Brent Hoberman: A Letter to my CEO Self
Brent Hoberman is the co-founder of lastminute.com. As CEO from its inception, Brent took the company to profit and gross bookings of over $2bn. lastminute.com acquired 14 businesses after a successful IPO to supplement the annual growth of the core brand which was over 100% from 1998 – 2004. In 2005, lastminute.com sold to Sabre for $1.1bn. Brent is now Co-Founder & Chairman of Founders Forum, firstminute capital and Founders Factory, Co-Founder & Non-Executive Director of MADE.com and Chairman of robotics provider Karakuri, amongst additional investment and advisory roles.
You’ve always had an ambitious mindset. In your early years, the example of your entrepreneur uncle, a man who owned hundreds of shops across Africa and the UK, was a huge inspiration to you. Your interest in technology was sparked by the gadgets your father would buy you, and these made you the early adopter you are today.
You might have been slightly too ambitious when you first came up with your business plan for lastminute.com a year and a half ago – it’s a good thing that you recognised the time wasn’t right. But now it’s 1998. You’ve gained more experience in internet technology at ISP Lineone and you think the market might be ready. With your former colleague Martha Lane Fox on board you’ve got the perfect, complementary partnership to launch lastminute.com. Before you dive in, I want to give you some advice:
- Gain credibility early on: from your talent to your suppliers, you are going to need to demonstrate your credibility as soon as possible if you want to hit those audacious goals you and Martha have set. Your early hires are going to be critical, so they need to be extremely capable. And to attract great investors sooner rather than later, you will need to secure the best blue-chip suppliers in the market – be warned though this is going to take a lot of hard work.
- Create an exceptional culture: put innovation at the core and be proud of doing things differently. Having these values will help you attract some amazing people to work with you and allow you to hire ahead of the curve in terms of what your business needs. You will achieve many “firsts” at lastminute.com – the first restaurant food delivery online, the first consumer-facing interactive voice recognition service – and many more. This mission will define your business. The dynamic culture you will build – takes pride in experimentalism. The idea of “move fast and break things” – is going to be emulated by some of the biggest technology companies in the world in the years to come.
- Controversy can be good: Let people break the rules and make (small) mistakes in the name of innovation. But never let them repeat these mistakes. Your marketing will end up making you quite a divisive brand in the media but it’s good to spark debate. Your campaigns might be controversial and atypical, but they will make people sit up and pay attention.
- Get the right DNA for your team: obsess and be patient about who you hire. At first, you might make the mistake of hiring very experienced and impressive candidates, but they won’t be dynamic enough to succeed at lastminute.com. What you really need to look for is super smart young people who can adapt and learn about the industry. You will need their energy and ambition to drive the business. Once people have earned your trust, delegate obsessively.
- It’s ok to be unreasonable (within reason): at times, you will check yourself and have doubts about your behaviour and your management style. But as CEO, you should realise that when you are being unreasonable (within reason, of course), you are actually at your best, not your worst. Understand that when you are impatient, demanding and setting unrealistic timelines, you attract the best players in the market. Extraordinary pressure attracts extraordinary people – high performers aren’t looking for a mediocre environment. Much later, you’ll read Apple CEO and Co-Founder Steve Jobs’s biography (remember that name), and you’ll realise how true this is.
- Take people on the journey with you: your team need to feel there is a purpose to the work you’re doing. You will need to communicate the key essence of your vision, so you can excite and enthuse people about what you’re building as a company and be someone people want to work for. Give everyone in the business share options – this is really important to helping people feel they are on this journey with you.
- People who doubt you can’t see the future that you can: there will be people along the way who will doubt your idea’s viability. lastminute.com is certainly not a typical business for the late 1990s but growing up as a Jewish South African immigrant in England, you’ve never been afraid to be an outsider. Your strength is that you think differently. You might receive the occasional criticism for having a limited knowledge of the industry but not being an expert will actually be an asset. You can picture a future that no one else can see; they are too embedded in what is happening today. Always work hard to understand what trends are on the horizon.
Above all, stay true to your values. Being able to help people on their journeys is incredibly rewarding and will lead you to take on multiple Non-Executive Director roles at innovative companies. Your desire to make a difference for entrepreneurship will drive you to set up many of your own initiatives once again, including Founders Forum – a private network of international entrepreneurs designed to connect people globally, firstminute capital – a European $100m seed fund with a global remit, MADE.com – an online designer furniture and home-ware retailer, and Founders Factory – a corporate-backed incubator and accelerator which helps founders build viable, scalable companies. Have confidence in your ability to make an impact and never stop looking ahead. Good luck!
All the best,
Brent (your 2019 self)