225 Years of Letts – The Charles Letts Years

This year is the 225th anniversary of Letts. We are celebrating this extraordinary milestone with a series of articles (and events) – from the early years right up to today. The third article looks at the transition to the third and fourth generation of the family business – run by Charles Letts.

A miniature tortoise shell Letts diary – 1940

In the 1870’s Thomas Letts, who had now been joined in the publishing 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 21st century diary 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.

Charles Letts was not as innovative as his his father or grandfather. The diary and stationery products changed little during his time.

To set up on his own was a brave step for a man of forty-two with a growing family, and the first years of developing his own business were an uphill struggle. Charles was a scholarly man, author of an excellent essay on Celebrated Diarists, and the business only developed slowly under his control. It was not until his two sons, Harry and Norman, joined him that real signs of growth and prosperity were apparent. Harry, in particular, displayed many of the characteristics of his grandfather, Thomas, and he was mainly responsible for developing the business from one publishing a few hundred thousand diaries per annum at the turn of the century to a circulation of 2.7 million at the time of his retirement in 1932.

The fluctuations in the fortunes of the business were not reflected in the product. If you compare a diary produced in the early part of the century with a similar model at its end, what is apparent is the slow pace of change, no doubt reflecting the gradual maturing of the product and a more stable and conservative society. Designs and formats developed almost imperceptibly, while the information alone became more detailed and comprehensive. Even prices remained stable, with the 1856 and 1894 editions of the same model retailing at an unchanged shilling.

One innovation which occurred in the 1860’s was the introduction of advertising in the diaries which, no doubt, allowed for a better value to be provided at the same price. It was not until the twentieth century that a certain dynamism becomes apparent in the product, reflecting underlying changes in demand which took the diary from a conventional but restricted market of a few hundred thousand to the mass consumer product of today.

In the last of our anniversary articles about the past history of the eponymous Letts diary family, we will look at the development of the Letts Diary business in the twentieth century and the gradual transition, by the Letts family, to the new, twenty first century Letts Group.

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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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