Cracker of an online idea

STEPHEN PULLINGER It is an inspiring story that would have seemed as far off as a Christmas miracle when Sam Hamilton was growing up as part of a single-parent family on a tough Norfolk council estate.

STEPHEN PULLINGER

It is an inspiring story that would have seemed as far off as a Christmas miracle when Sam Hamilton was growing up as part of a single-parent family on a tough Norfolk council estate.

But the unexceptional student who left school with just a handful of GCSEs and has spent the past decade as a struggling artist in London could be in line for a Christmas gift of Lottery proportions after dreaming up an online Advent Calendar downloaded by more than 700,000 people within weeks of it being launched on the social networking site Facebook.

It is predicted that more than one million of Facebook's 55 million users will have taken advantage of the free calendar in the run-up to Christmas.

From December 1, a single door will be able to be opened each day, revealing a festive cartoon image designed by Mr Hamilton and a host of other goodies, such as games - including a Christmas version of Pacman - also devised by him.

Mr Hamilton, 33, and a friend from Stalham High School days - James Ashton, who helped him with the technical side of the project - are currently negotiating with a number of high-profile companies, including music giant EMI, which are clamouring for the rights to advertise on each image.

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The calendar has already been valued at more than £100,000 by internet analysts and one household name firm, which has since withdrawn its interest, reached the point of mentioning a figure of £750,000.

Mr Hamilton, who grew up on Gorleston's Magdalen Estate before moving to the village of Potter Heigham, near Yarmouth, where his mother Roberta still lives, left home at 16.

He had to work evenings at Yarmouth's former Garibaldi nightclub simply to pay his way through a foundation course in art at the Norfolk Institute of Art and Design in Norwich.

And his tough start in life became worse when his sister Louise died from breast cancer, most likely contracted when she was working as a translator for the World Health Organisation in Kiev, affected by the Chernobyl contamination.

Now living in an artists' community converted from old warehouses in Stoke Newington, London, he became acquainted with the potential of the Internet through designing pages for music bands on MySpace, another social networking site.

He said: “For the last few months I was working out a way for bands to promote themselves on Facebook. I realised it was very new and nothing had been done on Facebook yet.

“Then I was looking for ideas in the real world to transfer on to Facebook and an Advent calendar just popped into my head.”

He said he had also been struck by the environmental benefit of people forsaking card Advent calendars for online versions.

Mr Hamilton said: “It all progressed quickly. I had the idea on a Thursday night and by the Sunday it was online and ready to download.”

That was where his friend Mr Ashton, 33, a software developer from Aylsham Road, Norwich, came into his own, turning the concept into reality.

The former London School of Economics student, married to yoga teacher Katalin, had grown up in Happisburgh but met up again with his former school friend several years later in London.

He remains cautious about how much money they will make, describing it as a “huge experiment”.

Mr Hamilton added: “I am not in it for the money even though six months ago I was sleeping in a small room at a friend's house with a settee as a bed. It would be nice to have some security but I am totally artistic. It means more to me that 700,000 people are looking at my artwork.”

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