Giving people power to choose

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One of the most interesting trends to emerge from Silicon Valley in recent years is the relentless drive to give people access to information which was previously hard to obtain.

Where in the past a broker or agent would be required, people can now easily compare and buy everything from flights and hotels to insurance and energy. If there is a market with information asymmetry - where one party knows more than the other - you can bet there is a start-up working to correct the balance. An early pioneer of this was Rich Barton, who, in 1996, launched Expedia as a place to buy airline tickets online - at a time when most people were hesitant about entering their credit card details into a computer.

But the idea took off as people realised they could plan their own itineraries and get lower prices if they bought direct, with no agent required. After Expedia was sold, Barton set his sights on disrupting the property market and launched a website called Zillow in 2006.

Zillow used historic sales data to show an estimated price for every home in America - information previously difficult to find. Zillow is now the world’s biggest property website. Barton recently told the New Yorker that in the case of both Expedia and Zillow: “We were empowering people with information and tools that they didn’t have before.”

And he did not stop there. After accidentally sending a document detailing the salary details of his employees to the wrong office printer, Barton realised there might be some value in greater workplace transparency.

In 2008, the website Glassdoor was launched, which enables people to rate their employers and share salary details anonymously.

Glassdoor now features more than 45m reviews of more than 830,000 employers in 200 countries - and it was recently acquired for $1.2bn. “If you set information free, and shine a light on important information that was once in the dark, magic can happen,” Barton recently explained. “People ultimately want to be empowered to make smarter decisions — whether that’s for travel decisions, buying or selling homes, finding jobs... or just about anything else.”

By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design