FEATURE8 May 2014

YO! daddy

Impact

Simon Woodroffe, founder of YO! Sushi, has little truck with formal market research. He’s an ideas man with a target market of one – himself. Interview by Jane Simms.

“I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world,” says Simon Woodroffe, leaning back in his chair on the elegant houseboat (moored next to London’s fashionable Cheyne Walk) that serves as his home and office. He says it not with any sense of complacency, but something close to disbelief.

His story, if not exactly rags to riches (his father was a brigadier), encompasses what he characterises as an “aimless youth”, followed at the age of 45, when he was “down on his uppers,” by the launch of YO! Sushi – which is now, 16 years later – a highly successful chain of 78 sushi restaurants in seven different countries.

But he only ran the business for three years before handing it over in 2000 to the current CEO Robin Rowland, who led a management buyout three years later that ultimately made Woodroffe very rich.

“One of the great secrets of life is to figure out what you’re good at and spend 90% of your time doing it”

Woodroffe has never much liked the operational side of running a business, it seems. “One of the great secrets of life is to figure out what you’re good at and spend 90% of your time doing it. I’m good at starting things and publicising things, so that’s what I do.”

He has created a number of different ventures under the YO! Company umbrella, including YO! Japan, a Japanese inspired clothing brand; RadiYO!, a series of radio shows about business; and YO! Zone, a spa and health club. But apart from YO! Sushi, only one other, YOtel, a series of Japanese-style capsule hotels, has made serious progress, and Woodroffe’s only lasting involvement there is as licenser.

His latest project, YO! Home – envisioned as modern city-centre apartments that borrow the mechanics of stage scenery to create flexible living spaces – is still in the prototype phase. It ‘launched’ in 2012, but Woodroffe is in no rush to bring it to fruition: “It will be a good 18 months before we start to build these things. I’m away a lot of the time so I’ve got people running it and making it happen.”

But he is desperate to make YO! Home a success – because, it seems, he still needs to prove something. “To have three hits would be absolutely fantastic,” Woodroffe says. “You could say the first was luck. You could say the second was bloody good fortune. But the third you can’t really argue with, can you?”

Swagger

Woodroffe might well have luck on his side, but he also had “the gall and the wit to make Japanese food available, affordable and fun,” says Robin Rowland – who credits Woodroffe with anticipating the Asian-food trend. With YO! Sushi, it was Woodroffe’s “swagger and confidence and sheer chutzpah” that got the venture off the ground, says Rowland.

Woodroffe understood that to make a splash with a new restaurant venture he had to offer more than excellent food. “You’ve got to do something that makes you stand out from the crowd,” he says. Thus, YO! Sushi had food circulating on conveyor belts, robots serving drinks, airline-style call buttons, and Japanese TV. But he also talked a good game.

“You start being seriously educated at the age of 13, when you have an incredible imagination and everything seems possible. But generally the next six or seven years are spent educating the imagination out of you… That didn’t happen to me”

“When YO! Sushi opened I never said that the food was great or whatever, because that’s boring,” he recalls. “I talked about the world and life and everything according to me, and what I I’d done and wanted to do.”
He encapsulated his roller-coaster ride in setting up YO! Sushi in a book, The Book of YO!, just four years after the restaurant’s launch. Wasn’t that a bit precocious, like the current fad for autobiographies of 25-year-old celebrities?

No, he counters: it was meant to inspire other would-be entrepreneurs to follow their dreams when everything seems to be conspiring against them.

“The Book of YO! was really about what I’d learned, because I’d got quite close to the edge,” he explains. “I reckon in the early days of YO! Sushi there were at least three occasions where I had to roll a four or more on the dice, and I was lucky and I rolled the four. That’s quite low odds, and if I hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t have survived.”

Had he failed, would he have had another go? “Yes, I think so. I think I had enough impetus with it all. But I wouldn’t have had any money. And the truth is, I might just have been a very unhappy person, resentful of my brother’s success [Patrick Woodroffe is a successful lighting designer] and all the rest of it.

“I think that at the age of 45, when we launched YO! Sushi, that my life could have gone badly wrong. I really do think that. But what has happened, through great endeavour along the way, is that I have done more than I really could have dreamed of. I always had it in me, but I wasn’t on a pathway where that would automatically happen.”

