THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARTHA
Martha Lane Fox wants to reshape our digital world
If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward,’ says multi-hyphenate entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox, repeating Martin Luther King’s maxim word for word when I ask how she finds the courage to take on the kind of blue-sky ideas others would find overwhelming. Most people, I offer, would be daunted by the Lastminute.com founder’s current project: Doteveryone, the organisation championing responsible technology for the good of society. ‘Even if a problem seems incredibly complicated,’ she reasons, ‘you can build a movement by making noise about it and joining up with other people. It doesn’t take much to move big machines.’ We’re in a boardroom tucked behind the palatial Portland stone facade of London’s Somerset House, which moonlights as an unlikely hub for fizzing startups bringing tomorrow’s ideas to life. One of these is Doteveryone. Fluorescent Post-its are scattered across the walls and questions such as ‘What are appropriate times to ask for public opinion?’ are emblazoned on a whiteboard. It’s a place with big plans. Lane Fox co-founded Lastminute.com aged 25 with friend Brent Hoberman (the pair are contemplating a party to mark 20 years since the launch). They rode the late-nineties dotcom boom before floating the company in 2000 at a value of £571m, making Lane Fox a multimillionaire. Not long afterwards, a near-fatal car crash in Morocco left her disabled. After a long, painful recovery, she was appointed the Government’s digital champion in 2009 before cooking up Doteveryone. Today, she looks cooler than the average boss, in silver jeans, trainers and long, gold earrings, with pink-streaked hair and a black cane – by her side since the accident.
In 2015, Lane Fox gave the BBC’S annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture and said she felt society’s relationship with the internet was at a turning point, although not even she could have predicted the prescience of her words, and the answer was an organisation: Doteveryone. ‘The UK had had success with e-commerce, but society hadn’t yet felt the benefit of the internet. The next step was to be bolder about connecting everyone, and empower schools, hospitals, and prisons to reform by using technology in a dramatic way.’ In May, 450,000 women discovered they hadn’t received breast cancer screening letters because of a glitch in old software; this stuff is fundamental to our collective lives. Doteveryone has three main workstreams: responsible technology (‘Doteveryone’s digital attitudes survey showed people think the internet is a benefit to them individually but not to society. We’re working with companies to figure out how to change that’); digital leadership (helping public sector workers, from MPS to schoolteachers, learn how to use the internet); and helping people understand the internet.
Lane Fox’s willingness to go where others won’t isn’t surprising – after all, she’s done it before – but she is still self-deprecating. ‘I am never an early adopter! My mum showed me the internet, I’m that tragic!’ she exclaims. ‘Brent came up with Lastminute. com and we co-founded it. I could imagine using it; it didn’t feel like a big leap.’ Now, she recalls
‘chaos’ in those early days. ‘Things happened by chance, serendipity, flying by the seat of our pants!’
Lane Fox began her televised lecture by recalling pitching for investment in Lastminute.com to ‘a greyhaired man in a three-piece suit behind a big mahogany desk’. She adopts his low, untrusting timbre: ‘What happens if you get pregnant?’ When Lastminute.com started, Lane Fox had a sense she was working in a ‘gender-skewed sector’, but ‘felt it more from the finance and travel industries’ that she interacted with as part of her role. ‘All the customer service agents were women and the leaders were men,’ she says. ‘It was stark.’
As we chat, I mentally tally Lane Fox’s professional roles: chairperson, Doteveryone; board member, Twitter (‘I fly to the West Coast for meetings’); adviser, Joint Committee for National Security Strategy; crossbench peer, House of Lords; founder, Lucky Voice; and patron of countless organisations, including London’s Almeida Theatre. The responsibility of being a ‘good, female voice’ in these male-dominated spheres weighs on her (‘I don’t think you can be a woman in tech and a member of the House of Lords and it not’). Her advice for navigating these worlds? ‘Know your shit, be credible, work hard. I don’t necessarily have “a strategy”. I get intimidated, especially post-accident – I feel people see my stick and a crippled person, as
‘MY MUM SHOWED ME THE INTERNET, I’M THAT TRAGIC!’
opposed to me. I flick a switch in my head, where I tell myself to be present and confident.’
While she ‘can be tough’, her desire to ‘get stuff done’ means reprimands to sexist behaviour are ‘friendly’. ‘Recently, I was in a board meeting, and a man was subconsciously calling me “Martha, dear”. I started calling him “darling” back. Someone said, “Why are you calling each other dear and darling?” I said, “I’m calling him darling because he’s calling me dear!” Small things, but they matter.’ Pre-children, Lane Fox ‘underestimated what an important piece of the puzzle childcare is. I’m lucky, I’m rich – but if I wasn’t I’d be like JESUS CHRIST!’ she explodes. ‘How can we sort this?’ It’s a freaking nightmare.’
