Extraordinary Entrepreneur: Karen Hanton – founder of Toptable

Toptable.com is the brain child of Karen Hanton, a truly daring entrepreneur with a passion for British cuisine.  Toptable is an online restaurant booking site which she created in 2000, and it is now the UK’s leading restaurant booking website, which allows diners to choose from around 5000 restaurants in 12 countries.  Karen, like many online entrepreneurs, started her business during the dotcom heyday, but unlike many other enterprises, not only is her business still around it is still flourishing.

Booking a restaurant table online is something that people take for granted today, but at the time that Toptable was launched, restaurant booking had never been done online before.

The idea for Toptable came while Karen was working in the restaurant business in the Nineties.  She explains “The thing I noticed almost immediately was that there was no real way to market the business apart from a blackboard outside the door or dropping leaflets through doors. It was just at the time that people were beginning to think about the internet. 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 bookings as well.”

Like all true entrepreneurs, Karen desired something more than what she had been experiencing during her career in HR in her twenties.  While she loved the job, she felt 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!”

Karen’s business is huge now, but it started out where a lot of businesses do these days….around the kitchen table!  With a few of her colleagues from the restaurant she had worked in previously, she ran Toptable for the first six months from her home.

While Karen is a true pioneer and a visionary, she didn’t envision her company being the leader in its field that is has become. “It wasn’t my intention to make it what it is today, but I did think that the idea had all the hallmarks to expand and do very well. I’m very, very pleasantly surprised at how it has developed!”

During the dotcom crash Karen was initially quite concerned because Toptable was funded by herself and a group of friends and associates and she did not want to be in position where she lost other people’s money.  But even though business dropped off slightly, the company was in a unique position because they weren’t merely selling products as such, they were attempting to change people’s habits.  Karen explains: “Our biggest competitors were telephones because we were trying to change people’s behaviour towards booking at restaurants. When I first started booking travel online, it took me ages to pluck up the courage to do it for the same reasons everyone else had – will it be booked? Will someone steal my credit card details? But you do it once and it works, and then you continue to use that method of booking travel. You wouldn’t book travel any other way now and that’s what we have to do in our business for restaurants.”

It has taken a lot longer to get to this level than Karen anticipated but TopTable is enjoying steady year on year growth.  Even during this recession, a number of tempting special offers featured on the website keep the customers coming online.

As successful as TopTable is, Karen still sees room for it to grow.  There are still countries that are not yet part of the TopTable experience but they are a work in progress. One of the driving forces behind Karen’s success is that she loves what she does.  “It has taken a long time to take off,” she says. “But it is a tremendously exciting business. We are true pioneers!”

Karen Hanton facts:

• Named one of the top 100 most influential people in the first decade of the internet in an NOP/e-consultancy poll
• Before starting Toptable, some of Karen’s other businesses were property developing and also running an IT company which she started in 1990 and sold in 1995.
• Sir Alex Ferguson and Gary Rhodes are amongst her shareholders.
• If an entrepreneur wants to impress a client, Karen recommends either Alistair Little in Soho if you want to go for the smart low-key approach or Gordon Ramsey if they are a serious foodie!

Belinda Nnoka
Belinda Nnoka

Belinda was a staff writer for Women Unlimited from 2009-2010

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