Woodroffe’s wishlist

How research might better serve entrepreneurs
? “Traditionally, market research has been analytical and objective, and at one step removed from the business. But I would like market research firms to act more like detective agencies. Every year we get more and more data, but what I would really value is advice based on opinions and detective-like ‘hunches’.
? “As an entrepreneur you need people around you who are extremely confident and proactive; who have the courage of their convictions. They are well informed by research, but are creative in how they use that knowledge. I don’t want to have to interpret data myself; I want insight and guidance – fewer facts, more advice and leadership.”

The value of ignorance

Woodroffe’s story is a compelling one, and he has relished every opportunity over the years to tell it – almost, you sense, as a kind of catharsis. But he also believes that “putting a face to the brand” was important to YO! Sushi’s success: “Brands need a human story,” he maintains.

He reckons that his entrepreneurial bent was the natural result of flunking school – he left the prestigious Marlborough College at 16 with two ‘O’ levels, something he post-rationalises as a positive advantage.

“You start being seriously educated at the age of 13, when you have an incredible imagination and everything seems possible,” he says. “But generally the next six or seven years are spent educating the imagination out of you.

“That didn’t happen to me: I was a rebel all the way through, so, despite all their endeavours, my imagination stayed intact. That left me with great enthusiasm for things that I believed could be done differently, combined with ignorance about what could go wrong. Those twin talents are very helpful when you’re trying to start something new, because, actually, there are usually more good reasons not to do something than there are to do it. But if you’re obsessed with an idea and really want to make it happen, then, often, things do happen.”

He spent a few months at Cambridge Tech, followed by a few more months in a detention centre after being busted for drugs. Then, after living at home with his mum for a while, he got a job as stage manager at the Little Theatre Club in London’s St Martin’s Lane, followed by another at Richmond Theatre and another at the Royal Court. A period as a roadie with the likes of Rod Stewart and the Moody Blues led to a halcyon few years as a stage-set designer.

He explains: “I’d got a little fledgling lighting company together, and then suddenly rock and roll became as much to do with showbusiness as it was with music, and the bands wanted stage sets and all that. And somehow, by hook or by crook, we got a Rod Stewart tour, which was a big deal for us. Suddenly, there I was in my early-to- mid-20s, going out to dinner and people would ask, ‘What do you do for a living?’, and I would say, ‘I’m a stage-set designer’.

“So I was an entrepreneur from the off, really – whatever entrepreneur means.” How would he define it? “Well, it almost means ‘trier’. And, in a sense, in this world that we live in, everyone is an entrepreneur because you have to manage your career; you’re not going to go into one job for life, you’re always going to be figuring out how to make your living.”

A do-it-yourself researcher

Woodroffe has certainly tried lots of things. He got out of stage-set design because of a crisis of confidence, switched to selling TV rights for live rock concerts and then decamped to the Alps to be a ski bum and ponder on his life. It was here that he decided that if he was going to achieve the goal he had set himself at 16 – to become a millionaire – then, at the age of 45, he was in the last-chance saloon.

He started to explore his options and eventually landed on the idea of a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, at the suggestion of a Japanese friend. He tramped the streets of London, sat in sushi restaurants, talked to people, watched and learned, imagined what might and might not work, obtained names of potential suppliers through the trade department of the Japanese embassy in London – and visited Japan. When a rival opened before him at Liverpool Street station he went down to size up the joint – literally: posing as a customer, he whipped out his tape measure, got under the tables, examined the mechanics, and thought about what he could improve on.

But although he sweated over the detail, he never doubted that the idea would work: “My market research was that I’d eaten a lot of sushi in California and I absolutely loved it, and I knew lots of other people who absolutely loved it too. So I thought there had to be enough people who would want to come and eat it. That was about the extent of it,” he says.

