Liz Gannes

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Topguest Hustles Its Way into Making Travel Loyalty Pay (Video)

Topguest co-founder and CEO Geoff Lewis says he figured out a way to hack the near-impossible problem of hiring engineers in Silicon Valley: find them in Australia.

Apparently the U.S. visa process coming from Down Under is relatively pain-free, and at a cost of “a few thousand dollars” Lewis now has four Australians and himself, a Canadian, working on Topguest. “No Americans,” he said as a point of pride in an interview at his San Francisco office this week.

Lewis’ explanation for how a small, less-than-a-year-old start-up with relatively few users can score deals with the likes of Virgin America, Hilton and InterContinental Hotels Group is similar: “Just hustling.”

Topguest ties customers’ geo-located social media activity with existing loyalty rewards programs. “We have no loyalty or travel domain expertise,” Lewis said.

Topguest doesn’t have its own check-in app, but it plugs into users’ Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram accounts to pull in their posts. For instance, getting the most likes on Instagram for a picture taken at a U.S. airport this week will earn Topguest users 1,000 Virgin America Elevate points (the minimum amount needed to buy a flight is 2,500).

In comparison to the fleeting attraction of a nearby special offer on Foursquare, Lewis said, “deals and discounts aren’t loyalty.”

Lewis said Facebook is by far the most-used check-in service by Topguest users, and the company’s recent Instagram integration has doubled unique visitors to its site.

This weekend, Topguest is launching a partnership with Caesars Entertainment Corp in Las Vegas that will earn users rewards points to spend at the company’s 1,000 venues.

Topguest makes money by receiving an activation fee for users who participate in loyalty programs (so far 10 percent of its users have signed up for a new loyalty program), as well as a monthly fee in some cases.

Ultimately, said Lewis, Topguest wants to act as a personalized concierge tool for its users, helping them make travel reservations to earn and spend loyalty points.

The company does have to fend off users who game the system by checking into multiple hotels in order to accrue more points. Lewis said Topguest has banned hundreds of users already for such abuse.

Personally, I might tend toward the opposite inclination and resist publicly checking into places where I plan to spend the night. But earning miles for airport check-ins? Sure, why not!

Topguest raised $2 million in Series A funding last year from investors including Founders Fund, as well as angels such as Ron Conway, Keith Rabois, Jeff Clavier and Naval Ravikant. After closing the funding, the company moved from New York City to San Francisco.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald