Episode: 540 |
Ammad Ahmad:
How Expert Networks Can Add Value to Primary Research:


Ammad Ahmad

How Expert Networks Can Add Value to Primary Research

Show Notes

Will Bachman talks to Ammad Ahmad, founder and managing director of Atheneum, a top global expert network that works with management consulting firms and provides access to niche industry experts, and offers research as a service (RaaS). These experts have spent 20-25 years in a particular function or industry and can provide tacit knowledge and insights from industries. They help clients understand challenges when implementing AI-related solutions in healthcare, due diligence cases, or when a PE firm is looking to make an investment. Atheneum has about 11 offices across the world, ranging from San Francisco to Tokyo, with roughly 500-600 SDEs around the world, and they offer one-to-one expert calls, surveys, quantitative surveys, and reports. The majority of their business comes from the expert session side, where many clients want to meet the experts in person. Ammad started the firm in 2010 after working as a management consultant in Washington, DC. As a management consultant, a large part of his work was research and sourcing expert networks, and vetting the experts. When he moved to Germany, he contacted former colleagues from the consulting arena and suggested setting up a firm to help consulting firms access the industry experts they needed with the primary research required for each project. 


Founding and Scaling Atheneum

Ammad and his co-founder Mathias set up in an incubator where they had access to laptops and interns and were able to get down to business. By week two they had secured projects from their old consulting firms. Every week they were getting requests for experts in Europe or the emerging markets. As time went on, word of mouth spread and they earned more and more clients. Today, Atheneum works with all of the top 10 management consulting firms, many private equity and corporates, and pharmaceutical companies. Atheneum’s core focus areas include healthcare, with offices in New York, San Francisco, Santiago, Berlin, London, Lahore, Pakistan, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Korea. When they were setting up their firm, they found that there was a lack of insight and intelligence into many of those ex-U.S. markets. They recruit experts in the local language. They custom recruit on many projects. This allows them to better screen for quality and match experts for clients, and the expert database themselves are fresh and engaged, and meet requests in new markets. When COVID hit they were inundated with requests for experts which enabled them to differentiate and scale. 


Managing Client Relations

Ammad discusses the importance of staying ahead of client needs and staying informed about their needs. He suggests that independent consultants should stay in front of clients and work hard to understand their needs and provide them with good solutions. He shares his thoughts on staying agile in solutions and products and on top of clients’ needs. He believes that staying ahead of client needs and keeping them informed of possible problems and solutions they may face is crucial for a successful go-to-market plan. This can be achieved through thought leadership pieces, informal meetings, or casual notes about industry trends. This helps the firm be perceived as knowledgeable, has the network and relationships that can offer support, and willing to go the extra mile.


Using AI in Sourcing Experts

Ammad believes it’s too early to tell how AI can help companies and expert networks, but he does mention that Ai can help provide better quality matches to clients, to ensure the expert is who they say they are, and perform better screening. AI can also be used internally to find the best experts in their network by using semantic search and searching through a broad array of research resources on a larger scale that allows the firm to build a larger network. Ammad’s firm provides interview training to many clients, guiding them on how to conduct expert interviews, what to look for, and how to gather and triangulate data. He emphasizes the importance of researching the individual and providing guidance on the types of queries that may come up during a conversation. He discusses the increasing trend in questions and trends in different industries, such as AI in healthcare, ESG, and broad use cases of AI in industries such as automotive. He mentions that, over the last decade, corporates have started utilizing external resources for short-term project needs. This shift is driven by the need to innovate across various industries and seek external insight and information.


Managerial and Leadership Skills 

When it comes to managerial and leadership skills, Ammad emphasizes the importance of understanding people’s motivations and incentivizing them correctly. He believes that providing context and transparency around decision-making is crucial for helping moving people together within the firm. In his morning routine, Ammad wakes up early and takes advantage of the quiet and head space to organize his thoughts and think about what he has to do. He spends time observing the world outside his window, which provides context and puts things into perspective. It’s a time to reflect on what he is doing and how to move forward. He also disconnects from Outlook, which allows him to focus on tasks and research. This practice helps him stay focused and avoid distractions.



