Joshua Freedman talks to lastminute.com creator Martha Lane Fox Talk about last minute. Martha Lane Fox was lucky to make it. The entrepreneur was meant to be popping up to Oxford to judge a bunch of Varsity Pitch contestants at the Said Business School, and, damn me but she cut it fine. ‘I didn’t know what time train I was going to take to get here until ten minutes before I left,’ she admits.It takes someone like this to make a fortune out of a site that has a section called ‘Go last second.’
She got there on time, of course. It was one rather minor gamble in a life of gutsy risks. She gave up easier careers for a bit of entrepreneurial fun, and ended up with a £5m bank balance at the age of 31. Life in the fast lane has its dangers — Lane Fox was almost killed in 2004 when her Moroccan jeep overturned, leaving her with half a body made of metal — but she’s proof, if it exists, that you don’t have to live life out of a filofax to get success.Hers is no story of rags to riches. In fact, her upbringing is one that plenty find difficult to shrug off. The daughter of Old Etonian and Oxford don Robin Lane Fox, she went to Oxford High School and then Westminster, before reading History at Magdalen. She worked for Spectrum, a strategy consultancy firm, and then moved to Carlton, the TV network, where she helped develop the firm’s internet plans and new digital channels.Most people would have been satisfied with a cushy creative job in the media. Lane Fox thought differently. ‘It was too corporate. I was quite excited to get out of that.’She was right to be. She co-founded Lastminute.com in 1998 with fellow Oxford graduate Brent Hoberman (‘probably one of the most last-minute people I’ve ever met’), but she insists it was unquestionably his idea. Hoberman seems to have fitted the bill perfectly. ‘Everything happened at the last minute, from going to meetings when we were working together, to organising dates with his millions of girlfriends,’ she says.Taking his own hectic life as a model, he suggested setting up a website that would let people buy theatre tickets, book flights and reserve hotel rooms by clicking buttons and receiving electronic mail. And, with the help of the Real Time revolution, people could do this whenever they bloody well felt like it. ‘The first time he told me, I said I think that sounds like an absolutely awful idea,’ she admits. ‘He then explained in more detail how the internet enabled you to do something like that. He convinced me that you could do this business that would be very, very, very complicated in the real world.‘If you’re trying to organise a weekend away at the last minute, you have to call up hotels, call up airlines, put it all together yourself, whereas the web enables you to have this incredible live availability and book it in real time.‘So, eventually, he convinced me and we set about raising money, writing a business plan, going to venture capitalists, being told everything from “sod off” to “OK, we’ll give you 50p” to “OK, we’ll invest.”’ The last of the three came eventually. They raised £600k.You don’t have to spend long looking at the site, or reading the mailing list e-mails, to gather that Lastminute.com is the definition of the 21st-century cyberbusiness. It’s all pink, for one thing. One panel on the site alerts you to ‘Newsletters ‘n’ things.’ The ‘a’ and the ‘d’ got left somewhere in the mid-’90s.There was a great eureka moment when she decided pink would do it, and, as she says, the ‘brand was forever born.’ Why pink? ‘I was just trying to create a brand that I liked myself, because I think that that’s where you have to start — if you go with your own gut instinct.’ The branding, she says, ‘was friendly and on the customer’s side’, a rarity at the time. ‘In our day, it was very unusual to write in a chatty way on a website. We had a weekly email that was very chatty. That’s made us stand out a bit I think.’It took the others a while to catch up. ‘Not because of Lastminute.com, but since Lastminute.com,’ she notes, ‘it’s become a lot more common parlance to talk to customers in a friendly tone — Innocent smoothie drinks, for example.’ The intro to the ‘Our Story’ section of their site is ‘We had good jobs before we started Innocent. Why did we change?’‘As it grew,’ she goes on, ‘the products on there appealed to everybody. You want to get on a flight, someone else wants to stay in a hotel, other people buy theatre tickets. It’s very, very broad-ranging. The site turns over $2 1/2 billion of revenue, so you have to appeal to everybody to get to that.’
At first sight, Lane Fox and Hoberman were lucky with timing. The site did exactly what she says — it appealed to all sorts — and it came to fruition at the peak of the late-’90s internet boom.
This, though, had its setbacks. The only way was down, even if people didn’t want to admit it at the time, and Lastminute.com’s share price took a notorious plunge, from a peak of 555p in 2000, to just 17p two years later. It was sold in a £577m deal in 2005, which saw her pocket a reported £13.5m. But, in true clichéd style, she dismisses the importance of money. ‘I think it’s a bit of a slippery slope when you start doing things for money,’ she says.Maybe we should take with one big pinch of cybersalt her claim that cash isn’t all. After all, she was in lucky enough straits to start with to be able to risk giving up her job to start a business just for fun. She owned her own home and, so she says, wasn’t even giving money a thought. ‘I didn’t ever even imagine that we would make so much money,’ she concedes. ‘I think you can separate out people who are driven purely by money, and people who are driven by great ideas and a passion for making them succeed.’Surely what made Lane Fox succeed, though, was a lifestyle that married her perfectly to the role of running a website that capitalises on the modern man’s lack of foresight. She calls herself ‘spontaneous’, but says she’s not really a last-minute person herself, and doesn’t like leaving things to chance. What do we think that means? That she books important things (holidays, theatre tickets…) six months in advance, maybe? Plenty would agree on that as a fair definition of advanced planning.Not so for her. ‘I probably know that I’m going to go away for the weekend in the next month, but I haven’t done anything about it.’ It’s relative, you see. ‘Last minute for me might be different from what last minute for you is,’ she ventures. For her, it means ‘today, tomorrow or next weekend. That’s kind of what I think of as last minute. But actually lots of people on the website still book six weeks ahead, two months ahead… You can book anything up to a year ahead if you feel like it and you’re particularly anally retentive.’ Anyone born before 1970 has permission to weep.