Technology

Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

Uber for MBAs is a worrying sign

Employees watched a slideshow during an office meeting at HourlyNerd in Boston.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Employees watched a slideshow during an office meeting at HourlyNerd in Boston.

In a brick-and-beam former warehouse in Boston’s Fort Point Channel neighborhood, Rob Biederman and Patrick Petitti are building an online network that could change how white-collar work gets done.

In the same way Uber built a network of drivers, and Craigslist can help you find someone willing to paint your back porch tomorrow, the company that Biederman and Petitti cofounded, HourlyNerd, has attracted 22,000 independent consultants with MBA degrees from 45 top universities, all willing to do projects for clients that range from the corner clothing boutique to conglomerates like General Electric.

Business owners can understand the allure of paying someone a few thousand bucks to analyze three different locations for a new shop. But anyone who sits in front of a computer every day, analyzing data and assembling PowerPoint presentations, is probably justified in fretting about what this could mean for their job.

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And these online expert networks could evolve into potent competition for some of the best-known management consulting firms, like McKinsey & Co. and Boston Consulting Group. The traditional consultants are a bit like the livery companies that were the only game in town before Uber arrived: high-touch and expensive, but don’t try to call them 10 minutes before you need them to show up.

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HourlyNerd was born as a class project at Harvard Business School in early 2013 with the theory that business school students and alumni might want to earn some extra cash by taking on consulting projects. By the end of 2013, the company had raised $750,000, the majority of it from Mark Cuban, the “Shark Tank” investor and owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, who had responded to an e-mail pitch from the founders. HourlyNerd has since raised another $9 million, and it employs about 55 people.

When you post a project on the site, you describe what you’re trying to get done, a start date, and a ballpark estimate of what you’re willing to pay. Consultants seeking work can review the project, ask for more details, and submit a bid. And before you hire someone, you can look at their star rating (one to five), along with comments from past clients.

Marisa Goldenberg signed on with the site in 2014 and says HourlyNerd is now her sole source of work. Goldenberg, a former operations executive at computer maker Dell, says she began proving her ability on the site with smaller projects, “then hit the big leagues with a Fortune 20 industrial company last year.” And when she needs more assistance on a big project, she uses the site to assemble a team of “nerds.”

One recent project for Goldenberg involved a large company that wanted to rethink its leadership development program. Goldenberg identified “best in breed” programs in place at other companies, conducted interviews with those companies, and produced a report with recommendations.

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Goldenberg says she doesn’t mind being reviewed on the site like a pizzeria would be reviewed on yelp.com. “There’s nothing that helps you more to get future clients than to have previous clients sing your praises,” she says.

Daniel Callaghan, the founder of London-based MBA & Co., an HourlyNerd rival, says the costs of getting work done through his site can be 70 percent less than hiring a traditional consultancy. But another part of the allure is the speed and flexibility. Callaghan says a project can get rolling within days, which is often faster than a consulting firm can show up to have an initial “let’s discuss the scope of the project” meeting.

Kevin Dawson, an IT engineering leader at GE’s oil and gas division, says the combination of speed and the range of skills available on HourlyNerd makes him regard the site as “Uber for expertise.”

How do the big consulting firms view these startups? Miles Everson, US vice chairman at PwC, notes that the country’s workforce is tilting toward more freelancers, and consultants like PwC need to be able to “tap into that labor pool to get the best and brightest talent.” In mid-February, the firm launched a site called PwC Talent Exchange, which allows freelance consultants to participate in PwC projects, but it doesn’t yet allow clients to post projects they need done.

Nav Singh, the managing partner at McKinsey & Co.’s Boston office, says he sees the new marketplaces as “part of the constant innovation going on in the industry,” but that most of his firm’s work involves “sitting down with the CEO and other leaders to figure out what is useful. That journey itself sometimes takes us six or nine months.” That’s very different from a client posting a description of a specific issue with which they need help.

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Biederman at HourlyNerd acknowledges that many clients in the midst of major decisions might want the “rubber stamp” of advice from a well-known firm. But he says there are plenty of opportunities to do other kinds of work for companies.

Surf through the websites of companies like MBA & Co., and you’ll see a growing number of tasks that their experts are willing to take on — from market research to supply chain streamlining. We’re at the beginning of what I believe will be an inexorable shift to more and more knowledge work being done outside of a company’s borders.

Gary Swart is a partner at the Boston investment firm Polaris Partners, and former CEO of a talent marketplace that is now known as Upwork. “In the early days of e-commerce, we were comfortable buying a book from Amazon and a PEZ dispenser with eBay, but as e-commerce has evolved, now we’re now comfortable transacting automobiles, real estate, Rolex watches,” he says. “I think the world of work is not dissimilar. In the early days, we’re comfortable with someone designing a logo, writing some copy, or doing some website coding. But why not a lawyer, an accountant, a strategic consultant?”

You can ignore it. You can hope it won’t happen. But unlike Uber or Airbnb, there’s no question about the legality of these online marketplaces for consulting. So perhaps it’s time to start thinking about how you make yourself indispensable to your current employer, or how you might craft a life as a brain-for-hire.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.