01:52 Expert network and consulting firm Athenian Partners

03:11 Growing a consulting firm, go-to-market strategies, and client retention

11:18 AI’s impact on expert networks and internal use of AI for better matches

15:14 Expert networks, interviewing, and industry trends

21:02 Leadership, productivity, and decision-making with Athenian CEO



Website: www.atheneum.ai


One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:


Ammad Ahmad


Ammad Ahmad, Will Bachman


Will Bachman  00:01

Hello, and welcome to Unleashed. I’m your host will Bachman and I’m really excited to be today here with a moto mod, who is the founder and managing director of Athenian partners, a top global expert network. Ahmad, welcome to the show.


Ammad Ahmad  00:19

Hey, thanks. Well appreciate it.


Will Bachman  00:21

So for those who are not familiar with Affinia, give us a quick rundown tell us about your firm.


Ammad Ahmad  00:30

Well, if any, was founded in Berlin, Germany, about 13 years old, and we work a lot across several different management consulting firms, and private equity is also corporates, as well, providing access to niche industry experts. And, you know, typical expert is somebody that has spent maybe 2025 years more in a, in a particular function or in a particular industry, and can really bring that tacit knowledge, those insights from industries like, let’s say, pharmaceutical packaging, as, as an example, or can help our clients understand, you know, the, the challenges when when implementing AI related solutions in healthcare, or, or, you know, helping on a on a due diligence case, or so when when a PE is looking to make an investment. And that’s where, you know, we we provide access for those individuals that can help save time and energy across any of those professional services engagements.


Will Bachman  01:38

Can you give us a sense of scale of Athenaeum? So like how many internal employees you have? How many, you know, calls do you do per years? Just some kind of metrics to give us a sense?


Ammad Ahmad  01:52

Yeah, so VMs, obviously grown, organically over the last 13 years, we have about 11 offices across the world, that’s all the way from San Francisco to Tokyo, roughly speaking about sort of 550, roughly 600 ft E’s around the world as well. We do we do a one to one expert calls, but also surveys, quantitative surveys, and some reports as well. We call those expert back reports. And, and, you know, I guess over from a percentage standpoint, majority of the business is from the expert session side, which is the one to one call, many of our clients want to actually meet the experts in person. And then you know, sort of that becomes a whole engagement of its own.


Will Bachman  02:48

Tell us the story of how you got Athenian partners started, it’s a little chicken and the egg issue, because it’s hard to get clients when you don’t have any experts. But it’s, it’s a big investment to recruit a bunch of experts, if you don’t have any clients paying, you know, bringing in revenue. Tell us the story back I think around 2010, of how you get it off the ground.


Ammad Ahmad  03:11

So I used to be a management consultant back in the day I was living and working in Washington and Washington DC. And, you know, at my my old consulting firm, we use utilize different sorts of expert networks and such, and, obviously, you know, many of these services come out of out of sort of, you know, very high price point. And also back in the day, as a management consultant, you’re tasked with just doing a ton of primary research. And that primary research included finding the individual experts, vetting them, talking to them getting getting your, your specific sort of interview guide completed and done. Now, it’s it can be tedious, it can be tedious, right. And so when I was moving to Germany, off the back of doing an MBA, I got in touch with some of my sort of, you know, colleagues, former peers and such, from the consulting background, and I said, Hey, listen, you know, I know we have tons of projects, which are focused on Europe and the emerging markets. So why don’t we set up a firm where Xenium can help provide access to build industry experts to do primary research and to help to help on any primary research related engagements. And long story short, you know, when I was I was in Germany, Berlin, great entrepreneurial sort of environment. The the network of the school I went to there was fantastic from a access to entrepreneurs VCs. And, and you know, pretty soon me and my co founder Matias, also an ex management consultant, you know, we had we had a small space at an incubator, we had access to things like laptops and interns and whatnot. And we were able to really get down to business. It was probably in, in, in week number two, I’d say, where I got some projects from my own consulting firm and sorted my partner. And pretty soon, it just sort of, you know, skyrocketed from there. Like, every, every week, we were getting requests of, you know, looking for experts in Europe or the emerging market. And then, and then as, as time went on, as one might know, you know, the, the PE circle of the management consulting circle of peers and relationships is rather small and well lit it. And so word word of mouth spreads. And we managed to get more and more clients. Today, we work with all of the top 10 management consulting firms out there, many private equities and corporates as well. And pharmaceutical companies. So that that’s sort of you know, how we grew the scale? Yeah.


