Brent Hoberman and lastminute.com
- 27 May 2011
- From the section Business
Brent Hoberman is most famous for co-founding the consumer website lastminute.com, the internet travel and retail company that rode the wave of the dotcom boom of a decade ago.
He has since gone on to launch and run a number of other companies, and Mr Hoberman says he got his first insight into business close to home.
"My grandfather started with one clothes show in South Africa which was his uncle's and ended up with 650," he recalls.
"I saw how much he loved being an entrepreneur and how much he loved his business. That's what really gave me the bug."
Mr Hoberman was born in South Africa and lived in the United States before attending school in England. His first experience of entrepreneurial activity came while studying French and German literature at Oxford University.
"I took over a club called the French Club," he says, which was free to join and had about 50 members. "When I left, it had 500 paying members and was sponsored by L'Oreal and Societe Generale."
Despite this experience, Mr Hoberman says he was not convinced business was for him on leaving university.
Instead he was "seduced" by the notion of becoming either a banker or a consultant. But his first job in a strategy consultancy firm was short-lived. "I lasted 20 months. I was fired for being a prima donna."
He rates his second job in a media and telecom consultancy as more rewarding and "a brilliant learning curve".
"You assimilate lots of information [and] you learn about business," he says.
While working as a consultant in the mid-90s Mr Hoberman became fascinated by the rise of the internet and its business potential.
"It was the ultimate gadget… so I loved thinking about what it could do. And so it was very obvious then to think, e-commerce makes sense, so buying online makes sense... [but] I'm not buying online and I'm a classic early adopter."
He dreamt up lastminute.com after pondering what he would be want to buy online.
"I literally thought, 'well, everything at the last minute'. So whether that was going away, going out, or staying in."
He believed the concept would strongly appeal to a particular section of the consumer market. "It enabled us to go after people who want to be spontaneous, romantic or adventurous."
Still, the entrepreneur was cautious about turning his idea into a reality believing he lacked the experience and knowledge of both the internet and day-to-day running of a company.
Mr Hoberman says it was only after working in two other jobs involving the internet that he had the confidence to launch his idea.
Even then, he says he and company co-founder Martha Lane Fox faced difficulties.
"I understand technology but we weren't technologists… so it cost more than we thought, it took longer than we thought and it didn't work very well."
He explains: "Basically the site was very buggy. Martha and I would wake up every morning and have to test the site. Was it still up? Was it still working? Could you actually transact?"
Lastminute.com experienced a rollercoaster ride in its fortunes, from the time of its founding in 1998, through its dramatic launch on the stock market a couple of years later to its eventual acquisition in 2005 by Sabre, the giant US travel and technology company.
Does Mr Hoberman agree with the view that the company's story mirrors that of the dotcom bubble?
"We did in the sense that the name was lastminute.com and it was literally one of the last to be able to go public," he says.
"But I would say we didn't symbolise it in one sense in that I think there was a very real business opportunity and we were also not doing this to get in and out and make a quick buck. I stuck through as CEO for eight years and through to sale."
Looking back, the entrepreneur feels that the experience was an invaluable one. "It was very compressed. In those eight years of actually running the company I went through quite a lot."
Mr Hoberman admits to being bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, and has gone on to found or back a number of other companies, including MyDeco, an online interior decoration business.
He has also been keen to share the benefits of his experiences and became involved in setting up events where entrepreneurs can meet and swap ideas.
"[It's] a wonderful cocktail when entrepreneurs get together. There is that high-level energy and good things come out of it," he says.
He recently organised a conference in India, a country which he believes is at an "inflection point" in terms of opportunities for both entrepreneurs and investors.
"The other angle is we want Indian entrepreneurs to teach us stuff," he says.
Attitude to failure
For Mr Hoberman, the traditional advice to start-up companies remains the most salient - the need for passion and determination.
"If you really love it, then you have to be tenacious," he says. "Know that you will find roadblocks, and you'll have to go around them."
He emphasises that entrepreneurs do not often walk "a straight line to success".
"That scariest point is at the beginning where you don't know whether it's going to work and you're looking for a cash flow day to day."
He believes the most successful start-ups are those that take risks and are willing to train on the job.
"Be bold enough. You've got to make a lot mistakes and then learn from them very, very quickly and change."
One big issue is the attitude to failure. Mr Hoberman says this is something that Americans have successfully learnt to ignore - and the rest of the world should take note.
"We need to crack that… people have to fail more often and more regularly. And out of that, successes will come."