Has this man written the next A Girl On The Train?

To say A.J. Finn is a specialist in crime would be something of an understatement. It’s been part of his cultural DNA almost since he started reading.
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As a child, the family would return to his mother’s rambling, family home at East Hampton on Long Island – “sounds very glamorous, but the place was a wreck, borderline condemned” – that was stuffed with mysteries, thrillers and detective novels. Everyone read them and Finn was encouraged to as well. He adored Agatha Christie and the writers of the Golden Age.

Later he discovered Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith, and as a graduate student at New College, Oxford, wrote his doctoral thesis on Highsmith. So when he finished his studies it seemed logical to get into publishing. He spent 10 years at the Little, Brown imprint Sphere in London, where he specialised in – what else? – crime and thriller publishing, before shifting back to the United States where he is executive editor at William Morrow. For the moment.

The next step seems inevitable, at least to the outside observer. When we speak over the phone, he from his home in Chelsea, New York, it is only five days before publication of his first novel, The Woman in the Window, four days before the script for the film adaptation is due (not from him, but more of that later) and two days before he abandons a publishing career that has included looking after Christie’s work.

After we’ve established whether I call him A.J. – as in his pseudonym – or Dan as in Daniel Mallory, his real name, I wonder how’s he feeling about becoming a full-time novelist? “It’s frightening; I will be out of the publishing game entirely.” And beginning his new life with publication of his first novel, which has already been sold into 38 territories? “Anxious. Eager yet nervous.”

The Woman in the Window is a taut thriller about Anna Fox, a psychologist with an encyclopaedic knowledge of old noir films, who sees from the window of her four-storey Harlem home in New York something nasty happen to one of her neighbours. But there’s little Anna can do about it as she is agoraphobic and lives on her own after separating from her husband Ed, who has custody of their daughter Olivia. Furthermore, Anna has a significant drink problem and is on serious drugs for her mental health … no surprise, then, that no one believes what she says.

Somehow she has to get to the bottom of who those neighbours, the Russells, really are, what really happened to Jane Russell, why their son Ethan keeps turning up on her doorstep and what her handsome lodger David, who rents her basement, has been up to.

Not easy when you can’t go outside, your meds are going haywire and you’re drinking two or three bottles of merlot a day.

It is a cinematic novel, plotted carefully and written in 100 short chapters that ensure the momentum rarely dips below full speed. The tension is heightened by it all taking place in Anna’s home. So, a contemporary locked-room mystery with the most unreliable of narrators.

It sounds as if Finn has led a charmed life and the path to publication has been as smooth as the red wine Anna drinks (she does like a top drop, it has to be said). But it wasn’t quite as simple as that. When Finn was 21 he was diagnosed with severe depression. “For 15 years thereafter I wrestled with it and in doing so resorted to pretty much every treatment imaginable.” Then in summer 2015 he saw a “brilliant Russian” psychiatrist who concluded Finn had been misdiagnosed: he didn’t have unipolar depression, he was bipolar.

“I argued because I am argumentative by nature and said I had never experienced what I would consider a manic episode; I had never gone berserk the way Carrie does in Homeland. He said ‘there are different strains of bipolar and I think you’ve got what we call bipolar two where the highs are not so high, but the lows are lower and last longer’.”

The upshot was another prescription and he knew what to expect, changing from old medication to new. “I know it’s an unpleasant experience – I always feel like Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk.”

But it was during the summer, and with the publishing industry in virtual hiatusFinn spent weeks on his sofa “gorging myself on books I love and old films”. The new meds seemed to be working and one night, while watching Rear Window, “a light flared in my peripheral vision and I saw that my neighbour had turned on a light in her home and as I watched her I thought ‘this is funny, Jimmy Stewart on my screen in 1953’.”

At that moment he realised maybe there was a story to be had, a way to reboot Hitchcock’s film for the 21st century.

“I wanted to write a thriller that made use of the tropes that Rear Window established, but at the same time I wanted to create a book that had a bit more on its mind and in its heart than your average psychological thriller or domestic noir. So it was a happy collision of character who was freighted with a lot of what I had experienced and plot.”

Anna is seriously flawed but also quite formidable in her way. Finn doesn’t like many genre-fiction female characters “even those in starring roles because they obsess over men, they fret about men, they’re reliant on men, they orbit men and in my experience that isn’t particularly real”, which is he thinks why characters such as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl and Lisbeth Salander in the Dragon Tattoo series have made such an impact.

The same applies in films, he says. Anna is very much the opposite to the character played by Grace Kelly in Rear Window. “The heroines of these older films for the most part are pretty weak, they don’t do much. It’s usually up to the menfolk to swing in and save them.”

Finn has always been attracted to novels and films with a single setting. He cites Phillip Noyce’s film, Dead Calm, as an example.

“In noir and Hitchcock – I do distinguish between them – characters are constantly seeking confinement. Hitchcock famously staged a number of films in confined settings – Rope, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Lifeboat. In noir films by his contemporaries, characters are always ducking into dark alleys, taking refuge in bars trying to escape the world that is seeking to punish them. In so doing they create their own little hell, their own insular reality. That’s what I wanted to create for Anna Fox.”

And as you get further into the book, “you realise that the house itself is a kind of villain or enemy that she must defeat in order to salvage herself. What she believes is a refuge is literally a prison.”

Finn’s manuscript was submitted anonymously to William Morrow. He was on holiday at the time, which was some relief as it “would have shred my nerves” to be at the editorial meeting where it would have been discussed.

