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Martha Lane-Fox is an entrepreneur and internet activist who first made her name with lastminute.com, an online travel company she started with her friend at the age of 25. She’s had a fascinating and varied career, co-founding Lucky Voice, which revolutionised the Karaoke industry, and helping the UK government transform its digital service when she became Digital Champion for the UK, She is a director of Twitter and Non Executive Director of Chanel, Chancellor of the Open University, and in 2013 she became a crossbench peer in the UK House of Lords. 

Marth talked to Aleks about having success in the early days of the internet, how she helped two different Prime Ministers set a benchmark for government digital services, and about a car accident in Morocco which destroyed her body. She also talked about a female tech trailblazer who had to change her name to Stevie to get her CV read.

Transcript

Martha Lane-Fox:
So my main kind of challenge to the world is fund women for fucks’ sake. Sorry. It’s just this is such an obvious thing and it needs to happen quickly because women will have ideas because women are the ones who are going to be sitting at home during this horrible time. But yeah the percentage of venture capital that goes to women is minimal. The number of women who’re venture capitalists is minimal, and that will never, ever change how new businesses beyond just tech in all sectors get created and started. So that is just such an enormous opportunity and it still is way too hard and people will say, “Oh, there are no women out there.” It’s just is nonsense.

Aleks Krotoski:
Hello. You’re listening to Standing on the Shoulders, a podcast in which inspiring people tell us about their giants. The people whose metaphorical shoulders that they stand on. Across these episodes, you will hear the stories of a number of thinkers and innovators, visionaries who steer clear of well-trodden paths and go on their own innovative and successful journeys. They will tell us about the key moments that shaped their lives. And they’ll talk about the single most meaningful person to inspire them along the way. Hosted by me, Aleks Krotoski, and supported by Pearson and we caveat here we are on lockdown reporting mode. So the audio quality is not as pristine as we might’ve liked. Our guest today is Martha Lane-Fox.

Martha Lane-Fox:
I am Martha. I really have no idea what I do, but I’m flattering myself when I say I’m an entrepreneur, but I’m also very interested in the world of technology.

Aleks Krotoski:
When you say you flatter yourself that you’re an entrepreneur, I mean, you’ve had success being an entrepreneur in several different ways. It seems to me that you’re a compulsive startup-er.

Martha Lane-Fox:
Maybe a starter. I don’t know if I’m a finisher, maybe I am a finisher. I think a startup-er. The first bit is always the most fun.

Aleks Krotoski:
Martha first made her name with lastminute.com. It was an online travel company that she started with a friend when she was 25. Now this was the mid 90s, the first internet gold rush, and her startup found huge success in the UK and Europe. It grew rapidly and it was racking up hundreds of millions of pounds in sales in the early 2000s. Martha’s early success made her the pinup of the uks.com boom. She got gushy press coverage. Her photograph was on display at the National Portrait Gallery, and she also faced a backlash when the.com bubble burst.

Martha Lane-Fox:
And there were articles written and it was directed at me more than Brent, about how I should be locked away in a cupboard. I should be put in a barker. Someone even wrote an article saying I should be assassinated.

Aleks Krotoski:
But she soon bounced back in 2005. Martha founded her second startup, the karaoke bar chain, Lucky Voice with another friend. And in 2010, she started her new mission working for the British government as a digital champion. For the next three years, she tried to get the 10 million Britons who didn’t use the internet to log on. The next big step in her digital championing work came in 2015 with the founding of Doteveryone, an organization that campaigned for a more responsible tech industry. She is indeed a serial startup-er and a hugely successful one at that. Martha talked to us about how she stumbled on success in the early days of the internet about becoming a young [inaudible 00:04:07] member of the house of Lords and about the extraordinary woman who inspires her both as a tech entrepreneur and as a philanthropist. But first she told us about where she gets her incredible self-assurance.

