The Digerati: `I'm going to do it myself'

Becky Lancashire learned all about the music business while working for Richard Branson at Virgin. Now, with her Clickmusic website, she's hoping to go one better than her former boss
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Christmas will be a testing time for Becky Lancashire. Will visitors to her giant music website, Clickmusic, and its online store in particular, be willing to pay over the Internet for 1999's seasonal selection on CD? Will shoppers forego a visit to Santa's Grotto to sit at a screen?

Lancashire believes that the key to successful e-commerce is to persuade customers that they've found a better deal via the Web - a combination of better information, choice, availability and prices. "This Christmas will be the important one for e-commerce. We'll see whether people are convinced. When Internet companies advertise on television, it starts becoming something that you trust a bit more."

Lancashire, 29, was an early adopter of technology. As a child, she loved playing Space Invaders. "My father taught me the language BASIC because he was convinced that operating systems weren't going to catch on. He had his own management consultancy and did everything from the accounts to the IT systems. My mother was a partner, and our nanny was company secretary. But my sister and I were the only ones who could work the video recorder."

Lancashire fast-tracked through university, leaving with an economics degree to work for Chase Manhattan Bank. A year's corporate finance training in New York was "very rigorous," she recalls. "We had exams every week for nine months, and if you failed two you were out - the pass rate was 75 per cent." It also gave her a glimpse into the American mind. "You've got to be positive all the time; there's no room for self-doubt. As Britons, we don't find that easy - even if you're good, you're never as optimistic as an American. There were only four Brits on the course; we were the cynical ones, and always came top. It paid to be questioning."

After five years as a banker, Lancashire remembered an old maxim: that work should be fun. "I learnt early on that if work becomes such an integral part of your life, it's got to be something that you love. The amounts of energy and motivation required to make it successful are huge."

Building hydro-electric power plants in Turkey was "too remote" to satisfy. She read about a woman who had set up a company to finance films. "I decided I was going to work for her. So I wrote to her. She never replied, but it made me think about a lot of things, and in February 1996 I answered an advert for a job with Virgin."

She subsequently became head of new business in the company's media arm. At 25, she revelled in the opportunity to put energy and enthusiasm into things. "I helped Richard Branson put together the high-yield financing for his new record label, V2. It was a fantastic learning experience. But the original structure of the deal was complicated, and I like to keep things as simple as possible. I said, `Look, this business is hard enough for people to understand. Let's not confuse the City.'"

Lancashire claims that her approach is both relaxed and focused: "I've never been one for airs and graces, but I can be quite demanding, and I'm always hounding people about doing things a different way."

Putting together some digital TV ideas for Branson led Lancashire to think seriously about the Internet. "Everyone was grappling with the fact that there was so much out there. The glittering prize was connectivity to 23 million households, but the question was, how was it going to be marketed and organised commercially?"

Meanwhile, she formed a venture called R&B with Robert Devereux, former chairman of Virgin Net, investing in Internet companies as well as in hotels and a cinema chain. "As soon as you say you're an investor, you become everybody's best friend. I used to receive 30 business plans every week. The trick is to know the ones to say yes to: it's management, management, management - knowing how to manage a very fast-growing business. A lot of people are focused on what they can supply, rather than what people actually want."

In parallel, she was developing the idea that turned into Clickmusic. Finding someone with the right commercial skills to run the business proved more difficult. "Having spent so much time developing it, I eventually said: `I'm going to do it myself.' It was a bit of a leap because I had wanted to stay on the investment team, but I think it's the best thing I have done. It brings together every element: creative, technical, commercial."

With more than a million websites devoted to music, how will she make hers stand out? "We're going to be as deep as possible. Two years ago, I was talking to someone about the Internet, spouting about global media bringing people together, and she said: `I would really like a business that focused on the town I live in.' I thought she was bonkers, but I have changed my attitude. Finding a pizza in San Francisco is not useful when you live in Clapham. What's important is to make it manageable to the UK user."

Interview by

Rachelle Thackray