I wondered about how his work as an editor affected his writing and how it affected the editing process.

“Editing is in some way a surprisingly proactive process in that you are constantly challenged to come up with solutions to editorial issues. But fundamentally you are reacting, you are absorbing the prose and registering your response. In writing my book I was able to do that even as I created that response. It was an internal dialogue for better or worse and I’d say for better because it did help me whip through the manuscript at a pretty steady pace.”

And since the manuscript was bought and the film rights sold he has distanced himself from the actual publishing. But he will travel extensively – Brazil, Holland, Korea – to help, having already done so on both side of the Atlantic for pre-publication promotion.

Finn is keen for the book to pay off for his 38 publishers. After all, he knows what it’s like to acquire a book.

“It’s been widely and accurately reported that I made a whacking good sum out of this book,” he acknowledges. “Given what they have put into this book, given that I know what I have put into the books that I have published, it’s only fair that they see a maximum return on investment.”

Hollywood got wind of the book early in the process and Fox paid a seven-figure sum to buy the rights rather than option them. Oscar winner Scott Rudin is producing and Pulitzer winner Tracy Letts, author of August: Osage County, is due to submit his script the day before the novel is published. “Wow, yes,” he says when he realises this is imminent.

The Woman in the Window references many old films and, like the use of music in Ian Rankin’s novels, they provide a sort of emotional soundtrack to Anna’s predicament and enhance the atmosphere. But there’s one film that Anna doesn’t mention – Rear Window.

The Woman in the Window is published on January 15 by HarperCollins at $29.99.

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The big events for travellers in 2018

With a little planning, you can combine a holiday with a front-row seat (if you’re lucky) at some of this year’s most envy-inducing events.
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Whether you’re into regal pomp and ceremony, poignant war remembrance, high-level sporting competitions, Modernist art or sparkly street parades, here’s a round-up of the best events happening on the planet in 2018. The royal wedding

Photo: Matt Dunham

Royalists and romantics will be among those flocking to England to celebrate the May 19 nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The pair will wed at Windsor Castle, the Gothic pile 40km west of London that’s the world’s oldest and largest inhabited castle, but expect a glass or two to be raised throughout the country – especially as the government is considering extending pub opening hours until 1am over the wedding weekend. The royal wedding date also coincides with the FA Cup Final, which will be held at Wembley Stadium, and the Scottish Cup Final in Glasgow. The newlyweds should also show up in Sydney later this year for the Invictus Games (October 20-27), a sporting event for wounded, injured and ill military personnel and veterans that was founded by the prince in 2014. See 梧桐夜网royalcollection.org.uk, 梧桐夜网invictusgames2018.orgNew Orleans turns 300

Photo: AP

New Orleans knows how to party any ol’ year – so imagine how lively things will be in 2018 as Crescent City celebrates its 300th birthday. Apart from the usual marquee events (Mardi Gras, February 13; Jazz Fest, April 27-May 6), the city is marking its tricentennial with a packed calendar that includes a festival of lights, exhibitions, gala dinners, block parties, concerts – and even a cook-off between visiting Navy ships. Bourbon Street is undergoing a long overdue makeover (including installation of safety bollards). Music aficionados are better off pointing themselves towards more interesting parts of the city, such as Frenchmen Street, to catch a lively night of tunes. Order a Sazerac – a cocktail that’s a New Orleans specialty – to toast the city’s birthday and its extraordinary comeback from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. See 梧桐夜网2018nola南京夜网

See also: ‘Begpacking’ and 11 other travel trends that need to die in 2018Sydney Mardi Gras

Photo: AP

Gay icon Cher is jetting into Sydney to star at the gay pride festival’s famous all-night party that winds up at 8am on March 4. After the Grammy, Emmy and Oscar winner dropped a strong hint on Twitter in late December, the party for 12,000 revellers sold out within hours. Organisers have now rejigged the venue to release more tickets that will go on sale to Mardi Gras members on January 15 and to the public on January 17. The party winds up the multi-faceted, glitter-laden festival starting February 16 that includes the March 3 street parade where star-spangled floats and community groups will no doubt celebrate Australia’s long-awaited legalisation of same-sex marriage. The program also includes cabaret shows, exhibitions, talks, film screenings and more. See 梧桐夜网mardigras.org419论坛Gold Coast Commonwealth Games

Photo: Michelle Smith

Speaking of same-sex weddings, fingers will be crossed for newly-wed athletes Luke Sullivan and Craig Burns, who have delayed their honeymoon until after the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games (April 4-15). They hope to be among the 6600-plus athletes from 70 nations and territories competing for medals in 23 sports. Those disciplines include swimming and diving (taking place at Southport’s Gold Coast Aquatic Centre), beach volleyball on Coolangatta’s golden sands and mountain-biking through the Nerang State Forest. The April 4 opening ceremony will feature a collaboration between Bangarra Dance Theatre and indigenous youth and elders from South-East Queensland. Multiple ARIA award winner, Queenslander Katie Noonan, is music director for the opening and closing ceremonies. See 梧桐夜网gc2018南京夜网, 梧桐夜网destinationgoldcoast南京夜网

See also: The 18 hottest destinations to visit in 2018 namedWinter Olympics

Photo: SeongJoon Cho

Get cracking if you want to be a spectator at the 2018 Winter Olympics – the 17-day event kicks off in South Korea’s Pyeongchang County on February 9. Two ski resorts, Alpensia and Yongpyong, will host most of the snow sports, alpine speed events will take place in nearby Jeongseon, and all ice sports will unfold in the east-coast city of Gangneung, which can be reached from Seoul via a two-hour high-speed train departing from neighbouring Incheon. See 梧桐夜网pyeongchang2018南京夜网Viennese Modernism

