Money Makers: the free- for-all for freebies

Olivia Rink © Getty images
Olivia Rink: not impressed by the fakers

Dusit Thani, a five-star resort on Mudhdhoo Island in the Maldives, is exasperated with the number of social-media “influencers” asking for free stays in return for coverage on their accounts. Influencers can be valuable for promoting brands, but “everyone with a Facebook [page] these days is an influencer”, marketing manager Kate Jones tells Taylor Lorenz in The Atlantic. “These people are expecting five to seven nights on average, all inclusive.”

The resort has all but stopped working with influencers after Jones discovered that many just wanted a pretty backdrop for their swimsuit photos. “Ten different bikini pictures a day on the beach is great for the bikini firm,” says Jones, “but… it could be anywhere in the Maldives.” That’s not great for business.

A few “millennial influencers” do have serious clout, says the BBC’s Mary-Ann Russon. But it seems that many others have been gaming the system, buying armies of “followers” from firms that use automated “bots” to create fake accounts and simulate interactions, known as “engagement”. Consumer-goods giant Unilever last week demanded “greater transparency” in the industry, adding that consumers no longer trusted influencers and brands that work with them.

“I am so against bots,” says New York-based Olivia Rink, a fashion and lifestyle blogger, who spent four years building her audience. “It’s very discouraging… I work extremely hard to create unique and authentic content that I know my readers will enjoy.” She and other genuine influencers now face a battle to convince other firms not to follow Unilever’s example.

How we built a better metal detector

Simon Goodyear, 52, worked at defence contractor QinetiQ, making submarine trackers and landmine detectors, says Liam Kelly in The Sunday Times. But he became frustrated that his technology wasn’t “being taken into the real world”. So in 2005 he left to do an MBA at the Open University and set up metal-detector company Metrasens in his garage with former colleagues Mark Keene and Matt Wooliscroft. For two years the venture was self-funded – they then raised £250,000 from angel investors.

Traditional metal detectors emit electromagnetic signals; the Metrasens system instead monitors distortions in the earth’s magnetic field caused by metals. This has led to it being installed in prisons to reduce stabbings: “There’s nothing you can do to shield that metal from the sensor. You can put flesh or a lead box around it, but we will find it,” says Goodyear. “Gangs in prisons try to destroy our technology. That’s a good sign — it means it works.” The Worcestershire-based firm made pre-tax profits of £631,000 on £7.7m of sales in 2016, over 70% of which came from the US.

Healing through virtual reality

Tej Tadi, 36, grew up in Hyderabad, India, where both of his parents were doctors, says Kathryn Nave in Wired. Rather than follow in their footsteps, Tadi enrolled at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne in 2004 to begin a master’s degree in virtual reality (VR). His first project was to develop a more realistic walking motion in virtual avatars. So Tadi took regular trips to a nearby hospital to visit patients with motor impairments, such as Parkinson’s disease, to study how the brain worked. “Being exposed to the injured brain and how it functions really helps you to then better understand the healthy brain,” he says.

In 2012 Tadi began his PhD and founded MindMaze. His goal was to use VR to trick the brains of stroke victims into “rewiring” or healing themselves. Its first product – MindMotion Go – was launched in 2015. It uses a camera to allow patients to move a virtual arm on screen by moving their real arm. The patient then completes ever-harder exercises. The following year, MindMaze became Switzerland’s first start-up to hit a billion-dollar valuation, thanks to a $100m investment from the Indian conglomerate Hinduja Group.


The $5bn side-project

Stuart ButterfieldStewart Butterfield (pictured above), 46, was brought up in a Canadian commune after his father fled the US to avoid serving in the Vietnam War, says Daniel Thomas on BBC News. “My parents were  hippies”, says Butterfield, who was known as “Dharma” before he changed his name when he was 12.

Butterfield was always interested in computers, teaching himself to code by making basic computer games from the age of seven. But he lost interest at school, and ended up with a master’s degree in philosophy from Cambridge University. By that point it was 1997 and the internet had “really started to take off”. Butterfield’s friends were making websites and earning “three times as much as… professors were making”. So he quit academia for web design. In 2004 he launched photo-sharing site Flickr with his then-wife, selling it a year later for $25m to Yahoo (he now wishes he had held out for more).

But his biggest success came while creating an online game in 2009. The game eventually failed, but he and his colleagues realised that the team communication tool they had built might be valuable to other companies. Today, Slack is valued at $5.1bn, and is used by 70,000 companies worldwide.