Will Bachman  06:09

What would you say are the core focus areas, either in geography or industry or function? I know, we spoke earlier, you’re telling you explain to me that healthcare is a real focus of yours in Europe, or any other industries that where you particularly have put a lot of focus?


Ammad Ahmad  06:30

I guess. So if you think about us as a company, right, what many of our offices are in outside sort of X us countries, right, right now we have, we have two offices in the US with New York and San Francisco. And then we have offices in Santiago, Berlin, London, of course, where I am then also Lahore, Pakistan, as well as Shanghai, Tokyo and Korea. And what we found was that when we were setting up the firm, there was a, there was a lack of insight and intelligence into many of those markets, many of those x US markets, and there was a large sort of flow of funds going into those markets as well. We have offices in those locations, because we managed to recruit in the local language, when we, when we talk to experts, we talk to them in the local languages, it allows for better matching quality, better screening quality as well, because we do a lot of custom based recruitment, which is, you know, like you said, when you start off, you don’t have a large network. So So what do you do, you’re essentially recruiting fresh experts on pretty much every project. And today, we’re also custom recruiting on many, many projects, which allows us to keep the expert database fresh and engaged, not only because, you know that, that allows us to better match for screening and better match for quality. But also the topics change, right? A couple of years ago, folks weren’t talking about AI related elements in healthcare or any other industry, that when when COVID hit, we were we were inundated with requests around the pharmaceutical testing procedures and such as well. So that so that really allowed us to differentiate and scale and build a better quality matching process. Based on the the scale of the offices that we had in the international locations.


Will Bachman  08:51

What have you learned about building and managing a go to market sales function, you know, the business development function? What have you learned in your years? thenew?


Ammad Ahmad  09:08

Thank God great question. I think I’ll answer it in a couple of different ways. So you got to stay a dial, you got to you got to stay in front of your customer understand, you know, what they want because in in the environment where we are the requirements, they keep changing and staying on top of your client’s needs is just you have to be really paying a lot of attention to that. And then being a doll in the sense of delivering solutions and products that they need a warrant that services particular request. And having having having a keen eye to that is super important. Last but not least, I think you Just, I would say, networking and talking to people about what their needs are, how do we find, find a way to service their particular needs and and you know, as a as a sort of, as a founder, I would say, you just have to stay in front of your clients and work super hard to make sure that you know what they need, and you’re able to provide them with good solutions at the end of the day.


Will Bachman  10:30

So your tip on the following question could be helpful to a lot of listeners who are independent consultants. So let’s say that you Athenian has served a client, but let’s say it’s not a big client, you’ve served them on a project, you know, maybe it’s a small private equity firm, or a VC shop, or something you’ve served them a year ago, what does the theme do to just stay top of mind with that client? Do you send out like email updates on a here’s a, you know, new expert in our community? Or here’s a topics that we’re seeing people like you ask about, or do you have a human call them up? Or how do you stay top of mind with clients that aren’t, you know, engaging you every day?


Ammad Ahmad  11:18

I think a couple of things for a while, you know, I’m not going to get into like sort of the structural sort of details of our business development related activities. But I will tell you this, I think it’s it’s staying ahead of the client’s needs, knowing what might be coming around the corner. And keeping them informed is super important. Now, that could be in the form of thought leadership pieces, it could be in the form of informal meetings, or just casual notes around what you’re hitting and seeing and feeling in that particular industry where your client is either investing or, or wherever they’re operating. I think that’s absolutely important. Because you want to be able to be perceived as somebody that A has the insights and the knowledge B has the network and the trust based relationship, where you’ve supported their needs in the past, and C, are willing to go the extra mile. And I think that sort of encompasses, to some degree, like a go to market plan, which is, you know, which is, which is great. My explanation is probably a little bit sort of high level. But maybe it helps answer the question.


Will Bachman  12:41

What are you seeing as the impact of all these new AI tools, chat GPT, and its brethren on expert networks? So there are certain types of questions where you need very specific numbers about a very specific company. And my intuition is that those you’ll continue to need to talk to humans, some of the more processed type things, if you’re trying to understand what’s a typical processing industry or something. Some of that, you know, you can get some pretty good answers, just like basic explanations of how does this industry work? I’m curious if you’re seeing a change in the mix of the types of queries you get, or what’s the what do you think the impact of of AI will be on the expert network industry?


