It is now nearly twenty years since Martha Lane Fox was the Poster Girl of Web 1.0. As the co-founder of Lastminute.com with Brent Hoberman, she was one of the few internet entrepreneurs of the early noughties tech goldrush to come away with a fortune. In many ways her life has become even more interesting and eventful since then, finding herself in wide demand to work with companies in search of female talent with a knowledge of tech, she has worked on the boards of Channel 4, M&S and most recently Twitter and Chanel. In addition, she has sat since 2013 as a crossbencher in the House of Lords – she was the youngest female ever to take her seat in that place.
You’re currently a non-Exec Director for two hugely contrasting companies Twitter and Chanel – what has that taught you about leadership styles?
If you had to draw comparisons from both companies – and from my own experience as well – it comes down to founders and founder culture. If you are still related to the business or in the business, which Jack [Dorsey] is at Twitter, then that determines everything. It’s impossible to underestimate the impact of that cult of founder; both good and bad. Jack is in the business, and he has a very particular style of leadership, which is to communicate all the time. He operates with radical transparency.
Chanel is wrapped together by Alain [Wertheimer], the boss at the top of Chanel, who represents it very meticulously. Chanel is wildly successful – it turns over $13 billion. It is incredibly hierarchical, and yet regularly produces amazing bursts of creativity, extraordinary output, all based around a very strong sense of one individual -Coco Chanel. This is very deep-seated, despite her being long gone. I think what’s extraordinary is that every single person I’ve met at Chanel mentions Coco within the first 15 minutes of the meeting. There is an incredible preservation of the founder legacy.
In both cases, I think never underestimate the power of a founder-based business. It permeates everything.
So, do you have a kind of preferred mode of operating?
You have to put your game face on in different situations and decide who you need to be, but fundamentally I have never had to be ‘not me’. So, I hope I retain an authenticity which links all my different ways of being. Sometimes I’m noisy, trying to be disruptive. Sometimes I’m provocative, and sometimes I will be careful, trying to work out a route through.
I have never really worked for anyone else. I take very seriously being a director of a company, but you have a different kind of relationship with the business. You’re trying to be slightly on the outside. If you become too internal, then you’re not doing your job right.
How are you as a boss?
That is a very hard question to answer about yourself. I don’t feel like a boss, I really don’t. I feel like Doteveryone (Lane Fox is the Executive Chair of responsible technology think tank Doteveryone) is a shared endeavour with Rachel our CEO and the other people who work there. I’ve made terrible mistakes. With Lucky Voice, my karaoke business, I was trying to find myself after my accident [a serious car accident in 2004 left Martha with injuries which she must cope with for the rest of her life]. I was trying to show that I could still do everything in the business and that was ridiculous.The guy that co-founded it with me, Nick, it nearly killed him because it just wasn’t working. He was running it. I was there very temporarily (in and out) and that was not right. You have to have the confidence to help the person and be called on when they need it, not the other way around.
You’re hugely in demand. What is it that organisations want from you?
I’ve had a lot of luck. But overall, I think a combination of being entrepreneurial, being a woman plus being relatively provocative, and I choose that word carefully, is what they’re looking for.
People think I’m an entrepreneur or a tech person and then when they talk to me, they find out that those are not necessarily the things that interest me. I am now on the joint committee for national security strategy, and I suddenly find myself very much more interested in defence and security than I ever thought I would be.
Somebody described my situation the other day as like being in a not very good pop band that got some success when they were 25. It’s strange, people think that they know who you are through that. But it was 20 years ago, and I don’t think of it as my defining thing. In some ways, I am way prouder of what we did in government than at Lastminute.com.
Your campaigning organisation Doteveryone has recently produced a report about internet regulation. Do you think that instead of having one all-powerful web regulator, the existing regulators should be helped and better equipped to consider the digital aspects of their work?
My secret plan was to create the tools, spaces and mechanisms to dunk the political class and the public leadership of this country in more digital understanding. I’m not sure people have agreed with us. The government have said that they still want to create some form of regulation for the internet. Some of the financial regulators have had to get more savvy with the digital world than others. The ASA and some of the advertising regulation could have been better regarding technology. The dark arts of internet advertising haven’t gone away. And definitely the electoral commission need help, I would say.
Everybody worth their salt in the tech world right now is saying the word ‘ethics’. It’s total virtue signalling. As long as you say ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ then you’re home and dry, which is obviously rubbish.
At Doteveryone we’ve built a decision tree and a set of processes that you can go through when you’re either starting a tech company or building a piece of software. It’s not definitive, for it to work you have to use it to reflect on what you want your own values to be, but it’s a way to try and help people.
