Pioneers of Digital: Martha Lane Fox talks entrepreneurship and technology

Last week, a book I have co-written with Dr. Paul Springer from Buckinghamshire University was published in the UK.

Pioneers of Digital tells the stories of twenty leaders in advertising, marketing search and social media who have done incredible things on the web.

We interviewed the UK Government’s Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox, because of the lessons learned from her early history with Lastminute.com, and because of her huge experience, drive and determination manifesting itself in the Race Online 2012.

In this excerpt, she gives advice on how a new business should think about being successful in the twenty-first century and how to look for funding.

As someone who has been at the very top of her game at such a young age and with so little experience, Martha Lane Fox embodies some of the essence of entrepreneurship. She has a ‘can do/will do’ attitude that takes natural intelligence and common sense and combines it with eloquence and a dogged work ethic. The early days of Lastminute.com were a training ground for later ventures but also an inspiration for many other women around the world looking to succeed in business. The key, she says, is to be able to convince others as well as yourself:

“I think anybody starting anything, whether it’s a social enterprise, whether it’s small business, or whether it’s a little charity, or even when starting a new job, I think that to do a good job in anything, you have to be in a slightly competent sales mode. You have to be convincing that you can do the job, and you have to be convincing that you can build customers. You have to be in a sales job whether it’s investors, whether it’s suppliers, or whether it’s to the people that you’re working with. To me, one of the key skills is to build a connection with what you’re trying to do; otherwise you will go nutty because you have to spend so much time thinking about it.

Being in love with what you are doing and ‘really feeling it’ will help you succeed. ‘Living’ the product, being in constant sales mode and having a resounding faith in your mission helps your state of mind as you plough on persuading customers and suppliers alike that you’re worth investing time and money in.”

When it comes to potential over-enthusiasm in business, a ‘small bugbear’ of hers does surround the word ‘passionate’ which she thinks has become ‘the most overused word in the English language’. She explains that she sees it a little differently: ‘I think it’s just really important that you take a real pride in what you are trying to do and that you really enjoy it. I’ve seen people on stage saying they are really “passionate” about supply chain management, and I often think, really? Or is it that you think it’s a really great idea and you love what you’re doing.’

Maybe it’s the English sensibilities in her, but Lane Fox insists on injecting some balanced realism to building a business too as there will be times when:

“It will get hard, you’ll get pissed off, there will be horrible challenges, and you’ll wish you’d never done it. So you have to stand back and go, my god, look, I’m doing my own thing, I’m creating this great idea where I’m helping people do something they couldn’t do before, and those are the things that you do need to hang onto because it’s really difficult at many points.”

Her advice to start-ups looking for funding is sage. With more investors around than when she and Hoberman were knocking on doors, she urges would-be entrepreneurs to ‘look in every direction and under every stone’ and that you look at their track record as it’s vital that they’ve had success and that you actually like the people involved. The investors you choose will be part of ‘your story and adventure’ and it’s necessary to build long-term relationships. Think laterally too. They might not have invested in your exact sector, but they may have experience in others that you intend to involve in your business plan further down the road. Lane Fox believes that those who don’t put the new media landscape at the top of their agenda fail to do so at their peril.

During the 14 years since Brent Hoberman asked her to start Lastminute.com, technology and the internet are now at the heart of many companies. This positive evolution has given Lane Fox the opportunity to help businesses look at customer behaviour, help structure organizations and influence culture change without her impact necessarily coming from a box labelled technology. Yes, she’s tapped constantly for her knowledge and experience in the tech arena, but she’s glad it’s no longer a sideline issue which has handed her a ‘fantastic opportunity’ to learn, grow and contribute in other areas.

While still young for a digital ambassador, Martha Lane Fox hopes to continue championing the use of technology to help alleviate social problems. Since she kicked off Race Online in 2012 she says she’s been ‘a real advocate for technology, not for technology’s sake, but to really help disadvantaged groups in deprived communities and places with tricky problems’. She’s deeply conscious of the opportunities she’s had in her life and, as a woman, wants to show that there is an opportunity afforded to people by the use of the internet that means they can start a business. She’s adamant that that they don’t have to fit the mould of what they think an entrepreneur should look like.

A true dotcom pioneer and business inspiration, she was a 25-year-old Oxford history graduate who knew nothing about starting a business but believed that she could learn, gather good individuals around her, work hard and be good to people. If she can inspire other women to be confident and ‘go it alone’, she thinks ‘that would be pretty cool’.

Pioneers of Digital is available on Amazon UK:  @MelCarson