the gentlewoman

Martha Lane Fox

The internet boom star turned digital activist

Martha

The internet boom star turned digital activist
Martha Lane Fox

Martha Lane Fox was the accidental poster girl of the 1990s Internet boom — the pretty, privileged blonde who could do no wrong. She’s since survived two collisions in her life — the dot-com collapse of 2000 and a car crash in Morocco in 2004. Now she’s firmly back in the wired world as the national spokeswoman for getting everyone in Britain online by the end of 2012. Martha’s world has no place for self-pity, slacking or sentimentality. She likes to see her future as one of good ethical judgements, excellent parties, and hours of karaoke.

Text by Emily King
Portraits by Paul Wetherell, Styling by Raquel Franco

Perched on a chair in an anonymous conference hall in north London in late 2011, Martha Lane Fox flicked through her notes in the minutes before taking to the podium. Her audience was an association for the heads of charities – a tough crowd. It was late afternoon and they had been locked in airless rooms all day, worrying about the survival of their organisations. Martha, who is 38, was speaking in her capacity as the UK’s ‘Digital Champion’, a government-endorsed role whose title she adapted from the less emphatic ‘Digital Inclusion Champion’. The subject of her talk was the potential of technology to transform the relationship between charities and their donors and beneficiaries. A no-brainer, one might think, but the questions that came from the floor made it clear that getting certain institutions online would be like turning a tanker.

On stage, Martha threw her all into her cause. A slight figure topped with tumbling blond hair and dangly earrings, she fought the lethargy in the room with a personal account of her own experiences with the Internet, first as a dot-com entrepreneur and second as an accident victim. Martha suffered a very severe car crash in 2004 and now walks with a cane. She spun a gripping story of financial boom and bust and extreme physical trauma. Strikingly in an era when the British Chancellor of the Exchequer feels obliged to flatten his private-school vowels to sound more of-the-people, Martha is unafraid to let her privileged background (Westminster School, Oxford University, daughter of the eminent historian Robin Lane Fox) show in her voice. But then, she’s breathtakingly honest on every level. “People with real confidence have no arrogance,” said Brent Hoberman, Martha’s first business partner, when I spoke to him over the phone a few days later. “Martha knows that she has a commanding presence. When she speaks, she holds a room; you can hear a penny drop.”

Brent first benefited from Martha’s ability to hold attention in the mid-1990s, when they were raising the money to launch the online travel company Lastminute.com. Aged 28 and 25 respectively, they were among the pioneers breathing the first air into the Internet bubble. Brent remembers a former boss of his saying, with some scepticism, “How many under-30-year-olds have you met who have raised a million dollars off the back of a business plan?” The pair succeeded by putting themselves out there in every possible arena, attending endless networking events and conferences (it was the time before social media, when a lot more went on in physical space). After a few months, they’d generated a media storm that delivered the investment they needed.

There is a photograph of Martha and Brent from this era in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Taken in 1999 by Sarah Dunn as part of a series of portraits of ‘21 leaders for the 21st century’, it shows them lounging on a red sofa, both dressed in late-’90s minimalist black, Martha’s leather-trouser-clad legs resting across Brett’s lap. Martha described the atmosphere of the period in terms of a Venn diagram: “There were lots of things happening at the same time. There was the excitement that technology might allow the UK to be a bit more like the US, and there was New Labour bringing a new political climate. And the two overlapped to create the kind of environment where online culture could thrive.” Omitted from this equation is Martha herself. Attractive, young and blond, she became the dot-com pin-up, and for a few years her image was everywhere. She was the face of everything people loved and hated about new technology.

“In 10 to 30 per cent of this country, you can’t get online, and that’s shocking.”

It’s a position she still occupies today. In 2010, she took on the role of Digital Champion, coined the campaign name Race Online 2012, and set the target of enabling the 10 million Britons who don’t use the Internet to do so by the end of the Olympic year. Her key idea is to foster a network of local Champions, who’ll help their friends, neighbours, colleagues and relations to get online. Describing her first appearance in the role, Martha said, “I completely underestimated the expectation that I would be a statesmanlike figure. It was really weird to get my head round that. My first visit in the role was to a place that taught older people to use the Internet. I thought, I’ll just put on my jeans, act low-key and see what’s going on. But when I arrived, there was this bank of councillors looking at me, thinking, ‘What?’” Since then, a more appropriately dressed Martha has been on a non-stop round of visits, meetings and conferences, drumming up support for her cause. Once the Race Online 2012 deadline has expired at the end of the year, she plans to transform the organisation into an independent charity promoting access to digital technology in the UK.

