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Money saving expert Martin Lewis:

Electricty price comparisons? Woo! That's a bit radical

HAVE ONE unique idea in your career, advises www.MoneySavingExpert.com founder and editor, financial journalist Martin Lewis. His unique idea was that MoneySavingExpert site. And he told London Freelance Branch's April meeting that his rise to the fame and fortune he enjoys today came with a lot of "dealing with rejection... I almost gave up".

MoneySavingExpert.com founder Martin Lewis; photo © Richard Lipman
MoneySavingExpert.com founder Martin Lewis.

Martin set up MoneySavingExpert.com with £100 in 2003. He sold it for £87 million last July, and still retains editorial control of the site. Now it's on the National Curriculum.

The secret is to "find something no one else has ever done. All you need is unique content and a way to reach millions of people... Be the go-to person, even if it's very 'niche' to start with. Credit cards were the thing in the beginning" for Martin. "When I first started, people could not get it that you could be very, very, very specialised in broadcast." Being a specialist was supposed to be a writer thing.

His financial journalism career took him from the BBC to Channel 5, back to the BBC on Business Breakfast, a Daily Express column, and included a period with a cable TV financial channel where he "was only person who knew his ISA from his elbow." He got a regular gig with ITV's This Morning after its editor, late for work that day, heard him on a one-off 5 Live debate with Evan Davies. His first This Morning spot was on the question: what's the cheapest way to call Australia - "standard brown trousers stuff." Their phones "melted down" under the weight of calls in response to Martin's spot.

At the time, financial broadcasting was "stocks and shares, mortgages, quotes from people in the industry." When Martin started doing gas and electricity price comparisons on personal finance TV programmes, the response was "Woo! That's a bit radical!" Nobody "did what I did before I did it" in personal finance journalism. For example, Martin said he was "slated when I started because I did a thing on buying DVD players in 2001, when it was big. 'They' say, that's not personal finance, I said, more people are buying DVD players now than are buying stocks and shares."

At the time he started up his originally "tiny website", Martin's only regular gig was a column at the Express, and "only 800 words is not enough to live on." He set up the website initially to support his broadcast work. It showcased some of his Express pieces - he'd taken the precaution of asking when he started working for the Express, would you mind if I kept the copyright?

Martin found he kept stumbling across ways of saving money that were "too-short-lived for a newspaper," so he emailed these to friends. These quickly became Martin's Money Tips, which "went viral before the word 'viral' was invented."

He discovered at parties that people who weren't on his email list were getting Martin's Money Tips forwarded to them, and realised he might be onto something. The website became viable as a full-time job once 30,000 people were visiting it. Now 7.5 million people get Martin's Money Tips.

The sale of MoneySavingExpert to MoneySupermarket.com followed "over a year negotiating." The deal included an "ethical charter" - now "editorial code" - linked from each page. There is no data-mining of website visitors' "stuff", and "total editorial independence... we can say whatever the hell we like, as long as it's editorially justified." There are penalties running into seven figures if MoneySupermarket.com breach any of this, and there are Chinese Walls between the editorial and the advertising side of the operation.

How is it possible to make any money of out this? The editorial team write guides to the best ways to save money, and then the advertising team go and look for affiliate links to the companies mentioned in the guides as offering those products -these appear as starred "links that help this site" on its pages. The affiliate links generate a commission for "click-throughs" to that company from the MoneySavingExpert site. (Users have the option of getting to those organisations via unaffiliated links as well.) "I won't have advertising," says Martin."

A member of the NUJ since 1997, Martin is "proud to be journalist, not a financial advisor; proud to be biased," and also proud to pay the 52 per cent income tax rate. After the MoneySavingExpert sale, he set up various charitable trusts and made a big donation to the Citizens Advice Bureau with the proceeds. Martin's "moral code developed as I did my job." He once met a mental health case worker who "spent half his working day using this stuff (on MoneySavingExpert) to help people," and realised that "many people are incapable of taking responsibility" for their finances because they have mental health or other issues.

Companies "spend billions a year on advertising and teaching staff to sell: we don't get that training [or] the resources that they do", adds Martin, whose work aims to "redress that balance,". In an "adversarial consumer society, their job is to make money out of us, our job is to stop them."

And what financial advice could the money-saving expert offer freelances? Plan for tax - "for every £100 you earn, £33 is not your money." Take "a third of it and put it aside". And "Be careful with accountants. They often say you can claim things you can't." (LFB Branch Treasurer Jenny Vaughan pointed out that the Society of Authors is one organisation that offers its members low-cost insurance against tax investigation.)

Last modified: 06 May 2013 - © 2013 contributors
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