Network: The Digerati: A mix of hype and hypertext

What comes next for lastminute.com boss Brent Hoberman? Oh, the moon. By Rachelle Thackray
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The Independent Culture
Inspector Gadget, the cartoon star recently resurrected for a big-screen outing, comes a poor second in the invention stakes to Brent Hoberman. The original gadget man, managing director and founder of lastminute.com - CBI Company of the Year and one of Britain's brightest Internet start- ups - is unabashed about his nerdy side.

"I've always had loads of ideas," he enthuses, "and I've always been a bit gadgety, a bit on the cusp of the trend. I laughed when I saw something a friend brought me recently. It was a list we'd drawn up years before, all about what would happen to us, a tick-the-box thing. For me, it was `setting up a hotel on the moon. Will Brent do this?'"

The company he founded in April 1998 with Martha Lane Fox will keep him busy until the lunar venture takes off. Having already taken the UK and Europe by storm, Hoberman is set to replicate the formula worldwide. He first saw the potential of a global network when he was aged just 13, when he spied people using a prototype of the Internet in New York to play adventure games. "I loved it. It was the ultimate gadget."

His father, an investor, encouraged his early curiosity and trained him to differentiate between viable and futile plans. "I would often discuss things with him, and normally he didn't like any of them because his job was to discard any mediocre idea," Hoberman recalls.

At school he was a "competitive swot", and decided upon arrival at Oxford, where he studied modern languages, that it was time to have fun. He took over a small social club and turned it from a society into an event, with a subscription list of 500. The venture gave him an insight in the art of generating hype.

"We built up this French club with good marketing," he explains. "At the freshers' fair we had little stickers with a frog on a croissant, which my sister had designed." He quickly perceived that one of the surest ways to build street cred was to be seen with the right people - an insight he has since translated into brand alliances. So he stuck his stickers "around the trendiest sites". It worked. "The first party was packed out; people were trying to climb in through the windows."

He also turned his mind to more serious matters, finishing runner-up in a business competition with a plan to produce magazines for cinema hits. On leaving Oxford, he and a friend cooked up another media-related plan. Inspired by David Landau, founder of the magazine Loot, they approached the Public Carriage Office with the idea of distributing magazines in London taxis.

Meanwhile, his day jobs - at consultant Mars & Co, then at Spectrum strategy consultants - provided experience of detailed financial modelling. One day, he interviewed a young woman called Martha Lane Fox for a position. "I wasn't enthusiastic about hiring her. It was to do a lot of heavy-duty business modelling, and it was clear Martha liked to do the fun stuff as well. Despite that, she was hired," he recalls.

Hoberman soon found he had a most able assistant. "It was clear Martha was the brightest person there. We're very different - she's good at doing stuff she doesn't like, whereas it's harder to capture my attention and I'm a bit of a prima donna. The key thing I'm good at is being able to understand the detail as well as to keep the big picture in mind, and being able to switch very quickly between the two."

His career moved up a gear when he went to work for the Internet Service Provider LineOne, then joined Tim Jackson at the fledgling online auction business QXL. Lastminute.com took off sooner than expected: he'd had the idea while at Spectrum, but growth in Internet usage made publicising last-minute deals an increasingly attractive possibility. He resigned from QXL four months later, and officially set up shop with Lane Fox, having already secured funds from venture capitalists including New Media Investors, and having generated sales worth $100,000.

"That was obviously very encouraging," he deadpans. "We were able to get some good press and the deals we did were very effective." More than that, the confirmation that they were on to a winner came when six major brands signed up to advertise, and executives told him they would use the service themselves. A second round of funding last June generated another $10m, and the service now has 500,000 registered users.

The experience, he says, has taught him to trust his own instincts and not to give up on a good idea. "Martha and I are very tenacious and we don't take no for an answer. We've called up some people 100 times. To buy the domain name, I was ringing up the guy again and again, and eventually we bought it for a decent amount," he recalls.

"The difference between consulting and an Internet company is instinct, because you've got to make decisions and to move at speed. I remember looking at our initial model and saying: `We'll be 20 people in a year'. In 18 months, we've reached almost 150 people."

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