Brent Hoberman: The return of the Lastminute.com poster boy

Brent Hoberman isn’t giving anything away

The dotcom poster boy, who listed Lastminute.com on the day the market peaked (and just about rode out the crash), is set to return to the stock market after a gap of nine years, says City AM.

Brent Hoberman is preparing to list Made.com, the made-to-order furniture site founded in 2010, which he chairs. The firm’s calling card is that it can offer big discounts on designer furniture “by cutting out the middleman”.

Hoberman has so far kept shtum about his plans, but anyone familiar with his history might find his decision surprising. After selling Lastminute.com to Sabre for £577m in 2005, he made no bones about his distaste for the City – telling The Guardian in 2008 that he wouldn’t be tempted to go public with a new venture again.

He said he disliked “having to say the same thing day in, day out to fund managers who really aren’t interested in you or your business”, just whether you’re “going to be worth more tomorrow”.

Indeed, Hoberman was so “bored to tears” in sessions with potential investors that he often resorted to doing his emails. His broker, Cazenove, “tried to ban me from using my BlackBerry in meetings, but I was like, no”, he told The Guardian. After that, “they would just kick me under the table”.

Doubtless, Hoberman, who now runs a venture capital fund of his own (see below), would claim to be older and wiser these days. But a somewhat chary attitude to markets is understandable, given the emotional roller-coaster that was Lastminute.com.

Hoberman and his partner, Martha Lane Fox, became the photogenic faces of the internet bubble in Britain, on the simple premise of offering late bookings on anything from flights to concert tickets at knock-down prices.

We’ve become so inured to post-pubescent billionaires that it’s hard to recall the impact of their youth back then. When they floated at the height of the mania in March 2000, their portrait was hung in the National Gallery and The Wall Street Journal described Hoberman as “hotter than Tom Cruise”.

Aged 29 and 25 when they formed the company, the pair seemed “sickeningly young” and “frighteningly clever”, noted Marketing Magazine at the time. And when the market plunged, slashing shares to just a fifth of the offer price within a year, the Schadenfreudeists were out in force. The attitude among much of the media, recalls Hoberman, was: “let’s get those smug bastards”.

Born in South Africa, raised in New York and schooled at Eton, Hoberman has always stood apart from the crowd, once observing: “I feel British when I’m abroad, but not quite when I’m here.”

At Lastminute.com’s peak, many found him difficult to read. “Who is this charming, educated rich kid who has come from nowhere to head one of the hottest companies in Britain?” asked Management Today. As he edges into the limelight again with Made.com, we may finally get a better idea.

“Who cares what people think?”

Brent Hoberman has never been a one-trick pony. Before starting Lastminute.com in 1998, he had worked with internet start-ups LineOne and the auction site QXL.com, as well as doing stints as a management consultant with Mars & Co and Spectrum, where he met partner, Martha Lane Fox, says David Teather in The Guardian.

Still, embarking on his first new venture after Lastminute.com was similar to “the difficulty a wildly successful first-time author faces with their second book”. The idea behind Hoberman’s next outfit, Mydeco.com, was to aggregate furniture from leading retailers and use 3D imaging to help customers design their rooms.

But that seems to have been quietly subsumed into Made.com – a company originally founded by two French entrepreneurs, Julien Callade and Ning Li, with whom Hoberman teamed up in 2010. Hoberman has “always moved with the e-commerce times”, says Ben Lobel on Growthbusiness.co.uk.

Whether as an entrepreneur, or a venture capitalist, “his interest has always been in projects that disrupt industries and change the way people think about ordering goods and services online”. He was an early proponent of what we now call the “shared economy”.

So what do we know about his latest venture, Made.com? “The company refuses to give a turnover figure,” says Duncan Robinson in the Financial Times, but Hoberman says the business, which has also launched in Italy and France, is “doing well”.

Some doubt whether Hoberman – like a solo Lennon or McCartney – can ever recapture the rapport he had with Lane Fox when it comes to business building.

“When I first met Brent and Martha, they just had that electricity,” an early Lastminute.com backer told Andrew Davidson in Management Today in 2001. But as Hoberman once observed: “who cares what people think?”

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