Martha Lane-Fox:
I think it comes from incredible upbringing. My parents incredibly loving, never ever made to feel as though I was somebody that couldn’t achieve the things that I wanted to and whatever spirit was, it wasn’t like, get the best grades. It was always, “Yeah, if you want to go and run a prison,” which was something I always wanted to do, “go and run a prison.” So there is a resilience that comes from being able to have that complete grounding in your early life of course. And I was, I constantly go back to how incredible my childhood and upbringing was not without complexity and not without some difficulty, but never without love and that capacity to build confidence.

Aleks Krotoski:
Martha’s father is Robin Lane-Fox, who was a renowned historian of classical antiquity at the University of Oxford. So Martha spent much of this idyllic childhood in Oxford and its gentle outskirts and in bustling London surrounded by her extended family.

Martha Lane-Fox:
So that was all very important backdrop. My father’s an academic. He was always working. He’s always writing books. He used to sit up in the garage attic of our home and write all day long. And my mom was an amazing woman. One of those empathetic people you can imagine. And she worked from when we were quite small, she’d go back to London and she worked with her best friend and they started their own business. So there’s lots of different things going on. Lots of different ways of being. I had lots of different bits of my life. I had aunts and uncles doing one thing, grandparents kind of pushed British aristocracy on another level. Then my crazy dad doing gardening and also writing history books.

Aleks Krotoski:
Her grandmother love bright pink vodka martinis, and playing old Cole Porter songs on the piano. Martha says that she retains her Joie de vivre and her love for old Hollywood movies. Collectively, she took in all the different and sometimes eccentric ways that her family found meaning and pleasure.

Martha Lane-Fox:
We had a very happy life. It wasn’t lavish. I think first time we got an airplane, I was nearly 10. Our holidays consisted of going to kind of funny bits of England and country cottages. Or then we got a bit older going on, extremely busy cultural tours of Greece or Italy, where my father studied the history. And we would stand in archeological sites in a minimum of 40 degree heat. And he would be lecturing us. And normally a small crowd would build up around us because his lectures were always way better than the official tour guide. So, we had lots of fun and we had lots of laughs and it was happy, but our parents separated. Wasn’t altogether easy for periods of time, but it didn’t matter somehow because I was so close to both my parents as was my brother. And those units still felt tight.

Aleks Krotoski:
Martha read ancient and modern history at Oxford, but unlike many of her peers who continued into academia, she dove straight into business soon after she graduated, and nothing at all to do with studying history. She went into making history by placing a bet on the future. She joined a telecoms consulting company called Spectrum. This was the early 90s, the dawn of the internet. And looking back, Martha thinks that it was a remarkable bit of serendipity that her first job out of college put her in a sweet spot to watch the media and telecom world get blown apart by the internet.

Martha Lane-Fox:
It’s kind of fascinating because that was a taste for the internet. And I traveled around a lot doing stuff in the telecoms industry where there were just no women at all, at all. And I remember being sent to South Korea because I was doing a project for Samsung. It was a fascinating time to be in South Korea in the early 90s. Cities, sows on fire. It was massively busy, all this stuff. I was working in a basement with a whole load of men. And when I spoke in the meetings, they would clap. And I remember thinking, “Okay, this is a bit like how I am used to.” I though “Okay. No, this is quite strange.” And better still, it’s only really now that I look back and I think, “Oh God, yeah, those moments were kind of peculiar.” Now I look back on them.

Aleks Krotoski:
You’ve described the early time, the wild west of the internet as chaotic. Do you think though it was nobler than what we see now?

Martha Lane-Fox:
I don’t know nobler is a good word I wonder. I mean, there’s some simplicity to an internet that was fueled by e-commerce or free in a different way to the ad funded internet there. I mean, there was just a more obvious transaction in those early days as users and consumers. Either you were using the free services that were being shared and open-sourced online and people were kind of giving out these amazing browsers or bits of whatever, or they were building businesses where you were getting a thing and you were paying for it and it was clear what that transaction was. And then that shifted. And I don’t know whether that makes it nobler or less noble, but it makes it more muddy.

