/ 31 July 2008

Ms Dotcom branches out

Shortly before meeting Martha Lane Fox, her publicity people called to postpone the photographer. Lane Fox, who walks with a polished black stick, had fallen over and was sporting a scab on her nose, something that has happened all too often since a horrific car accident in Morocco four years ago.

Lane Fox, a co-founder of Lastminute.com and one of the best-known faces of the internet boom in the late 1990s, has endured 23 operations since the crash, which happened after she had quit the online travel firm and finally found the time to do some exploring herself.

Her forearm is criss-crossed with faint scars that could be mistaken for creases. “My friends all tease me because I have now got a new epithet of brave Martha or tragic Martha, having gone through dotcom Martha. I can’t stand it.”

Lane Fox works from a small office in fashionable Fitzrovia in London’s West End, next door to a new contemporary art gallery. She is gradually building her interests back up, both in business and in a handful of charitable projects.

She is the chair of Lucky Voice, a Tokyo-inspired karaoke club that allows groups of friends to hire small rooms, which she started with her own cash three years ago. There are two clubs — in London and Manchester — and she hopes to develop it into a chain. “The ambition has grown,” she says. “I like businesses where you feel as though there are bigger macro issues going on — all this Pop Idol and X-Factor stuff.”

She is a director of British TV station Channel 4 and high-street giant Marks & Spencer — “I either wear incredibly expensive designer clothes or I wear M&S, accessorised brutally” — and is on the board of MyDeco, an interiors website begun by Brent Hoberman, her Lastminute co-founder. Hoberman also invested in Lucky Voice.

“It would be an awful, terrible thing if Brent wasn’t deeply integrated into my working life,” she says. “It could have gone either way — some people could have had the most awful bust-up.”

Her charitable interests are centred on her own foundation, Antigone, which focuses on criminal justice, health and education. Lane Fox studied ancient and modern history at Oxford University, but for those less familiar with ancient Greece, Antigone — often seen as an anti-authoritarian heroine — was a fearless woman who fought to get her brother, a traitor to the state, a decent burial.

She frets at sounding like a parody when discussing her charities but she wants to promote TalkTalk Innovation in the Community Awards, which hands out £60 000 in grants to community groups looking to extend their work through technology. “I kind of regret saying once I was as technical as a peanut. That is not quite true.” In fact, she remains a web evangelist, especially for non-commercial applications.

She is “dismayed” by the state of politics in Britain but thinks technology is empowering people outside the system. Antigone works with online social networks, including one for prisoners’ families, and Patientopinion.org, which enables people to provide feedback on the United Kingdom’s state-funded National Health Service (NHS). “I think that with [Web] 2.0, 3.0 or whatever point-0 we are on now, different business models are being created and it is just as exciting now as it was in 1997.”

Lane Fox has a soft voice and seems gentler than one might have supposed for someone running a public company in her twenties, although she says that when there was firing to be done at Lastminute, Hoberman would be the one shuffling uncomfortably and suggesting that they just move the person to another part of the business.

The accident in Morocco shattered her body and for a while it was “touch and go”. After she recovered she gave a number of quite graphic interviews. Was that cathartic? “For a long time I felt like I didn’t want to talk about it and it was boring and then I thought, it is part of me and if in some way it can make someone else feel that it is worth it, to keep on fighting if they are in a difficult medical situation … I don’t want to sound holier than thou but it is unusual to have gone through that experience.”

She still has physiotherapy every day but says she is now much better. “I don’t think it ever ends … It’s a kind of balance between accepting the things in my body that have changed and battling for the things that can still get better. I’ll still have to have operations in the future but my life doesn’t have to fit around them — they have to fit around my life.”

She worked with Hoberman at a media consultancy before they set up Lastminute from a sitting room, drew up a list of possible travel firms and hotels and got on the phones. During the boom she became a poster child for the internet generation — it didn’t hurt that mostly male editors liked printing pictures of a good-looking young businesswoman.

Did that annoy her? “Yes and no. We used them and they used me as well and I think that it was a bit of a quid pro quo. I was probably naive and I am not sure I would do it in the same way now, but we got help there and we got all that free advertising.

“I was unprepared for the backlash when the shares collapsed. I got really vicious hate email, really nasty stuff, and I got thousands of them. Combined with the Daily Express and Daily Mail headlines saying ‘biggest bitch’ or whatever, that was much harder than some of the more objectifying stuff.”

The Lastminute flotation was one of the most anticipated of 2000. The night before, Hoberman and Lane Fox had been at Morgan Stanley until 3am and were back in the office at 6am. They were millionaires, but, she says, there was no celebration. “I remember walking around the corner and seeing all these cameras and TV crews and journalists and thinking, ‘God, I totally underestimated the outside interest’. I was so exhausted after the road show, and it was stupid stuff, I was thinking to myself, ‘I wish I had washed my hair’.

“But that was a surreal day,” she says. “Everybody was expecting us to be absolutely elated but we really weren’t. We were a bit frightened, I think, about what was to come.”

She quit Lastminute in 2003 after the business moved into profit and the share price was almost back at its peak, hoping to prove she could do something else and could thrive out of Hoberman’s shadow. She made £13-million when Lastminute was later sold. Before the accident she was about to accept a job at Selfridges.

Would she want a full-time job again? “No, I don’t think so — who knows, in 20 years’ time I might be wanting to do another full-time job.” She laughs. “I’m 35 and I sound like I could be 65. I’ve got this weird sort of portfolio of stuff and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it is a bit strange.”

She once described herself as “furiously ambitious”. Is she still? “It’s a terrible private-schoolgirl thing to say: furiously ambitious. It is the same, but it is not furiously ambitious to run a FTSE-100 business — it is with myself.

“I do feel like: I’m still here, that’s been a big stroke of luck and I’ve got the chance to use some of the things that Lastminute.com gave me, to try and do some different things — and I want to be good at them, but not in a ruthless, monstrous way.” —