Ammad Ahmad  13:29

Yeah, good question. You know, I think it’s too early to tell right now, to be honest, I think everybody is still getting accustomed to many of the different ways and tools that AI can help. I’m very sure that AI is going to be a enabler in many parts of the information services world where where we operate. And as, as an example, I think from from our standpoint, we’re able to utilize tools like Chad GPT, and others that we’re developing in house, to be able to provide better quality matches to our clients to be able to make sure that the expert is indeed who they say they are, be able to do better screening, as well. So that’s where I feel AI for companies like ours is, is truly an enabler to make to make the end the end product a lot better.


Will Bachman  14:29

I’m curious, can you share anything that is non confidential about how you’re using AI internally to find the best the best expert in in your network?


Ammad Ahmad  14:43

Well, I mean, while some of this is probably already out there published in parts of our websites and our other other papers and sites that we’ve done, but the crux of it comes down to utilizing semantic sense And, and being able to make sure that we’re searching through a broad array of research resources, that that, you know, encapsulates many different types of experts and content. And that’s where I think the search mechanisms Get, get a pickup so much scale, because you can’t do that with humans. And at the end of the day, it helps you put forward a better list of industry participants that will be relevant to a particular project.


Will Bachman  15:35

Curious if you have put together some thoughts around how users of an expert network can get the most out of that expert call? Do you have tips to share on how to create a really powerful and compelling interview guide that’s going to get what you what you want? Any tips on, you know, the right questions to ask or the wrong questions to ask.


Ammad Ahmad  16:02

I think while I won’t be able to point to any specific questions, per se, we actually do provide interview training to many of our clients as well. And that encapsulates sort of, you know, going through with their new starters, or or, you know, younger folks within the firm, to outline how to do expert interviews, what to look for, and sort of you know, how to carry carry through a conversation and triangulate elements of data, that they’re gathering across a set of phone calls as well. At a very high level, it is essentially doing your research on the particular individual that one may be speaking to, and providing some guidance to them up front, around the types of queries that will come up in a particular sort of, you know, expert interview session. And then, and then you’re introducing them to the topic, and at the same time, leaving that leaving that whole sort of interview opportunity open for a two way dialogue, because it’s, it’s got to be a two way dialogue for them to also participate collaboratively. And that has really helped us.


Will Bachman  17:27

I’m curious if you’re seeing a trend in the types of questions that people ask or if any, or even sort of what industries are interesting, or what functional areas are interesting. You mentioned a couple with COVID, and so forth. But do you have you looked at the kind of trends of functional areas industries, anything that pops out is interesting.


Ammad Ahmad  17:56

I think at this point in time, you know, there’s, there’s a lot more to seeing around AI in healthcare. And most, most recently, ESG has been a very hot topic, as one might imagine, as well. And then also broader, broader use cases of AI in different industries, including automotive.


Will Bachman  18:21

How about the users of expert networks? Have you seen that mix changing at all? Certainly, consultants are heavy consumers what? Yeah, yeah. And sort of VCs and investors? Have you seen any kind of increasing adoption among corporate users or any other changes on that side?


Ammad Ahmad  18:41

Yeah, absolutely. I think I think over the last 1010 years or so, increasingly, corporates are coming to terms with utilizing external resources for short term sort of project needs, including the likes of having goals with experts and such. And, and they’re, you know, in particularly in this particular environment, I think that even more, they’re more comfortable with paying, paying the kinds of rates as well, and that, that you know, helps, because, you know, typically, corporates have have not been big spenders on external resources for for knowledge sharing related related elements. And I think right now, there is a need to innovate across various industries that need to innovate drives, seeking external insight, and information on what might be going on and other parts of the world or other parts of the value chain, or other industries that operate in a similar manner. And that sort of drives this Uh, this need to talk to people outside of their particular neck network, because corporates are, you know, they’re quite, they’re quite attuned to a key market and they know everything about the market or that type of product. But they may not know so much about what, what goes on and other adjacent markets and such, as well. So So I think with with the drive to innovation, that is supporting the case for expert networks, and also independent consultants.