Aleks Krotoski:
And then she made another prediction. She and her friend, Brent Hoberman decided that the world needed a different way to book travel. Untethered from the high street shops and the agents that controlled the industry, they called it lastminute.com a no-nonsense clearinghouse for hotel rooms and tickets for immediate use. Her friends told her that she was mad. They said “The internet, it’ll never last. It’ll implode. Nobody will use the internet to buy things.” But Martha and Brent were confident that the site would take off. It didn’t feel like a risky proposition at all.

Martha Lane-Fox:
The truth is I’ve never really had to risk that much. I mean, maybe my own credibility and reputation, but they feel like the least important thing. And when we started lastminute.com, I was 25. I had my own flat, I could rent out a room in it to kind of sub some career money when I started other things. I’d made my money. So I really do say that knowing that I had that immense luck to not have to be thinking “If this doesn’t work, I’m going to have to not be able to feed my children.” It was never going to be that. So that does give you a confidence, but it’s also beyond that and people operate in different ways. I think I, and this started very early with my partnership with Brent Hoberman and lastminute.com. It’s much more fun doing things with other people. So I kind of reject this notion of kind of lionized entrepreneur, working alone. Single-mindedly obsessively sledding with that might be a version of a person, but it’s not me.

Aleks Krotoski:
They got investors on board, including a former chairman of the Dutch airline KLM. Convincing the travel industry was a killer move and it paid off. By early 2000, they had half a million users. And lastminute.com became the poster child of the UK dot-com boom. Their IPO in March that year valued the company at more than half a billion pounds. Business was booming and the press loved that story. Particularly the posh blonde lady who was at the top.

Martha Lane-Fox:
It was a bit like being in an extremely successful pop group that had one massive hit, right? But it was a big hit. Everybody knew it. And sometimes it’s embarrassing at conferences 22 years later, everyone was like Martha Lane-Fox co-founder of lastminute.com. I’m like, “Seriously, am I still defined by that thing?”

Aleks Krotoski:
But weeks after they raised those millions, the stock market crashed. Share prices plummeted.

Martha Lane-Fox:
So the press, which had been kind and especially kind to me because frankly of a latent institutional sexism was vile. And there were articles written and it was directed at me more than Brent, about how I should be locked away in a cupboard. I should be put in a barker. Someone even wrote an article saying I should be assassinated. I got letters, handwritten letters from about 3000 people that had bought shares in the ship rotation and had lost money. And I’m not negating that as a valid thing to get grumpy about, but to write me a letter telling me I was a bitch because of that, that certainly helps keep you grounded. And in fact my confidence swung completely the other way.

Aleks Krotoski:
Martha left the company soon after in 2004, she had another job lined up and it was with Selfridges, but then she got into a car accident in Morocco, which destroyed her body. She broke 28 bones. She spent two years in the hospital undergoing 23 surgeries. She had to relearn how to walk. The accident forced her to reframe her approach to work. And she finally began to limit what she took on.

Martha Lane-Fox:
I think what I have found most useful in my life is keep taking strength and confidence from the fact that you don’t have to be across one sphere. It’s okay to have moves in different directions in your life. And that question of what do you do actually embrace the fact that it’s a multiplicity of things. And I sit on these weird combinations of boards and I am interested in lots of different things and yeah, I love tech, but actually I love reading fiction probably a bit more. And actually that can be a strength, not a weakness, but it can feel like a weakness sometimes. Especially in the single-minded world of either entrepreneurs or technologists, because there’s such a kind of bubble of a world.

Aleks Krotoski:
In 2005, lastminute.com was sold for a small fortune. Martha’s share from the sale was 13 million pounds and she decided to invest a small part of that from her hospital bed in the karaoke bar chain, Lucky Voice. Slowly, she began to take on more work. She was on the board of Channel 4 and Marks & Spencers, and she started her own grant giving foundation and then came the call from number 10 Downing street. Somebody had tipped off the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, that she was an authority on tech society in the digital world. And so in 2009, Martha began her three year stint as the UK government’s digital champion remaining in that role after Gordon Brown lost the 2010 election to David Cameron.

