The wit and wisdom of Martha Lane Fox

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"I can't tell you how far off any thoughts about my wealth are. Here in our office, surrounded by eighty enthusiasts, we just think about where we can take the business next." (Lane Fox, Evening Standard, 10 Feb 2000)

"Martha dot millionairess is boring. Martha dot Internet innovator is much more exciting." (Lane Fox, Metro, 11 Feb 2000)

"It was Brent's idea and I actually told him it was not a very good one when I heard it." (Lane Fox, Daily Express, 11 Feb 2000)

A couple of weeks ago, I bought, on behalf of a colleague, a return flight to Washington DC using Lastminute.com. Airport taxes seemed to cost almost as much as the ticket (the UK and US governments swallowed up one quarter of the total). The site is easy to use and it's easy to find bargains. Much easier than Expedia, for example, which is a dog by comparison.

The Register knows it's not all plain sailing at Lastminute: regular readers may recall that each day we receive four or five misdials, intended for Lastminute.com. In a good sign for Lastminute -- if not for us -- misdials are rising. Misdials wanting to know where their tickets are, what's happened to their restaurant booking and the like.

The majority of these calls have more, we suspect, to do with anxious Net newbie customers and order confirmation inflation (I'm just ringing up to confirm whether you received the email...) than with any major logistical difficulties.

We're in the Money

Brent Hoberman, 31, Lastminute.com's CEO, and Martha Lane Fox, 27, the company's COO, are smart cookies who run a smart Web site. Their idea of selling distressed stock -- they call it a "unique time concept" -- to bargain-seeking punters over the Net is a winner.

Their execution -- raising finance, establishing a Net brand name (in the UK, second only to Amazon for name recognition), ratcheting up the VC towards IPO, building relationships with big suppliers (airlines, restaurant chains and the like) -- looks nigh on impeccable.

The PR is pretty favourable too -- even if Gnash Communications is the most unhelpful company we have come across in this sector (understanding neither the notion 'public' or 'relations', in its 'dealings' with The Register).

Then again, it's not difficult to generate good PR when you have got the raw material -- and in Martha Lane Fox Lastminute.com has perhaps the most quotable e-ntrepreneur in Britain.

Lane Fox is emerging rapidly as the Anita Roddick of the Net IPO Generation. She pops up everywhere -- even sharing her political opinions with the nation on the heavyweight BBC TV current affairs programme Question Time, for crying out loud.

Once the IPO, needed to raise £100 million for expansion, is out of the way, Lane Fox may retreat from the limelight. I doubt it. Good PR pulls in the customers. And Lane Fox is good PR.

The Big Mo

Lane Fox and Hoberman will soon be Internet gazillionaires, with Hoberman netting a paper fortune of £48 million and Lane Fox £32 million, at the £400m price target set for IPO day next month, when Lastminute.com floats on the LSE and Nasdaq.

Its stock will soar for a while, as dumb retail money tries to pour in (the Nasdaq listing will help here). But to keep up momentum, the company will need to do the numbers.

Sales revenues are pretty titchy -- for the year to 30 September, the company recorded £2.6 million sales. More meaningfully -- as it is an agent, not a reseller -- it earned just £195,000 on commission.

I suspect the world will see some more recent figures immediately prior to IPO, showing a big revenue ramp-up. That's a Financial PR thing.

Lastminute is fairly small compared with some competitors, particularly on the online travel market -- ebookers.com is for example substantially bigger.

It has little to fear from airlines setting up their own bucket shops (which they will). Who wants to check out 20 separate web sites for an impulse weekend abroad? Lastminute also has the supplier relationships in place -- some are locked in with stock. And it has First Mover Advantage: in Europe, any rate. (In the US it could be a different story -- where I foresee an unseemly spat over brand names with Lastminutetravel.com).

Lastminute also has huge numbers of claimed registered subscribers -- 800,000 at last count, up from 600,000 in January. And it should anticipate getting a hell of a lot more people signing up in the next couple of days -- it has taken a leaf out of Freeserve's book by restricting retail participation in the IPO to registered customers. We can expect a flurry of sign-ons today and tomorrow (the cut-off point).

Posh People

Lane Fox and Hoberman are paragons of Britain's new Net meritocracy. They put the work into Networking. They also go to show that you can't, in Britain's classless society, keep a good toff down.

Lane Fox went to Westminster School, while South Africa-born Hoberman attended Slough Comprehensive (sometimes known as Eton). These are the poshest of posh schools in Britain, costing upwards of £15,000 a year to send your children there.

They both went to Oxford University, and they both tried their hands at management consultancy -- another toff's profession -- before setting up Lastminute.com.

Lane Fox is a direct descendent of the sixth Marquess of Anglesey, according to Metro.

When it comes to chasing new money, old names are, it seems, still the best. ®

How meaningful are Lastminute's registration figures?

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