The ideas man - Simon Woodroffe on the importance of listening to your instincts

 

YO! founder, Simon Woodroffe describes how his experiences have shaped his success and shares the business and life lessons he’s learnt along the way.

Simon Woodroffe OBE is founder of the YO! brand, which first emerged with the launch of YO! Sushi in the mid-90s. Having appeared in the first series of Dragons’ Den, Simon is a highly-regarded entrepreneur and motivational speaker and is about to launch a new city-centre living project, YO! Home.

Simon Woodroffe

Simon Woodroffe At a glance

"Leaving school at 16 meant that I hadn't had the imagination educated out of me, I really did believe that anything was possible," says YO! founder, Simon Woodroffe. That belief saw Simon pursue his love of rock 'n' roll, starting out as a roadie before using his experience of theatre to become a stage designer, creating spectacular rock shows around the world. From a world of creativity, Simon later experienced the hard-nosed business world while selling the rights to rock concerts to TV.

It was, he says, "a long apprenticeship", culminating in his well-documented battle with depression, and leading to his "big moment", opening YO! Sushi at the age of 40.

Making things happen

"I remember telling everybody I'd be a millionaire by the time I was 20," he says. "Then I got to 20 and it was the hippy, dippy 60s and we were having a good time, so I thought I'd put it off 'til 30. Then I got to 30 and there was all the drama of being in your 30s. Then I got to 40 and I'd completely forgotten to be a millionaire. It was a tear your hair out moment.

"When you're in the deep end, you have to swim. That's when you can make things happen."

Mind-blowing opportunities

Simon saw a chance to use his past experiences to create something new. "When I came to YO! Sushi, I brought together the creative skills to do something that nobody had ever seen before – something that would blow people's minds – with the ability to do deals."

Although it wasn't an easy journey, Simon never lost sight of his end goal. "When I opened YO! Sushi, I had two hundred grand tied up in my flat. I put the whole load on and was mortgaged up to the hilt above that. Occasionally, 10% of me worried about it and 5% was sheer terror but, despite knowing that opening a restaurant was high risk, once I get hold of an idea, I'm driven by that. I just want to see it happen. And YO! Sushi was so outrageously different, that at least I'd get noticed."

A quantum leap

Being driven by an idea is at the root of Simon's self-belief. In his most recent venture, YO! Home, he's set to launch innovative city centre living in areas where space is at a premium. Responding to suggestions that he's clearly identified a need, he remarks: "I don't think I'm a 'necessary' man and I don't think I'm a gap in the market merchant either. I'm very inspired by an idea, but neither do I want to do something completely wacky and out of kilter.

"What I'm trying to do is to bring the ideas of the future into the mainstream now. In order to do that, you have to create quantum leaps in thinking."

The prototype YO! Home project in Manchester city centre, has been five years in the planning, but not defined by specific timescales. "I'm very much of the opinion that we'll open when it's ready," Simon says. "To hell with what anybody else is doing; that's what they're doing. I'm not competing; I'm doing something because I want to do it."

Unconstrained approach

Simon's no-nonsense, pragmatic approach (he was once nicknamed Steamroller) is refreshing. It's this approach, he believes, that enables smaller companies to compete through innovating more quickly: "Big companies don't do things that are magnificently different, because they'd be constrained by having to get the project through in three months."

For Simon, it's about trusting your gut and pushing the boundaries. He misses the days when you had to enter your occupation on a passport form because, "I'm proud to be an entrepreneur." But going with your gut doesn't mean throwing caution to the wind. "I try not to take more risks than I need to but," he admits, "once I get hooked on an idea, I want to do it, and I'll put my own money and time on the line."

Finding inspiration

He takes inspiration from his favourite poem, aptly entitled 'How to get rich': "'To win it you've got to be in it, but never be late to cut and quit bait'," he quotes. "It's an instinct born of 40 years of earning my own living on my own wits, and believing there's no shame in an about turn."

Simon's only regret is not starting earlier. "I want to do things for the world before I die," he says, "but time is finite. If you're in your 30s and you can respect yourself for being successful with money and for having a relationship with someone else, then wow! Love and money are great achievements. Once you're happy and satisfied, think what a force for good you can be. And that's the opportunity for the kids today, where entrepreneurialism is a career path they can fantasise about alongside being a sports star."

A nation of entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurialism, he continues, is part of Britain's business heritage. "We're a nation of entrepreneurs, explorers and inventors," he says. "If you came to Earth from a foreign planet and you asked someone 'where's the action here on Earth?' they'd say: 'Oh, it's this tiny little island up in the top right hand corner of the Atlantic.' It's born of being an island race, in the Northern hemisphere, where you have to strive to survive. That's conspired, as the politicians would say, to make Britain great!"

For Simon, who's encountered his fair share of setbacks, it's this constant striving that characterises an entrepreneur. "Successful people don't go around succeeding all the time," he states. "Successful people have learned to fail and pick themselves up again."

Simon's lessons for success:

  1. Go with your gut and don't be afraid to change your mind.
  2. Don't lose touch with real people and what's happening out there.
  3. Listen to criticism and learn from it.
  4. Remember that business is all about people at the end of the day.
  5. Dig deep - in the depths of despair you'll find inspiration.
  6. Do your best every day - but relax, let it play out.
  7. Believe the best is yet to come.

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