Back in 2000, on the evening before lastminute.com went public in a frenzy of excitement, I bumped into the online travel company’s co-founder Brent Hoberman outside the dot-commer’s home, Home House private club in central London.
Hoberman looked perplexed and asked my advice. Are we doing the right thing, he asked, dishing out tiny portions of equity to all wannabe shareholders; or should we be only offering large chunks of shares? It genuinely seemed to bother him, whether he was doing the right thing.
The float, the almost-immediate collapse in global technology stocks, the barrage of criticism aimed at him and fellow founder Martha Lane Fox, the years of attritional acquisitions and integration, the eventual $1.1bn sale… lastminute went on to become a truly compelling technology business story.
I interviewed Hoberman again, not long before the business was sold to US giant Sabre Holdings. He was still in there as CEO, giving it everything, but the joy seemed to have gone. In the early days, he and the ubiquitous Lane Fox projected something hopeful and dynamic about business; but the relentless revolving door of integration programmes, COOs and strategic plans seemed to have taken its toll. It was like watching a wild animal in confinement; it seemed cruel to see such an intelligent, imaginative, thoughtful entrepreneur locked in mortal combat with the bureaucracy of a 2,000-person multinational with a depressed share price.
So it’s a vicarious relief to read that Hoberman is back with a new venture. Mydeco.com is a new website that allows people to furnish and decorate their homes using 3D online planning tools. It’s got all the features you’d expect of a "Web 2." venture – community, interactivity, newsletters etc. One particularly clever feature is the Imagini technology that enables you to suss out your own style and, thus, the decor and furnishings you need.
Hoberman did his apprenticeship in the consulting world, and his detailed thinking comes through in mydeco: cutting-edge technology applied to a lifestyle/consumer marketplace. The business model is smart – like a Carphone Warehouse for interior decorations. While Mydeco stresses that it’s not wedded to any suppliers and retailers, if it works, you can bet your life that all the furniture-makers, upmarket paint brands and Aga folk will want their kit displayed and listed on the site. Hoberman knows that, in business today, it’s the gatekeeper who enjoys the premium.
As if to emphasise his liberty from corporate life, Hoberman’s even returned to some of the original investors in lastminute.com – Arts Alliance, Tom Teichman of Spark Ventures – to provide part of what’s rumoured to be one of the largest seed rounds for a European internet start-up (full details aren’t disclosed). Other notable names on the investor roster include: Marc Worth, founder of Worth Global Style Network, and Philippe Starck (who ought to know about design); and Edward Atkin, former CEO of Cannon Avent (who has an impeccable track record in creating a global consumer brand).
A couple of questions hover: has Hoberman got his timing right? Back in the dot-come days, he managed to get lastminute away just as the market closed; this time, consumer confidence and disposable income is being sharply squeezed. Rory Cellan Jones at the BBC also raises this question.
Another query is about the technology itself: sure, it promises much about visualising your own environment and replicating it bla. In reality – and mydeco currently is only a beta site – it still comes up a little short. Ten years ago, that great dot-com white elephant, Boo.com, made similar claims about the application of 3D technology to clothes-buying..
Quibbles aside, Hoberman could actually have made a very smart move by launching a decoration product just as people stop moving house and turn their hands to renovation. Time will tell. At least he’s raised the spirits with a typically ambitious, slick, sexy venture. In a pretty gloomy business climate, we should be very grateful for that.
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