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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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.

Welcome To Our New Website

We are excited to launch the Letts Group’s brand new website.

We opted for a clean, minimal look with a Buzzard soaring as the main image to support our new strapline ‘a brighter future’.

We wanted the website to look as fresh and fluid as when we first started. Even though we have been around for 250 years, for us, this is a new beginning.

The Letts Group is about tradition, quality, innovation and change.

John Letts invented the commercial diary in 1816. Today we are a branded incubator group run by the Letts family and focused on media, the environment and the arts.

We hope you can join us for the next leg of the journey.

You may want to sign up to our blog and follow us @LettsGroup.