Letts Group’s Incubator

Corporate incubators have been all the rage. Around 10 years ago, a number of corporates started to set up some kind of corporate incubator or accelerator to nurture new business lines and innovative products. They had a limited vision of ‘incubator’ – generally designed to host new startups within their facilities. They offered them resources, support and, as they matured, market access.

10 years later many of these corporates have scaled down their efforts or largely abandoned them. Corporate incubator 1.0 did not realise its somewhat loose ambition. A number of the more innovative corporates and a few management consultants are working on the next generation of corporate incubator.

Letts Group has taken a different approach. Our incubator is an internal function that is central to the organisation. It is our growth engine – period.

“We see our incubator as a strategic, internal, centralised function. We have repositioned the group as a ‘branded incubator group’ to underscore this. We don’t just make small bets on our incubator or outsource it’s core capability. We’ve bet the entire shop on our incubator. It is our core capability.”

The concept of incubator has been with us for 225 years. In 1996, our original founder, John Letts opened a stationery shop and publishing incubator in the city of London. The front rooms the shop and the back rooms the incubator studio. From this setup he launched the world’s first commercial diary in 1812. It was market tested exclusively in the store and designed and made in the back rooms.

Letts Group’s Chairman, Philip Letts, started to develop the latest generation incubator in 1998. It was a separate entity, called Prophete, that nurtured external, non-branded innovations. It developed concepts such as Beenz, the Web currency, and Surfkitchen, a mobile operating system and media platform. It was an important parallel initiative as we started the process of divesting some of our book publishing interests.

In 2007 we further developed Letts Group’s latest generation incubator, after initial successes. We built a proprietary incubation methodology, which is called Innov@te™, and we designed our first incubator studio with a clutch of then, very new, cloud systems and processes. From this base we launched b-uncut, a social network for artists and blur Group, an online marketplace for creative services. Both were successfully spun out and became independent businesses.

It took much of the last 10 years to perfect the methodology, systems and processes to get to the point where we felt comfortable that our incubator was ready to develop multiple Letts branded businesses and products from scratch – and in parallel.

At the end of 2020 we gave the go ahead for 3 new Letts branded ventures to go to ‘live concept phase’. The tech industry would call it ‘beta launch’. The first hits the market in June. We have engineered the group, and developed the incubator, to the point where we feel comfortable that we will be launching a new Letts venture per year, starting this year.

It’s taken us 20 years to get to this point but we believe that we might have a line on corporate incubator 2.0. The proof will be in the pudding – starting next month!

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225 Years of Letts – The Thomas Letts Years

This year we celebrate the 225th anniversary of Letts. We will mark this extraordinary milestone with a series of articles and events – from the early years right up to today. The second article looks at the transition to the second generation of the family business – run by Thomas Letts.

The fortunes of a business tend to fluctuate with each successive generation of a family. John Letts, our founder, was succeeded by his son, Thomas Letts, the second generation of the Letts family business. Thomas took control in the 1830’s, provided a degree of enterprise and acumen less apparent in his one-time apprentice-bookbinder father.

Thomas diversified the business into maps and a wide range of stationery products and, in the 1850’s, extended the sale of diaries to overseas markets in response to the demand from Britain’s rapidly-growing Empire.

Then, in February 1858, a wonderful exchange of letters between Thomas and Dr David Livingstone, in which Thomas offers a free supply of diaries for life to the famous African explorer and missionary, marks what must have been one of the earliest examples of corporate sponsorship.

Thomas’s foresight in this gesture must have been repaid many times over in that Livingstone kept a detailed and poignant record of his travels in Letts diaries to the day of his death and thus provided one of the best examples of diary-keeping.

In the 1870’s Thomas, who had now been joined in the media business by his son Charles, took advantage of recent changes in company law to convert the business to a limited liability company. At the same time new capital was introduced to help finance the expanding business, and non-family directors became involved.

This, and the more academic nature of Charles, led to tensions between the family and non-family directors which culminated in Charles leaving the company in 1881 to set up on his own and thus create the business which developed into the 20th century publishing business bearing his name.

Thus two competing brands of Letts diaries were published until 1945, when Charles Letts & Co Ltd re-acquired the copyright of the original business founded by John Letts.


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225 Years of Letts – The Early Years

This year we celebrate the 225th anniversary of Letts. We will mark this extraordinary milestone with a series of articles and events – from the early years right up to today. The first article examines the founding of the original diary business by John Letts.

John Letts founded the business 225 years ago, in 1796, when he opened a stationery shop in the City of London. The first of our commemorative articles will look at how we invented the commercial diary and our approach to developing new products.

John Letts invented the world’s first commercial diary in 1812. It was an innovation in that it was future-focused and not designed simply to record past events. It was also a commercial product responding to the growing trade in the City of London. Moreover, the 1812 edition is interesting in that it is quite clearly testing this market. It is a single gathering of 104 pages, stitched into marbled paper wrappers. It simply prints the dates of a six-day working week from Monday to Saturday with no information other than the public holidays as they fall. The product is branded by a printed label on the front cover.

That this test was successful is demonstrated by the rapid sophistication of the product both in content and presentation, and by the early 1820’s a range of diaries providing different sizes and formats was published. They were a most effective combination of the old and new, incorporating between one set of covers the detailed information, governmental, legal, commercial and astronomical, of the long-established almanac, substituting for the plain notebook often sold in conjunction with it the printed format of the diary or bills due book.

