Marketplace’s Mark Garrison gets hair advice from salon owner James Gartner via Google Helpouts
Marketplace’s Mark Garrison gets hair advice from salon owner James Gartner via Google Helpouts - 
Listen To The Story
Marketplace

This week Google launched Helpouts, which connects users via video chat to people offering help in a number of different fields. You can learn to draw, get fashion tips or sign up for cooking lessons, among many other things. Perhaps because my bosses judge me in need of self-improvement, they assigned me to give it a try and see why Google’s doing this.

My wife frequently mocks my frugal haircuts, so I used this as an opportunity to get style advice, all on Marketplace’s dime. I checked out promo videos to find someone, ultimately signing up with James Gartner, co-founder of Bii Hair Salon, west of Chicago.

His judgment was swift. He said I needed to modernize my "classic" hairstyle. I asked him if classic was just a nice way of saying hopelessly outdated. Both stylist and diplomat, he assured me it wasn’t.

Google takes a 20 percent cut of this session, in this case two bucks. But perhaps more importantly, to do this Helpout, I had to blow thick layers of digital dust off my Google+ account. And I paid with Google Wallet. Pushing more people to use these services is a key part of Google's move into the booming live help market.

"I think it’s a very natural strategy for them," says Constance Helfat, technology strategy professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. "It fits two initiatives they’re trying to push forward that they don’t have major traction in yet."

Many people go online searching for answers. By providing a forum for people to potentially connect with experts offering high-quality information, Google gets to try something beyond its core business of selling online ads.

"At some point, that’ll start slowing down and they need new avenues for revenue," says Sridhar Narayanan, marketing professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

As for those providing Helpouts, like Gartner, it’s an opportunity to make a few bucks on downtime, all while building a brand in a more personal way than just posting a YouTube video. He does that too, which is how he became one of the first to participate in Helpouts. To start, Google has brought on just over 1,000 providers from four English-speaking countries. Gartner says he got the invitation based on his YouTube page and immediately saw the benefits of Helpouts.

"You can really get down to the details," he explains. "With somebody watching a video, you can only see so much before you have other questions."

He even followed up with me, sending a pic to guide my next haircut. It was David Beckham. No Helpout could ever make me look like that.

Follow Mark Garrison at @GarrisonMark