Photo: Shutterstock

In 1918, Vienna wept when an artistic quartet at the vanguard of Viennese Modernism – painters Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, architect Otto Wagner and design pioneer Koloman Moser – died. A century later, Vienna is devoting a series of exhibitions and events to their astonishing legacy. Visit the Leopold Museum, which holds the world’s largest Schiele collection, and see Klimt’s masterpiece, Kiss (Lovers), at the Belvedere, which holds the largest collection of his paintings. The Wien Museum celebrates Wagner’s visionary projects (March 15-October 7) such as the Postal Savings Bank and the City Railway. The MAK (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art) devotes an exhibition to Moser (December 19-April 22, 2019). See 梧桐夜网wienermoderne2018.info, 梧桐夜网leopoldmuseum.org, 梧桐夜网belvedere.at, 梧桐夜网wienmuseum.at, 梧桐夜网mak.atArmistice centenary

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On November 11, 1918, hostilities officially ceased on the Western Front of the First World War after four years of bloodshed and bombardment that killed millions of citizens and military personnel. Multiple events will commemorate this centenary. On August 8, a service at France’s Amiens Cathedral will mark the centenary of the Battle of Amiens, the start of the Hundred Days Offensive that led to the Armistice with Germany. At St Symphorien Cemetery near Mons, Belgium, where the war began in 1914 and where its first and last casualties lie, multiple events including a commemorative service will mark the November 11 Armistice. At Ieper (formerly known as Ypres) in Belgium, there will be concerts in St Martin’s Cathedral and a special Last Post ceremony at 11am at the Menin Gate Memorial. At Canberra’s Australian War Memorial, 62,000 knitted red poppies – each representing an Australian on the Memorial’s Roll of Honour – will be placed in the Sculpture Garden (October 5-November 11). See 梧桐夜网visitflanders南京夜网, 梧桐夜网awm.gov419论坛Top of the Gorge Festival

This year heralds the arrival of a brand-new festival. Somerset’s inaugural Top of the Gorge Festival (June 22-24) celebrates the United Kingdom’s largest gorge – Cheddar Gorge – with an action-packed weekend skewed towards outdoor enthusiasts. Climb the 4.8km-long limestone gorge’s weathered crags and pinnacles, try trail-running, mountain-biking, caving or axe-throwing, or simply chill out above the gorge, located between Bristol and Glastonbury, and listen to music and talks or indulge in a spot of stargazing. See 梧桐夜网nationaltrust.org.uk

See also: Nine destinations you should avoid in 2018

See also: Podcast – how to cope in the world’s most popular cities

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Equity crowdfunding platforms clear final hurdle

Start-ups and small businesses finally have the ability to raise money from the general public in exchange for a stake in the company after the regulator approved the first batch of equity crowdfunding platforms.
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The Australian Securities and Investments Commission granted licences to seven platforms on Thursday: Big Start, Billfolda, Birchal Financial Services, Equitise, Global Funding Partners, IQX Investment Services and On-Market Bookbuilds.

But the regime is still restricted to small public companies, while the vast majority of start-ups and family companies are private. Legislation to extend the rules to proprietary companies is before Parliament, with other bills dominating the legislative agenda in recent months.

Annie Parker, chief executive of start-up co-working space Fishburners, said the start-up community had been waiting for a long time.

“It’s great to finally see Australian start-ups have the capability to raise funds in return for equity, it’s been a long time coming,” Ms Parker said. “There’s more work to do to make sure it’s as competitive as other global markets, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Crowdfunding emerged about 10 years ago, with platforms such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Pozible that enable creators to raise money for a project from the public. Typically they would offer rewards, ranging from a simple “thank you” to a full-scale product.

Equity crowdfunding – or crowd-sourced equity funding as it’s officially known in Australia – is a similar concept except the supporters are investors who are given a stake in the business. It has been legalised for several years in many countries overseas, including New Zealand, the United States, Britain and Italy.

On paper Australia gave retail investors access to equity crowdfunding in late September, but it’s taken until now for ASIC to grant the first licences to intermediary platforms. The companies raising money through the platforms must be limited by shares with less than $25 million in assets.

The law lets eligible companies source up to $5 million a year through crowd-sourced equity funding and small investors put in as much as $10,000 a year in each company. Birchal, a sister platform to Pozible, is letting investors start with as little as $50.

On-Market Bookbuilds founder Ben Bucknell said he’d seen the success of equity crowdfunding in Britain and he saw equity crowdfunding as a “logical extension” of his company’s infrastructure and skill base.

“It’s been really successful in the UK,” Mr Bucknell said. “They’ve got a three or four year jump on us. Investors over there have really embraced it and companies [have too] as a source of capital.”

Mr Bucknell said extending the regime to private companies was an important step in making it useful for the majority of start-ups. “There is a transitional regime in place that lifts some of typical burdens for public companies, but extending it to private companies is important,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it coming through.”

A number of deals are already in the pipeline: Birchal is ready to kick off fundraising offers for Melbourne craft brewer SAMPLE Brew and shave club Oscar Razor in February; On-Market Bookbuilds will launch multi-million capital rounds for companies in the medical cannabis and solar energy sectors.

SAMPLE Brew founder Vedad Huric said he sought expressions of interest through Birchal in December and was “overwhelmed by the response”, with close to $2 million in potential investment.

