Baroness Martha Lane Fox shot to fame as a star of the dotcom boom and is still enthused by the power of the internet. With her charity Go ON UK she is on a mission to help UK businesses, charities, and millions who have never been on line to get to grips with the internet
Next week Go ON UK and its founding partners begin a six-month campaign in the North East to help increase the basic online skills of individuals, SMEs and charities. Here she speaks exclusively to reporter Coreena Ford.
When Martha Lane Fox first used her entrepreneurial skills in the digital industry, Google was barely a blinking cursor in founder Larry Page’s mind.
Now, it’s hard to imagine a world without Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and the infinite opportunities presented by firms on the internet.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that 67% of North East SMEs and small businesses in the rest of the UK still have no digital presence, despite the fact the economy’s fortunes could be swelled by a mind-boggling £18bn if one million small and medium firms were to join the online revolution.
With online business already accounting for some 8% of the UK’s GDP it’s not hard to see how a universal embracing of technology would affect the global economy.
Aside from business opportunities there are also a mind-boggling 16 million people who don’t possess basic online skills to use digital systems and more than seven million have never even been online.
Now Lane Fox is on a mission to encourage the region’s business community, charities and individuals who have yet to explore digital opportunities to get online, thereby boosting the economy and bringing myriad benefits.
The dotcom pioneer, entrepreneur and youngest female member of the House of Lords is perfectly positioned for the mission, and it’s one she believes is essential to safeguard the UK economy.
Lane Fox co-founded Lastminute.com at the age of 25 with Brent Hoberman and in 2000 at the height of the dotcom boom, the company was floated on the London Stock Exchange with a valuation of £571m.
Since then she has been involved in all manner of digital ventures as well as charity work, and her enthusiasm for the digital industry didn’t go unnoticed by the government, who asked her to set up a new Digital Public Services Unit within the Cabinet Office, and her passion for technology remains just as strong today as it was in the 1990s.
“My own life was transformed by it, from being able to take on a business with lastminute.com,” she said.
“Back then, my co-founder and I were going round investors desperately trying to convince them that the internet wasn’t going to blow up – they would ask ‘will people really buy things online?’ and we would sit and watch the internet load up slowly, using a modem. To see how it has grown from there has been fantastic.
“Then I had a very serious car accident, and without technology I would be in a much worse situation.
“I use a walking stick and hate shopping, so I shop online all the time, and I work from home a lot because I can’t always get to places easily, so working from home has transformed my working life.
“Then, when I was in hospital it allowed me to keep in touch with friends and family.
“All in all I’ve felt technology very keenly both professionally and personally.
“If you have not heard about the internet by now it’s not because you’ve missed it – it’s because you think it’s not for you, because you are in an isolated position or in a low income household, but we are now reaching out to those people.
“We are coming to Newcastle to kick things off and there will be a lot of fun and excitement in the events we hold but Go ON UK’s work will continue for a long time after, for many years.
“It’s a really personal passion for me and if I look around and see how hard people’s lives are, how difficult it is to get work and to get educated, I don’t think there are many better tools to help you do all those things than the internet.
“It makes me angry that it’s not available to everyone as well, so this is both very personal and also about social justice.”
Lane Fox, who was made a life peer in February 2013, has seen her digital champion role expand rapidly over the years and in 2012 she launched Go ON UK, a charity focused on making the UK the world’s most digitally skilled nation.
Go ON UK’s mission comes to the North East this October, the same month that the founder partner Lloyds Banking Group unveils specific research into the SME sector, as part of their commitment to the charity and the regional campaign.
Through a series of events, including peer-to-peer relationship encouragement and SME workshops, Lane Fox wants to dramatically reduce the numbers of businesses who haven’t delved online.
She said: “I was gobsmacked by the number of businesses who don’t have a digital presence.
“There are so many things SMEs can benefit from by using digital technology and without it we’re not going to be able to fuel the economy.
“It’s all about using the internet more effectively, sourcing cheaper supplies for offices, allowing customers to get in contact easily.
“The main reason those without a digital presence give is “it’s not for me” and they just don’t see the benefits.”
The economic crisis put immense strain on a wide range of North East companies, all of whom Lane Fox believes can now invest in digital activity to grow their revenues now that confidence has returned.
However, while they have regained confidence, they must also instil confidence in their customers, whose trust was knocked by the PRISM scandal, in which the US National Security Agency gave direct access to the servers of internet giants including Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple.
“Trust is a huge factor and people are quite rightly worried about their personal privacy being invaded, and I don’t underestimate those challenges,” said Lane Fox.
“That’s why we encourage peer-to-peer relationships, in which people get others they know and trust to introduce them to online features, such as encouraging people to go into local bank branches – do it through trusted intermediaries.
“Businesses in the North East were particularly hard hit by the downturn, and now that confidence is returning and business activity is starting to improve, it is critical that businesses start to think carefully about how to invest for their future growth.
“Investment in digital skills and technology is absolutely key if businesses in the region are to stay competitive and grow in their chosen markets.
“Lloyds research shows that 36% of SMEs in the UK as a whole have no website and many of these do not use their websites to provide anything other than basic information.
Only four in ten charities take donations online.
“The fact is that businesses that do have strong digital skills say they have saved money and time as a result, while others have managed to attract more customers and boost sales. Most important of all, businesses that have an online presence are more likely to experience growth than those that do not.
“And charities that are ‘digitally mature’ are twice as likely to see increased donations as those that have less advanced digital skills.
“Working with companies such as Lloyds Banking Group, we want to help businesses and charities across the region understand and capitalise upon the huge opportunity provided by digital technology.
“Some might find social media helps in promoting new products while others could use the internet to increase donations, or target once unreachable export markets.”
Lane Fox spearheaded a similar campaign in Liverpool in 2011, a move which, in partnership with dozens of businesses, was heralded a great success – and she has high hopes that success will be mirrored in the North East.
She added: “I would like to see a dramatic decrease in number of individuals who have not gone online. Some 30% of people in Newcastle haven’t been online, and I would like to see that halved.
“And I would also like to see a tangible result in the local economy. It will take a while to trickle through but it is possible.”
W orking in partnership
Go ON UK is working together with partners EE, Lloyds Banking Group, Home Retail Group, Post Office, TalkTalk and Trinity Mirror to bring basic online skills to more people, businesses and charities in the North East.
Go ON UK wants to make us the most digitally-skilled nation and, together with the partners, it has set a target of a 25% increase in the North East’s online skills base.
Its ethos is to “ensure that everyone and every organisation - from small business to large corporations and charities - is able to enjoy the social, economic and cultural benefits of the internet”.
Launch events for the six-month campaign - 26 weeks to make a difference - take place next Tuesday when Martha Lane Fox will outline her vision to North East businesses, charities and community groups.
Partners will then kickstart a regional digital skills roll out in the North East.
This is the first Regional Pathfinder from Go ON UK and the partners to help to support individuals, SMEs and charities. The Pathfinder will provide a platform for a sustainable digital skills programme in the North East and a replicable model for other UK regions.
Events will include digital champion sessions, techy tea parties, online safety workshops, digital skills workshops and new research and support for businesses to improve their online capabilities.
To get online call 0800771234 or ask at your local Post Office.