Launching at the Supernova conference Thursday: Ingenio's Ether, a service that handles the mechanics and finances of phone-based consulting. I got a preview of this service a few days ago from Ingenio cofounder Scott Faber.
Scott calls Ether an "eBay for services," but that doesn't explain what the service does, which is this: it gives experts (consultants, therapists, authors, and so on) a phone number they can give out to the public at large. Calls to that number are not immediately connected to the expert. Instead, the expert can define fees for a discussion, as well as acceptable times to make the connection. Once a caller passes through the gates of money and time, the Ether system calls both parties and connects them. Ether keeps 15 percent of the fee as a commission and passes the rest to the expert. There are no setup or subscription fees, so the service is free until it generates income.
Unlike Ingenio's other service, Keen, Ether is not a marketplace (this is another reason the eBay analogy doesn't work). Rather, the idea is that if you're a consultant with a blog (for example, Web 2.0 wonk Pete Cashmore), you put your Ether information there, using a Call Me chiclet that tells the customer more about your services. If you're an author, you put your Ether number (1-888-MYETHER plus an eight-digit extension; custom numbers can be arranged) on your book jacket, and you flash it on the screen when you appear on Oprah's or John Stewart's show. Ether will handle the scheduling and queuing of the people who want to pay to talk to you and leave you alone when you don't want to be bothered.
Ether is targeted at consultants and has fee options that match the way they work: you can charge per minute, per hour (or other block of time), or per call. Keen, in contrast, sells per-minute pricing only and attracts psychics and "flirting" service providers. Ether explicitly bars adult content.
The system has its own calendar where you can define your office hours. It's very clunky to use; Outlook integration would really help (it's coming). Also coming: Skype integration. Right now the system will connect to any phone number, including SkypeIn numbers, but not to Skype accounts directly. Ether may also add a one-to-many feature, so its users could sell access to phone-based courses or conferences.
Ether looks like a good service for consultants. It's important to note that it is not a market and offers no special marketing tools. People won't be finding your $200-an-hour consulting services on Ether.com. Rather, it's designed to go "where trust already exists," Scott told me. So if you already have a nice phone consulting business and want a system that makes it a little easier to manage, or if you have promotion materials in wide circulation already (for example, a book) but don't want to give out your phone number, Ether may be able to help you make a few extra bucks.