Karen Hanton MBE is the serial entrepreneur behind the restaurant booking website Toptable and the dog-friendly travel site PetsPyjamas.com. She’s also an investor, mentor and encourager for many other start-ups. We asked her what motivates her to go on searching for great business ideas.
“I don’t feel like I’ve got a job,” says Karen Hanton, emphatically. “What gets me going every day is the drive to do something worthwhile and useful, something that will be recognised by my peers that goes beyond creating value for its own sake. I find it very fulfilling to identify markets and business areas that are ripe for improvement or disruption. And yes, I do feel a need to keep going: the life of leisure’s not for me. I suppose that comes from the disciplined work ethic in which I was brought up.”
Karen’s childhood home was a 35-acre smallholding outside Aberdeen — a tough life for her parents, and a very long way from London and the tech scene in which she made her later career.
As a teenager she went south for adventure and found work as a trainee in the HR department of Whiteley’s department store in Bayswater, part of the family-owned Allders chain of stores and duty-free shops. Talent-spotted for her willingness to work hard and learn, she won a place on a management training programme and was appointed, aged just 25, head of HR and training for Allders’ flagship Croydon store, which had 2,000 staff.
Early dotcom days
Then in her late twenties, Karen decided to strike out on her own: in 1990 she founded Mortimer & Spinks, an IT recruitment business, and sold it in 1996 to the Harvey Nash group. Then she dabbled in property development and as the owner of an eaterie called The Green at Parsons Green in west London — and conceived the idea of the booking website which launched as Toptable in 2000.
“Those were the early dotcom days when Martha [Lane-Fox] and Brent [Hoberman, both of lastminute.com] were the poster children,” she recalls. “I could see the potential advantages for the restaurant trade and I started just by asking other local restaurants to join up with me. Eventually we were in 14 countries across Europe, with 8,000 restaurants on the site”.
Great team manager
One asset Karen had in the building of Toptable was the presence as an investor of former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson: “He was the best team manager in the world and he was a marvellous shareholder. He really took a lot of trouble and interest in what we were doing. I learned so much from him, especially about team-building.”
You don’t have to choose between business and good works — you can do both.
When she came to sell the business in 2010 to the larger US-based OpenTable, for a reported $55 million, it was a natural fit: “We were very strong in marketing, they were very tech focused.” But the exit that made her a multimillionaire was never the prime objective of the project. “Yes, I’m interested in creating value. Yes if you do this stuff well, something good will happen in the end in terms of the money. But that’s really not my start point.”
‘Me as the customer’
So what next? The business propositions that catch Karen’s eye are generally the ones that “touch a part of my life — that start with me as the customer”. She happens to be a passionate animal lover — with a Parson Russell terrier called Wilson as her companion — and on a visit to New York she observed the way adoring US owners treat their pets. That led to the idea of PetsPyjamas, a new category of online travel focusing on dog-friendly hotels, cottages & B&Bs etc. The site gives a percentage of its revenues to small animal charities, reflecting another aspect of Karen’s philosophy: “You don’t have to choose between business and good works — you can do both”.
It’s a ten-year gig
That philosophy is also reflected in PositiveLuxury.com, the site Karen (co-founded) founded with fellow entrepreneur Diana Verde Nieto to award a ‘Butterfly’ trust mark to chosen luxury brands for their commitment to sustainability.
She’s also a member of ProFounders, a venture capital group that enables successful entrepreneurs to invest collectively, and has taken personal stakes in “about a dozen other diverse ventures”.
After 30 years of serial entrepreneurship, her enthusiasm for team-building, problem-solving and unlocking other people’s potential remains undiminished. And does she have one final piece of advice for others who’s like to follow her? “Success is always going to be a long slog. I’ve tried to shorten it, but I couldn’t. Be prepared for a ten-year gig.”
Having a good idea is one thing. Pushing through and implementing it is another. We portray entrepreneurs who share their personal stories and reflect on lessons learnt.