Because we all use Google, Facebook, Youtube, Gmail, Spotify, and a multitude of other sites for free, there's a valid confusion amongst some people regarding the mammoth amounts of money involved when these websites change hands. Just to get a general idea of the money that our clicking generates for these websites and their creators, here are a few concrete numbers: Facebook is now valued at $135bn and bought in revenues of $7.87bn in 2013. Spotify's latest estimated worth is 'north of $4bn', and Google's market value at the end of 2013 was around $350 billion.
Given these numbers it's unsurprising that acquisitions (or offers of acquisitions) often run into the billions of dollars. Most recently the business world was left stunned after Snapchat's 22 year-old CEO Evan Spiegel turned down a $3bn offer from Facebook for his two year-old messaging service which was yet to make a profit.
But Spiegel wasn't the first to turn down a jaw-dropping amount of money: when Facebook was three years old Zuckerberg turned down $1bn from Tumblr, and when YouTube was only a mere year old it was acquired by Google for $1.6bn. In 2009, Microsoft bought Skype for an astounding $8.5bn.
Although Facebook and Google present themselves as 'free' services, most people are aware of the fact that when they use these social networks and their associated websites they're making a trade off. In return for access to these sites, users agree to hand over personal data with the understanding that it can be sold, or used to create increasingly personalised and intelligent advertising. So it's in the lucrative business of advertising that many of these companies make their money; and of course, as most are publicly traded, there's an enormous amount of investment coming their way. Then, of course, we have the most popular online shopping sites, and for these the wealth is less of a mystery: Huge money comes to sites like Ebay, of course, in the form of commission.
So what sort of money is being made by the people who have led the digital revolution? This is a list of the Top 10 people (notably all men, and primarily from the US and China) who are behind the websites used every day by millions of people internationally. These businessmen have become celebrities in their own right, having been instrumental in changing the digital landscape immeasurably in the last decade. Many of them made their money before the age of 40, some have used their colossal wealth in some fascinating ways and some have used their position and money for charitable causes: However, they all share one important attribute: They are all billionaires several times over.
8 Hiroshi Mikitani: $6.4bn
Sitting at No.10, with a cool $6bn at the age of 49 is the Chairman and CEO of Japan's biggest e-retailer Rakuten, which was ranked 7th on Forbes 2012 list of the world's most innovative companies. Harvard Graduate Mikitani has recently taken his business in an interesting direction, implementing a plan that he calls "Englishization". This entails making English the language of Rakuten, despite the fact the company is both staffed by and aimed at Japanese speakers.
At the moment Mikitani has his sights set on Amazon, with recent acquisitions of Play.com, Buy.com and the company behind the Kobo ebook reader for over $1bn. In addition to this he has recently bought a $100 million stake in Pinterest. Mikitani is spreading his digital investments far and wide, lucratively.
7 Pierre Omidyar: $8.8bn
Ebay's IPO in 1998 made Omidyar a billionaire at the age of 31, and over a decade later he remains the chairman but spends most of his time on other projects. Born in France, with Iranian heritage, Omidyar holds American Citizenship after moving to the US at the age of 6. Like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Omidyar is a member of the Giving Pledge, which entails a public pledge to give away 50% of his wealth to charitable causes over the period of his life.
6 Ma Huateng: $10.2bn
Ma Huateng is the 44 year-old CEO of Tencent Holdings, the Chinese internet company involved in gaming, social networking, and e-commerce. Tencent is the largest non-state-owned Chinese company, and its massive online chat service QQ - founded in '99 - has grown to almost 800 million users and was the 7th most popular website on the internet at the time of publishing.
In 2011 alone Eric Schmidt took home $101 million for his role as executive chairman at Google. Schmidt hasn't been involved from the beginning like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, but was brought onboard in 2001 to act as the grown up of the company. Schmidt was CEO for almost 10 years before stepping down in 2011, but continues to work closely with the co-founders, acting as the companies' international envoy to places like North Korea (to which he paid a high-profile visit in 2013 with his daughter, who blogged the 'strange' trip).
In his spare moments Schmidt spends his time acting as an informal aid to Obama, co-authoring books on the future of the digital world and donating large lumps of his wealth to a variety of causes including a $70m donation towards a park on New York City's Governor's Island, and $94m to buy and refit an academic research boat for use by scientists in conjunction with The Schmidt Ocean Institute.