Martha Lane-Fox:
I basically managed to convince two prime ministers of different colors that would be useful for me to give me a voice to bash around in government a bit and help think about tech and did a few different things. One was helped people who didn’t have access to technology, get it. And one was rethink how government itself use the internet to deliver services to users.

Aleks Krotoski:
Back then almost 20% of the British population had never used the internet. Martha wanted to show that government empower the country with technology. And so she helped to create the government digital service, GDS, which gathered together some of the UK greatest technologists to create one unified set of standards for digital delivery across all of government, all in one place. Gov.uk became a benchmark for global government services.

Martha Lane-Fox:
And I only mentioned that because I sometimes think that was the most formative experience that I’ve had, and also the definitely the most entrepreneurial. Because you have to really fight within a big institution like government organization to get resources, to build your case. It doesn’t sound very entrepreneurial, but you really have to be able to duck and dive and do all kinds of things, build the team, all those things. And it was kind of exciting because you could see that when government gets behind something and decides to change course, then the leavers it has for change are enormous. Suddenly all this chaos of how they’d been using the internet was changed. And it was gov.uk, which is now heralded the world over.

Aleks Krotoski:
In 2013, Martha applied to become a cross bench peer. She became part of the House of Lords, the very first barrenness of Soho.

Martha Lane-Fox:
That makes me sound like I’ve turned into a chair.

Aleks Krotoski:
As the youngest woman ever to make it to the upper chamber. Martha has an edge over her older peers and crafting legislation that regulates technology for the better.

Martha Lane-Fox:
I think that the key thing here is going to be about regulation and legislation. There’s this online harms bill locally in the UK. But if you look globally most battlements and governments are wrestling with what to do about technology and how to regulate it. In the U.S obviously you got a whole lot of complexity going on. I think we’re speaking on the day that congressional hearings are with all the CEOs pretending they want more regulation. So it’s complicated. And I do think in the end, we just have to regulate this stuff. And I hope that they will get some ministers who are brave enough. And I hope we’ll get some skills of people in our chamber who can scrutinize it. And that has just got to happen.

Aleks Krotoski:
In 2015. Martha gave the prestigious Dimbleby lecture. She spoke about the need to make tech work for everybody, not just the people who built it. In that year she founded the organization that she wished existed, the nonprofit Doteveryone. She says back then, not a lot of people were worried about making technology responsible, but soon a series of scandals made the issue unavoidable. NHS hospitals held ransom by hackers, Cambridge Analytica. Silicon Valley giants evading taxes on their obscene revenues. Doteveryone helped to crystallize conversations about big tech behaving badly. Martha has always wanted to get more women into tech, and that is where her entrepreneurial-ism has turned now. She wants to tackle the industry’s expectation that women of course will care for children and elderly relatives outside of work while they also face the unfair assumption that they’re less tech savvy than men. Martha’s on a mission to build a country of female entrepreneurs. But for that, she needs some help.

Martha Lane-Fox:
It’s two things again, I think some has to be from government. I think this has shown we need much more effective childcare across the piece. But I think the other thing is women I think encouraging women to be able to work flexibly and giving them more power is so vital and that partly can come through entrepreneurship. So my main kind of challenge to the world is fund women for fuck sake. It’s just sorry. It’s just, this is such an obvious thing and it needs to happen quickly because women will have ideas because women are the ones who are going to be sitting at home, doing all of the stuff we’ve just described during this horrible time, yet the percentage of venture capital goes to women is minimal.

Martha Lane-Fox:
The number of women who are venture capitalists is minimal and that will never ever change how new businesses beyond just tech in all sectors get created and started. So, that is just such an enormous opportunity. And it still is way too hard and people will say, “Oh, there are no women out there.” It’s just it’s nonsense. There are hundreds of women who want to get funded. They just might not be in your networks. They might not know how to find you. So work harder and make it happen.

Aleks Krotoski:
I want to move on to your inspiration, Steve Shirley. She sounds incredible. Absolutely incredible. So what did you know about her before you met her?

