The new gold rush - and how to join in

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The Independent Online
The high rollers may be back in the City, but the fiver-to-riches story of Susan Barnes, the British woman who made millions from TV `infomercials', shows that instant fortunes are made elsewhere.

Ten years ago, the answer was obvious: if you wanted to make ten times as much money as your most gifted and successful contemporaries, and looked forward to retiring in your early thirties, the only show in town was the City. For the first time since the Klondike Gold Rush, large numbers of strikingly ordinary young men and women discovered that serious wealth could be within their grasp. The conditions might be incredibly stressful, the company might demand your heart and soul, the work might be boring, terrifying and impenetrable by turns. But the rewards boggled the mind.

Until the Thatcher years, getting rich in Britain was something that never happened to people earning salaries, due to the swingeing tax rates: the successful careerist could be very comfortably off, but he could not become rich unless he went into exile. Small businessmen sold up and fled to Jersey; rock and film stars gravitated to the South of France or the West Indies. Serious wealth and the sadness of exile were inextricably linked in the public imagination; getting seriously rich was something that only very special, rather strange people did, and there was something pitiable as well as enviable about it.

Today, getting rich has become almost normal, and once again telephone number earnings are returning to the Square Mile. After the years of recession, the bull market in shares combined with a rash of mergers and takeovers has once again helped to stoke the furnaces, and proven big hitters can again earn salaries and bonuses totalling pounds 1m a year.

Already there are fears that the present escalation in earnings is too feverish to be sustained for long, and that some firms that succumb to the temptation to pay their top dealers and managers exactly as much as they demand could lose the ability to compete. So success in the City in the late Nineties is not only tough, it is also fragile. But today there are many other ways of getting rich tolerably fast - more different ways, in fact, than ever before. Now the stories of fortunes made from the barest of raw materials tumble out of newspaper pages: still unlicensed drugs, software programs of baffling obscurity and television "infomercials" are all means to unimaginable wealth. The latter, it emerged last week, accounted for one Susan Barnes's elevation to multi-millionaire status after she had emigrated from Wolverhampton to New Zealand with pounds 5 to her name.

Historically, wealth creation was rooted in the land: the rich man was the one with the biggest amount of property. The industrial revolution brought a new way of getting rich, through manufacturing, and the opportunities of affluence touched more people than ever before in history - through manufacturing itself, and through all the trades involved in distributing and selling.

The arrival of the computer has effected a revolution comparable in scale to that of the industrial revolution itself. And it is a revolution that shows no sign of ending: everybody's life has already been touched by it, in ways great and small, and while much of the insecurity of employment today can be traced to computerisation, the increased number of opportunities for individuals to get rich is due to the same cause: the immensely complex and multi-faceted world of the computer means that there are an almost infinite number of niches for clever individuals to make their own. Exemplary figures in this respect are Steven Jobs of Apple and David Potter, the British inventor of Psion, the electronic organizer: both talented computer engineers exploring the interface between Nerdsville and the big wide world of you and me. There is no reason to suppose that opportunities in this area are anything like approaching exhaustion.

If computers had reached the point they are at today while everything else in the world stood still, they would still have constituted an impressive revolution. But in the same period there have been equally dramatic revolutions in travel and telecommunications worldwide, while most of the political barriers that were apparently set in concrete 10 years ago have been washed away. Each of these revolutions multiplies the significance of the others.

The telecommunications revolution, in particular, means that computers, telephones and televisions are in the early stages of a synthesis from which they will emerge transformed: today's discrete, stand-alone commodities will within a decade look as quaint as a Fifties television or a valve wireless does today. And again, immense fortunes are in store for those clever and far-sighted enough to iron out the kinks, or devote themselves to some of the million particular nagging problems that are bound to arise as the synthesis unfolds. A good example of this sort of approach is the group of computer experts who have devoted the past two years to devising "search engines" to make the Worldwide Web of more practical use to people who do not have all the time in the world to play about with it.

As the new telecom revolution works itself out, thousands of companies fired by the enthusiasm of individuals will emerge; most of them will be as ephemeral as mayflies, but that does not mean that they will fail: having brought forth their workable idea - their new software, or search engine, or whatever it may be - they will be bought up by one of the major players eager to secure a fractional competitive advantage. The founder is then free to sail boats in the Bahamas, or go home and have another idea, or both of these things, one after the other.

The key to the fertility of the computer/telecom industry as a place to make money is its relative immaturity: the yet unrealised potential of the industry is clearly vast. The same is true to an even more impressive extent of biotechnology, where investors have sunk billions of pounds in companies that have yet to come up with a single product, gambling furiously that the product which finally emerges will be immensely profitable. This is another area, like computing, where companies consisting of two or three boffins have the potential to make enormous fortunes.

But it is not necessary to be immensely clever in the very specialised way of the biotechnologists in order to get rich. We live in the thick of several successive revolutions, relating to travel, politics, technology, all of which are summed up in the word "globalisation". This means that an idea or invention which in the past might have flourished in a single spot on the globe can now make fortunes in many different markets. It may be an idea as complex as a new cancer cure or a new piece of software; or it may be a new pop song, a new film, a novel that proves to have worldwide appeal. It may even be an idea which has succeeded in one place, and which can be made to yield equally good results somewhere else: it is not always necessary to be original in order to become rich.


Take an old idea a long way away

Last week's newspapers carried the story of Susan Barnes, the 39-year-old from Wolverhampton who arrived in New Zealand with pounds 5 in her pocket, became New Zealand television's queen of "infomercials", and recently sold her company to America's National Media Corporation for pounds 20m. Now she is working on the script of a television sitcom featuring a character based on ... herself .