He and his three investors, who pitched in about $500,000 between them in mid 2017, would now figure out exactly how much they wanted to raise and the appropriate pricing.

“Our vision and goal was that the success of SAMPLE is largely based on our loyal audience, and the idea was crowd-sourced funding would be a way to give an opportunity to our consumers to own a piece of SAMPLE, and we could call it SAMPLE Collective,” Mr Huric said. “I don’t think we’d be selling the whole company, definitely not.”

SAMPLE, which started in 2014, had turnover of $2.3 million last financial year and is growing rapidly, Mr Huric said. The brand has a strong following in Melbourne and the company would use the capital raised through Birchal to expand to NSW and Brisbane.

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Update these elements of your home to attract the best renters

Sure it can sting a little, but renovating your rental today can yield a healthy return tomorrow. We ask the experts for their best tips on which necessities and niceties are guaranteed to yield the best return.
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John Fredericks, principal at Place, says that successful rental properties share a common formula – they are clean, functional, simplistic and honest.

“Tenants want their property to be clean, in good working order and exactly as advertised,” he says. “To maximise [your] best return and rental income, present your property at the highest standard achievable within your budget.”

Consider your target market and how best to meet their needs. “The biggest trap for landlords, is renovating to meet their own personal wants and needs rather than the market requirements,” says Fredericks. “Avoid items like expensive lighting, European appliances and luxurious carpets. It is important not to over-capitalise on personal preferences, and focus more on practicality, tenant requirement and budget.” Build and extend

Whether it is taking out an old bath to make a more generous bathroom, or removing a wall for more space and air, rejigging a property can be worthwhile. “Another room can add value and maximise return versus expenditure,” Fredericks says. “Bedrooms add the most value, followed by an extra bathroom, and car parking space.”

Mary Ellen Dowling, from Hauss Realty, agrees. “Adding an en suite to a single bathroom home, or opening up a small dark living area onto a deck, will improve your competition considerably,” she says. “A granny flat or secondary dwelling can double rental yield of your property, because it allows multiple tenants to dwell in self-contained areas.” Related: Renovating your home versus an investment propertyRelated:A room-by-room guide to renovating for profitRelated: Renovating in real life vs The BlockWhite-out

Photo: Affordable Style Files

As rental properties are often viewed vacant, a good first impression is crucial. “For a quick update, a fresh neutral lick of paint is a no-brainer,” says Dowling.

Kara Shanahan, from KDS Design, agrees. “Chalky white is a good choice,” she says. “I like Base White by Dulux for its matte finish that hides sins like uneven and damaged walls. For polish, finish with a semi-gloss on skirting, doors, architraves and timber features.” Window treatments

Use simple window treatments to block out light, conceal ugly frames or hide an outlook not worth viewing.

“Sheer floating white curtains or flax-coloured linen curtains off-the-shelf from Spotlight or IKEA are ideal and inexpensive,” says Shanahan. “Roman blinds are also effective. It can be pot luck on whether you can find one that fits your window exactly, so go larger if required.” Flooring

When it comes to choosing what is underfoot, floorboards are hard to beat for stylish durability. “They bring better rental yields as they don’t require cleaning or get shabby with age,” says Dowling. “Polish up old timber floors, replace tatty carpets with good quality fade and stain resistant carpet, or consider wood-look vinyl flooring.” Photo: Affordable Style FilesSurfaces

A tired kitchen can be updated easily with fresh surfaces. “Look for inexpensive materials that can be easily replaced,” says Shanahan. “Vinyl adhesive roll can transform an ugly bench top or old cupboard face in minutes. Kmart carries a good range.” Fixture overhaul

Gleaming new taps, shower heads and door handles are styling no-brainers. “It also lessens any impending maintenance issues,” says Dowling. “Update light fittings where needed, and ensure doors and windows have good quality dead locks. It is an attractive feature for tenants and often required for insurance purposes.”

Avoid decorative hardware styles, aiming instead for simple pieces that will appeal to most tenants. “Take the existing hardware with you when shopping, so you know you won’t have to drill any new holes in the walls,” says Shanahan. “Bunnings and IKEA are great for contemporary styles at low prices.” Bathroom update

Photo: Affordable Style Files

Replace old shower curtains with fresh white ones, add a Roman blind, or frost half a window for privacy and leave the top half clear for harnessing natural light.

“Fresh new tiles, a clean vanity, toilet, shower and bath, featuring good quality tapware, has a huge impact and real longevity,” says Dowling.

Bring the outside in

Keep outside simple, low-maintenance and livable. “Create a real connection between your external and internal, so your outdoor area is perceived as a second entertaining area,” says Dowling. “Before a viewing, organise for communal areas in the body corporate to be cleaned, oil the decks, have all external surfaces gurneyed clean, and put mulch on the garden beds. It will ensure a sparkling first impression.”

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Winter Olympics sponsors warned of online campaign ???hijacking’

Corporate sponsors of the 2018 Olympic winter games in PyeongChang have been warned to expect their hashtags to be hijacked by social media users looking to make political statements.
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Big-name brands sponsoring or partnering with sports events could find their social media strategies increasingly co-opted by those keen to use viral hashtags for their own purposes, according to Deakin Business School’s Michael Naraine.

Hashtags are regularly used on social media to tag a comment with a topic so it turns up in feeds and searches about the particular event or discussion. Companies use this tool to generate awareness, discussion and publicity for their brands and on some platforms can pay to promote their hashtag.

