Digital Glasgow: Interview with Mike Conyers, CEO and Founder of ResDiary

Chances are you have used ResDiary, although you may not have even noticed, or realised the global company is based in Glasgow. The business was founded in 2006 by Mike Conyers, a successful Scottish restaurateur. Frustrated at paying huge amounts each month to manage reservations, he decided to build his own system. The company began with a staff of two.

Now the business employs 73 staff across seven countries, with a headquarters on Renfield Street. The software is used by over 8100 businesses. 13.9 million covers are booked monthly, using ResDiary applications, via venue websites, APIs, social media and third party sites. Their own website receives 922,000 visitors per month.

Glasgowist paid ResDiary a visit to chat with CEO and Founder, Mike Conyers.

Glasgowist: What was your introduction to restaurants Mike, how did you fall into that side of the business?

Mike Conyers: Well when I was 27 or 28 I was working as an accountant in London, and I had a long-term girlfriend who was an air stewardess long-haul with British Airways, so I would see her maybe 10 days. She’d be off for 10 days and then away again for 10 days. I played rugby, so when she was away I was playing rugby, training hard, I’d go out every night with the boys. When she was back, I’d go out every night with her. So we’d go out to bars, restaurants, clubs, but mainly Brasserie style restaurants.

This is in the early eighties, and I was starting to hate being an accountant and I thought I needed to do something else, because it was giving me migraines. I thought what could I do that I haven’t got training for but I think I could like? And that was opening a restaurant and bar.

So I came back to Glasgow and opened up a place called Lautrec’s with a friend called Alan Tomkins, that was ’82, rent was six and a half grand, turnover was 650, most operators would die for rent be able to overset the turnover now. We also bought Beacons hotel with the cashflow, and we bought a site in Broomielaw, which is now Number One Atlantic Quay.

So we did quite well, then I started Leonardo and Company, I also set up 78 St Vincent. So I’ve built 14 restaurants in my life, and going through Leonardo’s we overtraded, we expanded too fast, and I had a friend doing a case study or an analysis for the Bank of Scotland and one question he said to me that kind of stopped me in my tracks, because we were talking about four restaurants in Glasgow being similar size, similar capacity, two were profitable, two weren’t, but they still had the same demand.

We decided that the difference was the way we were doing the bookings, and we thought, what is the science of the reservation process?

And there was no science. It was if you had a good manager who could juggle and who could be firm with customers, that could sell the load, not sell short – sell fours for twos – do all the basics right. So I decided what we needed was a web app, this was about 12 years ago before we had internet above 256K, but I thought we needed a web app, it needs to be accessible internally from the web, and we need to be able to let the partners access it as well, and customers book online. So it was a big ask to get it built.

But I pivoted from running restaurants into selling ResDiary part-time and then eventually saying, “I’ve had enough of restaurants, I think this software thing could do quite well.”

So, was there that moment of clarity for you, when you looked at the whole restaurant process and you suddenly realised that it’s been all these transactions every day have been governed by a clipboard, a pen and a pad of paper?

Yeah, and most of the time it was just sheer lunacy. At the end of the night you might have turned away 50 to 100 people, like 78 St Vincent, I built that originally and it was a great restaurant, copy of a French, Parisian Brasserie called Chartier, really great atmosphere.

Three and a half to four star food, fair value, people queued up all the time for it, but if your manager booked out every four top for a two, at 8 o’clock, at the same time on a Saturday night, at the end of the night the chef wanted to cut her hands off, and we hadn’t made as much money as we should.

So as soon as we started applying some science to it the service got smoother, we made more money, the tips were better, the staff were happier, the chefs were happier, and it was like it was a light bulb moment once we applied a system.

We started thinking, “What is your best service? Did it happen by accident, or did it happen by design?” And then we tried to design into the service, to get our best service, which is good if you’ve got strong demand.

What about coming from your wonderful time living the high life in London and then arriving in Glasgow in the early 80s wanting to recreate the restaurant buzz of Soho, what was that like, Mike?

Well, actually it was quite good because the site we choose was up beside Kelvingrove Park on Woodlands Terrace. So it overlooked the park and it was just half a mile, three quarters of a mile from Charing Cross. It was a world apart from the mayhem that was Sauchiehall Street, if you walked down Sauchiehall Street then you were likely to be in trouble, but if you came to Park Terrace, dare I say it, you’d meet like minded people.

I remember occasionally I’d do the door, which I loved. I remember the opening night was so busy the Lord Provost who was opening it couldn’t get in the front door, and I couldn’t stop serving the bar to go and speak to him.

So we were really lucky that we had a niche. We started off with Brasserie style food, we had a good chef, Eric, God knows where he is now, but wine by the glass was 25% of our sales. Prior to that nobody sold wine by the glass.

We had, like, eight wines by the glass and it just went crazy. So we had a good atmosphere. I once refused Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt a table. They came up the stairs and I said to myself, “I’m sure I recognise this woman.” And it wasn’t till she left and someone said, “Do you know who that was?” and she came up the stairs and into the back restaurant and every table was full apart from one, and she said, “I’ll take that table.” I said, “No, no, that’s booked for a regular customer.” An old chemist from Coatbridge who would spend 300 quid a week in 1982, so I wasn’t giving this table away, and she went mad and turned on her feet.

After a couple of years and more experience, I would have given her the table, met him at the door, given him a bottle of wine and stalled him till a table came free, but I was too naïve then.

Right, so you start off as an accountant, then you become a restaurateur, how did you become a tech mogul then? How do you acquire those skills?