An article in the Guardian newspaper published at the start of her campaign in 2010 suggested that there was something ‘schoolmarmish’ about her zeal, and much of the comment stream that follows it in the paper’s online archive is bilious inverted snobbery. Addressing the most pertinent criticism of the project – the current government’s failure to invest in technological infrastructure – Martha admitted, “That’s a very fair criticism. In 10 per cent to 30 per cent of this country, you can’t get online, and that’s shocking. There’s lots you can do before the infrastructure arrives to move things on. Why wait and do nothing?” Alongside the lack of investment, given the current economic climate, the message that we should all log on can sound uncomfortably akin to the ‘On your bike’ attitude of the Thatcher era. Martha acknowledged as much, but said, “In the end, I believe enough that what we’re trying to do is a good thing. Of course, I have taken some flak, but I don’t mind that.”

Not only does she take flak if she thinks it will raise the profile of her cause, Martha seems to bring it on. Posted on her website is a short BBC film of her encouraging her father to use the Internet for the first time. (Apparently aware of its similarity to a comedy sketch depicting two unworldly aristos, Martha refers to the video as “Posh and Posher”.) Tapping his name into Google, ‘Papa’ is surprised to find nearly a million references to his book The Thoughtful Gardener (as well as being an Oxford historian, Robin Lane Fox is the gardening correspondent of the Financial Times). When he suggests using the technology to recruit help for his garden, he receives an affectionate dressing-down: “No, I am not going to type ‘busty German in dungarees’ into the search engine, Papa.”

Martha says she never predicted becoming the face of the Internet, either recently or in the 1990s, when some assumed it was her game plan. “Back then, it was mortifying for me, and it still is, that anybody supposes I jumped in front of Brent. We built Lastminute.com together, but it was 100 per cent his idea. What upset me more than anything were photographs of us with him cut out.” Brent, though, remembers the phenomenon entirely positively. “You don’t expect to have a front-page newspaper story for a business that you’re starting,” he said. “I don’t think either of us thought the PR side would catch fire like that, but I was obviously very happy when it did. She took a lot of rough with the smooth in that arena.” Talking to the BBC in 2002, Martha quipped of Brent, “If I hadn’t come along, he would probably have found another blonde to do it.” All these years later, completely unasked, Brent responded to that charge. “I wasn’t as cynical as some people might think,” he insisted. “I didn’t choose to work with Martha because I thought she would be a great spokesperson for the brand, I chose her because I thought she was smart and easy to work with.”

After expanding in the late 1990s, the dot-com bubble burst in spectacular fashion in the middle of 2000. Among the most extraordinary stories was that of the online sportswear retailer Boo.com, which went out of business in May 2000 after running through $135 million of venture capital in 18 months. In spite of the drama, the events around the boom are not particularly well documented online because, inevitably, they predated any significant level of Internet activity. It now seems like ancient history, particularly in the wake of the equally dramatic rise of social media. Many of the predictions underlying the boom have come to pass – more than a decade after Lastminute.com was founded, most of us now book our travel online – but in hindsight, the idea that new technologies would lead to crazy, unfettered consumption and that those able to monopolise a particular retail field would become instant billionaires seems ludicrous. What could have led to this loss of perspective?

Over coffee at Home House, a private club in London’s Portland Square, Martha’s best friend from school, Abi Murray, told me a story on the theme of scale. “Martha had a shopping spree on the Internet and bought herself a coffee pot and a Philippe Starck vase. When the things arrived, the coffee pot was about 6 inches high, but the vase was about 6 foot. She keeps this enormous thing in the corner of her room as a reminder of how you can be led astray.”

