Online business offers expert guidance to students

Andrew Friedl, 2009 alumnus in Engineering, was buried in textbooks and difficult material when he realized that he had a problem even Google couldn’t fix: there was no trusted, central location for him to find help.

For someone whose mind had been geared toward innovation and entrepreneurship since the age of 5, the lack of resources proved to be a moment of clarity. Friedl has spent the past three years developing Aptello, the Web-based business that he calls the “eBay for services.”

With the help of the Illinois Launch program, which provides consulting and a variety of other resources for student entrepreneurs, the business has grown and continues to receive help from EnterpriseWorks. Located in Research Park, the business incubator provides a home base for technology-based start-ups and limits the financial burdens of renting office space and other business costs that would otherwise inhibit the companies’ growth.

Focused on tutorials and other educational resources, Aptello gives users a place to buy and sell expert guidance through topics like resumé critiques, paper editing, mock interviews, calculus tutoring, and more — all from the comfort of home.

Hanna Zhong, co-founder of Aptello, said that the site’s chief feature is its video conference tool. People can meet in this online conference room, where a whiteboard, document-upload capabilities and live chat allow people to interact and communicate effectively while still maintaining security and convenience.

Zhong said that with many other companies that sell services, buyers must negotiate a meeting place, consider the safety of meeting a stranger and discuss prices. Aptello is intended to eliminate these concerns because it allows users to seek services as they need them instead of having to schedule far in advance. Currently, a .edu email address and payment using a token system are required to participate online.

A user will purchase a minimum of $10 worth of tokens through Aptello, and as they use services, charges will be deducted from their tokens. Aptello profits with a 10 percent service fee from the sellers, who can then also use their profits to buy services from other sellers, Friedl said.

Students can access around 400 services posted from sellers at Loyola University, the University of Illinois-Chicago and Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern University, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis University and the University of Chicago.

Greg Wilson, business development lead and Friedl’s cousin, said the online conference rooms have attracted various student organizations that signed up to use Aptello instead of in-person meetings. It limits the difficulty of finding a mutually convenient meeting time and allows for the same kind of information exchange, he said.

In recent months, Aptello has experienced increased traction, in large part due to two newly-hired M.B.A students who focus on the development of marketing and promoting among faculty and students, Friedl said.

The company is separated into business and technology departments, but the unified feel of the company has been essential to its success so far, Wilson said.

Any time interviews are conducted, the 14 people currently on the staff are encouraged to participate in the decision process because the close-knit nature of the company requires that everyone works well together, he said.

As the only member of the team who has never been a student at the University, Wilson said he appreciates this kind of atmosphere. The 2007 graduate of Eastern Illinois University was an education major, but found Aptello to be an ideal combination of his interest in business and his education background.

“I’ve always loved business, but I also had the passion to educate people, to teach people and to lead people,” Wilson said. “And I think that’s why I’m a great fit in what I’m doing.”

That’s why three years after Friedl called on Wilson for temporary help with the business elements of his company, Wilson is still on board and working full time to develop Aptello into Friedl’s and the rest of the team’s ultimate vision.

“I see Aptello becoming a platform for all different types of services,” he said. “We knew education, and that’s why we started with that, but we don’t necessarily want to be just education. If you need legal, medical or any kind of advice, and you need it right away or want to get consult from the comfort of the home, Aptello will be able to offer it to you.”

_Maggie can be reached at [email protected] _