains a small mix of reviews on Coleman (again, filtering out full-time employees and only looking at contractors). Below are a few for you to check out, and as you’ll see, even the positive reviews mention the sporadic workload: 

Indeed also features reviews from contractors, mostly positive:

Consulting for Coleman Research isn’t remotely close to being a full-time gig. Some consultants get more work than others, simply because they’re in more demand due to their qualifications or customer service. Coleman makes the connections, but it doesn’t control the marketplace except to help vet potential advisors in the early stage of the process. Otherwise, it’s a competition and up to advisors to persuade clients to work with them. Those who persist swim; those who don’t may sink! 

How can I win more Coleman Research consulting projects?

As with any work, you should eventually start getting picked up for projects if you’re qualified and competitive. Otherwise, you might end up going hungry in this “feast or famine” environment! 

How do you know if you’re qualified? Coleman will do some vetting first, so if they contact you, you know you’re at least preliminarily qualified. It’s up to you to review the project details carefully then decide if you want to throw your hat in the ring or not. If you believe your insights can lead that client to make a good decision—and you can persuade them of that fact—then go for it!

If not, take a pass and keep trying. It doesn’t do any good to try for projects you’re not qualified for. That’s a waste of your time, so focus on the ones you’ll excel at so you can earn positive reviews! Spend sufficient time reviewing the project and writing a compelling proposal. Be professional, edit your work so that it’s error-free, and make sure your LinkedIn profile is polished, too (in case they look at it!). 

At the end of the day, just remember that there are other expert networks out there, so if you’re still not getting enough work from Coleman’s, you can try GLG, AlphaSights, GuidePoint, or Third Bridge

What types of consulting projects does Coleman Research take on? 

Coleman Research offers 1-on-1 consultations as well as hosted conferences and events and expert surveys for clients in the following industries: 

  • Business and Financial Services
  • Consumer Goods and Services
  • Energy and Industrials
  • Healthcare
  • Legal and Regulatory 
  • Tech, Media and Telecom

Their primary service offering is the 1-on-1 call. Coleman Research connects advisors and “industry thought leaders” who can offer relevant, timely, first-hand perspectives on key issues. Calls may last an hour or more, during which time clients can steer the interview based on their needs. It’s up to the consultant to ensure there are no breaches of confidentiality and to report anything questionable in accordance with the Terms and Conditions, which “prohibit the disclosure of confidential and material, non-public information.”

Hosted Events

Coleman Research offers hosted events featuring a crack team of experienced analysts who are up-to-date on the latest industry news and trends. In-house experts staff these events, so contractors are not likely invited to participate. However, for those able to establish a solid reputation with the company, who knows what doors might open? 

Expert Surveys

Coleman Research does offer survey services to their clients, however, the company’s website does not specify whether they use contracted consultants to complete these or not. It seems like they do, based on one of the case study writeups! Since they don’t publish details on how contractors can qualify to participate, we suggest filling out an application to join the network. If one of their representatives reaches out, that’s the best time to ask for specifics on how to get involved with some of those low-stress surveys. 

Is Coleman Research legitimate or is this a part of a scam? 

Coleman Research is a legitimate international company that focuses on facilitating short-term consultations between business clients and qualified contracted advisors. (Of course, you should always be diligent of scammers impersonating other companies!). You not only get paid for these simple phone calls, but you also receive the bonus of getting to converse with other experts working for management consultancies, mutual funds, hedge funds, and private equity firms. There’s no prep work involved, and advisors are free to accept or decline any work offered. 

How much does Coleman Research pay experts? 

How many invitations to consult for Coleman Research depends on many factors, including one’s area of expertise, experience level, and availability to take a potential client’s call. However, your rate will be a factor, too! You want to charge an amount that compensates you fairly for the value you provide the customer. That’s a very subjective equation, so in the beginning it makes sense to compare what peers are charging and set your rate accordingly. If you undercharge, it could indicate a lack of confidence, but if you overcharge and can’t deliver the goods, that may result in a negative review of your services. 

Just remember, expert networks make money by marking up your rate and keeping the difference. They obviously prefer not to disclose how much their markup is, but you can pull back the curtain and get the inside scoop through our detailed expert network rate overview!

Conclusion

Coleman Research boasts of a 90% retention rate with over 200K projects completed. Clearly this is a company that’s here to stay. They have built a giant sandbox for consultants to come play in. There’s no guarantee of work, but it’s free to apply and see what’s out there! So if the possibility of making over $100 an hour to answer questions on the telephone sounds like an opportunity you’d like to explore, why not give Coleman Research a shot? You can learn more about how to join their expert network here!

Learn more in our Coleman Research video review

Next: Learn how to conveniently earn hundreds of dollars per hour with our Ultimate Guide to Expert Network Consulting




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