Just In Time for Tax Day, Task.fm Offers Instant Expertise

3/27/12Follow @wroush

Turn back the clock to mid-April, 2011. The IRS deadline is approaching fast, and the founders of a Mountain View, CA-based startup called Task.fm are scrambling to finish their personal tax returns.

“In true startup fashion, we did it at the last minute, and we had a couple of questions we couldn’t answer,” says co-founder Adora Cheung. “At that point we were cash poor, so we had to choose between reallocating ramen-and-caffeine money for an accountant, or risking an IRS audit.”

The returns got filed, but the panic prompted some bigger questions—and a major shift in the company’s business strategy. “We talked to people in similar situations, and their question was always ‘Why can’t I find someone reliable to answer my question when I most need it?,’” says Cheung. “We set out to solve this problem, and the solution is what you see today on Task.fm.”

Task.fm, an alumnus from the summer 2010 class of startups nurtured at Y Combinator, plans to announce this week that its Web-based marketplace for advice and answers is open to the public after several weeks of private beta testing. The company has screened close to 2,000 experts, who are ready to answer questions on a sliding pay scale that’s adjusted depending on how quickly a user needs the answer.

It’s almost April again, and the largest single group of experts on the site are CPAs and tax consultants—so Task.fm is emphasizing its tax-advice service. But the startup’s “expert councils” can also answer questions in areas like education, health and fitness, career matters, marketing, relationships, and sales.

Cheung says the answer to a question she asked Task.fm’s tax council last week, about franchise taxes on companies incorporated in Delaware, helped the startup avoid a big fine. For regular customers, answers cost $10 to $50, payable by credit card. “If you want your answer in an hour, it’s going to cost a lot more than if you are willing to wait until the end of the day,” she says.

Task.fm certainly isn’t the first online marketplace connecting consumers with paid experts. Back in 2009, for example, we covered a Waltham, MA-based startup called Zintro that helps investors, marketers, and others set up private telephone consultations with industry experts. And free question-answering sites abound, from Quora to Ask.com to Yahoo Answers.

But one big difference between Task.fm and other Q&A sites, according to Cheung, lies in the screening and verification process to which Task.fm’s experts are subjected. “At other Q&A sites what has happened is that the experts are clearly not at the top of their professions, but we have met with these people. We have CPAs who have 30 years of experience or more, and people who write tax columns for professional journals.”

Also, all questions are handled privately, rather than being splashed across a public website. A final enticement: the price. “You can get something answered for a fraction of the cost you would pay by actually hiring a CPA,” Cheung says.

As the name Task.fm suggests, the startup didn’t actually set out to build a question-answering marketplace, though connecting people with experts was always part of the point. The company’s first creation was a community of freelance experts who agreed to help one another publish articles on the Web for marketing and search engine optimization purposes. Cheung says the startup picked the .fm domain—which technically belongs to the Federated States of Micronesia, but is often used by Internet radio or streaming-audio companies—because it carried the suggestion of a “listening channel or advice channel for your everyday life.”

“We were working on that up to the point of this tax problem that we had,” says Cheung, who co-founded the startup with her younger siblings Aaron Cheung and Alexander Cheung. “Then we were like, ‘We have this great community. What if they were willing to answer questions from people?’ We started talking with the experts, and they all loved the idea.”

Task.fm earns revenue by keeping a 10 percent slice of each expert’s fee. Cheung says that before letting experts respond to questions, the startup puts them through three levels of screening: It verifies their claimed credentials, it asks other experts to vouch for them, and it interviews them to make sure they’re skilled in the job of dispensing advice quickly and accurately.

But Cheung acknowledges that no matter what she claims about the rigors of the screening process, the service is still young, and the startup will have to win users’ loyalty over time. “It’s going to take time to build trust throughout the whole U.S. and the world, but I think people will quickly realize, once they’ve used the site, that they have nothing to fear.” Except, of course, the IRS.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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