Open Table powers through a Dip
Open Table is an online reservations service. It’s free to use and the restaurant pays a dollar per diner. The company has raised more than 20 million dollars to date. (original Times story).
During the company’s first three years, they booked a million diners (in total). Now, they book two million every single month. Five years ago, they had 1,000 restaurants to choose from, now they have 7,000.
Little known Corey professional trivia: I designed a (the first?) restaurant reservation system before Open Table existed.
It was 1998 or so and I worked for the consultancy ZEFER, the client was Foodline.com (long gone: Ebituaries)
Technically it consisted of mini form factor touch screen PCs* that were running a custom VB app, which was placed at the hostess stand (is that a sexist term? what’s better?). Designing for a touch screen was an interesting challenge and eerily familiar to the debates raging pre-iPhone launch.
There was a server that ran in the back office of the restaurant which ran SQL Server 7.0 and we eschewed the built in replication infrastructure for a custom synchronization app, which talked to the foodline.com database which powered the website. We were aware of the potential to build this using a web services type methodology, but opted for a more straight forward database method as there were really no tools available to enable those type of calls outside of a few very expensive packages like WebMethods at the time.
An entire class of problems existed back then that are just non-issues today. Most restaurants were concerned about wifi security, so cabling was usually run. We had to order DSL circuits and routers for almost all the restaurants because it was considered weird to have broadband at the time. Obviously it took consumers a long time to get used to the idea of making a reservation online, close to ten years according to Open Table’s experience.
If you build something groundbreaking, are you willing to wait ten years to be successful?
*one of the prototype PCs sat under my couch for years serving up coreyh.com web and email.
Wow, I remember that and all the technical and cultural adoption issues associated with it (I also remember the mass distribution of Foodline schwag distributed upon its demise). Did Open Table start out in the same tech era with those same issues or did hostesses know how the internet worked by then?
I don’t know when Open Table launched, I think it was within a year or two of Foodline. And I’m sure they struggled for years there, but they just stuck it out.
And the swwag, I still have a tote bag and pot holders…