Nicholas Oliver is the award-winning founder and CEO of the tech startup people.io, an innovative app whose mission is to reward consumers for taking ownership of their data. Here’s how he created his company.
With a background in digital marketing and advertising, including time spent at multinational advertising firm WPP, Oliver’s interest was sparked by the battle over data privacy in the online era. Noting the rising use of ad blockers in the UK (which grew 82 per cent in 2015), Oliver wanted to explore how what he calls the "attention economy" of online advertisers and publishers could coexist with people owning their own data.
He came up with the idea of helping individuals license their personal data to advertisers, creating a win-win system. “In the last few years I’ve started to explore the concept of an attention economy and how multiple factors, including ad blocking, are inflating the direct value of a person’s attention,” he said in an interview with TechCrunch. “The ‘ah-ha’ moment was when I looked at how data ownership could be combined with the attention economy.”
Oliver sums up the goal of people.io as a “firewall for people”: just like a firewall protects the data on your computer, his service protects the information attached to your online identity. His mission is to ensure that people have ownership of their personal data and can choose how, when, where and by whom that data is used.
For advertisers, the appeal is that they get more relevant audiences for their messages via up-to-date and accurate information, as well as being able to work around ad blocking while staying on the right side of data protection legislation. “Ownership and control of personal data will be one of the most important societal, economic and technological challenges of the next five to 10 years,” says Oliver in a LinkedIn post. “Our mission is focused on helping people to realise the true value of their data – in both an experiential and commercial form.”
Why do we need more control over how our personal data is used? Speaking with The Memo, Oliver said: “The specific problem with data and privacy today is that it’s a spectrum that spans from your local corner shop wanting to sell you more sweets, to the NSA. At the moment there’s no granularity or control, if you put your data on Facebook or Google, it’s free for either of these groups to use.”
That can be unnerving for individuals, who either switch off from services that use their personal data or resent the "disruptive and intrusive nature" of digital advertising, which undermines its effectiveness, as the company website explains. People.io aims to solve "the problem of control", offering a better solution than complicated and confusing settings, or sacrificing access to information and products online.
With its app, people.io aims to give individuals control “by creating an immediate sense of value for a person; where the perception of hassle is balanced against the immediate gratification of being rewarded.” Over time, the vision is that “this sense of value will expand beyond tangible reward mechanisms towards an intrinsic value through the enhancement of a person’s physical or digital life.”
For people.io, putting individuals in control of their data is one of the only viable solutions amid growing concerns about online privacy, the rise of ad-blocking software and political responses such as the impending EU General Data Protection Regulation, which is expected to have a huge impact on online advertisers. The company believes that the £16.2bn being spent annually on advertising in the UK can be redirected to “pay people to care about their data.”
How it works
The product works by rewarding users of the app for providing pieces of their data and moments of their attention by answering questions and engaging with brands. Credits earned can be used instantly to purchase digital products, subscriptions, gift cards, or to make donations to charity.
Crucially, the company builds trust with its users by promising that at no stage does it share your personal information with third parties. Users retain ownership over their data – if they delete the account, their data is deleted too – and the company is transparent about how it is used.
For people who have learned to be paranoid about personal data, the idea of willingly handing it over to advertisers may take some getting used to. But by offering the assurance of staying in control and the appeal of being compensated with valuable rewards, people.io aims to change the rules of data and advertising.
Oliver founded the startup in August 2015 in the east London tech hub, Shoreditch. He raised £150,000 in funding for the first stage development of the project from private-angel investors and European entrepreneurs including Thomas Höegh (founder of Lovefilm, Arts Alliance and Growth Street) and Nick Robertson (founder of ASOS). Also backing the launch were The Founders Factory (a start-up incubator and accelerator run by Brent Hoberman and Henry Lane-Fox) and Wayra Deutschland (Telefonica’s seed investment and acceleration division).
After launching the data platform in the UK in early 2017, the company is going from strength to strength, now raising funding to expand its operations across Europe. The app was the iTunes UK trending app and number four app in the lifestyle category in July 2017, and was included in Marketing Week as a Top 100 Disruptive Brand. The company recently joined forces with Telefónica Deutschland to launch a version of their app adapted for the German market, O2 GET.
Age 30, Oliver has now held senior global positions on three continents across international agency groups (WPP), Fortune 50 companies (Ford Motor Company) as well as startups. He was recognised in 2016 with the NASDAQ Rising Star Award and now sits on the Cloud, Data, Analytics & AI Council of TechUK, which represents 950 companies in the British tech industry.
Beyond growing his company, Oliver has also spoken on data privacy at events worldwide such as Disruption Summit Europe and writes passionately about current issues surrounding the value of personal data. In a recent post titled Bankrupting society: the real value of personal data, Oliver says: “Can I tell you the exact value of a person’s data? No. Instead, I would ask the price of a person not having control. Without people being in control, we not only risk technology companies driving a fundamental inequity of our global economy, but we put at risk free society as a whole.”