It would be easy to tell Lane Fox’s story as one of a commerce queen who had an accident 14 years ago and now does good. ‘That’s brilliant, right? But it’s not the truth,’ she explains. ‘I’d always been more interested in changing the world than building a business,’ but the accident necessitated her ‘weird, portfolio life’. Her story may not be neat, but the accident is clearly a fault line; one of those life-changing events that defines everything else as either before or after. She was thrown from the vehicle, broke 28 bones, had a stroke, and spent two years in hospital. There are ‘lifelong implications’ but she is sanguine about her survival chances being dramatically better thanks to her wealth. ‘I would be dead without the money, for sure. I got good care at amazing hospitals. The “sliding door” thing is sobering – if the crash had happened to someone else, they’d be in a wheelchair.’ Now, she deals with ‘pain, fatigue, brain space… a bit of my head always has to think about physical coping strategies. That makes me a grumpier person,’ she says, pausing. ‘I’ve a good denial gene. My coping mechanism is to deny it.’
But things have improved, and Luther King’s quote is a personal post-accident metaphor for persevering (‘even at glacial speed’). She began learning kung fu (‘Hilarious, as I can’t feel my feet!) and credits ‘my amazing mother, my partner Chris [Gorell Barnes], and my extraordinary network of friends’ for getting her through. ‘For two years, they visited the hospital every single day, projecting movies on to my hospital room ceiling, bringing their newborns to lie with me because I couldn’t move, and helping me stand for the first time – one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do.’
In 2014, they rallied again, when 65 joined her to walk Hadrian’s Wall, marking a decade since the accident, fundraising £150,000 in the process. Her voice suddenly drops. ‘They were amazing,’ she says, softly. ‘So all the parties I had paid off! I reward them with parties!’ she laughs, back up to volume.
In 2004, pre-accident, Lane Fox said she wanted ‘a football team of babies’ but the crash robbed her of that chance. Now, though, she is mother to two-year-old identical twins Milo and Felix, born in America ‘by a surrogate and an egg donor’. ‘It was an extraordinary experience. They were born prematurely, so we had to race to America to get them. Now they’re here, they’re amazing.’
Parenthood is ‘an incredible responsibility, and huge fun’ and is the reason she’s ‘making different choices’. ‘I do find myself thinking, “Screw it! I don’t want to go to that 5.30pm meeting if I can’t see them in the evening.” I’m still ambitious, but I’m organising myself in a different way.’
Her partner Chris runs a digital advertising agency and a marine conservation charity (‘there’s a lot of fish chat in our house’). The two ‘share parenting, absolutely. Anyone in my situation who talks about juggling work and parenthood without total honesty is talking shit!’ she laughs. ‘I am so lucky. I’m richer than 99% of the world. I have two amazing nannies, and someone who helps at home. I couldn’t do what I do and manage post-accident care without them. [Chris is] amazing with them, too. I don’t feel like we’re constantly wrestling careers and priorities, it’s just not a debate in our house.’ Family life sounds colourful (comprising ‘twins, two Bengal cats, amazing women helping, family in and out all the time’); ‘I used to want to set up a commune, so this is practice!’
When it comes to preventing children becoming screen slaves without rendering them unable to cope with the digital future, Lane Fox’s strategy will be making tech ‘a shared experience’, with her kids likely to use a family computer in the kitchen (‘That way, you do it together, and nobody’s in their room doing whatever the hell knows what.’) She’s also mindful of setting an example: ‘My partner might disagree... but I’m not obsessed with my phone!’ she says. ‘I go upstairs at 9pm and never take it with me. It falls down when I talk to the boys and our nanny on Whatsapp, and take pictures of them with my phone. But I’m trying to be balanced.’
The spectre of Facebook’s data scandal looms large over
‘I TELL MYSELF TO BE PRESENT AND CONFIDENT’
our conversation. ‘I come from the e-commerce web: if you’re buying a flight ticket, you get a flight. But data is the fuel of the free web. The Facebook story made us realise the transaction we’ve made.’ As we chat, a helicopter hovers above. The building quivers. ‘There’s Mark Zuckerberg, flying over,’ she deadpans, quasi-sarcastically. ‘I’m not “delete Facebook” mad; you might want to give your data because the benefit is worth it. But you need to understand it. Plus, governments should legislate effectively, companies need to step in, and we should use our power.’
She baulks when I ask about personal style, citing the pink streak (‘Maybe going to the Lords made me do it!’) as the only evidence. For fun, she ‘drinks Champagne, goes to the theatre, and reads books, sometimes all at once!’ She exercises every day and is a bookworm, reading 40 last year, posting each on Instagram (‘partly to show off, obviously!’).
I’ve long lost count of the number of plates Lane Fox spins, but what, I ask, is the ultimate goal? ‘We’ve just started scratching the surface of how the internet can help people,’ she replies. ‘It’s more profound than buying cheap shoes. If I was in charge of the UK, I’d be thinking about how to embed modern tools to make society fit for purpose,’ she says, ‘empowering older people to manage their care digitally, for example. We’ve thought about digital economy, now it’s digital society’s turn.’ As tasks go, it’s megalithic, and demands immediate attention. So out she strides, cane in hand, off to change the world – again.