Dr Naraine, who has published extensively on social media and its changing use in sport, has seen a rise in corporate concern since social media use ramped up during the 2012 London Olympics.

By the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, there was a noticeable shift. Social media campaigns started by brands to gain publicity during the Olympics were subsequently being used for commentary about athletes’ living quarters, and Russia’s non-acceptance of LGBTIQ+ people.

On the list of major sponsors and partners for PyeongChang are fast-food brand McDonald’s and drink company Coca-Cola.

McDonalds “lost control” of its #CheersToSochi and #imlovingit hashtags on Twitter to “vitriol online” in Sochi, Dr Naraine said. In 2012, its #McDStories hashtag was also hijacked.

With the Winter Olympics to be held next month in South Korea, in a politically charged environment, brands should be concerned this would heat up even further, he said.

“It will be interesting to see how the political element surpasses the Games themselves, with the potential for sponsor hashtags to be used in posts about athlete safety, the likelihood of retaliation from North Korea and the omnipresence of US President Trump’s threats.”

This wouldn’t stop sponsors from seeing a benefit in being connected with the Games nor using social media to generate publicity.

Other big names with Olympics involvement include Visa, Samsung, Toyota, Panasonic and LG.

Major brands are still intending to use hashtags as part of their Olympic Games promotions, with teams in place to monitor social media responses.

A Facebook Australia spokesman said hashtags on Facebook and Instagram “may not be available” if they were consistently found to have content that didn’t follow community standards.

“We review these hashtags on an ongoing basis and may make the hashtag available again if the content associated with particular hashtags changes over time,” he said.

The company receives millions of reports each week and will double its safety and security team to 20,000 people in 2018, with experts in hate speech, child safety, counter-terrorism and legal specialists.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment, but it’s understood the company has an anti-spam team and specifically targets automated tactics used to derail trending topics.

In the last six months, it introduced a feature to “down rank” low-quality content.

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How to slash your power bill by $2700 with one phone call

Clunes resident Russell Mills. Selection of electricity bills over a twelve month period. 4 January 2016. Photo Jacklyn Wagner. Story Lucy Cormack
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Rising energy costs are the biggest financial concern for consumers in 2018, according to a recent survey by Canstar.

The Consumer Pulse Report found 30 per cent of consumers were more worried about rising electricity and gas prices than any other financial issues, including job security and interest rate movements.

This summer will see energy prices hit their highest levels ever, putting households under further pressure as bills soar.

So how can you minimise your power bills and protect yourself from rising energy prices? Shop around and negotiate hard

Minimising the amount you pay for power is the most effective way to reduce your electricity bill, and switching providers or negotiating with your existing provider is the best way to do it.

The Canstar Blue Energy Insights Report, which compared 113 electricity plans in NSW and Victoria, found the cheapest plan cost $1800 per year, while the most expensive cost $4500, based on a five-person household. Put simply, changing your electricity plan could save you $2700 per year.

The report also found 45 per cent of consumers don’t think they are getting a good energy deal. According to Canstar Blue Editor Simon Downes, consumers need to be proactive to get lower rates, and fortunately, retailers are willing to negotiate.

“Retailers would rather keep you as a customer and make a bit less money from you than not have you as a customer at all,” he said.

But to get the absolute cheapest electricity deal, you need to be prepared call your retailer’s bluff and actually switch providers, which 41 per cent of consumers have never tried.

“The retailers always have a fallback position they can offer their customers. To make sure you’re getting them into that position, it doesn’t hurt to put the wheels in motion to actually go and switch retailers.”

Standard energy contracts have a 10 working day cooling-off period, so even if you find a better deal than your current provider can offer, it’s not too late to switch back if they manage to beat it.

“You can bet your bottom dollar that if your retailer hasn’t offered you their lowest deal, they’re going to if you’ve already switched,” Mr Downes said.

However, switching providers might not be an option for consumers in Tasmania, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and parts of Queensland, where the number of retailers is limited. Make your own electricity

One in six homes have solar panels installed, and solar systems are becoming more affordable, with electricity providers and banks offering customers incentives that can reduce the price to as low as $1500.

The average cost of a medium-sized solar system is $6200, and according to SolarQuip principal Glen Morris, it will pay for itself within five to 10 years, depending on usage patterns.

“The best benefit is for people who use energy when the sun shines,” he said. “The payback is much quicker, we’re talking four years or so.”

Batteries can further lower bills by allowing solar power to be used at night. But at about $10,000 each, it can take a decade to recoup the cost.

Solar Citizens campaigner Stephanie Gray said homeowners should investigate whether state and local governments can help fund their solar system. “The upfront cost of installing solar is a barrier for many low-income households, but some state governments do provide assistance loans.” Minimise your energy consumption

Air conditioners, ovens and refrigerators are some of the biggest power drains in a home, and Mr Morris said efficient appliances are worth the higher price tag. “Always look for the best star-rated appliances. Within a couple of years you’re ahead.”

Mr Downes said behaviour change is the key to cutting consumption. “You need to get into the mindset that whenever you’re using something in the house, it’s costing you money.”

While minimising consumption may be effective in high usage households, Mr Downes said consumers in small households should pay particular attention to daily supply charges, as lowering power usage will have minimal effect on bills if supply charges remain high.

