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Transforming an Industry: How AlphaSights became the leader in knowledge search

March 18 |

The economic problem in society is “the utilization of knowledge, which is not given to anyone in its totality.” Those were the famous words of Philosopher Friedrich Hayek in his 1945 essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” His position was controversial then and still has a profound impact on how we think of knowledge today. Essentially, no person knows everything individually, but when you pool together your resources you’re getting closer to knowing enough to take your business to the next level. 

Twenty years ago, the expert network industry was formed as a way to outsource primary research. People enlisted on a secure platform, identifying themselves as industry experts qualified to consult on specific topics. The platform was then marketed as a complete database of contacts who were readily available and willing to consult ad hoc without the expectation of long-term agreements. In signing up for access to the database, clients were assigned an account team to manage the contacts and organize the logistics of the discussion between the client and the expert. The conversation was required to stay ‘high-level,’ solely discussing macro-trends on an industry or reviews of a product or service. There was an NDA in place so the conversation remained proprietary and no ideas were released.

At the time, the expert network revolutionized the way professional research was conducted. Private equity firms, hedge funds, and consultancies quickly picked up the service as means to rapidly gather intel on a product or industry they were pursuing. Prior to closing a deal, they would schedule calls to talk to experts who could help them mitigate risk and gather ground-level insights. Talking to people who had formerly worked at target companies helped give them the confidence to move forward with their investments — or prevented them from making huge mistakes.

As more and more investment professionals began to rely on these services, it became apparent that the current providers in the space were good, but there was room to be even better. It was clear that providers were able to find people for their clients to speak with; the real question (and what had been ignored by so many providers) was how do you ensure beyond reasonable doubt that you’re connecting clients with the right people?

Early adopters of the service complained that while most calls were helpful in providing strategic direction and insights, many calls were subpar. It became clear that with a stagnant database of self-selecting experts, the availability of relevant knowledge was limited. Allowing people to enlist themselves in the database increased the risk of people inflating the scope of their experience and responsibilities; listed retirees were continuously getting further removed from their respective industries as time increased, allowing their relevant knowledge set to grow stale; the same experts were being placed on projects for competing clients, providing everyone access to the same general information and ultimately minimizing the opportunity for competitive advantage.

AlphaSights founders Max Cartellieri and Andrew Heath recognized these problems and began thinking of a solution that could better determine the fit between the expert and client prior to connection. The two launched AlphaSights in 2008, pioneering the concept of knowledge search. Operating as a bespoke high-touch service, we focus on custom recruiting and individually vet experts for each client’s unique needs. While traditional experts are limited to a static database of experts, our process grants limitless access to the world’s best knowledge. By taking the extra step to confirm that an expert is properly placed to discuss a topic, we have guaranteed a higher match rate between our clients’ questions and the expert’s scope of expertise.

Our differentiators have driven value and disrupted the industry. Within the last nine years of business, we’ve become the trusted partner of 18 of the top 20 private equity firms, 3 of the most prominent strategy consulting firms, and 8 of the 10 top hedge funds worldwide.

As we continued to expand our business, we saw a growing demand in an untapped client sector: Fortune 500 corporations. Former consulting and investor clients who had transitioned into industry-specific roles were continuously reaching out to inquire about bringing AlphaSights with them. Upon moving into their new positions, they were disappointed by the clear lack of research tools available to them compared to their previous jobs. We knew it was time to introduce our capabilities to this market.

We’ve found that working with corporations has further proven the value behind our knowledge search service. The scope of projects and requested individuals submitted by our industry-specific clients are consistently niche and require custom search — to the point that we can confidently say that no ‘network’ would be capable of housing these types of individuals. We spoke with a former client user of an ‘expert network’ who explained it perfectly: “I don’t want someone who has such an ego that they have lost touch with what they’re talking about. They shouldn’t have fine-tuned talking points. They shouldn’t do expert network calls all the time. I want someone who is fresh and spends their time doing whatever they’re dealing with.” These on-the-ground professionals are the exact type of experts we’re experts at finding.

AlphaSights’ process of knowledge search allows our clients at corporations to access people far beyond their internal networks who can give them a completely fresh perspective. These conversations enable our clients to be more creative and innovative in their thinking and business strategy. As industry leaders themselves, they don’t need to speak with someone to ‘get up to speed’ on a subject. Rather, they’re connecting to experts to determine where the industry should be going next.

Greg Sexton joined AlphaSights in January of 2011 and serves as the Vice President of our Corporate accounts.