Martha Lane-Fox:
I can’t remember when I first came across her actually. But I think around the kind of just after last minute or the ends of the time I was at last minute, I think I was at a conference and someone was talking about her. I can’t remember. It was about that period of time anyway. I was just in my early thirties and it was still unusual for a woman to be an entrepreneur in the UK and to achieve notoriety, I leave it at that. And someone said “Well, you really should meet Stevie, because she’s amazing.” And I just then found out a bit about her. And then I met her at a conference some years later, actually. And she is just so astonishing libera lint.

Martha Lane-Fox:
There should be a statue of her somewhere in this country because she not only was a trailblazer in her own industry, but the reason I particularly adore her and I’m inspired by her still, is that she changed direction in her life. And she has been as committed to helping people with autism in the second part of her career when she sold her business, she was with her business in the first part.

Aleks Krotoski:
So tell me a little bit more about her.

Martha Lane-Fox:
She was an early computer programmer. She was literally one of the women that was the computer in the 50s. And then in the 60s, she became very early software engineer because it was often women that were moved from the relatively menial tasks of inputting data to then being a little bit more sophisticated because no one had cottoned on to how important the computational power of all this stuff was. So she was an early computer engineer. And then in the late 60s, early 70s, she thought, “Screw this, I’m going to start my own company. I can do this better.” And that was quite remarkable thing to do anyway at that date. But it was even more remarkable when you realized that she decided she was going to employ only women, all working from home and bidding on big, tough government contracts to build software.

Martha Lane-Fox:
And this would sound kind of forward-thinking now and yet, did she manage to do it in the early 70s and did it for a long time through, into the 80s. She had at one point, I think about 2000 women working in the UK, all from home, all building software. And she won government contracts for things like the Polaris submarine. She won the contract to program the Black Box, the Concorde. This was not going to have namby-pamby stuff. This was really, really extraordinarily detailed, difficult, important work. And she’s an extraordinarily determined person. And you could tell that definitely from all of those successes. She then sold her company. She always says that the thing that did her in was the Equalities Act, because she had to employ men. She couldn’t only employ women. That was the end of it. But anyway so her company got sold and she stayed on a little bit, but then left.

Aleks Krotoski:
Stevie is also a philanthropist because of her personal history. She’s Jewish born in Dortmund, Germany when it was under Nazi rule. And she was evacuated to the UK when she was five years old. As she wrote in her memoir, “I need to justify that my life was saved.” And as she built herself an impressive career, she also built a family, including her autistic son, Giles who died tragically at the age of 35 after an epileptic seizure.

Martha Lane-Fox:
She builds a school for people like him called Prize court, which still exists. And she’s done so many amazing things with autistic people, believing in the power of music and literature and yes computers and all the other things that make life rich. I think she’s had a resurgence of her profile in the last five years because of a bit more focus on the complete absence of women from the sector that’s taken over the world. So, that’s thrilling to see. she’s been giving Ted Talks, she’s been at conferences, she’s now being heralded much more as their heroine that she really is. But as I say, the reason I particularly respect and admire her. And I’m lucky enough to call her my friend now is because she has led this nuanced life, but she hasn’t just been a business person. She’s always been across two spheres. And I really respect that.

Aleks Krotoski:
What’s extraordinary is that in both spheres, she’s been up against the odds and yet she’s still managed to do things like get Polaris, get Concorde and build a school, all of these things. From your impression of knowing her, what do you see in her that makes it seem quite obvious that this would have happened?

Martha Lane-Fox:
She just takes no prisoners. She is an incredibly strong female role model. She says, “I like man.” But she is just but there is absolutely no capacity in the way she operates to give any kind of sense that you might not be able to do something equally or that you shouldn’t have the same validity as another person in the room. And she’s not an unpleasant personality, but she’s a strong personality with kindness. When she was first writing off to people with her fountain pen to get the original contract, she signed her name Stevie, which was a family nickname. Not Stephanie, which is her name because she thought it was more likely that she’d get a meeting and it was true.