“Daily supply charges can vary from 90?? to $1.30 per day. Those are costs you are paying regardless of your energy usage.” Top 5 ways to minimise power consumption

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The fastest NBN speed plan is falling out of favour

The highest-speed plan on the national broadband network is becoming a tough sell for telecommunications companies amid concerns the risks and costs are outweighing the benefits.
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A combination of discounts for the slower 50 Mbps speed plans, action by the regulator over unachievable speeds and a budget-sensitive public has industry sources warning 100 Mbps speed plans might not be offered by major telcos in the future.

Some carriers had already stopped offering 100 Mbps plans, said Joseph Hanlon, spokesman for comparison site WhistleOut, which audits about 40 per cent of NBN plans.

Its latest audit found Vocus Group providers iPrimus and Dodo dropped these plans from their sites in late-2017.

It’s understood one of the main reasons for dropping these plans was lack of customer take-up, with the brands targeting the budget end of the market.

In 2017, more than 80 per cent of NBN users were on speeds of 25 Mbps or less – the lowest plans available.

Now that the NBN has provided wholesale discounts on its 50 Mbps speed tier range, telcos have moved quickly to drop prices for this plan, or bump customers on 25 Mbps plans into a faster tier.

This has seen the take-up of 50 Mbps plans jump from less than 3 per cent to about 30 per cent, while the percentage of new orders for 100 Mbps plans remains stable at about 9 per cent of all orders. There was no NBN discount on 100 Mbps speed tier, though there are bandwidth discounts across speed plans.

Australia’s fixed internet recently ranked 55th in the world, behind countries like Austria, Slovenia, Czech Republic and Kazakhstan, with an average speed of 25.88 Mbps.

The focus on 50 Mbps product, with no change to 100 Mbps, had MyRepublic managing director ANZ Nicholas Demos warning his company might stop selling the top tier, because the 50 Mbps products were significantly more attractive to sell.

To date, MyRepublic has sold only the fastest-speed plans, but flagged the introduction of 50 Mbps products this month.

Angus Kidman, spokesman for comparison site Finder, agreed the current discount structures made selling 50 Mbps plans more appealing and was not surprised that it did “appear that some providers are dumping the 100 plans”.

“Given the widespread perception that NBN plans don’t deliver maximum speeds, the push from [the regulator] to make sure providers advertise ???realistic’ speeds and the relatively low-demand for high-priced 100 deals, it makes sense that providers aimed at the cost-sensitive end of the market might decide it’s safer and easier to just not offer the high-speed packages.”

Industry sources also mentioned increased scrutiny from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) as a major factor.

Thousands of Fibre To The Node (FTTN) and Fibre To The Building (FTTB) customers are set to be compensated after it was found last year they could not get the speeds they were paying for, with the majority having signed up for 100 Mbps plans.

Almost 26,500 of about 42,200 compensated Telstra customers were on this highest-speed plan. Of 8330 clients Optus will compensate, 5430 had 100 Mbps plans. TPG also landed itself in hot water – almost all of the 8000 customers it was required to compensate were on this speed.

An ACCC spokesman said it was an “industry-wide issue” that service providers were required to take responsibility for.

“Investigations into other retail service providers selling NBN broadband plans are continuing, and the ACCC will take enforcement action if we consider that they are not delivering on their promises to customers,” he said.

Telstra, Optus and TPG still provide a 100 Mbps option, but are required to speed-test lines within four weeks of activation and give customers options if they are not achieving the speeds they have paid for – this includes downgrading them to a lower speed plan.

Telstra’s budget brand Belong, which was also mentioned in the enforceable undertaking it entered into with the ACCC in November, does not advertise 100 Mbps speeds to FTTN and FTTB customers.

It’s understood new plans being introduced in mid-2018 should offer discounts on both products, with discussions currently underway with telcos.

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‘Five elephants in the room’: Virgin Australia dances ownership tango

After years of speculation and minority shareholder angst, Virgin Australia last year confirmed what many had long taken for granted: privatisation was on the cards.
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With less than 9 per cent of its shares traded freely on the stockmarket, the carrier is firmly in the control of its five largest investors, and in November chair Elizabeth Bryan said the board was acting in the best interests of all shareholders by exploring privatisation.

Virgin has not updated the market since, declining to comment when contacted this week.

Etihad Airways owns 21 per cent of Virgin, along with Singapore Airlines (20 per cent), Chinese conglomerates Nanshan (19.9 per cent) and HNA Group (19.8 per cent), and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group (10 per cent).

Going private would free Virgin from the burden of quarterly reporting, and the accompanying scrutiny, as it tries to fly out of a bumpy transformation period.

But some say its public company structure has kept the competing interests of Virgin’s rival airline owners in check.

Albert Wong, the Sydney stockbroker and corporate adviser who negotiated Nanshan’s purchase of its shares from Air New Zealand in mid-2016 for $260 million, said a major ownership shake-up was a key premise behind that investment.

“The share register was basically five elephants in the room,” Mr Wong told Fairfax Media.

“It was a structure that’s just not sustainable long term, so either it would be privatised or possibly taken over at some stage by one of the major players.”

While stressing he could not talk on behalf of Nanshan, he said the Chinese group was a “passive investor” in Virgin that would give due consideration to any privatisation offer.

“Clearly the value of Virgin is not reflected in the share price, even though it’s had a bit of a jump in the last four or five months,” Mr Wong said.

After trading at 49?? in early 2016, Virgin’s shares had tumbled to a seven-year low of 16?? by mid-2017.

Talk of privatisation, and the potential for smaller investors to receive a premium for their shares, have seen them shoot up to 27?? since November.

There are several pathways to a private Virgin, including the company mopping up the $200 million or so worth of shares in free float itself in a management buyout.

