Born in London in 1973, Martha kicked off her career as an entrepreneur at school with a dating agency and later championed changes to the way prefects were voted in (a fact Baroness Martha now finds profoundly ironic, as she sits in the House of Lords). Following her success with lastminute.com and a life changing accident, Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho now devotes her time to promoting technology for the greater good of society.
Martha went to Oxford High School, an all-girls independent school and then, at the age of 16, to Westminster School, an all-boys public school in London with a mixed sixth form. She says she enjoyed bits of her education, especially in London where she felt challenged and excited by learning. After school, Martha went to Magdalen College, Oxford, and graduated with a BA degree in ancient and modern history.
Following university Martha started working for a media and telecoms consulting company called Spectrum, where she was tasked, in 1991, with writing a paper for BT called What is the Internet? She says: ‘That really introduced me to technology and the rapidly changing world of media and telecoms. It definitely changed my perspective on the way the world was going, very dramatically.’ Martha worked for Spectrum for three years and then worked in a television company before embarking on a project that would change her life.
Martha credits Brent Hoberman, her co-founder and previous boss, with the idea for lastminute.com, one of the first online travel and gift websites launched in 1998. Brent invited Martha to co-found the site when she was just twenty-five.
Twenty years on, Martha reflects that ‘the battle at that point wasn’t to build a case for why lastminute.com would be successful (no one thought lastminute.com would be successful), it was actually about showing the world that the internet was going to survive, it was going to be important and that people would put their credit card details into a website. That was the battle we were fighting.’
Together, Brent and Martha raised money from venture capital and a combination of investors, including a company called NewMedia Spark, and a key investor called Tom Teichman. After funding, the second challenge was to encourage travel industry suppliers to work with them. Martha says: ‘It was a huge challenge, because we were very young, we had no track record, we weren’t in the travel industry.’
To give lastminute.com credibility, they created a board consisting of experts from the travel industry and invited the ex-chairman and CEO of KLM to act as chairman. They then set out to convince key people, as Martha explains: ‘We just went on at them. I think Brent must have called the poor woman from Alitalia about twenty-five times on her mobile. I think I hassled the key guy from Iceland Air about 85 times and took him out to lunch. In the end I think our kind of tenacity, the fact that all we were saying was, can we take your empty seats and sell them unbranded at a discount, paid off. Really the net risk to them was quite low, they just tested us and when things worked, we got more supply, and then you’re in that brilliant cycle of, actually, this is working. But it was hard. It was really hard.’
Hotels were also key suppliers and Martha says that they focused on what would be appealing to customers and introduced the idea of a stay in a luxury hotel at a bargain price. She says: ‘We really created a trend of people thinking, well screw it, for £100 they’ll stay in a room that might be £800 normally, this looks fun. So, we tried to build it all the time on what would be appealing to customers and what was fun... We were trying to encourage spontaneous and romantic behaviour in our customers. We wanted to make this feel like this was something that could help you have just even more of an excellent time in the short amount of time that you’re not at work.’
The dotcom crash
Lastminute.com was among the last to launch their IPO on the stock market before the dotcom crash. They raised £100 million from across the UK, US and Europe, just weeks before the market crashed. Martha explains: ‘We had to manage through a rapidly declining share price. All of the employees’ stock, for which they had been working so hard, was pretty much becoming worthless. But you just had to carry on doing a good job for customers, because we knew that that would make the business strong.’
Despite the set-back, the business thrived with a growing customer base and the acquisition of several smaller travel businesses, including Degriftour a French travel company, Holiday Autos and a number of smaller travel websites. Martha explains: ‘They wanted part of the stock price and I think a lot of the companies, post dotcom boom, they didn’t have any other opportunity for exit, so we were able to become a hub for all those travel businesses. It gave us scale, and that’s what you need in travel, and it made us much more resilient, so it was a huge benefit to going public.’
After Last Minute
Having left lastminute.com in 2004, Martha was due to join Selfridges but was involved in a life changing car accident which left her in hospital for two years - she had broken almost every bone in her body and suffered a stroke.
When she left hospital, Martha decided her life had to change. In 2009 Martha became the UK’s digital champion for Gordon Brown and later David Cameron. She says: ‘I thought about technology from a different angle to the start-up commercial angle. I was asked to look at how to make sure everybody in the UK had access to the internet and then I got involved in setting up the government digital service and Gov.uk. So, I was much more focused on the kind of social aspects of tech.’
In April 2012, Martha set up a charity called Go ON UK, to help people get basic digital skills. Then in 2015 having discussed the social aspects of technology in a Dimbleby Lecture on the BBC, Martha suggested the idea of doteveryone.org. She explains: ‘doteveryone was born. We are focussed on responsible technology, so that’s technology that works for everyone, not just for the few. It’s a big ambitious task, but we want to make the UK the most responsible technology market in the world.’
Martha also joined the board of Twitter in 2016 as part of the company’s drive to broaden its diversity.
Martha believes that some of the issues that the industry has with recruiting and retaining women, include an un-diverse background, job descriptions that don’t inspire women and a poor industry image. When she was growing up, Martha was grateful to her parents who she says told her to: ‘Always strive high and not ever think that things or ideas were out of your reach, or that you couldn’t be in the room. Which I realise now as a woman was a phenomenal gift to have given me.’
Of the lack of diversity in technology, she says: ‘I feel optimistic and pessimistic in equal measure. The numbers are not moving, in fact they’re getting worse from many metrics. You hear terrible stories of either absolute sexism, latent sexism, sometimes aggression, nasty stuff happening. But there is definitely more noise and chat than there ever has been before.’
On the question of effective leadership, Martha says: ‘I think that people over-complicate it. I think that leadership is about setting an incredibly clear direction with a real purpose to it. I think every company can have grounding and unifying purpose. I think you’ve got to set that unifying purpose and mission, hire the best people and don’t ask them to do stuff you wouldn’t do yourself, but do delegate, then I think that’s a good start.’
Based on an original interview with Archives of IT(AIT), the database of media and interviews from the UK IT industry (charity no: 1164198). AIT encourages study of the industry and inspires future leaders of the UK IT industry through the insights of their forebears. Visit www.archivesit.org.uk - and follow us on Twitter @ArchivesIT