Martha Lane-Fox:
And she walked into the room and people would be like, “Whoa, I thought you were a man.” That was like, “And?” But she got in the room, right? She’s just very, very strong minded and probably willed and clear that obviously she should have the same as any other next person. And I don’t mean that material wealth. I just mean in terms of opportunity. She came to England on the Kinder transport and I obviously came from a generation and a backdrop that I clearly there’s been much written about what kind of resilience that builds within you. And I think that was a big factor in terms of her just strength in the world as well.

Aleks Krotoski:
Can you remember what it was like to first meet her?

Martha Lane-Fox:
A little bit scary, but we met at a conference and then we had lunch a couple of times and yeah, it was a bit scary. She’s always like, “What are you doing? What next? Get on with it.” Which is very good. I respond very well to that. So that’s always been very effective mechanism of controlling Martha. But also I love to be there about her experiences. And I think she sort of stepped away from the technology world and the kind of being a woman in tech. That wasn’t how she kind of boxed herself ever. But now that she sees this real need to show that you can have women in these senior roles and do things in a different way, she’s kind of stepped into it with both feet. And so we’ve talked a lot about that.

Aleks Krotoski:
Martha is particularly inspired by Stevie’s unwillingness to let her tech identity overshadow the rest of her. Unlike tech billionaires, who hoard their fortunes and put it to bond villain use is buying private islands or building doomsday bunkers, or stocking up on young blood. Martha is amazed that Stevie’s reaction to building a massive fortune was to give it all away. It’s given her more confidence to call out the tech industry and to tell them to do it better.

Martha Lane-Fox:
This is a moment of reckoning for it from many different angles. Partly because of this weird concertina time we’re going through with the pandemic. Partly because it was reckoning anyway, the shine had come of technology. We were waking up to the grip that has on our lives, but also frankly, because of the climate catastrophe that we’re facing into. And I have tried myself to use my voice much more over the last year to say, “Hold on a minute, we don’t need to fund any more freaking autonomous vehicles. We don’t need any more autonomous vehicle panels at conferences. We need panels about what we as an industry with all this power and wealth are going to do to make sure we will be able to be here in the next 100 years.” And that shift has not happened fast enough in my humble opinion. So, I don’t know quite where you put that, but I feel it’s so important and vital and responsibility for me being an entrepreneur, being somebody that understands a bit about technology.

Martha Lane-Fox:
We to keep putting the next decade and our future in it and the planet at the heart of everything we think about. And it just hasn’t happened enough.

Aleks Krotoski:
To find out more about Martha Lane-Fox, go to marthalanefox.com or find her on Twitter at Martha Lane-Fox. For show notes and links to the stories mentioned in this episode, you can go to standingontheshoulders.net. Standing on the Shoulders is a Story Things production. This episode was produced by [inaudible 00:27:17] [Ravejon 00:27:17] and edited by Ian Steadman. Our audio engineer and sound design was by [Kenia 00:27:23] J. Scarlet. Artwork by Darren Garrett. The website by Eden Brackenbury. Our executive producers are Hugh Garry and Caroline Leery, supported by Pearson and hosted by me, Aleks Krotoski. Now, it takes a long time and a lot of people to make a podcast more than most people would imagine. So if you liked the show, please go to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you go to get your podcast fix and rate it. It really does help people to discover us. On our next episode, we speak with blind Paralympian and two times long jump world record holder, Lex Gillette,

Lex Gillette:
As I move through life right now, places that I am very familiar with, I have vivid images of those places and things in my mind, which allows me to be able to move and navigate very freely because I have this vision. And that allows me to just be very confident and bold and intentional in my actions and movement. So when you talk about sport and being introduced to long jumps, something that out of all of the sports is like, “Wow, okay. The blind guy chooses to run as fast as he can and throw himself in the air like wow.”

Aleks Krotoski:
Thanks for listening.

Episode Credits

Standing on the Shoulders is a Storythings production.

Hosted by Aleks Krotoski
Written and produced by Shruti Ravindran
Audio engineer and sound design by Kenya Scarlett
Artwork by Darren Garrett
Website by Eden Brackenbury
Executive Producers are Caroline Leary and Hugh Garry
Supported by Pearson

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