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The founder of talks to about finding a recipe for success

Karen Hanton created in 2000, after starting a series of businesses in the property development and restaurant industries. Toptable is now the UK's leading restaurant booking website, with celebrity shareholders such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Gary Rhodes. The site allows diners to choose from around 1,200 restaurants across the UK and five in Paris.

Karen spoke to about how she made Toptable into the sizzling success it is today.

Have you always wanted to be your own boss?

Yes, my initial background is in HR, which I did until I was about 28. I was working within companies and I loved the job, but I felt a bit stifled. I had always wanted to stand or fall on my own merits, rather than be a small cog in a big wheel. I'm a bit of a risk taker!

Did you see a gap in the market to start up Toptable?

I got the idea for Toptable after I got involved in a restaurant business. One of the things I've done for the last 20 is commercial property. I bought a building in Fulham and ended up with a little café and stuck a couple of people in to run it.

The thing that came up almost immediately was that there was no real way to market the business apart from a blackboard outside the door or a leaflet drop. It was just at the time, about 1998-99, that people were beginning to thing about the internet.

So, from that experience, I got the idea that it would be good to create a marketing pool for the restaurant industry so that businesses like mine could promote themselves and that obviously led on to it being bookable as well.

In a way, we created the market, because restaurant booking had never been done online before. Travel had, but not restaurants.

What were the first steps you took then?

Well, I first of all I had to clear my kitchen table, where all good businesses start! One of the things I found is that, especially with a brand new concept, you really don't know how it's going to go, so you want to minimise the exposure.

Toptable is a good example of the startup on the kitchen table or the back bedroom. What happened was that the girls who ran the restaurant business with me sold it came to start up Toptable with me. For the first five to six months we did work, literally, from my home. We called up restaurants at lunchtime and then at six o'clock, I think we short-listed 30 restaurants, to see what their availability was like.

There is a myth, because that's what it is, that restaurants are always full and busy. So we decided to put this to the test and what we found that was, over a two-week period, almost every single restaurant had space and could fit us in, even if we called at six o'clock.

So we thought they obviously have capacity which, if they were sensible, they would like to sell. But we did some very basic research, but you can identify the key drivers of a business idea and test them out, without having to hire a consultancy for £50,000.

Was it always your intention to make the website into what it is today?

No, it wasn't. But I did think that it did have all the hallmarks to expand and do very well. I tend to think that I don't think of the end result when I go into something. First of all, I was interested in the project and of all the things I have done, it is the most exciting and stimulating, because there's nothing to go on, you're making it up as you're going on.

I'm very, very pleasantly surprised how it has developed.

You started up around the time of the dot com crash…

That was so depressing!

Was this something that worried you then?

It worried me for a number of reasons. First of all it worried me because Toptable was funded by myself and a group of friends and associates and it worried me that I definitely didn't want to lose their money or mine, for very selfish reasons!

I suppose as well there was a sense of pride, I wasn't accustomed to things not working. Almost as soon as we launched Toptable, every single newspaper and television item was on the end of the dot com boom.

To be fair, we never expected to be a big-budget startup – we didn't have expectations. But nevertheless, it was still quite demoralising. Because what happened is that you go from being a darling that everyone's interested in to someone to be sceptical about, they just tar you with the same brush. They were not pleasant times to start with.

Did you see business drop off?

Put it like this – it has taken quite a lot of time to ramp up business because what we are tackling is people's behaviour. When we look at competitors, out biggest competitors are telephones because we are trying to do is change people's behaviour towards booking at restaurants.

You could book travel online very early on in the internet's life, but it took several years before people started to really adopt it and adore it. I don't know about you, but when I was booking travel on the internet, it took me ages to pluck up the courage to do it, for the usual reasons – will it be booked? Will someone steal my credit card details.

So you pluck up the courage, do it once and it works and then you go back to the trusted phone and dip in and out. And nowadays, you wouldn't book travel any other way. So that's what we have to do for restaurants.

Our growth has been around 100 per cent year on year, which isn't bad.

What do you feel are the main factors behind your success?

What we hoped we've created with Toptable is a lifestyle tool. If you look how the site has developed, since the early days, it's got the 360 degree picture, which is pretty neat, and booking – it has moved on from that. We've now got diner's awards and feedback and we're modelling it like Amazon and eBay, where everyone who's eaten out fills out a little survey.

What have been the main difficulties you've faced?

The length of time it has taken to change people's behaviour. You have to keep just chipping away, it's like mining at a very, very big coalface.

We have tried to develop the business at a low a risk as possible, and also at a low cost. Unlike many dot coms, although I don't like that term, we took a very traditional approach – rather than building from top down, as was the fashion, we built it from the bottom up.

I think it's much more sustainable to do it that way. However, it's a big, long, hard slog.

When you talk about competition – to be honest, I very much believe in keeping channels of communication open with them, I know all the competitors personally. This is because we are all doing a brand new thing, you cannot operate in a market where there's only you.

Do you feel that starting up an online business is easier to do now compared with when you created Toptable?

I think it depends on the idea. What we learnt was that good ideas are good ideas. Bad ideas, no matter how much money you throw at them, don't work.

I think it would be simpler now, with a good idea, because in the last four or five years people have become much more comfortable using the internet, and broadband is helping us tremendously. Every time I open a paper there is a price war going on with broadband. It's no longer a barrier.

What tips would you give to someone planning to set up an online business?

Keep it simple and don't cast things in stone. It's very important to be flexible and recognise things that aren't working and to change them. It's sensible to use a strategy – online or offline, there is no other way to build a business than to build bottom up.

Finally, what three restaurants would you recommend to an entrepreneur who wants to impress a client?

This depends on the message you want to give to the client. If you want to take a client somewhere smart but low-key, that you're not piling on the prices, I would take them to Alistair Little in Soho. Very good food, but quite understated.

If the client is a serious, serious foodie, who wants to go for the experience, then it's got to be a Gordon Ramsey.

Finally, if it was someone who was a touch groovy, I would take them to Sketch. It's an amazing place and the food is fantastic.


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