The diary soon established itself as an essential feature of commercial life, unaffected by the slump which followed the boom years of the Napoleonic wars. It was given a further boost by the publication of the works of two major diarists – John Evelyn in 1818 and Samuel Pepys in 1825. These publications created a literary interest in diary-keeping and and no doubt stimulated demand for the new product in its more traditional role.

John Letts demonstrated a keen ability to read the market in his popular stationery shop while developing products in the back room. He located himself at the heart of things in the bustling City of London, and his early products were clearly aimed at the traders and financiers that surrounded him. He developed an effective process for testing new concepts and ideas which today is at the heart of Letts Group’s modern day incubator.

Letts Incubate may be a little more sophisticated and high-tech these days but the core principles remain the same. Indeed, we are currently testing three of our latest projects with paying customers in the live environment – just as John Letts launched his first ‘concept’ diary in 1812.


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The History of the Letts Diary

Letts has been a name associated with diaries since the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was for the year 1812 that John Letts, the founder of the present-day business, published his first diary and thereby originated a new concept of diary-keeping completely different from the traditional use as a personal historical record.

John Letts had been in business as a stationer in the City of London since 1796. His shop nestled among the arcades of the Royal Exchange and his clientele must have included the merchants and traders in the City. Their requirements were clear: they needed to know about movements of ships to and from the bustling Port of London, as well as being able to control their finances which were commonly based upon rates of exchange. That the early diaries were designed to meet these requirements is readily apparent. Prominence was given to the working week of Monday to Saturday and Sunday was often excluded. In most editions cash ruling was included throughout the diary section and information at the beginning of the diary invariably included the tide tables so essential to those connected with shipping.

While John Letts opened the first shop in 1796, the Letts family have owned a number of shops over the centuries. The newest is an online bookshop called Letts Books.

The diary which John Letts published in 1812 was an innovation in that it was future-focused and not designed simply to record past events. It was a commercial product responding to the growing trade in the City of London. Moreover, the 1812 edition is interesting in that it is quite clearly testing this market.

That this test was successful is demonstrated by the rapid sophistication of the product both in content and presentation, and by the early 1820’s a range of diaries providing different sizes and formats was published.

The diary soon established itself as an essential feature of commercial life, unaffected by the slump which followed the boom years of the Napoleonic Wars. It was given a further boost by the publication of the works of two major diarists – John Evelyn in 1818 and Samuel Pepys in 1825. These publications created a literary interest in diary-keeping and no doubt stimulated demand for the new product in its more traditional role.

This is the first of a series of articles on the history of Letts by Anthony Letts.


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Letts Group’s Incubator History and Methodology

In the 1990’s it became clear that the battle for the digital diary would be lost before we could go after it in any meaningful way. We were hemmed into paper based products.

The desk diary market was destined to get eroded by Microsoft with their windows PC’s and MS Office software, which included integrated diary features.

Soon after, Nokia and Motorola launched calendar features for their mobile phones which, over time, would erode the traditional pocket diary business.

It was a huge wake up call. How could we have dominated the diary market for 175 years only to watch these upstart technology companies out innovate us?

For the Letts family it began the process of gradually divesting of paper based products so we could focus on a new, diversified group and a digital future. The seed of the future Letts Group was born.

We made a promise to ourselves that we would not get out innovated again. But how could we guarantee that? We had a hunch that it would not be enough just to focus on digital media and publishing. It came to us in a possible moment of madness that we should build a private incubator to help us develop our various ideas and turn the right ones into profitable products and services. A repetitive process that would be the engine of this new diversified group.

In the late 1990’s we started to experiment with what ultimately become Letts Incubate. We understood early on that we would need an incubator methodology to ensure that we could develop new products and businesses in a scalable and process-driven way.

We were also interested in the idea of incubating businesses and products that we could spin off and sell. Some carrying the Letts brand and some that were not Letts branded (which we call partner companies).

As a long standing family business we understood the constraints of many private, family controlled businesses. Access to capital is more limited which works for certain kinds of businesses and markets, but not for all.

Our incubator would need to be world class and one that could create and nurture a range of different ideas. So we designed a methodology calle Innov@te™. It took us a decade to complete the work as we wanted to develop it while we were also nurturing the early fruits of the nascent incubator. So we could road test the process.

Innov@te™ has come a long way. It has 7 key stages and 49 steps. Our manual is over 50 pages long and is constantly evolving. The 7 stages include:

  • Creativity
  • @HA Idea
  • Concept
  • Market Entry
  • Market Development
  • Market Dominance
  • Exit

We use it whenever we incubate a new Letts branded idea or a partner company. We have incubated quite a number of partner companies in the last twenty years.

Today, we also use Innov@te™ to help leading corporates develop a more effective approach to innovation and we recently established an incubation centre in the southwest of England.

We offer a newsletter, called Surviving, which helps business leaders, investors and entrepreneurs to navigate the future. Subscribers to Surviving can also tap into the team and our panel of experts.

If you would like to find out more, go to Letts Incubate.


Keep up to date with the latest Letts Group news – follow us on twitter @LettsGroup.