For the last couple of years, Martha has lived with her boyfriend, the television producer Chris Gorell Barnes, in a beautiful Georgian townhouse in Mayfair. Alongside the outsize vase, she has a large art collection, including a Marc Camille Chaimowicz painting. Wolfgang Tillmans’s Concorde is on long loan from her friend Charles Asprey. When I visited, she greeted me at the door flanked by two young Bengal cats named Pollock and Coley in honour of Chris’s enthusiasm for sustainable fishing. She made me a cup of green tea – she is a connoisseur of such things and enthuses about the brand Teapigs – and then led me upstairs to her sitting room.

Martha sits under a print from her photography collection. She is wearing a vintage printed linen dress by GUY LAROCHE, a leather belt by HERMÈS and her own HERMÈS leather cuff. The watch and earrings are also Martha’s own.

In the opening image, Martha wears a navy mixed-wool suit dress by PAUL SMITH and her own jewellery.

Walking with a cane gives her step a distinctive swoop that, far from appearing ungainly, generates a sense of otherworldliness, an ethereality that’s emphasised by her slight physical presence. We settled down to talk on a pair of pale upholstered sofas, and although the cushions were deep and comfortable, Martha seemed to hover rather than sit. Her home is obviously the product of great style and care, yet she scarcely seemed to touch its surfaces. Martha has described herself as one of the few people to have lived through both a metaphorical and a literal crash, and she talks about both sets of bruises without flinching. Lastminute.com floated on the London Stock Exchange in March 2000 with a share price of 380p that rose to 511p by the end of the day. Six months later, the shares were worth only 80p, and their value was still falling. While Brent was anxiously checking the price every 15 minutes, Martha was on the receiving end of the shareholders’ anger. “A huge number of emails were sent direct to me,” she said “We had 135,000 individual shareholders, which is a relatively large number for quite a small company. In the month after the float, I probably got 3,500 to 4,000 pretty unpleasant emails. ‘Bitch’ was among the kinder comments.” The newspaper columnists piled in, too. “Toby Young wrote a piece where he said that Brent and I should be assassinated,” said Martha. “I know all this stuff is meant to be light, but it is not light when you’re young and you care.”

Both Martha and Brent described a strong sense of disconnection between the media talk of Lastminute.com’s collapse and the day-to-day reality of building the business. Looking back, Brent characterised this as a missed opportunity. “With hindsight, I realise that the debate about whether it was a rubbish business or a good business was fantastic for us. At the time, I took it quite personally, but I should have thought, ‘Let me fuel this, let me get a few more people saying we’re rubbish and a few more people fighting back.’ It was just brilliant PR.” Meanwhile, Martha talked mainly of exhaustion from “the attempt to be cheery with everyone in the company.” As chief operations officer, she was in charge of hiring and firing. “Without doubt, one of the worst days at Lastminute.com was when I had to make the whole customer service team redundant because we were going to outsource their role to India,” she said, adding, “In retrospect, that was probably a mistake.”

Martha dismissed the idea that starting Lastminute.com was brave (“Talking about this as if I had taken a big risk is insane. I was young, I had my own flat and I didn’t have any dependents”). But as her frankness suggests, she has an entrepreneurial disregard for convention. According to Brent, she’s also clever, analytical and good with a team. For all these qualities, however, she does not appear to share her former partner’s relish for the hurly-burly of commerce. Discussing Lastminute.com, Brent still fizzed with commercial regrets: the failure of the market to grasp the potential of location-based deals accessed through mobile phones, his own failure to spot the possibility of alternative sales models represented by companies such as Groupon, and so on. Martha, meanwhile, just seemed grateful for the platform and financial security afforded her by the venture, and happy to leave it at that.

A month after Martha left Lastminute.com in November 2003, there was press speculation about her taking a senior role at the department store Selfridges, but she had still not taken on any new commercial role by the time of the car crash in May 2004. The accident happened in Essaouira, Morocco. Martha was with Chris, then a boyfriend of only a few months’ standing, and they were visiting his friend Duncan Flower, who was working as a location manager on a Ridley Scott film. Their car slipped on a treacherous road, and Martha was thrown clear through the windscreen, sustaining injuries that took two years in hospital and 23 operations to mend (inasmuch as they could be).

