A sit-down with Baroness Martha Lane Fox, new President of the British Chambers of Commerce
Back at the dawn of the dot-com era, Martha Lane Fox founded lastminute.com with her business partner Brent Hoberman. After growing the business to become one of the leading e-commerce brands in Europe with a valuation of $1 billion, they took the business public in 2000. This experience set the tone for the rest of Martha’s working life, which has ‘always encompassed something digital or something entrepreneurial’.
A catastrophic car accident in 2004 resulted in the complete reorganisation of Martha’s working life, leading her to work across the public, private and governmental sectors in the years since. Martha has sat on boards for a range of organisations, including Channel 4, Marks and Spencer, Twitter and Chanel. She has worked in Government for Gordon Brown and David Cameron, helping to set up the Government Digital Service and Gov.uk, and sits in the House of Lords as a crossbench peer. She has also set up a karaoke business called Lucky Voice, founded the Doteveryone think-tank and currently chairs WeTransfer.
Her varied experience highlights the fact that Martha doesn’t fit into just one box. She enjoys pulling the threads between her work across sectors and looks forward to bringing this wealth of knowledge to the British Chambers of Commerce in her new role as President.
Given your vast and varied experience, what advice can you offer to entrepreneurs?
Firstly, being an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone. We've created an incredible respect and understanding of entrepreneurship, way more in this country even than when we were starting lastminute.com. Businesses are being started way more frequently and if you look at the numbers, we have many, many more entrepreneurs or people that call themselves entrepreneurs in the country. But I don't think everybody needs to be one. It's hard starting your own business. It's not for everybody.
That doesn't mean you can't think like one, it doesn't mean you can't use the skills of an entrepreneur in whatever you're doing. That to me means being able to ask good questions constantly, not feel as though anything's off limits in terms of understanding, being persistent. Often work is boring. And no more boring work happens than when you're starting a business. You have to do every job, some of which are boring. You have to go to people hundreds of times to get them to say yes to one thing.
The second thing is, if you are starting your own business and you can find somebody to work with, it's immensely rewarding. These are tough times, but if you can share that burden, you can see around more corners. I think that's the thing that I come back to again and again – if you find that right partner, it can be immensely rewarding.
As the new president of the BCC, what excites you about the future of British businesses, and also the BCC and the Chamber Network across the UK?
One of the reasons that I was thrilled to join the BCC is because it does seem to represent the best of British. It’s got an amazing voice and punches way above its weight. I respect how Chambers, on an individual level but also at a national level, have built a real force to be reckoned with, that the Government takes seriously which is no mean feat.
I think on a more personal level for me, I was very excited to become President because I hope to be able not only to learn, which I'm sure I will from all of the Chambers, but also, because I've got this slightly strange and eclectic mix of experience, I hope I can add something into the mix as well and bring some of that to bear.
It would be insane of me to sit here and say that we weren't in a tough spot. This is not an ideal moment. We're facing some very strong headwinds; at the individual business level whether it's rising costs and supply chains, but also at the national level. We have massive skills problems. We have rising inflation. We have challenges. But I'm sure that this country has incredible innovation and immense potential to keep reinventing itself and keep building business.
We need different voices being raised up. We need to make sure that different voices are embedded in the heart of policymaking. And that is what the BCC is doing, what I know the businesses that work in the Chamber Network are doing and what I want to help do as well.
What area do you think holds significant potential to grow the British economy and businesses over the coming years?
Firstly, we haven't even begun to digitise yet. Everything that can be digitised is going to be. The software revolution is only just starting. I'm sure some of the businesses in the Network think ‘oh my god, I can't cope with any more technology’ but I'm sorry, I have to tell you that we haven't even seen the beginning of it. And there are therefore still massive opportunities not only to reinvent your own business, but also to reinvent us as a country and the skills we have and services we offer.
The second area just has to be climate-related innovation. Whether it's energy-related innovation or whether it's climate tech-related innovation, or food reinvention, there are so many opportunities. I think we, as a country, have huge heritage in manufacturing, in agriculture, in all the things that need to be reinvented. So those are areas that I think are very exciting, and those are going to be the trillion-pound businesses of the future, so we want to be able to gobble up as much of them as possible - improving the planet and our profits in the process.
What will the digital revolution of the coming years look like for businesses?
We need to encourage all businesses to constantly think of themselves as digital businesses in order to be able to survive by 2030. And that means investing in infrastructure, reimagining processes, upskilling, reimagining their products and services. The challenge with this is it doesn't stop, it's not like a checkbox. Digital transformation is a never-ending process, which again, probably will fill many of our members with horror because they think ‘oh I've just completed that IT project’. But the truth is, we don't take enough advantage of the digital world in this country.
When I started my business in the 90’s, I imagined that by the mid 2020s we'd have digital entrepreneurs everywhere, in all shapes, sizes, colours, backgrounds, and we haven’t, so there's a massive opportunity in upskilling more of our general population. More women, more people of colour, more people from different socio-economic backgrounds, if they've got different technical skills, I believe they will be able to start better businesses and grow the whole pie for everyone. So, from every angle, there's still work to do, but I'm hugely optimistic. We're a small country. We've got so many of the factors. We just need to keep pushing.
You started the Lucky Voice chain of karaoke bars – where did the inspiration for this business stem from?
It came from a love of Japan. I love travelling to Japan. I went a couple of times when I was younger. And then two friends said, ‘why has nobody ever done karaoke like the Japanese?’ So, we did, we started it. And now we've got about 12 venues, some in franchises around the country, and it's going gangbusters.
I'm not running it, but I'm close to it. I have a hand in small business. I do understand the challenges of a cash flow. We’re thinking constantly about what does this mean looking into the next year, not knowing whether people are going to have cash in their pockets to want to go and enjoy our services. So, I feel that very keenly and I look forward to sharing those experiences with members.
I really am looking forward to coming around the country and meeting businesses. I feel I'm so lucky to have a small voice in this country, and I want to deploy it by understanding what's going on. One of the absolute joys of doing the work I did in Government in the past was getting the opportunity to go around and get a fast track into different parts of the country. And I’m really looking forward to doing that again. I’m going to Manchester soon, to Poole, to Birmingham and I plan to be in other places too. I’m really looking forward to meeting Chambers and their members.
What are your interests outside of your very busy working life?
I love reading. I read all the time. I was absolutely thrilled last year to chair the Women's Prize for Fiction judges. The winner was a novel called Hamlet by Maggie O'Farrell which is completely astonishing. I love that. But for non-fiction, I’ve just finished reading a book called The Changing World Order, by a private equity expert called Ray Dalio. He's American. He's very famous, he founded Bridgewater. But he's written about how empires rise and fall and what the economics behind that is and how it can predict the future and what it means for business.
Basically, my time is taken up by reading, in the karaoke bars or with my two six-year-olds – and that's enough!