Interview: Martha Lane Fox CBE, Lastminute.com

Martha Lane Fox. Photo Courtesy: Janice Turner/The Times

By Ashley Coates. Published: 16/10/2013

“We need scaled, extraordinary, businesses in this country, we have lots of brilliant entrepreneurs but we do not manage to scale our businesses very often. We need people to be bold and believe they can”.

Martha Lane Fox is an icon of the dot com boom. She co-founded Lastminute.com with Brent Hoberman in 1998, back when the widespread use of the internet was far from being a certainty. By 2000, it was one of the most popular consumer destinations on the web and was floated on the London Stock Exchange with a valuation of £571 million.

Martha’s school ventures echo her lifelong interests in business, innovation and public service. She started an in-house dating agency at her school and tried to get the teachers to take her colleagues to prisons as part of their volunteer programme. Martha would later express an interest in being a prison governor but graduated from Oxford with a degree in Classics and History before joining Spectrum, a consulting firm for IT and media companies.

It was there that she met Brent and started developing the idea for an online travel and leisure retailer. Martha left Lastminute.com in 2003 to focus on her philanthropic activities and chose to use the notoriety and wealth gained from the Lastminute.com venture to pursue numerous charitable interests, setting up a grant trust called Antigone and promoting several digital inclusion initiatives.

In 2009 she became the government’s Digital Inclusion Champion, overseeing a campaign to make more people in the UK computer literate and using the internet constructively.

By 2011 Lastminute.com was reporting 1.65 million unique users per week. Martha became a crossbench life peer in the House of Lords in March 2013, taking the name Baroness Martha Lane-Fox of Soho in the City of Westminster. In so doing, Martha became the youngest woman member of the Lords and revived a title that had previously been held by her great aunt, Felicity Lane-Fox. She is also on the boards of Channel 4 and Marks & Spencer.

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Was there any evidence of your interest in technology and business when you were growing up?

Not really, I was always very lucky because my parents were unbelievably supportive of me and everything I was trying to do. My father is an academic but also self-published his own books, wrote a gardening column and had a variable working life.

My mum worked in a small business so I had lots of examples of different things going on around me and they would probably have had a heart attack if I had become an accountant or something like that. As far as tech was concerned, no, I was a classical historian so technology was far away from my universe but I did always like new ideas and innovation. I tried to innovate at my school by starting a dating agency but it didn’t go very well, nobody wanted to pay for my services.

But you were in an environment where you were being encouraged to do things differently.

Exactly, and then for my first job by complete serendipity I ended up in a strategy consulting company which was in the nexus of media, tech and telecoms and that was where I began to understand that you could be smart and be in business as there were lots of knotty problems to be solved.

You once aspired to be a prison governor. What was the thinking behind that?

I think the thinking behind that is quite evident in what I have gone on to do in my professional life. I have always done a mix of public stuff and private stuff. I had always been interested in public service, if you like, and I also had an interest in criminal justice, I used to write to prisons when I was at school.

I also tried to change the community service while I was at school so that we could go and visit prisons which didn’t go very well. I was very serious about trying to get into the Home Office and I actually got through the fast-track exam but then I thought at the final hurdle: “no actually, you would go completely nuts”, but I have been able to keep up a life-long interest.

Remarkably, you’ve been able to combine a public and a private role.

Yes I have been extremely lucky.

Back in 1998, barely 8% of the UK was connected to modems. Could you outline what the online market was like back then?

Yes Brent and I were not only trying to convince people that Lastminute.com would survive and thrive but also that the internet wouldn’t blow up. We had conversations with investors and suppliers where they would be asking us whether we really believed it would survive and be something that would be a proper channel.

That was the real battle and we were partly fighting it for our own business and partly fighting it for the sector. The speeds were incredibly slow and there were many copies of American businesses arriving in the UK but there was no Facebook, no Google, no Twitter, Amazon was only just beginning, it was a very different landscape.

What were the steps needed to get Lastminute.com off the ground in this environment?

It is really important to understand that it was Brent’s idea. He had the eureka moment and he very generously asked me to join him and made me co-founder. He did the initial research and it was born out of his needs as someone who was always going away on last minute breaks. It’s really important to me that people know he is the driving force behind the initial idea.

When you start something you are operating on every axis, you are trying to find people, make technology work, trying to raise money, you just have to go full-pelt at everything and it’s really bloody difficult. There’s no short answer to this.

We wrote a business plan and then had to take it to a consulting company, we then tried to raise the money which took a long time, we built the platform which was pretty shocking because it was the first incarnation of it, called hotels, airlines and suppliers endlessly to try and get products, build the team and try to get out there at every available opportunity to tell people about the internet and Lastminute.com.

Having never sought fame before, you very suddenly became a poster girl for the UK dot-com boom. You also became very wealth, very quickly. How much did your life change as Lastminute.com took off?