Well, we had this big debate in the company if I decide to retire, what kind of person replaces me? Most of our directors say, “Well we need somebody who’s tech focused.” And I say, “Well, I’m not tech focused, I’m restaurateur focused. But what I can do is I can read articles in a magazine.” So round about the early 1990s I can remember reading an article in PC Pro by the then editor, whose name I’ve forgotten, this is about 1994 I think, and he said, “Forget all this stuff about software and CD ROMs, forget all this stuff about three and half inch discs that you stick in a machine,” he said, “The future is cloud based.”

So this guy wrote, “This is where we’re going to be in three or four years,” he said, “We will be able to host.” At this time you couldn’t host software on the internet, but he was proposing the theory that you could have applications on the web and they could be accessed from anywhere on the web. And I read this and I went to Scottish Enterprise and I said, “Look at this.” And they said,”Yeah, but.” And I said, “No, no, no. We’re going to do this.” So they did a beauty parade for me with some developers and I met a developer, who’s now a director and shareholder based in Dubai, and somehow we managed to build the first prototype for ResDiary, just when the internet was starting to get going.

So a lot of our competitors say they’re internet companies, we were a true internet company from the start and then we built a distributed database that had to be accessible on the web, and that’s been our blessing, a lot of our competitors forget about that, but they build a booking tool and they say, “Here’s a booking.” And they forget all about the backend of the infrastructure that has to go there. So I was fortunate enough to have a partner, a shareholder, fellow director who understood what could be done and who could write it up. So I was lucky.

The ResDiary app

The ResDiary app

With the process of expansion, do you find the language and the rhythm of restaurants is the same in most territories you go to, or do you have to rely on trying to adapt things when you work with new countries?

Well, as an example, we’re in with 60 restaurants in Bali, and what they tend to do is they’ll have a 400 seater restaurant and they’ll maybe try and turn the tables every hour and fifteen minutes. So that’s a bit chaotic to deal with, from a reservation system point of view and from an operator’s point of view, but there’s changing social norms in the way restaurants are run now. Everything’s got much more casual, much more small plates, less time at table probably, and restaurants are trying to become more hybrid operations where you can book a table for food or you can book it for drinks, and the venue might change into a nightclub afterwards.

So we’re having to adapt our system to suit what we call hybrid operations, they can be a bar sometimes, they can be a restaurant sometimes, or part restaurant, part bar, part nightclub. And originally we started we focused on the classic restaurant service, and obviously that was slanted by my experience in the restaurant industry, which was maybe white linen on the table, linen napkins, preferably almost classically trained staff, though I wasn’t the best waiter.

So things have changed a lot. I now rely on the staff to tell me how things are changing here.

You mentioned Scottish Enterprise earlier, how are you finding the experience in terms of getting the support to actually grow a global operation from Renfield Street?

Well, we started in Bothwell Street… Scottish Enterprise have been pretty good. Well, about four years ago they turned us down for the high growth programme because they said you had to reach a certain level of turnover within three years and they said, “You won’t do that.” So I take great pleasure in going back to our account manager and saying we had achieved double that target in two years.

Generally they’re very good for trade visits to countries, so I’ve been to Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, India, Dubai, with either Scottish Enterprise or SDI International. The best advice we ever got was from the Business Gateway, which is really for small startups.

And when we first had the idea for the business I went and met a guy, Alan, I can’t remember his second name, and said, “This is what we’re trying to do and this is how we want to try and sell it. We want to try and sell it on a monthly subscription.” They said, “How are you going to sell it internationally?” And he said, “What ever you do, don’t put staff in territory, find licensees.” So he was really adamant, keep your costs down, find licensees. And we now have a licensee in Australia, which through acquisition has become TripAdvisor and they pay us a million pounds a year. So his advice worked well for us.

So, just as someone who’s quite plugged in to the restaurant scene in Glasgow, what’s your impressions of what it’s like at the moment?

We’ve got a lot of good three to four star operators, we’ve no Michelin stars, whereas Edinburgh has got some great restaurateurs, is that fair? Martin Wishart’s a client, we do Kitchin, we do Ondine, we’ve got some great restaurant in Edinburgh, but we’ve got some great up and coming restaurants in Glasgow.

Like the Finnieston area is fantastic, I think, I shouldn’t name favourites, but I think Ox and Finch is great, I like what Kained Holdings are doing with Porter & Rye, I like Hutchesons. 111 and Nico and The Gannet are both customers and are both very, very good.

What about advice for people who think they have got their own gem of an idea, and are contemplating making that that leap to connect the dots and start up their own company in Glasgow?

Test it, sense-check it with friends and family. Let’s be clear, when we started the business, for the first year and a half I didn’t get paid any money, I was working for nothing. So there is certain pain you have to go through, and there’s so many startups that just don’t get past that original pain point. The best advice I can give is never run out of cash, because the banks won’t help you if you get into that position. We started this business on the basis that we would never borrow money from a bank, but I think it’s a truism; don’t start a business with equity or money from friends and family, spend it all, and then expect more to appear from somewhere. You need to have locked down a revenue stream and you need to focus on “how do we sell this?” We have a saying that nothing happens till we sell something, and I remember that as a cartoon on a wall somewhere. And it’s right, you can have every meeting in the world, but if you’re not selling stuff, forget it.

Due to the fact that you’re dealing with restaurants all the time, do you find you are just hungry and thinking about food all day?

[Laughs] Most of the staff, would say they were foodies I think. A lot of them have strong opinions on what are good restaurants and what aren’t.