In 2010, Ilse Valfré quit her nursery teaching job in San Diego, California, to focus on her blog – even though it meant moving back home across the border to Tijuana, says the BBC’s Jennifer Ceaser. “I would draw these women wearing fashions that I couldn’t afford and share them on my blog,” says Valfré, 30. But her drawings, influenced by Japanese animation, drew a loyal following on social media and in 2013, she launched the Valfré fashion brand.
Her tote bags and T-shirts have since become popular with celebrities, such as actresses Jessica Alba and Emma Roberts. The firm has grown quickly, posting sales of $2m in 2016. Valfré credits one product in particular for the brand’s success: a 3D silicone mobile-phone case in the shape of a milk carton with the words “100% boys tears”. “There were so many girls, especially in Korea and Japan… taking ‘selfies’ pretending to drink out of the straw. It opened up the market in Asia for us.”
An insurance app that helps the homeless
It’s fair to say the insurance industry has an image problem, says Ben Chapman in The Independent. “The big issues with insurance are that it’s misleading; it’s difficult; it’s confusing and it’s ugly,” agrees Chris Sharpe, cofounder (with Russell Merrett) of Kinsu, a socially responsible app selling insurance that was soft-launched in November 2017.
“Insurance companies have these 1990s websites that ask 50 questions about what shape is your roof, what’s in your chest of drawers, what colour your underwear is… it’s horrible. It sort of sucks the life out of you.” Kinsu, whose tagline is “No grey areas, no bullsh*t”, does away with the jargon and keeps policies simple.
Starting with gadgets and contents insurance, the pair (both former executives at insurance giant Hiscox) plan to expand as their customer base grows, while keeping sight of their charitable mission. Each policy sold helps one rough sleeper get off the streets through a partnership with homeless charity Streetlink.
The aim is to bring back the “essence of shared community” that defines insurance, says Sharpe. “It’s the premiums of many paying for the losses of the few. There’s an elegance to it.”
Not a water bottle – a “hydration accessory”
“All slender and velvety smooth; bespoke, chic, and de rigueur, a S’well water bottle is not just a water bottle,” says Elliott Haworth in City AM. It is a hydration fashion accessory. The stainless-steel bottles are the brainchild of Sarah Kauss, who created the brand in 2010 with $30,000.
Today, S’well is valued at $100m. For a product to be so successful, Kauss says, “you need the fashion, the function and the philanthropy… It has to be beautiful, it has to work really well, and it has to make the world a better place, either because of reducing plastic use or because of the charities we work with.”
S’well has turned out limited Swarovski crystal-covered editions, and collaborated with (RED), an initiative helping brands raise money for charity. And not a penny has been spent on marketing thanks to social media. “Whether it’s their outfit of the day, or their avocado toast, or if they’re travelling and hiking”, customers will show off their S’well water bottles in their pictures and post them online. “We call them S’well adventures,” she says.
The party’s over for high-frequency trading
The imminent launch of Go West this year is the latest stage in moving high-frequency trading (HFT) to the speed of light, says Gregory Meyer, Nicole Bullock and Joe Rennison in the Financial Times. A trail of wireless towers, fibre-optic lines and submarine cables will transmit trading data between Chicago, home to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), and Tokyo in just a fraction of a second. Yet this technological feat is no cause for celebration. Rather, it is a sign that this once-lucrative industry has come under increasing pressure.
For starters, Go West isn’t about individual proprietary trading firms (prop shops) competing to beat their rivals to the exchange and execute their trades first (and thereby profit from tiny differences in the price of an asset listed on multiple exchanges – a tactic known as arbitrage). Instead, the biggest players in the business have formed a consortium to build a single high-speed route to Tokyo, sharing bandwidth and costs. Meanwhile, owners will rent out spare capacity to any trader who wants to use it.
“We don’t necessarily value absolute speed as much as relative speed,” one HFT boss told the Financial Times. But a decade ago it was a different story. Once trading moved off the floor of exchanges and into data centres, HFT firms vied with one another to get their own computers closest to those of the digital exchanges and thereby obtain the fastest access to market information, as chronicled by financial writer Michael Lewis in his 2014 book, Flash Boys.
However, in order to take advantage of price differences, you need market volatility and volume, such as enough trades taking place to act upon, for example. Central-bank stimulus and low interest rates have suppressed both of these vital features, so that means less trading grist for the HFT mill. Throw into the mix regulatory shake-ups around the world. The European Union has imposed new rules on how HFT firms operate to make markets more transparent, and Japan will follow in April.
Meanwhile, in December a federal appeals court in the US gave the go-ahead to a class action lawsuit that accuses exchanges of defrauding investors by unfairly favouring HFT traders over other market participants. The outcome of that case has yet to be determined. But it is another sign that for HFT the party is over – at least for now.