Martha Lane Fox was the co-founder of lastminute.com and is currently councillor of the Open University and founder and executive chair of Doteveryone, a think tank building a movement for responsible technology.
Martha Lane-Fox was born in London in 1973. Martha credits her mother, an entrepreneur, and her father, an academic, gardener, writer and entrepreneur, with instilling her with confidence. She explains: “My parents gave me unrestricted love and the challenge 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.”
Martha continues: “By example, they showed me how to be in the world and to strive to both work hard for yourself, but also to try and improve things or move the dial on whatever interested you. And I think it was those things working in parallel that really was hard-wired into me.”
Innovation certainly started early for Martha, at school she set up a dating agency which she describes as “profoundly unsuccessful because my secret strategy had been to try and work out who everybody liked at school, but actually, no one fell for that particular trick”. However, she was more successful with her second innovation to change the way that the monitors (prefects) were voted for and elected, which she says, sitting in the House of Lords, is now profoundly ironic.
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-sex 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.
She says of the experience: “Now I look back on it, my father is a Classics professor at Oxford, I went to Oxford to study ancient and modern history, it’s about as imaginative as, I don’t know, the least imaginative thing you can imagine. So now I look back on it I kind of wish I’d gone to university in America and done more of a foundational course and things, because that’s what I really love. I’m interested in science, but I also love history. And I can’t code but I wish I had more of a foundation in more technical subjects as well as the arts and humanities, and I think a US university might have suited me better, now on reflection.”
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.
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 where people could use their credit cards online to buy holidays, theatre tickets and so on which launched in 1998.
Brent invited Martha to co-found it with him when she was twenty-five. The website turned twenty in 2018 and 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. Martha says: “It was hard because there weren’t very many people even putting money into internet businesses at that time.”
A second challenge was to encourage travel industry suppliers to work with them. Martha says: “It was a huge, enormous challenge, because we were very young, we had no track record, we weren’t in the travel industry.” To give them 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, enthusiasm, 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, you know, 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.”
IPO and the dot.com crash
Lastminute.com was among the last IPO scale before the markets collapsed. They raised £100 million from across the UK, US and Europe, just weeks before the dot.com crash. 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. We were getting a lot of crap thrown at us in the press, and it was really tough. 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 dot.com boom, they didn’t have any other opportunity for exit, really, 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.”
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. Realising that she needed to make changes, she decided to take on a portfolio lifestyle at the age of just 35. She describes the change as “depressing for a period of time but is now interesting because I get such an expanse of different things to be involved in.”
When she left hospital, Martha started a karaoke business called Lucky Voice. In 2009 Martha became the UK’s digital champion for Gordon Brown and then David Cameron in 2010. 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 and created that in central government. 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. She also applied to be a member of the House of Lords; she says: “I realised I liked being in public policy and trying to influence the public debate around some of these issues and had felt very lucky to be working at such an interesting level and on so many interesting areas.”
In 2015, having discussed the social aspects of technology in a Dimbleby Lecture on the BBC which she had been invited to give, Martha suggested the idea of doteveryone.org.
She explains: “doteveryone was born, because I suggested it in my lecture and then I thought I might as well start it. It took a bit of time to work out where we should focus, but now 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.”
As part of its work around what regulation of the internet might look like, Doteveryone has produced a report called ‘The Social Harms of Technology’, which features some 121 issues with input and opinions from a variety of experts. The aim now is to start the conversation around the issues with the aim of finding solutions including thinking about what institutional reform may be needed for society to address this. Martha explains: “I think we would like to see another body created, or if not a new one, something as an important part of another existing body, but I think probably a new one, that has a bunch of responsibilities.”
These responsibilities would include providing individuals with a place to find the information they need about their rights on the internet, to provide current regulators with more understanding, and to begin tracking and measuring the social harms and people’s attitudes to them to provide insight for governments and businesses about what needs to be focused on.
In 2016, Martha joined the board of Twitter as part of the companies drive to broaden its diversity. Martha says of the move: “It seems to me that Twitter has much more of a deep social mission than perhaps Facebook does, and although Twitter has hundreds of millions of users, we’ve only really just made a profit. It’s interesting how to make that business sustainable and important over the long term, so I hope that I can learn a lot by being there and that if I can in some small way contribute some different values to the values of the other people round the table, then that would be awesome.”