5 Robin Li: $12.2bn
Robin Li, the 45 year-old CEO of Baidu - China's largest search engine - is one of the four richest men in China. The Baidu site shares many similarities with Wikipedia (which has been blocked in China since 2005) and Google. It boasts an index of over 740 million web pages, 80 million images, and 10 million multimedia files. However, there has been some controversy over the degree of collaboration between Baidu and the Chinese Government: It's been noted that Baidu is heavily censored. That hasn't marred its popularity, though; at the time of publishing this site was the single most popular in China and the 5th most popular in the world according to alexa.com rankings.
In October 2013, Li was placed at no.172 in Forbes' List of Billionaires.
4 Masayoshi Son: $9.1bn
Masayoshi Son is the founder of the telecommunications and internet company Softbank - one of Asia's top internet ventures - which has made him enough money to place him at No.2 of Japan's rich list.
He is concentrating his efforts on expanding into the USA, with a recent 78% acquisition of Sprint for $21.6bn. Additionally, the 56 year old is the proud owner of a $117 million estate in Woodside, California in November, which is the highest recorded purchase price of an American home.
3 Mark Zuckerberg: $25.8bn
As Facebook turns 10, Mark Zuckerberg might be reflecting on Yahoo's 2006 offer of $1bn, (which he verbally agreed to, but then decided against after the offer was dropped to a measly $800m) and quietly congratulating himself. Facebook became a $5bn revenue company in 2012, having grown 150% each year since achieving a revenue of $1bn. Facebook's growth has meant that it's increasingly becoming a serious rival to Google in terms of advertising, with between 10% and 15% of all internet referrals coming from the social networking site by the end of 2013, according to Shareaholic.
Zuckerberg, like Gates and Omidyar is a member of the Giving Pledge, meaning that at least half of his wealth will eventually go towards philanthropy; but in the mean time he's still happy to flash his cash, paying out a total of $30 million to buy up the four houses surrounding his Palo Alto home to protect his privacy. As many wry reporters have pointed out - let's hope he's as careful with user profiles' privacy.
2 Sergey Brin: $31 bn
With Larry Page handling the day to day running of Google, Brin is free to spend his time on the R&D side of Google. He spends his time overseeing creative projects with the potential to have a massive impact on the future of our technological landscape - like Google Glass, Space Adventures, and the recently augmented Robotics Division.
Between the two, Page and Brin made over $400 million in charitable donations last year. Brin follows the Bill Gates' example with his Brin Wojcicki Foundation which has received about $190m of Brin's own money. Brin has gifted financial aid to a range of areas including Social Entrepreneurship, The Human Rights Foundation, and Michael J Fox's Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
1 Larry Page: $31.3bn
Google was founded in 1996, and started out operating from a friend's garage in California, led by Stanford Ph.D. students Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The two created a more sophisticated algorithm for a search engine than any on the market, and the first version of what would become Google was launched on the Stanford University website! Since then Page has continued to have a central role in the company, and in recent years has had a particularly positive financial influence on the company; shares of the search juggernaut have jumped nearly 50% since he took over as CEO in April 2011.
Over the past year CEO Larry Page has been at the forefront of of the recent heavy NSA scandal, whilst his business partner Brin has been playing with the infamous Google X's moonshot projects. Perhaps the fact that he is marginally (relatively speaking) richer than Brin is some recompense for his role as the more political public spokesperson for Google in these controversial times.
Page's hobbies include several environmental projects, including a network of super-modern houses in Palo Alto which make use of technologies such as fuel cells, geothermal energy and rainwater capture. He also has an interest in the future of transportation, and is the owner of an early Tesla Roadster (a company which both he and Brin have made investments in) and a Zero X electric dirt bike.
As of January 2014 the creator of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, was estimated to have a net worth of $35.6 billion. According to Bloomberg this makes him the 13th-richest-person in the world. This isn't too bad for the man who left Wall Street to start an online bookshop in 1994 which only became profitable seven years later, in 2001.
As one of the few sites that survived the burst of the dot com bubble between 1999 and 200, Amazon is now the world's largest online retailer. The site has diversified from books into everything from groceries to Tablets, DVDs to computers. These days Amazon is much more than an enormous online supermarket; it also leads the market in terms of virtual products. Ebook sales account for around a third of the literature unit sales, and Amazon now offers a variety of streaming, cloud, and network hosting services.
Bezos has used his money for a variety of different projects including buying The Washington Post for $350bn, recovering the lost engines from the Apollo 11 lunar mission from the ocean floor, and investing in the 3D printer Makerbot.
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