Martha and Brent reunite for new challenge: to make Twitter pay
Brains behind lastminute.com attempt to repeat the runaway success of online travel agency
Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman's youth, establishment connections and grasp of new technology made them pin-ups for the dotcom boom, when they showed how business could harness the vast emerging power of the internet.
Eleven years older and wiser, the entrepreneurial duo who masterminded the rise of the online travel agent Lastminute.com are back in business together seeking to exploit the latest technological phenomenon: Twitter.
Twitter Partners, a new marketing agency that advises corporations how to sell products via the social messaging service, have taken on Lane Fox and Hoberman to steer it to riches.
Twitter allows anyone to leave short messages online and on mobile phones. Sent messages can be checked for key words, allowing firms to contact users who have mentioned particular services. With launch clients Virgin Media, Universal Pictures and Warner Music, Twitter Partners could be in the right place at the right time; just as Lastminute.com was when it launched in a "broom cupboard" office on Portobello Road, London, in 1998.
After first making a splash on the front pages in the late 1990s Lane Fox and Hoberman had a rollercoaster life, receiving accolades and opprobrium, and, in the case of Lane Fox, multiple injuries from a car crash that almost killed her ("It was touch and go," she later remarked).
Now 36 and still walking with difficulty, Lane Fox, the daughter of the historian Robin Lane Fox, works on a portfolio of interests including death row charity Reprieve, of which she is patron and trustee, and directorships of Channel 4 and Marks & Spencer.
Four years her senior, Hoberman, an Old Etonian management consultant, runs mydeco.com, a design service that generates 3D views of rooms containing furniture sold by retailers.
Lastminute, however, remains the foundation of the duo's reputation, and whose ultimate triumph is a good omen for Twitter Partners.
Two years after they founded the online travel agent – which allows users to book late flights and holidays – Lastminute floated on the London Stock Exchange in what is now pinpointed as the peak of the dotcom boom. Almost 200,000 subscribed for shares in the hope of making a fortune. When the bubble burst, shares – which had hit 487p – crashed to 17p. Hoberman and Lane Fox lost tens of millions of pounds.
Lane Fox, whose girlish looks, background and business flair earned her the sobriquet of "It girl", quit her 14-hour days as managing director in 2003. Within five months, the 31-year-old was making headlines again, when her open-top jeep skidded off a desert road and she hit a rock outside Essaouira, Morocco. Her body was smashed in 24 places and she was taken to a Moroccan hospital. Using his contacts in the travel business, Hoberman chartered a jet to fly her back to Britain, where she spent a year recovering at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.
As she recovered, so too did Lastminute.com and in 2005 the US travel giant Sabre bought it for £577m. The sale made £13m for Martha Lane Fox and £26m for Hoberman, who resigned two years later. Since Lastminute, they have helped each other's business start-ups. Hoberman invested in Lucky Voice, Lane Fox's karaoke booth operation which began with a single outlet in Soho and has now spread to Islington, Cardiff and Manchester and will soon open in Brighton. She is also on the board of mydeco.com.
"It would be an awful, terrible thing if Brent wasn't deeply integrated into my working life," Lane Fox, who is currently holidaying abroad, said in an interview last year.
Will they be able to make their new project work? They will be less involved than they were in Lastminute; Twitter Partners is founded and chaired by the Skype phone service veteran Peter Read. However they have extensive knowledge of selling a variety of services across new technology.
Twitter has taken off in the UK, rising from 100,000 users last February to 1.8 million this February. Stephen Fry, Sir Richard Branson and Jonathan Ross are among the celebrities who pass on news, tittle-tattle and wry asides.
Twitter has the capability to make and break business reputations, according to Guy Levine, chief executive of Web Marketing Advisors, who is advising chief executives how to exploit its potential.
"In the old days you went to the cinema and it took you two weeks to tell everyone you knew what you thought about the film. Now you can do that before you even leave the cinema," he said. "The same applies if you're in a restaurant and the starter is cold. You can tell everyone. There could be a whole tirade about your business that you don't even know about. Even if you don't know if you can use Twitter, you have to monitor it to know what everyone's saying."
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