“I used to believe I could do everything better than everyone else, and that can be very annoying for people. For quite a long time I didn’t realise how deluded I was”

There were 65 sushi bars in London, but they were all Japanese and they were all very expensive, so sushi had, as he says, “an aficionado following”. But sandwich chain Pre?t a? Manger had just started doing sushi, catering for the incipient interest in ‘exotic’ Japanese food among the wider public. In Japan, meanwhile, there were 2,500 conveyor sushi bars, which had been going since the 1960s – but they were a bit like old-fashioned motorway ‘caffs’ on the side of the A1, says Woodroffe. “So everything sort of conspired together and I took the idea and made it into a high-class but affordable thing, and I’d say the timing was right.”

However, after opening four very successful restaurants in prime London locations, including Soho, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges, hubris overcame him. The money had been rolling in, but once the next three locations opened outside the capital, the money started rolling out.

Woodroffe had taken his eye off the ball – distracted, he admits, by offers from overseas to license the concept. This stalled the company for two years, during which time Robin Rowland came in and took charge, stabilising the business, stopping unprofitable ventures – like YO! Below bars, with self-serve beer and smoke-extracting ashtrays – and leading the company into the venture capital deal that freed up money to expand, and reduced Woodroffe’s stake to 25%, netting him a tidy sum.

Initially terrified to cede control (“He was a complete control freak,” says Nick Tardent, general manager of YO! Company, who’s worked with him for 10 years), Woodroffe is eternally grateful to his successor: “God bless Robin. Suddenly there was a proper plan. I made nearly 10 times more from selling my remaining stake four years later than I did from selling my controlling interest,” he says.

Right or wrong?

As well as being a trier, Woodroffe can also be very trying, he admits: “I used to believe I could do everything better than everyone else, and that can be very annoying for people. For quite a long time I didn’t realise how deluded I was.”

He is no longer deluded (he says), although he clearly still believes that having the unassailable courage of one’s own convictions is a superior mental state. “If you really believe something you become very convincing, and your enthusiasm and passion for it is very contagious,” he says. But what if you’re wrong? “God, yeah, I’m wrong loads of times, but at the time I believe I’m right.”

In the early days of YO! Sushi, he would not be gainsaid, and consequently had little truck with formal market research, or with anyone who might have had a counter view.

“If I’d asked people if they wanted to eat raw fish off conveyor belts with robots serving drinks, they wouldn’t have come in,” he points out.

He’s never really looked for gaps in the market, he says, “and I’ve never really researched what people want because I don’t think they know – until they see it”.

False assumptions

Following his hunches led Woodroffe in the wrong direction on several occasions
? “In the early days, I opened restaurants and hotels and bars based on hunches. You are inspired at the beginning and, in any case, can’t afford to go to big companies, so you follow your hunches. But the further on we went, the less reliable my hunches became; indeed, they were often proved wrong. In retrospect, I would have done more research earlier and added that to my hunches.
? “I can remember visiting Renault years ago and they told me they’d changed their approach to research. They still did the market research on every different area of the car they were developing and they made their designers read the research. But they then created what was almost a fire gap – that is, they said to the designers: ‘Having read the research, we don’t want to you to use it to design a car. Assimilate what you have learned, but we want you to design the car you want to design, based on your educated instinct for doing the right thing’.”

Focus group of one

Woodroffe’s approach to developing ideas remains as it ever was. “At the beginning, I do everything myself. If you go out to too many people everything just gets diluted, and if you have too many meetings you end up arguing your way out of it. That’s one of the reasons why big companies don’t really develop very new or radical things.”

But while he believes that “megalomaniac individuals are very useful in this world,” he admits that “they’re a pain in the neck later on and they’re usually not very good at running organisations”.

“YO! Company is like a little creative company that starts concepts, retains shares in them and eventually gets bought out and allows other people to do them,” says Woodroffe. “The only thing the different companies have in common is that they came from my stable and I’m the licenser. They are independent: I have no decision-making authority over them, though I do have an influence sometimes, and it suits me very well. I’m off doing my next thing.”

His current next thing, YO! Home – like YO! Sushi and YOtel – were all influenced by Japanese design and innovation, which he loves. The theatre was also an influence, as was his fascination with the interiors of boats and first-class aeroplane cabins, which optimise every centimetre of space.

He thinks YO! Home has the potential to help the affordable housing problem, and could revolutionise student accommodation. It may do both of these, but it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that he designs concepts primarily for himself. He is his own focus group of one, and Simon Woodroffe is his target market.

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