Mr Lastminute is living up to his name. Brent Hoberman is late for our meeting. But then for someone who has only just relinquished his ties with the online travel and leisure website he founded in 1998 – stepping down as part-time chairman in January – and who, in theory, is at liberty to enjoy some of the reputed £26m he has made from it, Hoberman is a remarkably busy man.
As well as his recent appointment as non-executive director of the Guardian Media Group, he’s on the eSuperbrands Council, governor of the University of Arts London, an active angel investor in several internet businesses, has set up networking organisation Founders Forum, and was just made chairman of WAYN, a social networking site for travellers. And that’s before we get to project X, but more of that later.
Hoberman has packed more into the last decade than most businessmen do in a lifetime. Although it seemed that Lastminute emerged seemingly fully formed in 1998, the business plan had been in gestation for two years. During that time Hoberman worked in various technology strategy consultancies where he specialised in future gazing on the effect that the internet would have on business.
In between telling corporates how the web would change everything, and helping launch auction site QXL, Hoberman met Martha Lane-Fox, his accomplice at Lastminute.com. “The ability to raise £600,000 was not as simple then as it would be today,” he says. “We were one of the earliest consumer-brand internet plays. By using the power of the internet to match buyers and sellers we were able to add value to both.”
Although keen to play down the idea that he and Lane-Fox were trendsetters for a new type of business, Hoberman admits that they didn’t play by the established rules. “I think we did bring a sense that you could just ‘do it’ to business, and that it could be enjoyable,” he says. “We showed that you could launch a consumer brand from scratch, and that the internet enables you to do it much faster.”
Indeed, Lastminute can be seen as a pioneer for the look and feel of many of the websites that are successful today. It wrestled the internet experience from the tech geeks and made the web a more friendly place. Simple ideas, such as emails that made helpful suggestions on what to do at the weekend, as well as functions like the ‘boss is watching’ button, linking immediately to business-like charts and graphs, presented a more playful technical experience.
Hoberman was just 29 when Lastminute started, and Lane-Fox, 25. Part of their success came from an ignorance of what they were letting themselves in for. “If we had known then what we know now, maybe we wouldn’t have done it,” says Hoberman. “But there’s a great power to start-ups. You always think that it’s the giant companies that will do what you are doing, but they fi nd it harder to move on a dime as Bill Gates said. They don’t take risks. I saw it when I was consulting on VoIP [voice over internet protocol] for Cable and Wireless in 1996 and they said it wouldn’t happen.”
Hoberman’s business outlook has been shaped by the Lastminute experience. Starting the business, he says his core skills were refi ning the application of technology to solve consumer needs, something still close to his heart. Quickly he had to develop his sales pitch to a whole host of parties. “We were selling to employees, suppliers, marketing partners and consumers and saying that it was going to be big,” he recalls.
As the company grew quickly, Hoberman had to develop “lateral problem solving skills”. He delegated where his own skills were not honed. “I don’t love managing lots of people and we ended up with 2,000,” he says. “There were better people in the organisation than me at that.”