Karen Hanton created Toptable.co.uk 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 Startups.co.uk 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.