Money makers: the billionaire who can’t turn a profit

Ev Williams
Ev Williams: an “idealistic Nebraska farm boy”

Ev Williams was an “idealistic Nebraska farm boy” when he headed out west to Silicon Valley in the late 1990s, says Danny Fortson in The Sunday Times.

“Fascinated by the seemingly limitless possibilities of this new thing called the internet,” he made his first fortune by selling start-up Blogger to Google, but then his new podcast venture was rendered “irrelevant overnight” when Apple decided to make podcasts available on iTunes in 2005. Regrouping with a few friends Williams (pictured) launched Twitter the following year. He still seems shocked by the notoriety his own creation has achieved.

Williams remains a major shareholder at the microblogging service, but was forced out of his front-row seat in a boardroom coup in 2010. These days he is focusing his energies on saving news media through his online publisher Medium. He says that advertising-based revenue models that prioritise clicks over quality are “undermining the promise of the internet”.

His latest idea is to replace clicks with an “applause” icon to measure audience response. He clearly has vision, but he was forced to lay off 50 people at Medium and close offices in January this year, while Twitter remains heavily loss-making. “It has been almost 20 years of seeing around corners, but Williams has yet to create a profitable business of any size. And he’s a billionaire.”

Desserts in the desert

In 2014 Raki Phillips took a risk and entered what he knew was a crowded marketplace – online food-delivery, says Suparna Dutt D’Cunha for Forbes. “At the time, the online food-delivery business in Dubai was worth $750m a year,” says Phillips.

Yet “the dessert category was almost non-existent”, save for cupcakes and Arabic sweets. So Phillips and his friends Jawad Yehia and Alan Honein set up SugarMoo, which sells “East meets West” puddings such as “cupookie, kunafeh cheesecake and saffron mousse rice pudding in a jar”.

The trio sunk their personal savings into the venture and raised more money from friends and family to open a central kitchen with an e-commerce platform. “We raised about $950,000, which was a big amount to start a small business in Dubai,” says Phillips. Three years later and the trio’s “epicurean gamble” has paid off, with 300% growth year-on-year.

The group now has three physical outlets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but more than half of its revenue come from online orders. Competition in the UAE is becoming fiercer as foreign giants such as Deliveroo and UberEats enter the market. But Phillips remains confident about maintaining SugarMoo’s niche position. It will roll out its first sit-down cafés in Dubai soon and has plans to grow further afield.

Are you the heir to an unclaimed fortune?

Daytime TV aficionados will know Finders International as the business that provides genealogists for the BBC’s Heir Hunters, says Elliott Haworth in City AM. Founder and CEO Danny Curran “spends his days trawling through birth, death, and marriage records” to track down the heirs to unclaimed estates. It’s a £50m industry, and Curran’s firm is dominant, thanks to the show.

The business is still low-tech. When Curran launched the company back in the 1990s, the internet offered little help to the start-up genealogist. “We had to go to a place called the Family Records Centre. It opened two evenings a week and on Saturdays,” he recalls. Attempts to digitise records since then have foundered due to concerns over privacy. “So ironically, here we are in 2017, going to Westminster Library every day to check death records on microfiche – it’s absurd,” says Curran.

Much of Finders’ work involves helping people track down distant relations listed on a will. But a record number of estates are being listed as intestate. Curran says that a will exists in a fifth of such cases, but it can be a challenge to uncover. Today, government agency Bona Vacantia publishes a list of unclaimed estates online, but the move has attracted fraudsters keen to pocket inheritances. In the age of the internet, the work of leafing through old documents remains as relevant as ever.

The MoneyWeek audit: Tom Petty

Thomas Earl Petty, the quintessential American rock star who died last week aged 66, was born in Gainesville Florida in 1950. When he was ten years old an impromptu meeting with Elvis Presley, who was passing through Gainesville, inspired Petty to take up music. He went on to found the Heartbreakers in LA in 1976 and the group had its first hit a year later with Breakdown. He sold more than 80 million records in a career that spanned five decades.

Forbes reported in 2011 that Petty and the Heartbreakers had earned $38m between them in that year. Billboard reports that Petty netted $6.7m in 2014 after the release of No.1 album Hypnotic Eye. Yet the music didn’t always pay so well. Petty declared bankruptcy in 1979 to escape an unfavourable contract with his record label that had paid him peanuts for two previous hit albums.

He clashed again with record executives in 1981 when label MCA tried to release Hard Promises at the “superstar” price of $9.98 ($1 more than the usual price and about $28 in today’s money). Petty fought back hard, threatening to retitle it “The $8.98 Album” on behalf of his fans. In the end, Petty prevailed.

Petty’s “message was clear: treat artists well, or else”, says Emmie Martin for CNBC. His “groundbreaking bankruptcy claim stands as a benchmark for artists’ rights”. His defiance changed the music industry, prompting other musicians to follow his example. Yet for all his wealth and combativeness, Petty “may have been the least polarising figure in rock history”, says Chris Willman in Variety. For his millions of fans he was “a thoroughly relatable everyman” who just happened to be a superstar.