That was so depressing!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.