Are you optimistic about ethics and social media?
Some people in tech believe you can code your way out of everything. I respect them enormously – they’ve created unbelievable tools and systems. But you’ve got to understand more about the world, about philosophy, about social perspectives, social policy, history. You can’t go on about the boundaries of free speech without understanding the broader sweep of historical context. You shouldn’t, and you can’t. It’s too important. It’s not just about employing somebody who is your chief data and ethics person and saying, ‘Tick! Job done’. During the design of a product or service, you need to consider a broader spectrum not just putting resources into the product design teams and the people that run the company (which is the way that they all run their companies at the moment).
You were very important in trying to change the tone of political debate with More United (a cross-party political movement that advocates democratic reform and co-operation with the EU, among other things). And you are continuing. What made you want to do something with them?
It was very simple. I felt like enough people (not everybody) were very upset by the result of the Brexit referendum because it did not feel fair. I did not feel it had been regulated properly and I still think that. The people who are nominally in charge of making those decisions don’t understand technology and its impacts.
The tech sector post-Brexit immediately came together to demand the things they wanted. What about thinking about what the tech sector can bring to the country after what’s happened? What about standing up and saying, ‘hold on a minute’? Many have come out now, but not enough, in my humble opinion. None are saying what they believe in. I feel that is extraordinary, interesting and unacceptable. It’s always the same old voices and faces speaking up.
I find that as disappointing as the polarisation – I don’t know how the debate has become so petty and so uninformed. Clearly, we are not addressing the real reasons that people feel the way they do. We are just continuing without knowing the fundamentals and it’s only going to get worse.
I was speaking in the House of Lords recently and talking about a famous wildlife clip that was going around on Twitter of two deer fighting in the foreground and then a huge lion comes along, stalks them, they don’t see it, and he comes up behind them and jumps and kills one. This is how I feel about the climate. I feel like we are all squabbling about our future relationships with a bunch of countries and it is not irrelevant, but in the grand scheme of things we should be focusing our attention and our brains on climate change. I’m an optimistic person but I do feel that we have a responsibility to be sceptical.
It sounds like it was politics not business you should have gone for from the start.
When I was 15 I wanted to go into politics. It was strange that I became an entrepreneur, I don’t naturally feel at home in business. And I am not doing a classic female thing, I am not trying to be false-humble, I can do it, but it’s not what makes me tick.
At Lastminute.com we had to convince suppliers to give us things and people to buy our products, but doing something in government, you have to convince all of the political class, all the civil service class, and then people to come and work with you, so that felt very entrepreneurial.
Being in the House of Lords on the cross benches is also very entrepreneurial because you don’t have any party support. You don’t get told what to do, you’re not whipped. So, you have to have confidence to bring something from the outside.
So, at 15 what did you want to do in politics?
I wanted to be an MP, I wanted to be prime minister. I wanted to make MGM musicals from the 1950s part of the national curriculum. I wanted to ban all prisons. And fundamentally, I wanted a big dose of gender equality. Nothing to do with technology, that was completely off my radar. But in all seriousness, when I left Lastminute.com I did think that I could try and be Mayor of London.
You could still do that.
No, the accident has put paid to all of that. I physically don’t have the stamina. I’m still tempted, to be honest. I feel like especially now it’s important that women who have a voice use it, so I try to use my voice.
I was speaking at a conference about defence recently and I was the only female speaker. I spoke about my experience of how you build resilience. That it’s important. Then I sat down and said to the guy next to me, ‘It’s a bit dispiriting that I’m the only woman talking about this’ and he looked at me and he said ‘Well, it’s not a very girly subject’. I was really flummoxed. I didn’t know what to say to him, which is not often the case.
We just need a lot more women in public life, full stop. In everything, in fact. There is a long way to go and if you look at the tech sector it’s getting worse, not better.
I encourage young women or any women to not be scared of being a generalist, of course being a deeply committed biochemist is brilliant, but you can also be like me. I’m interested in defence as much as karaoke and that’s fine. You can always bring things from one to the other. That is what we try to do at DotEveryone as well, not to be too siloed.
So what advice would you give to your 15-year-old self now?
Don’t be scared or feel insecure about not being in a box. There are so many people now saying to women particularly, use your voice, which is great. That is only a small bit of it though. The rest of it is about finding your voice, how you use it, making sure that you’re making a contribution. What else would I tell my 15-year-old self? Probably wear your seatbelt, to be honest.
Martha Lane Fox, Baroness Lane Fox, CBE is a British businesswoman, philanthropist and public servant.