Answering the question about whether there is there something inherent in the technology particularly of Twitter, but also to an extent Facebook, that leads to significant amounts of bullying, Martha is keen to point out that there are many factors at play including the lack of diversity in the people who have coded these sites. She explains: “I’m not sure I think it is quite like that. I think that it is a huge number of factors. These companies are, and have been developed by, a very un-diverse set of people, mainly brilliant young white male coders, and they have not often faced some of the issues in the world of mainly women and other, ethnic groups and minorities and so on, and I think that part of the reason that some of these gaps appeared in the technology is not because they’re bad people, but because they just didn’t code for things they hadn’t experienced in their life.” She adds however, that while coding is partly the issue, it is also down the behaviour of individuals and how they are using it; “all of us as individuals have not necessarily been our best selves on some of these platforms, and that isn’t just about the code, that’s about how we are using it, and I think that is the bit that we all need to think about and reflect on.”
Martha says that if she were starting a business today, what would be essential is the alignment of social purpose and profit. She says: “I am always trying to think of things that can help communities, but also deliver profit.” She goes on to explain that having spent so much time in hospital she developed an interest in the way that we die and how technology has not yet been used to provide products and services to help with these parts of our lives. She explains: I think there are a whole bunch of bits of our lives that are not necessarily the most commercially exciting for people that we can still unpick and help to make less unpleasant using clever technology….. Not necessarily the big money-spinning ideas, but those are the bits I think that we need to use technology to help people unpick.”
Martha is very honest when it comes to mistakes she’s made over the years, she says: “I think they happen daily, I’ve been unprepared for things, I’ve hired bad people, companies we bought at lastminute.com did not go well, I made mistakes in marketing budgets, and was probably way too over-exposed as one of the co-founders. So, all those kind of more solipsistic failures. I didn’t wear my seatbelt and I fell out of a car and I nearly died, that was a pretty big one.”
She also reflects on being digital champion and the ambition to get everyone in the UK online by 2012, saying: “I thought that setting a big ambition was right, because it was motivating. I’m not sure it was right, I think I was just setting us up all to fail, so that wasn’t very successful.” However, she believes that the government’s digital service team did a good job inspiring good people to come and work for them but didn’t manage to embed that excitement in the wider civil service so that they didn’t feel threatened about what was happening with gov.uk.
She concludes: “I think progress kind of goes in fits and starts. I think that now, with doteveryone, you know, failure’s too strong a word, but as chairman and founder, I see it as my job to make sure it becomes sustainable and has impact and so I need to make sure that I get it well funded for a good five years to come, and so I need to keep focussed on that.”
Diversity in Technology
Martha believers that some of the issues that the industry has with recruiting and retaining women, include the industry’s poor image, the need to change a culture that has grown out of a very un-diverse background, and to change the language we use to describe job roles so that they better appeal to women. She says: “I feel optimistic and pessimistic in equal measure. It’s pretty dire. The numbers are not moving, in fact they’re getting worse from many metrics. You hear every day of terrible stories of either just absolute overt sexism, latent sexism, sometimes aggression, nasty stuff happening. But there is definitely more noise and chat than there ever has been before, so hopefully that will lead to more action and it will lead to more people going into the industry, women and girls choosing the subjects and we can make sure that the future is not just hideously reminiscent of a hundred years ago.”
For those who are considering their university options Martha suggests: “If you have the luxury of being able to think about where you go to university, as in what country, then I think you just need to be led by what interests you have and what will give you the broadest canvas for the world. I sort of increasingly reject this notion that you have to specialise, specialise, specialise, specialise. Of course, if you are a brilliant physicist and you know you want to go on to be an astrophysicist, you probably need to study physics, but I think in the world of the future the generalists are going to be very much in demand, because I think an ability to be curious, to put things in context, understand about evidence or sources or, you know, how you assess different priorities and information are going to be the important things, so I think it’s very important to keep that broad expanse of learning for as long as you can.”
On team 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.”
2013 Commander of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) for “services to the digital economy and charity”.
2013 Life peer; Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho.
2016, Distinguished Fellow of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, nominated by HRH The Duke of Kent
Baroness Martha Lane-Fox delivers the 39th annual Dimbleby Lecture from London’s Science Museum on March 30, 2015.
Interviewed by: Richard Sharpe on the 10th October 2018 in London
Transcribed b: Susan Nicholls
Abstracted by: Helen Carter