“I completely underestimated the expectation that I would be a a statesmanlike figure. It was really weird to get my head around that.”

“Life just changed forever in an extraordinarily profound and fundamental way,” said Martha. “I could bore you with the micro-physical challenges, which range from irritating to very serious, but I think I’m just lucky, I really do.” Once again refusing credit for bravery, she said, “I just don’t dwell on it. I could, but I made the choice not to worry too much. Things are hard, but if there’s nothing you can do, you just have to get on with it. It’s not something I constantly fight in my head, although I am constantly fighting physically.” Seeing me struggling to comprehend the notion of perpetual pain, she added, “It’s hard to explain. I feel that I live outside my body – that’s probably the best way to describe it. It’s not the agony, it’s the constancy of it. I can’t really think too far ahead. That’s what I find hardest.” Martha now follows an exercise routine every day, three times a week with a trainer and the rest of the time by herself. She told me she’s relearning to swim (“I can’t use this arm, so I go around in circles, but that’s all right”). What’s important is for her to see some degree of progress. “If I think I’m never going to feel different to how I feel now, then I panic. You have to believe, even in the tiniest way, that it’s going to get better.”

Not only is Martha straightforward about her bad fortune, she’s also open about the good. Lastminute.com was sold in 2005, and she earned about £13 million from her share in the company. She called this “a massive, transformational amount of money”, and by most people’s standards it is. It is not, however, anything close to the £300 million fortune that the press dreamed up at the height of the dot-com frenzy. Martha’s relationship with her money is intertwined with the aftermath of her accident. “I feel truly grateful for it, for many, many reasons,” she said. “But most obviously, there is no question I would be dead if I hadn’t had the money to get me out of Morocco in time.” Martha admited to using her physical condition as a means of “post-rationalising” any frivolous consumption and said she regards buying new shoes and throwing parties as compensations for what she has to put up with. Abi described her as the “best hostess”, and added, “She can spend the entire day helping a charity and meeting the prime minister and then, in the evening, she will throw an amazing fancy dress party and do a karaoke rendition of Eminem.”

Hollywood might tell Martha’s story as that of a brash businesswoman who suffers a terrible accident and is reborn a philanthropic crusader, but this would be completely inaccurate. As her need to justify trivial spending implies, the charitable impulse is lodged deep in her psyche. She wrote letters to prisoners throughout her time at school and university, and on graduation she considered becoming a prison governor and applied to work in the UK’s Home Office before being tempted into business. She’s maintained an interest in prison reform since then, and in 2002, while still working for Lastminute.com, she became a founding trustee of the human rights charity Reprieve. On the subject of the harsh sentences given to people involved in England’s August 2011 riots, she said, “I haven’t spoken up, because I feel for the moment I should have a one-track voice around digital issues in government. I have to pick my battles. But I think it is absolutely outrageous and ridiculous. It is quite extraordinary that, over the last 200 years, we have hardly moved on in how we think about this stuff.”

A simplistic entrepreneur-to-angel story would also fail to account for her ongoing engagement with business. She has been a member of the board of Marks & Spencer since 2007, and it is a role she takes very seriously, though she also gets exercised about political issues such as the lack of women on corporate boards and M&S’s particular responsibility to its unusually large number of small shareholders. Her other current commercial interests include the karaoke-bar chain Lucky Voice, which she co-founded with Nick Thistleton from her hospital bed in 2005. The company has many rooms across Britain, which enthusiasts can book for private sing-alongs, and its Party Box home karaoke machine, complete with pink microphone, can be purchased online. While perhaps a little too neatly autobiographical to be true, it is on record that Martha’s own karaoke song of choice is ‘I’m Still Standing’.

Martha Lane Fox
The internet boom star turned digital activist

Text by Emily King
Portraits by Paul Wetherell
Styling by Raquel Franco

Hair: Sean Clemenger
Make-up: Shinobu at CLM
Photographic assistance: Chris Miller
Styling assistance: Hannah Caddick
Digital operation: Ivan Ruberto
Production: Lucie Newbegin at M.A.P.

This profile was originally published in
The Gentlewoman n° 5, Spring and Summer 2012.