You know, we were working so freaking hard at this time. I would occasionally go out and someone would say, “hello Martha!” and I would be a bit surprised that somebody knew my name. Our entire focus, 20 hours a day, was trying to make the company work, even when the nonsense about the dot-com crash was out there and people were writing pretty nasty things about me. It was a funny kind of thing and I think only in the last few years of my life have I been able to see the many benefits as well as the disadvantages of the tiny bit of notoriety I had.

Was it difficult to manage that notoriety when it first began?

It was difficult when Brent was cut out of the photos and it was all about me. Then I got sent loads of letters after the share price collapsed, the nicest of which was, “you’re a bitch”. It was hard.

Before the sudden media interest were you particularly conscious of your appearance being quite different to most of the people in tech?

Because I’m a woman you mean?

Yes.

I think that helps, I would be completely nuts if I didn’t recognise that it has been helpful but at the same time, you had to build your credibility. It’s a double-edge sword but generally of course it helps.

It’s not unusual for successful entrepreneurs to get involved in philanthropy but for you good causes have become your main activities. Which issues have grabbed your attention the most

In 2009 I took on a role with the government focusing on helping people get digital skills. I never imagined that I would survive more than a few months working for the government. It has now been four years and we’ve had this astonishing roller coaster and now we’ve got charities and the corporate sector involved.

I’ve loved it, I’ve been incredibly lucky in having made money from Lastminute.com and I’m not driven to make more. I don’t invest furiously in commercial enterprises, I’m interested in public service. I think it goes back to things I was interested in early in my life. If I can do something for the good of other people in some small way then that is incredibly fulfilling for me personally.

Many people assume that Britain is a very connected place and everyone is using emails, word processing applications and the like with ease. But during your time as the government’s digital commissioner, you have found that many of us are barely using the internet. What has been done to help bring these people into the fold?

Very simply, three things, one is dramatically changing the way the government provides services online, so that’s the Gov.uk site. I built a network of companies that I would get to do stuff, so it was a more B2B [business to business] approach, rather than just trying to get people to take part.

Then I built a network of champions, so as much as I am a “UK champion”, I tried to make sure there are individual champions, whether that is in a Post Office, or within a family, or an office. It’s that peer-to-peer network that I think will grow constructive use of the internet.

You named your grant foundation Antigone, after a character from Greek mythology. Could you tell me a bit about Antigone and why it was chosen as the name for your charitable foundation?

She is a fictional Greek classical hero who stood up for what she believed in and ultimately paid the worst possible price with her life when she was executed for demanding that her brother had a proper burial. As a classical historian and a feminist and, hopefully, a relatively strong woman despite the accident, she has always been an easy person to look to for good values.

How do you account for your own success?

Lots of help, I think this notion that it’s the individual and the cult of the entrepreneur troubles me somewhat. I don’t know many entrepreneurs that don’t have an amazing team around them and I was incredibly lucky that I have always had a great team around me. Brent is a really remarkable person, my family is really remarkable, my boyfriend has been extraordinary.

I really mean that very profoundly, it’s made life a lot more fulfilling and I have been a lot more successful than if I had been alone. Obviously it is hard to praise yourself but I hope I have a not-totally-self-aware optimism so what I like to think is I believe in the possible.

My default reaction is let’s go for it, let’s be bold, let’s be ambitious, let’s try to change the world rather than just try to edge forward. If you get wheeled back a bit then that’s okay. I try to do it with self-awareness and by that I mean, not being unpleasant to people, not being ego-led, trying to be generous and a decent person to be around.

Would you say you have achieved a good work/life balance?

I really don’t know what that is and I don’t mean to sound facetious in saying that. I don’t have kids and I think that is an important thing in the mix and I am aware that I am talking from a very different position to many women and men. I do struggle every day with the consequences of a very serious car crash so that forces you to work in a slightly different way.

Having said that, I am always switched on, I probably do think about things too much and work too much but I am also lucky in that I can organise my own life and I don’t have to go into an office at eight in the morning and leave at eight at night. I can choose how I run my life so I really don’t know what that means if that’s not too disingenuous.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in starting their own business?

The first thing is that the world of not-for-profit social good and the commercial sector are colliding at a rapidly accelerating pace and I would urge people at the beginning of their business to just think about the mixed model. What can you embed in your business that will contribute to society as well as the commercial model that you might have?

Another aspect to this is, starting in 2013, whether your business is an online business or an offline business, you have to embed technology at the heart of it, how you think about your communications, how you talk to your suppliers, how you present yourself on the web, you just cannot be online or offline, you have to think about the digital core of what you do, even if you are selling meat in a butchers.

Also, be bold, we need scaled, extraordinary, businesses in this country, we have lots of brilliant entrepreneurs but we do not manage to scale our businesses very often. We need people to be bold and believe they can. Finally, hire astonishing people, get the absolute best.

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