How big companies are cashing in on spiritual advisors

SF-based merger shows how slick websites promoting spiritual consultations have become a tech boomlet

Polished commercial websites promoting spiritual advisers – who can charge up to $50 a minute – are doing a booming business in the COVID era. In a sign of just how successful the websites are, a blockbuster merger in the sector came together in San Francisco on May 2.

Ingenio, a 140-person company with headquarters near Salesforce Tower, has merged with adviqo, a 240-person company based in Berlin. Together the two companies have facilitated over 180 million spiritual consultations.

The companies operate several dozen well-designed websites with great user experience that are well-targeted to different markets. This is a booming little sector of tech, complete with savvy investors.

Money to finance the deal came from Alpine Investors, an $8 billion private equity firm at 1 California, a high-rise near the cable-car turnaround at Market and California streets. Alpine dropped $232 million into Ingenio in August.

Ingenio says its customer base grew 30% since the start of the COVID pandemic, “as people – and especially Millennials – increasingly turned to technology to connect more meaningfully and conveniently.”

Warren Heffelfinger, the CEO of Ingenio, calls his company “eBay for advice,” because it’s an online marketplace of websites where “independent people can buy things from other independent people.”

The advisers don’t work for Ingenio. They conduct business on the company’s more than two-dozen websites catering to different segments of the population. Heffelfinger said his company gets 40%-50% of what the spiritual advisers take in for providing payment processing, advertising and other services.

Hundreds of thousands of people a month pay the roughly 6,000 spiritual guides of the new combined companies for advice.

I asked Heffelfinger how he knows whether his customers are paying a lot but not getting any real help.

“Consumers are coming back and getting repeat engagements with the advisers,” which he said was an indication they were getting something of value. “The marketplace is the ultimate arbiter of the advisers’ success through ratings and reviews.”

I told Ingenio I wanted to try out the platform, and reached out to a “spiritual intuitive” who the website shows has a rating of 4.9 out of 5 stars from 28,000 reviews.

“Greetings : ) What specific questions do you have for wee ones this fine day?” the intuitive texted me on the keen.com website to begin our session.

I identified myself as a reporter and asked what was meant by “wee ones.”

“My faeries : ) They whisper to me what I am to tell you and other clients. : )”

The wee ones’ advice was to “listen to your heart and let God and angels and your guides” show me what to do.

That seemed harmless enough, but perhaps not worth the 10 bucks I paid for seven minutes of texting. That is a rock-bottom price on the website, where rates go up to $49.99 a minute, and seem to typically be from around $10-$20 a minute. I also wondered if a little faerie dust helped to collect 28,000 high reviews.

For what? What qualifications do the spiritual guides have?

“First and foremost, they are great listeners,” Heffelfinger said. They are providing the kind of conversation one might get from a friend or religious leader, and are more convenient than a therapist, he said.

Ingenio says its advice is meant to be “bite-sized,” but even a short call or text conversation could cost hundreds of dollars, which concerns Amy Nofziger, the director of fraud programs for AARP.

“Calling a place that has a one-minute meter charge and not an established price up front is something that can get you into debt and can cause further harm financially and emotionally,” she said. “If someone’s reaching out in a crisis, I would prefer them to call a crisis helpline.”

Nofziger’s advice is to use online psychics for entertainment purposes only, if at all, keeping a close eye on costs. She also advised consulting her organization’s warnings about psychics at aarp.org.

Ingenio says its advisers tell someone in crisis to get medical or psychiatric help. The company says it has “lots of safeguards” in place to protect consumers. You “pay as you go,” depositing money before a consultation, and feeding the meter when that runs out. So you don’t get hit with a huge bill you didn’t expect at the end. The company will also give customers a $25 a month credit if they feel a session didn’t help them.

Despite consumer advocates’ concerns, Ingenio is looking forward to more success. The company says it continues to attract high-quality investors.

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