Chief executive John Borghetti would sell his shares, worth about $2.7 million at current prices, in that scenario.

Takeover rules stop any of the investors immediately snapping up the free float themselves, but they could gradually increase their holding by 3 per cent every six months under “creep” provisions.

Going private and no longer being contained by takeover provisions would open the door far more to significant deal making between the remaining owners. That could see one airline taking a controlling interest, subject to Foreign Investment Review Board approval.

But some of the key players are facing headaches of their own, which will probably influence if and how Virgin departs the ASX, and what it might look like as a private company.

Diogenis Papiomytis, the director of aviation at global consultancy Frost & Sullivan, said one of new Etihad chief executive Tony Douglas’ first orders of business upon starting this month would be to reassess its investment in Virgin.

The Gulf carrier has stepped backed from the international investment strategy spearheaded by former boss James Hogan, which blew a hole in its earnings and contributed to its $US1.87 billion ($2.39 billion) loss last year.

Italian carrier Alitalia went into administration and Air Berlin filed for bankruptcy in 2017 after Etihad withdrew its support for the pair.

Virgin ran at a $224.7 million net loss in 2016 and a$185.8 million loss in 2017. But it is cash-flow positive for the first time in five years and says its turnaround plan is running ahead of expectations.

Mr Papiomytis, who was part of the strategy team at Etihad that decided to invest in Virgin, said it was possible Etihad would sell its stake in Virgin in the medium term.

“Etihad has lost money from the investment … and there’s still a long way to go before they [Virgin] become sustainably profitable,” he said.

“As an investment it does not make sense, but strategically it does because Australia’s still one of the most important markets for Etihad Airways”.

Mr Papiomytis said Etihad would be weighing up whether divestment would jeopardise its lucrative code-share partnership, cede too much power to the other airlines who could draw Virgin passengers away from Abu Dhabi and towards their own hubs, or strengthen Emirates and Qantas’ partnership.

“I don’t see a very short-term divestment by Etihad in Virgin, but over the longer term I think that partnership can continue without the shareholding,” he said, adding that Etihad would “100 per cent” want Virgin to privatise.

Virgin has maintained its code-share alliance with Air New Zealand even after the Kiwi carrier sold out of its 25.9 per cent holding.

Corrine Png, CEO of Asian transport equity research firm Crucial Perspective, said that with Etihad looking more like a seller, Singapore Airlines and HNA would be the dominant players vying for control of Virgin.

The Nanshan Group owns only the fledging Qingdao Airlines, which has a fleet of 14 aircraft, while Richard Branson’s group has been stepping away from its aviation investments.

Ms Png said both Singapore and the highly acquisitive HNA would probably increase their holdings if possible.

“Now it is a deadlock of shareholdings, so in the end Virgin Australia doesn’t get anywhere because the board has so many conflicting interests,” she said.

Flights to Australia and New Zealand made up 18 per cent of Singapore Airlines’ revenue last year, according to its annual report. That made Australia more valuable to Singapore than to other Virgin investors, Ms Png said.

Singapore had enough net cash to buy the 80 per cent of Virgin it did not already own outright if needed, Ms Png said, but it only would be interested in increasing its stake to at least 50 per cent so it could command control.

At the same time, Singapore could bale out altogether if another airline increased its stake significantly, because it would lose the influence its investment was supposed to deliver.

“If there’s an overriding airline that has a much bigger stake, then there’s no point in the rest of them owning a stake,” Ms Png said.

HNA Group, meanwhile, is China’s fourth-biggest carrier but lags behind its Chinese competitors internationally, making a foothold into the booming inbound market to Australia attractive.

But it is also facing well-publicised issues. The group has come under scrutiny in several jurisdictions over its opaque ownership, and is now facing higher borrowing costs following a debt-fuelled $40 billion global spending spree.

The conglomerate is reportedly selling commercial properties to pay down debt, but its interest in aviation does not appear to have waned.

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New graduates struggling to find full-time work despite economic recovery

Recent university graduates are struggling to find full-time work despite the growth in overall employment, with one in five employed university leavers unhappily working part-time in 2017.
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Although there have been small improvements since 2014, employment outcomes for new graduates are still significantly worse than than before the global financial crisis – despite a general employment boom.

But in the medium-term – three years after leaving university – almost 90 per cent of graduates were in full-time work, with two-thirds saying their degree was important or very important to their current job.

And in an encouraging sign, the gender pay gap for undergraduates narrowed to a record low of 1.9 per cent, according to the 2017 Graduate Outcomes Survey released overnight by the federal government.

Four months after leaving university, 71.8 per cent of undergraduates are in full-time employment. Photo: Rob Homer

The survey showed 71.8 per cent of undergraduates were in full-time work four months after leaving university – up 0.9 percentage points since 2016, but still well below the peak of 85.2 per cent in 2008.

The Grattan Institute’s higher education analyst Andrew Norton said the flood of graduates created by Labor’s demand-driven system, which increased university participation, had made the headline figures “worse”.

But they also remained lower because historical skills shortages had been resolved, more people were pursuing further study and graduates were content to wait for better jobs, which they eventually found.

“Undoubtedly there is a much slower transition going on,” Mr Norton said. “Four months out [from university] people are still holding out for a decent full-time job. It is not worth taking just any job at that point when you’ve still got your student part-time job to keep you going.”

The subject areas with the lowest proportion of full-time employment after four months were the creative arts (55.4 per cent), science and mathematics (59 per cent), psychology (60.7 per cent) and communications (61.7 per cent).

