The interview: Why Martha Lane Fox is still the poster girl for the internet generation

Founding Lastminute.com and Lucky Voice wasn’t enough for the UK’s digital champion. So she’s on a new mission: get the UK online

Martha Lane Fox

Martha Lane Fox is furious. The Oxford-educated, softly spoken star of the dotcom boom, worth millions, is angry. And I’ve made her so.

Well, not quite - my editor has.

It’s our homepage: the day’s lead story has her riled - “£100bn of central London properties held in offshore tax havens”.

“To think we get obsessed with some 7,000 migrants in this country who may be claiming benefits, and not over this issue!” she fumes.

“I’m very glad you’re covering this story.”

It’s first thing on Monday morning and I’m chatting to the UK’s ‘digital champion’, as chosen by David Cameron. “I rewrote my job spec [for the role],” she tells me quickly when I ask her to summarise what it entails.

“It started off with helping disadvantaged communities using digital technology,” she says, but she decided to make it a “greater challenge” to try and encourage and bring as many people online, as much as possible.

Not many people “rewrite” a job spec given to them by the PM. But then not many people create generation-defining websites when they’re 25 years old. Or sell said website - that’s Lastminute.com, by the way - for £571m two years later.

Or watch it plunge to 30 per cent of its original share price two weeks after that.

When Lane Fox joined Brent Hoberman to co-found Lastminute.com in 1998, she couldn’t have known what was to happen. In fact, nobody could have. The website’s unprecedented growth soon became symptomatic of the internet itself.

Lane Fox and fellow Lastminute.com founder Brent Hoberman in 2001, days before the Lastminute.com listed on the London Stock Exchange

Lane Fox and fellow Lastminute.com founder Brent Hoberman in 2001, days before the Lastminute.com listed on the London Stock Exchange

A virtual travel agency and e-tailer, before we even knew what such things were, Lastminute.com helped bring the outside world into our living rooms, our offices and bedrooms. A Wide Web was suddenly attached to our World.

Now the World Wide Web has become the internet. Lane Fox, who once had aspirations to become a prison governor, is still its poster girl.

The headlines she makes today focus on the millions of people she’s getting online (8.4 million people in the UK still don’t know how to use the internet), rather than the millions of pounds she’s made from people online.

Back in the early summer of 2004, though, Lane Fox made headlines for all the wrong reasons. While on holiday in Morocco with her partner Chris Gorell Barnes, she suffered a near fatal car crash that was to change her life forever.

The accident left her with her pelvis broken in six places and seriously damaged her arms and legs. She now walks with a walking stick after spending months in hospital recovering.

Speaking to me about her crash, she is refreshingly frank. Either as an act of politeness or self-deprecation she assumes I don’t know about it and she tells me briefly what happened, before admitting: “The most fundamental thing I have to do each day is just stand up.

“My most challenging task on a daily basis is to physically keep going. You’re forced to prioritise in a different way.”

I ask how she manages to balance being the UK digital champion, heading up the karaoke company Lucky Voice she co-founded in 2003, and sitting on the boards of Channel 4, Marks and Spencer and mydeco.com, plus Antigone, the trust she’s set up to support charity development.

She modestly says: “I’m not very good.”

Did the Lucky Voice launch help her in her recovery?

“Yes. It helped me rebuild confidence.”

Hmmm. Lucky Voice doesn’t seem to be doing too badly. After teaming up with the bar chain Tiger Tiger, it now serves up Asian-inspired karaoke nights in six different cities: in Islington and Soho in London, plus Brighton, Manchester, Cardiff, Glasgow and Newcastle. It recently launched its online application in 2008 and more recently its own iPad app.

The first Lucky Voice bar opened on Poland Street in 2005, one year after her accident (she invested heavily in the venture and is director as well as co-founder). How did she manage to stay involved while recovering from an accident that would leave her with so much metal in her body she’d have to carry a doctor’s note to explain why airport censors go off?

“[Co-founder Nick Thistleton] would come into hospital and show me models of what the websites were going to look like,” she explains. “I was totally high on morphine, and was directing as much as I could, but I take no credit for the launch.”

Did focusing on the company launch help her recover?

She pauses to think for a few seconds. “Yes. It did help me in the early stages. It helped me rebuild confidence.”

Confidence is a virtue we’re to return to time and again throughout our conversation. Lane Fox firmly believes that confidence, instilled from birth - “incredible schools, wonderful parents” - has shaped her life. “My whole life has been skewed by having my confidence built,” she says.

Yet at times she doesn’t sound at all that confident and her voice fades in and out to a barely audible whisper. She confesses to “being on email all the time” before justifying her remarks by saying “hopefully not in a frantic way”.

Likewise, she admits she works “probably far too much” before saying in the same breath that “I’m not constantly working”. She’s reassuringly unsure, and, in fact, is quite unlike the over-confident and flashy internet entrepreneurs the media sometimes shines a spotlight on.

I can’t think of anyone better to help introduce the as-yet off-line British public to the revolution that is the internet.

Martha Lane Fox on…

Upcoming companies to watch: Made.com. Brent Hoberman recently secured £6m worth of funding for this online furniture retailer disrupting the market.  

(LondonlovesBusiness.com has been charting Made.com’s rise for some time. Read our profile of co-founder Ning Li.)

Augmented reality companies Aurasma and MakiLab are also ones to watch according to Lane Fox.

Getting ahead in business:

 “I am amazed as to how often you just have to ask and things happen. Actually, if you just ask, drop them an email or find them on Twitter. Very often, people do reply.”

 

Readers' comments (1)

  • Anonymous

    Ms Lane Fox's enthusiasm is legendary. E-uptake will get a boost in percentage terms when the present 80+ demographic inevitably passes on. When the present 60-somethings are in care homes they will get far more stimulation than present residents as they will be computer literate. Being able to use e-mail or just watch DVDs on a laptop via wi-fi will be the norm. It just might mean that hardware has to be designed to be a bit more 'chunky'.

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