Leading digital transformation for a quarter of a century

Martha Lane Fox was one of the earliest online entrepreneurs and innovators in Europe, and is one of the world’s most influential women in the digital sphere.

After co-founding lastminute.com, she became a serial investor, was put in charge of the UK government’s digital transformation and sits on the boards of major corporations in Europe and the US. 

Baroness Lane-Fox to give her her full title, as she was appointed a member of the House of Lords in the UK for her services to business in 2013, is a veteran of a relatively new industry. She shot to fame as the hyperactive, charismatic and telegenic young co-founder of travel and hospitality aggregator lastminute.com, one of the iconic businesses of the first tech wave, the dot.com boom in the late 1990s. 

Despite having been in the digital sector since its early days a quarter of a century ago, she says there is still a long way to go. “The digital transition hasn’t really started yet,” she says. “That’s not me being some crazy techno utopian, I just think that everything that can be digitised, will be digitised. If you start from that point, there’s just so much opportunity; no wonder investment [still] pours into tech companies, and that makes the sector more ‘hot’… The pace of change is going to continue to accelerate, so it’s always going to be an exciting place to be because of those dynamics”.  She thinks that for example businesses using blockchain technology for social and environmental ends have particularly strong potential.

“Some of the sheen has come off the sector in the last five years perhaps. It’s nuanced, it’s complex, it’s not binary.” Lane Fox says it is important for investors to separate, for example, concerns about privacy and the effects of social media, with broader digital opportunities. “There is a big difference between digitising all the supply chains and interacting as an individual on social media.”

She also says that there is potential – a necessity, even – for the sector to diversify. “If you look at the diversity and the power that is held within this sector, it is still incredibly narrow. You only have to look where the power and money lies to say, this is just not OK. There’s no real gender diversity, there’s no ethnic diversity, or geographic diversity.”

In some ways, Lane Fox is an unlikely tech visionary. From an established British family, her father was an academic and historian, and Lane Fox herself studied ancient and modern history at Oxford University. She worked for an IT and media consultancy in the 1990s where she met Brent Hoberman, who asked her to join his startup, lastminute.com, which had the then novel idea of collecting and selling off unsold hotel and flight inventory to a newly connected internet audience. The company did an IPO, then dipped before being purchased for £577 million, by a technology company that powers the global travel industry, in 2005.

Lane Fox then invested in other digital businesses and in parallel, became the government’s UK Digital Champion, remaking and simplifying government and bureaucratic websites to make them user-friendly, and campaigning to improve computer literacy for the millions of Britons who had never used the web.

She now has a portfolio career as chancellor of the Open University and sits on the boards of two of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies and one of the world’s most famous family-owned luxury brands, while being involved in a number of initiatives to encourage tech innovation among underrepresented communities. In 2019 Lane Fox was named the most influential woman in Britain’s digital sector from the past quarter century by the influential marketing magazine The Drum. 

Despite her high profile, she says the cult of the individual is overplayed in the tech industry. “I think we overstate the genius founder piece. Clearly there are extraordinary talents, but it’s really about your ability to empower the people around you with clarity and a sense of direction… Fundamentally, brilliant execution is because brilliant teams get together. It’s about pulling brilliant people together and delegating enough to them, but with enough guard rails that they understand what they’re doing.” 

Lane Fox says one of the most entrepreneurial things she has ever done is, ironically, in her role working for the government, when she unified the government’s websites and digitised their offering under the umbrella of gov.uk, the suffix for any government department. “I had to effectively start something from scratch but within the mechanisms of central government,” she says. “I had to talk to the head of every department, both political heads and civil service heads, and galvanise government around doing something dramatically different. That was about building stories, but also with a fabulous execution team behind me.” 

What would she have done differently in her past businesses? “I would start building the business much quicker,” she says. Waiting to raise money, then building a product is a strategy of the past, she says: entrepreneurs can and should now find ways to build their digital product first, without investment, and then raise money.  

Lane Fox also echoes what many business leaders say: do not recruit staff in your own image. “Where I got it wrong, mainly, was that I recruited people who I liked. Spend longer recruiting, and finding people who are substantially different to you.” 

Biography / key highlights

1994 Graduates from Oxford University with a degree in history and starts working at an IT and media consultancy

1997 Co-founds lastminute.com with former colleague Brent Hoberman

2003 Steps down as managing director of lastminute.com, retaining equity

2005 lastminute.com sold for £577 million

2009 Becomes Digital Champion for the UK government

2013 Appointed to the House of Lords

2014 Starts as chancellor of the Open University

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