Infomercials are television advertisements, lasting up to 45 minutes, that show off household gadgets; Susan Barnes appeared in scores, promoting other people's products and her own brands of skin and hair products. Her success was attributed to the fact that the format, familiar in America, was unknown in New Zealand.

This formula of taking something known in one place to another place where it isn't works best between countries that are geographically distant but culturally close, such as Britain and New Zealand. Thousands of Americans or Brits with a business baptism in America have achieved comparable success here with wheezes such as the network marketing of water filters and the like.

It would be tempting to try and pull off the same sort of idea in Russia or China - tempting but also daunting, due to the cultural divide.

Start talking about a cure for cancer

Take a few brilliant scientists working on a biotechnology cure for, say, cancer; place inside a British university, and squeeze firmly. Marinade in enterprise culture for 10 years; sprinkle generously with dosh and transatlantic inspiration; place in a hot oven and wait for the whole thing to rise like mad.

Cash-straitened British universities have turned out to be the culture dish for the latest breed of self-made millionaires: from diffident beginnings, buffeted by criticism from purist colleagues, people like David Horrobin (founder of the Scottish drug company Scotia, personal fortune about pounds 70m), John Finbow (who developed a firm specialising in chemical sensors from his academic base at City University; pounds 10m) and Chris Evans (above), the Imperial College graduate behind three successful biotech companies (worth about pounds 55m) are three of the most prominent examples.

Like software design, biotech is clearly one for the long haul - so if you are pre-A-levels, now may be the time to give some thought to switching to sciences.

Tell the world a story - in English

Being born in Britain no longer confers many advantages in life, but one big one remains, arguably gaining in importance with the passing of the years: we speak the language of Hollywood. The downside is that most of the good British film directors depart for California, leaving only a rump of stubborn mavericks (Mike Leigh, Ken Loach) plus Richard Attenborough. The upside is that many of those who do depart have done very nicely.

For cultural reasons that are not entirely easy to understand, British authors have also succeeded in making the world their market place, to an amazing degree. Michael Crichton (right), John Grisham and their ilk may bestride the world, but their British competitors are not far behind, while the bestsellers of Barbara Taylor Bradford are said to have earned her the biggest advance - $21 million for three books - of any author in history.

But beware, for this is not an easy way to make money. "Unless you're very lucky," says Kate Parkin, publisher at Random House, "you can't regard writing novels as a full-time job." Indeed, some `mid-list' novelists - those who can make a comfortable living from writing, but don't tend to scale the bestseller lists - have recently had their advances cut by as much as a third.

If the current bestseller lists are anything to go by, it is the high- concept thriller that is all the rage - the kind of novel that is popular with film studios as well as the publishers. "Thrillers written against an unusual or arcane background are selling incredibly well," says Parkin, "the attraction being that you learn something while you are reading."

Those tyro writers holding back in anticipation of the next big thing might take note of Kate Parkin's assertion that "it is time that the historical novel was revived".

Take a punt

Britain is becoming a nation of dedicated gamblers. Recent publicity concerning the profits of Camelot, the National Lottery operators, suggests that the best way to make money out of gambling is not to place bets but to receive them. But it's not cheap. Camelot loudly proclaims the millions it has spent on infrastructure, staff and technology.

There are other ways into the big-time gambling business, but they still require money and patience. To become a rails bookmaker, like the 40-odd individuals operating this week in the ring at Royal Ascot, can take a lifetime. Why not set up a casino instead? The Home Office in the process of approving 13 new locations - all you need to do is convince the Gaming Board that your "character, reputation and financial standing" are spotless, and convince local justices that there is a need for a casino in your chosen site, and you're off. Of course, you'll need a million or so ... why not buy that lottery ticket?

Head for cyberspace

Those who know their way around the Internet may feel qualified to act as guides for other users. Companies offering services for finding information on the Net are thriving. The Californian graduates Jerry Yang and David Filo, who started a company called Yahoo in 1994, became millionaires overnight recently when it was floated on Wall Street - the value of its stock rocketed to $340m.

Yahoo is one of four "Web search" companies to have floated this year, and offers a free service to the user. The browser simply types in a word or phrase and if the subject is somewhere on the Net, Yahoo's system will show where. Profits come from adverts, discreetly carried on Yahoo's Web pages: the American market research company Forrester Research estimates that 11 million people are connected to the Internet - an audience that advertisers will pay handsomely to reach.

Ride a hobby horse to market

It's not necessary to do something as boring as crunch numbers and wave your arms about to make a fortune. Some people achieve the same result doing exactly what they like best.

Earlier this year, a former tax inspector from Nottinghamshire called Tom Kirby floated his company, Games Workshop, on the Stock Exchange, and found it was valued at pounds 96m. Four years ago Kirby himself, then deputy, had bought the firm from its founder, Bryan Ansell, for pounds 10m. Games Workshop makes and sells grisly looking but beautifully made toy models - orcs, trolls, elf lords, tyranids, genestealers - around the world. Ansell simply carried his childhood obsession with him into adult life.

Postscript: if there a million different ways to hit the jackpot, there must be at least ten million ways to take a bath. And some of them are surprising:

Television production companies: there are already some 2,000 of them in London, fighting for work.

Semiconductors: once one of the locomotives of Japan's economy, they are now manufactured at a loss.

Airline companies: BA, British Midland and Virgin are bizarre, profitable exceptions in a landscape of otherwise unrelieved financial gloom.

CD-Rom publishing: So recently the great white hope of publishers, now more often cast as a great white elephant, already on the way to obsolescence, overtaken by the information and entertainment features on the Internet. Dozens of smaller CD-Rom publishers have gone bust.