Martha Lane Fox: 21st century advice from a ‘dotcom dinosaur’

The co-founder of lastminute.com was on-stage at Sage Summit UK, offering advice on how the UK’s digital start-ups can help bridge the productivity gap

Co-founding lastminute.com in 1997, before cashing it in for a cool £577m, it’s no stretch to say that Martha Lane Fox could be the UK’s most recognised and most revered female entrepreneur.

Currently a non-executive director of Marks and Spencer, Channel 4 and Twitter – Lane Fox has also co-founded karaoke chain Lucky voice and Antigone, a grant-making trust which supports UK charities.

Awarded a CBE in 2013 for her services to enterprise, “Fast Lane Fox”, as she’s nicknamed by her friends, also became a crossbench peer in the UK House of Lords in March 2013.

Now admitting she’s somewhat of a “dotcom dinosaur”, Lane Fox is passionate about ensuring that the next generation of UK start-ups can match the success of lastminute.com.

With the UK facing increased economic uncertainty, the Baroness of Soho believes that a digital economy that works for everyone should be at the heart of the country’s strategy, but admits that some businesses aren’t doing enough in this regard.

“The internet is the organising principle of our age, and we’re not really organised around it as a country.”

Speaking onstage as part of Sage Summit UK, and looking back on her 20 years’ experience in the tech world, the veteran entrepreneur shares three quick tips on how UK start-ups can help bridge the productivity gap…

1. Start with user need

Reflecting on her own success, and on the origins of lastminute.com, Lane Fox says that all great online businesses must address one thing: the needs of a user.

Believing it to be “fundamental to any online business”, Lane Fox says that solving even the smallest problem, can return the biggest rewards – and it’s a story she knows all too well.

Working in consultancy with her co-founder Brent Hoberman, the South African native was constantly trying to book flights and reserve restaurant tables at the last minute on a Friday evening.

Believing there must have been a better, more efficient, more user-friendly way of doing things, Hoberman decided to take matters into his hands – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Lane Fox says that identifying your target audience and what problem you’re alleviating as soon as possible, will set your start-up on the right track.

“It’s easy to see the dividing line between businesses that have thought about that very carefully, and businesses that are still nebulous and haven’t pinned down their user.”

2. Ability to scale

Making her money during the dotcom boom, Lane Fox’s own start-up success is testament to how much opportunity there is for online businesses to scale early, at a rapid pace.

It’s an advantage, however, she feels is lost on some entrepreneurs who don’t realise that not having a global presence doesn’t mean you can’t have a global reach.

“It’s fascinating to me that UK businesses don’t export as much as we could. Arguably that is one of our biggest productivity challenges, yet we have this tool [the internet] that allows us to do this.”

Believing that British businesses need to be “bolder” and as global-thinking as their US and Asian counterparts, Lane Fox believes that selling to the world is something start-ups should think about from day one.

“I would argue that we still need to have that global perspective. To think about building for scale right at the start of our business. That is one of the most disruptive things about the world today.”

3. Embrace diversity

Founding Doteveryone in 2015, a charity which aims to make the internet accessible for everyone, Lane Fox has repeatedly spoken about the need, and benefits, of increased diversity and inclusion in UK businesses and boardrooms.

Believing it to be of “profound importance” to ensure women are included in the tech sector, Lane Fox believes that if the industry continues remains a boys’ club, the UK “won’t be in a very robust position in the future”.

Referencing Apple’s infamous health kit, which was designed only by men and failed to cater for women’s health, Lane Fox warns start-ups that they too will see the size of their customer base shrink if they don’t include everyone.

“Unless we design for the broadest set of people, then we’re not going to have such good products and services.

“I think putting diversity and inclusion of design at the heart of your business is fundamental to building better services, and in technology, that’s more important than ever.”

For more on Martha Lane Fox, click here. 

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