Will Bachman  20:33

You’re now running an organization with I think you mentioned that over 500, over 600 employees before you started, Athenaeum, in my understanding is your management consultant, you might have been on some teams that edit, you know, handful of people are but not leading a big organization, what do you know, now that you would have found valuable to know, in terms of managerial and leadership skills? That would have been you did not have when you started the firm?


Ammad Ahmad  21:08

I think so, in companies like like hours, and in this particular industry, and many other industries as well, your people are super important. And understanding people understanding their motivations, understanding what drives them, and being able to incentivize them correctly and setting up those structures, right, from the early days is super important. And I think I’ve learned so much about that, over over the last years that that I may not have known as, as a young management consultant, setting up my own shop. So I think the importance of people and people related functions is, is is that’s just super important. Number one, number two, I would say providing context, transparency, and just focusing on one or two key things, from a people standpoint, can also help you help help take you take your miles further, versus trying to do everything under the sun. And, you know, from an HR people context standpoint, I think providing that transparency in that context helps, because what may be really a pattern to leadership at any company may not be a pattern through, you know, a young intern or refresher associated or what have you. That’s, that’s just joining. And sometimes, you know, I think folks at many companies might take that for granted. And I think so one of the things that I’ve learned is just the, the importance of providing that raw context around decision making. In as in as direct away as possible, helps move people together with you.


Will Bachman  23:10

Amazing. I’d love to hear a little bit more about your own personal production function, what Tyler Cowen calls production function, how do you typically spend your typical day or week? Do you have any practices like some leaders do of carving out certain amount of time to do X where they’re not interrupted? Or I’m just curious about some of the practices that you’ve developed? To stay productive?


Ammad Ahmad  23:41

Yeah, I guess so. You know, one of them is waking up early, when it’s so quiet. And, you know, the kids are still in bed and sort of the, you know, my phone’s not not sort of buzzing just yet. And that gives you some sort of clear headspace. I think that really helps me understand and figure out what I want to do and get accomplished on that particular day. That particular week.


Will Bachman  24:05

What’s your morning? What’s your morning routine? What’s the first hour look like for you?


Ammad Ahmad  24:12

The first hour is I guess it’s I mean, it’s different on different days, but there’s definitely coffee involved there is there’s there’s definitely sort of looking out of the window. And, and, you know, whatever I’m seeing outside my window just sort of observing whether it’s, you know, leaves moving or birds or or, you know, the light sort of slowly starting to the sun slowly starting to come come in through the window and such and I think that that sort of calmness provides, provides a lot of context and also put things into perspective. It’s, it’s the time when you know, when one can reflect without interruption on And what are we doing? And why are we doing it? And how do we how do we move this forward? So I think that’s, you know, that’s the sacred that time almost the other the other practice that, you know, I’ve also, or many, many of them, many of my colleagues and vaults around or on my circles and such is to actually disconnect from Outlook. And, you know, Outlook as, as this function, because then we obviously, we spent a bunch time on emails and such outlook has this function where you know, you just work offline. And super easy. I think that enhances productivity. Because you can just singularly focus on whatever’s in front of you, whether that’s a paper you’re trying to write, or whatever, whatever else you’re trying to research. That’s, I think, especially in this day and age, a lot of young people because they’re used to having multiple sort of sources of information and data all around them, they almost forget to turn things off. And, and just focus. So you know, hitting the go offline bucking is a big one for me.


Will Bachman  26:16

so valuable. For listeners that want to find out more about Athenian, maybe you could tell us where to find you online, and what does it take for someone to become a customer of Athena, if they wanted to use your service to book calls? If for the general public here, if they don’t, you know, if their firm doesn’t have one, what does it take to get set up?


Ammad Ahmad  26:42

Yeah, pretty straightforward, super easy. They can, they can get in touch with us online. And, you know, there’s the opinion dashboards.com Or, and we’re able to very quickly respond to their particular requests. Also, because, you know, we’re pretty much working on our 24/7 cycle, given the extent of the offices and the people that we have around, so that that is typically the best way to get in touch. Otherwise, of course, you know, folks can get in touch with us over LinkedIn as well. And, yeah, that’s about it. www.seannal.ai


Will Bachman  27:25

Okay. We will include that link in the show notes. Ahmad, thank you so much for joining us today.


Ammad Ahmad  27:34

Sure, thanks. Well, appreciate it. Take care.

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