In a finding the report’s authors labelled “interesting”, graduates in regional and remote areas were more likely to be in full-time work four months after leaving university (75.5 per cent) than those in metropolitan areas (70.6 per cent).

The survey also noted a shift to part-time employment, primarily due to the “relatively weak” state of the labour market since the GFC. Since 2008, the proportion of employed graduates working part-time increased to 37.9 per cent from 22.8 per cent.

Many of those people were not seeking more hours due to continuing studies. But a stubbornly high 19.7 per cent of all employed graduates were unhappily underemployed, with the highest concentration in the creative arts, communications, tourism and hospitality, the humanities, science and maths.

The gender pay gap for undergraduates dropped from 6.4 per cent to 1.9 per cent – the lowest in 40 years of records. But for people who finished postgraduate degrees by coursework, the gender pay gap actually widened to $15,000, or 19.7 per cent.

The survey, published by the federal Department of Education, was based on 121,000 responses from graduates of Australian universities and other tertiary institutions. In addition to employment outcomes, it also measures students’ satisfaction with their courses.

In 2017, the subjects with the course areas with the lowest level of satisfaction were computing, IT and engineering, though satisfaction for all study areas still exceeded 70 per cent. Only in engineering did fewer than 50 per cent of university leavers rate their teachers positively.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham said future students should use the data to make a better informed choice about their studies.

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How to make sense of Canva’s $1 billion valuation

Unicorns are mythical creatures. Both in the ancient literature sense – and in the billion-dollar start-up sense.
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Canva, a white-hot, Surry Hills-based design software start-up became the world’s latest “unicorn” this week – a private company valued at more $US1 billion.

It marks a significant milestone for the fast-growing company, and is another sign of the momentum in Australia’s maturing tech industry.

Still, there are reasons not to get too carried away by the news.

For one thing, “unicorns” used to be rare, hence the moniker. That is no longer really the case.

According to CB Insights, a start-up research firm, there are now 224 of them around the world (some of the better-known ones include Uber, Airbnb and Spotify).

Canva is the only Australian firm currently on the list – and the first to make it on there since Atlassian. It could have been valued even higher.

“We could have raised at a higher valuation from other investors, but that’s not something we wanted to do,” co-founder Cliff Obrecht told me this week.

Yet is also important to note that start-up valuations should really be taken with a grain of salt.

Don’t just take my word for that.

“All these private valuations are fake … It’s all on paper, it’s all a myth”, Bill Gurley, a widely respected US venture capitalist, and an early backer of Facebook and Uber, famously said in 2015.

Start-up valuations have also been described by Bloomberg as “fuzzy”, “insane” and “kind of made up”.

It is difficult to succinctly explain why, but here is an attempt.

Venture capital firms that back start-ups typically demand provisions to limit their downside risk.

After all, investing in start-ups is risky. Most of them (anywhere from 60 to 90 per cent, depending upon who you listen to) end up failing.

Common protections VCs get when investing in start-ups include “liquidation preferences” that, in the event of a sale or float or wind-up, ensure they get paid back before anyone else; and “ratchets” that entitle them to more shares if a certain return threshold isn’t achieved.

So, while the sale of a small percentage of a company at a certain price may imply a big valuation, the reality is much more complicated.

In any case, “unicorn” status is coveted by start-ups for a few reasons.

It’s a powerful tool for recruitment – the battle for talent in the tech industry is fierce. It’s also a good, easy news story to tell.

Canva’s raising was picked up by various outlets, here and abroad, some of which don’t normally cover the field. Hey, it’s three days after the fact, and I’m still writing about it here.

The upshot is that many people (potential users) who hadn’t heard of the service before, will have now. Well played.

Achieving a high valuation from investors, though, is not without risks.

It exposes a private company to the possibility of a dreaded “down round” in future.

“That’s definitely a risk,” Blackbird Ventures partner Rick Baker, one of Canva’s earliest backers, told me this week. “But it’s one we were obviously willing to take.”

Seven “unicorns” suffered this fate last year – you could say they had their horns ripped off. They were sold, or had to raise money, at valuations below the $US1 billion mark.

At least one, Jawbone, a maker of wireless speakers and fitness trackers, went out of business.

For Canva, the prospect of this would seem remote.

Sure, the company is yet to turn an annual profit. In the most recent financial year, it lost $3 million, and it generated just $24 million in revenue.

But a start-up losing money in the early years of its existence is not unusual.

And Canva claims it turned cashflow positive last year, and has been so for four straight months.

Its revenue is said to be growing at triple-digit rates, and it’s mostly recurring, something investors salivate over.

Its cost of acquiring customers is said to be extremely low (it doesn’t spend much on marketing, and has grown through word of mouth), as are its churn rates (the percentage of subscribers quitting).

I could dive further into the weeds of the metrics used to value software companies here, but the reality is this: some very smart people are deeply psyched about the company’s potential.

They could be wrong. If the company continues on its current trajectory, they will be right.

Regardless, Canva is certainly not the most ridiculous-looking investment out there.

Cryptocurrencies, or even closer to home, smaller tech stocks on the ASX, look much, much more questionable. And retail investors are punting on them.

Which brings us to arguably the most important point.

Start-ups like Canva are almost completely backed by sophisticated, professional institutional investors (themselves backed by gigantic entities such as super funds, which allocate only a small portion of their money to the sector).

If they make a failed bet (and they do), these investors have the financial strength to withstand any losses. And if they’re right, they will also reap the rewards.

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