By Marcello Iaia
KNOX — Hunter Fortuin was raised in the Hilltowns, but was driven to attend Tech Valley High School in East Greenbush. Like his contractor father, he builds and is a self-starter, but the high school senior envisions a career in computers. Instead of working steadily to retirement in a quiet hamlet, Fortuin’s number-one aim, as he puts it, is to radically change the way the Internet is used.
It is an ambition more at home in Silicon Valley than in Knox, often attributed to tech giants like the late Steve Jobs, of Apple computers, or Mark Zuckerberg, of the popular social-networking site Facebook, who changed society through digital technology.
Facebook just reached a billion users last month, but, with its stock dropping to a 50-percent low in September since the company went public in May, it has been fine-tuning its business model to turn popularity into profit.
Fortuin, a 17-year-old from Knox, has begun to turn a profit from a social networking site with high school friend Shane Boland.
In 2011, the two Tech Valley High School students began creating Flitti.com, aimed at revamping human productivity through the Internet.
On the social-network, users earn points as they interact virtually, sharing pictures, links, and comments through profiles. Points can be redeemed for products from advertisers, melding the social world with the commercial.
Last spring, a beta-test, a limited release to find problems, showed the highschoolers could turn a profit. It included auctions for products or gift cards, where more points could increase the likelihood of getting a winning ticket. This will be phased out as revenue streams become established.
“Down the road, we’ll have the point system actually be integrated into all aspects of Internet business, so it will pretty much become a secondary currency on the Internet,” said Boland, who has moved to the Averill Park school district.
While the site is under construction, Boland and Fortuin are looking to hire a separate programmer to help write code, and someone with accounting knowledge to handle their finances. The updated site is scheduled to be accessible again around February.
Fortuin said he wants to eventually have as many people join Flitti as have joined Facebook, he wants it to be a household name, and he wants to foster a regulated Internet currency. Realistic or not, he said, the value is in thinking big.
“You have to have something that’s way off in the future, that is gigantic, and you have to have that vision for something that would impact society in a positive way,” said Fortuin.
Fortuin and Boland are planning to use web design clients as launching pads for a broadened Flitti point system, where users can accrue points by visiting clients’ sites. So far, they have created sites for the Westerlo and Knox volunteer fire companies, and Soldiers Hope, a not-for-profit organization specializing in alternative-wellness therapies for veterans and run by Fortuin’s mother, Andrea.
This virtual transaction, where clicks become a currency, Boland and Fortuin say, is a benefit for all involved, because everyone gets what they want.
To be sure, Facebook has already employed a virtual currency. Likened to a “virtual wallet,” Facebook credits act like the tokens and tickets used in arcades, and are similarly purchased with real money or credit. Games and applications associated with Facebook accept the credits, which have gained attention as a way for Facebook to monetize its popularity without smothering users with advertising. Its stock reached a four-month high in November after reporting advertising-growth.
Many of those games for which Facebook credits are used, says Fortuin, are a waste of time. Fortuin’s central theme is that the big flaw of the Internet is it isn’t harnessed for productivity as much as it should be.
“That doing certain things is better than doing others because you get more points — I don’t want that sense of control there, and that’s something that from day one we’ve tried to brainstorm ideas to not have that hand of god above our users,” said Fortuin. “We really just want it to be a way to be productive.”
On his father’s Knox farm, Hunter was always thinking about ways to do his work more efficiently.
“It’s helped me to love more than just the Internet,” he said of growing up in the Hilltowns. “I love doing things that are hands-on. You’re picking up rocks, stacking wood. There wasn’t a lot of virtual, growing up. I think that’s a thing I’ve recently adopted in the past four years.”
Each participating school district in the Capital Region sends just a few students to Tech Valley High School, where learning outcomes are focused on math, science, public speaking, and collaboration. Students apply to the school in eighth grade, funded by their districts, the state, and private-sector grants.
When the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Board of Education floated the idea of increasing its involvement in the program, Hunter’s father, Kenneth Fortuin, drove his 16-year-old son to the meeting in February.
“I heard he was a good speaker, so I decided to stay and watch,” said Kenneth Fortuin. “He spoke for 10 minutes like he had been practicing the speech for months. It was just amazing. I was so proud.”
For his post-high school plans, Fortuin is looking to break with convention again.
“The problem I see with going to college is I have all these ideas right now that are really good, and all it takes is a matter of executing these ideas,” he said.
Fortuin is taking night classes at a University at Albany program called Young Entrepreneurs Academy, which helps train pre-college students to start their own businesses, and he completed an application for a Thiel Fellowship, which grants $100,000 and mentorship for people under 20 years old to start work on their own ideas. Fellows for 2013 will be announced next May.
Fortuin says his ideas are driven by “the sole purpose of helping.”
“Seeing all the need around me, seeing the people that are hurting in the economy and seeing the people that are essentially wasting their time on Facebook just socializing,” said Fortuin. “They are doing things that are counterproductive to the world.”
When Hunter was younger, the Fortuin family organized packages of winter clothing and gift cards for homeless people on the streets of Schenectady. His mother, Andrea Fortuin, said he enjoyed serving dinners at the Albany City Mission.
“You’d think he was some kind of little minister,” said Ms. Fortuin.