Email a Friend
After guiding Lastminute.com to a £577 million sale in 2005, Brent Hoberman hasn’t stopped working with young ventures. GrowthBusiness finds out what makes one of the UK’s original web entrepreneurs tick.
Since his early days as a dotcom darling at the helm of online travel company lastminute.com, Brent Hoberman has always moved with the e-commerce times. In both the entrepreneurial and venture capital spaces, his interest has been in projects that disrupt industries and change the way people think about ordering goods and services online.
Hoberman believes that the online businesses of today need to bring customers closer to the source of products – what he calls the ‘disintermediation’ model of e-commerce. That’s something he is pursuing with his new venture, Made.com, an online furniture retailer that has just raised £6 million in a new round of venture capital after launching in 2010 with £2.5 million in funding. The site, co-founded by 28-year-old entrepreneur Ning Li, allows consumers to buy direct from producers, cutting out middlemen and ensuring big savings.
Keeping it simple
For Made, Hoberman decided to simplify the concept of MyDeco.com, the home furnishings retailer he launched in 2007 and of which he is still executive chairman. While MyDeco aimed to combine social networking and 3D visualisation as part of the user experience, Made is a ‘clean, elegant and simple’ service without the bells and whistles.
So isn’t Made simply emulating the price-slashing tactics of the Groupons and Voyage Privés? Hoberman argues not. ‘Most of the Groupon-type models are just aggregating other businesses’ inventory; at some point that has to cap out and they have to go back closer to source.
‘We don’t have the growth challenge that those guys do in terms of sourcing unsold inventory, we just source what people want and get it to them quicker and cheaper.’
Hoberman is sitting in a conference room high atop Made’s Notting Hill headquarters. In the lobby, casually dressed staff recline on baroque furniture, evoking a relaxed Google-esque dynamic combined with a shabby-chic vibe that befits the West London locale.
If Hoberman seems to embody the ethos of the contemporary tech CEO, it’s because he helped to invent the style. After all, Mark Zuckerberg was barely a teenager when Hoberman founded Lastminute in 1998.
Take Zuckerberg’s ‘move fast and break things’ philosophy, the idea that being first to market with a raw idea is better than refining, delaying and getting pipped at the post. ‘It was exactly the ethos we had at Lastminute,’ says Hoberman. ‘I always said the reason Lastminute was able to get out there [as a discount travel site] and Thomas Cook didn’t do it, was it would have taken them years. The site we launched with didn’t work! They were not of the mindset to take that risk, but we just went for it and got ourselves quick visibility.’
Ups and downs
Lastminute experienced a roller-coaster ride in its fortunes, from its flotation on the London Stock Exchange in 2000, through the dotcom crash, which reduced the company to 30 per cent of its flotation price, to its eventual acquisition in 2005 by US travel and technology company Sabre, valuing the company at £577 million. Hoberman believes that a better infrastructure is needed for more UK companies to grow to a similar stature.
‘We still can’t point to that many pan-European or global companies of scale that have come out of the UK. The government is doing a lot for businesses and it’s listening, but I would love to see more help for companies to grow internationally.’
Having a foot in both the venture capital and entrepreneurial camps, Hoberman knows a fair bit about overseeing growth companies. How does his track record help him as an investor? ‘One of the most important things is that we understand when it gets tough. Lastminute wasn’t a straightline success like Google or Facebook; clearly the fact that we went through the roller-coaster and we’re not going to give up on people if they have hiccups is something that investees understand. Some of the bigger VCs may not stick with them through thick or thin like we would.’
Hoberman might be described as an ‘entrepreneur’s VC’, and his name clearly represents not just monetary backing but marketing kudos for the investee. ‘The challenge is that my name has to retain credibility,’ he says. ‘People forgive a few missteps but you can’t have too many because you lose that credibility. We look at a lot of deals and we’re declining an awful lot. If we’re choosing a company to invest in, hopefully there’s a good reason – and it’s not just me selecting, it’s the team. Everyone at PROfounders Capital [the venture capital fund of which Hoberman is a partner] is proving that they can be good pickers of businesses; I’m helping them get some deal flow.’
PROfounders has a stake in Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s Easycar, a service facilitating peer-to-peer car rental, and Hoberman has a long history with the Greek-born entrepreneur.
‘I’ve known him since pre-Lastminute. Martha [Lane-Fox, Lastminute.com co-founder] and I remember chatting to him about the internet back in 1997. I definitely enjoy his company and the fact that he loves business so much. He is very cost-conscious, whereas I’ve got a bit more of the “let’s seize the opportunity” VC attitude. Neither is necessarily right, but somewhere in the middle is a great approach.’
Hoberman is also excited about his investment in Onefinestay, which allows travellers to let their empty houses through a mediated service. ‘If you travel for six months of the year, you can rent out your home on a per-night basis, and the company will send someone to open the door, clean the place and change the sheets. It ends up being much cheaper than a hotel and a hassle-free way of making money from an unused asset.’
Capturing the zeitgeist
Easycar and Onefinestay represent a growth in the ‘collaborative consumption’ business model, allowing people to share commodities they own with others. ‘[In tough economic times] not having to own something and being able to rent it – that’s a zeitgeist trend,’ Hoberman says.
Other trends of interest on the venture side include visual search (searching the internet via images rather than words), augmented reality, robotics, digital health and education. But were he to come by a good enough idea, would he start up another business of his own?
‘I would be tempted to start again if I found another big idea that I was a passionate consumer of, such as Lastminute, that made it worth sacrificing my life for eight years for. With some of the other areas, I’m fascinated by them intellectually, and would want to make them work, but I’m not the ultimate consumer so I couldn’t run them.’
From the way Hoberman talks about his current situation, life is a lot less stressful than when he was in charge at Lastminute. ‘I’m on a lot of boards in addition to being an entrepreneur and investor, so there’s a lot on. But none of it compares to running Lastminute. Being CEO of a public company that is growing like crazy – but also under huge amounts of pressure in terms of not being able to forecast exactly whether we’ll grow 70 per cent or 100 per cent next year – that’s a whole different level of stress.’
His work-life balance bears testament to the less hectic Hoberman. He has three children and says he makes sure that he sees them in the morning and evening every day, and ‘that’s possible when you’re not running one thing obsessively’.
But, he concedes with a smile, he is obsessive by nature and would ‘probably go back to that mindset’ if he did return to concentrating his effort in one place.
Certainly, going back to orchestrating one chaotic journey rather than several would be a dramatic about-turn – but if anyone is suited to such a shift, it’s Hoberman.
Year of birth: 1968
Place of birth: Cape Town, South Africa
Educated: Eton and Oxford, graduated in 1987 in French and German
Family: Married, three children
Hobbies: Tennis, football, travelling