Richard Fine, 61, runs a busy law practice in Houston, but that’s not the only way he shares his legal expertise. He earns six figures each year through the site Pearl.com, an online Q&A website where professionals like him answer questions from members of the public who have joined the community. The price for typical questions Fine answers (say, how to deal with a threat from a collection agency) ranges around $10 to $25, depending on what readers say the answer is worth to them. “They’re everyday folks who are in the silent majority of the world that doesn’t have a lot of money,” says Fine, who began answering questions for money on the site in 2009. “They have a problem they are scared about. You are able to help them.” As an online expert he is free to choose the questions he answers.
For years, professionals have been answering questions on social networking sites for professionals, like LinkedIn and the small-business community Manta, to raise their profile and uncover business leads. Now, a small but growing number are selling their expertise on Q&A websites, which range from multi-expert platforms to sites run by a single professional who wants to get paid to answer questions by consulting with distant clients.
Pearl, one of the biggest forums, has grown to about 10,000 experts in fields as varied as appliance repair, career coaching and medicine since it was founded in 2003. “We’re trying to focus on big, popular categories,” says Andy Kurtzig, CEO and founder of the San Francisco firm, which has raised more than $50 million in venture capital. Maestro Market, a competitor based in the same city, offers tips from just over 1,000 professionals, with career experts the most sought-after, according to founder Ian Shea.
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Answering questions on these sites can be a convenient way for experienced pros to make money during hours they can’t book otherwise, or it can supplement a retirement income. On Pearl.com, the average monthly earnings are about $1,500, but some in-demand experts bring in $30,000 or more per month, according to Kurtzig. Answering questions for money is a relatively new field that’s evolving quickly, so it takes a strategic approach to generate a substantial income this way. Follow these 5 tips.
Evaluate your skill set. Applications for the big sites are involved and sometimes require subject-matter tests, so before you invest your time becoming an online expert, check whether your skills match the interests of the audience.
“You want to make sure it’s an area the general public is asking about on a regular basis, and that they would be willing to pay for,” advises Tyler Zimmerman, an appliance repair specialist outside Denver, who says he brings in a six-figure annual income by answering questions for money on Pearl.com. You can get a sense of the most popular categories by looking at the experts highlighted on a site's home page. Pearl.com, for instance, mentions doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, mechanics, computer technicians, electronics technicians and home repair pros.
Look at Q&A websites. Expert forums may take a substantial cut of your earnings in exchange for exposing you to their audience. Maestro Market, for instance, takes 20% of what you earn from each job. For some experts, a free social networking site may be a more cost-effective route to getting new business. Christine Hueber, who runs her own marketing training and coaching business in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, California, gets about 99% of her new business through LinkedIn. She gets paid to answer questions that users post online for all to see and shares posts from her blog in the roughly 50 LinkedIn groups to which she belongs. Often, engaging in a conversation with other members makes them want to work with her, and they will hire her as a coach or purchase her ebook, she says. “Get active in groups where your ideal clients or audience is,” advises Hueber.
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Consider a Q&A website’s marketing approach. To make sure its experts get enough business, Maestro Market, founded in 2009, works with them to select the right offering and craft an appealing description.For example, in a home page deal, job seekers can purchase a 60-minute $99 session with a negotiation consultant called “Get a great salary right out of college.” If you’re not sure which of your services are most marketable or how to promote yourself on the web, a site like this could be a good fit. “What we found is that the experts are good at doing what they’re doing. What they’re not good at is doing marketing,” says Shea.
Customer service counts. On Pearl, customers only authorize the site to pay you if they are satisfied with your answer. A little TLC can go a long way. “You do your best to comfort and help them,” says Fine. Answering questions clearly, so a layperson can understand, is paramount. “Relaying it to the customer in a way that they can understand it takes decent writing skills,” says Zimmerman.
Pay the tax man. If you are used to getting your income in a regular paycheck from an employer or in checks from freelance clients, you may find the payment methods of expert sites unfamiliar. While Maestro Market pays its experts by check or PayPal and issues a 1099-misc form to use in filing taxes, Pearl has opted for a different approach. It pays its experts to answer questions exclusively through PayPal; PayPal sends out 1099-K only for account holders who have brought in a gross annual income of at least $20,000 and done 200 transactions or more. Even if you don’t get a 1099, you’re still responsible for paying taxes on the money you earn, say experts.
“Since they are treated like freelance workers, individual freelancers will pay taxes to the IRS at the self-employment tax rate, unless the expert is a corporate entity, and thus pays taxes at the corporate tax rate,” says attorney Chelsea P. Ferrette, based in Washington, D.C.
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Typically, such income is reported on Schedule C, says Jonathan Weber, an IRS Volunteer Assistance Tax Preparer and founder of the site Tax-Rates.org, a portal of U.S. tax information. That can complicate your tax filing and add to your accounting costs. “Popular tax software, like TurboTax, often requires you to buy a higher-level version to support Schedule C income,” he says.
However, there’s an upside: You can deduct business expenses: “If you have a retiree who’s answering questions for money even on a part-time basis, they can purchase a new laptop, a cell phone, reference materials, etc.,” says Weber.
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