Simon Woodroffe: 'The great lesson in life is to spend your time doing what you're good at'

A day in the life of the founder of Yo! Company
Click to follow
The Independent Online


Even getting up this early isn't hard when you can watch the pinky hues of dawn over the Thames from a window in your shower. Simon Woodroffe's bedroom is in the lower deck of one of the Notting Hillesque flotilla of houseboats on "Millionaires' Row", just off Chelsea's Cheyne Walk. His, the Trafalgar, is a relatively modest navy, but others are the full spectrum of paintbox colours.

Thirty minutes later, the man behind Yo! Sushi is whizzing down the M4 to speak at a motivational conference for businesses in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. It's a usual sort of morning for the raw fish tycoon who has long since stopped worrying about the speed that his brightly coloured plates fly round Yo! Sushi's trademark conveyor belts. These days, if he's not enjoying summer from the deck of his new houseboat with his teenage daughter, Charlotte, he's more likely to be found expounding his business philosophy to scores of would-be Yo! entrepreneurs.

"I've never stood up and told anybody what they ought to do. I've stood up and told anecdotes and stories of what happened to me. Fundamentally, what I say is very honest. It's about fear as well as success. It's definitely about failure. I think people listen to it and think: 'If he can do that, I can do that ­ he's not actually that clever.' It's just an honest message really."


Somewhat more unusually, Mr Woodroffe is not headlining today. That act's reserved for Sir Bob Geldof, who is giving what for him is a slightly rarer pep talk. The two men go way back to Mr Woodroffe's former incarnation as a rock 'n' roll roadie-cum-set designer, when he worked with the Boomtown Rats and, later, on Live Aid.

"We've hooked up again and I've seen him a couple of times recently which is quite nice, you know old friends and all that, so I am pleased to be his support act."

One of the stories Mr Woodroffe regularly shares is how he lived out his ultimate fantasy when, despite being a "crap" singer, he recorded a song ­ 'How I got my Yo!' ­ with the Blockheads. "Life is quietly about living out your dreams," he tells the audience.

He knows his philosophy works, because, quite apart from being hugely rich and a TV personality after his part in the BBC show for budding Richard Bransons, the Dragons' Den, none other than the Prime Minister himself has noticed his grind: today, Mr Woodroffe is getting an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours.


Entrepreneurs never do one thing for long, and sure enough, by the middle of the day he is back in London for lunch on his houseboat, which has been home since November, with his business manager, Nick Targent. They eat salad and soup prepared by Cheri, his "on-board" personal assistant who handily also happens to be part of the Cheyne Walk houseboat fraternity. "Cheri helps me organise things because, you know, I'm a single man. [He credits his divorce 15 years ago with forcing him to get real about his life via a self-help course]."

The talk is of a new website for Yo! Co, which he envisages as an umbrella parent company rather in the style of Stelios Haji-Ioannou's Easy group. Now just a minority shareholder in the 30-strong sushi chain, Mr Woodroffe is concentrating on other Yo! projects on the go, from Yotel (which lacks the exclamation mark for some reason) to Yo! Home, a nascent concept he hopes eventually to stretch into branded homes à la Donald Trump or Philippe Starke.

He says selling Yo! Sushi was the best thing he ever did, mainly, it transpires, because he trousered £10m hard cash along the way. "I thought things like that didn't happen to people like me [he left school with just four O-levels], and that's the truth. I signed 43 documents, we all got a bit drunk on champagne and the money was transferred instantly to my current account.

On the way home, I stopped at a cash machine, pressed a button, and there was all this money, all those zeros. In fact, I turned to the bloke behind me in the queue, and ­ this is pretty naff ­ but I said: 'Cop a look at this, mate.' So don't let anybody ever tell you that money doesn't make you happy because I was very happy that day!"


As it happens, today he's due at his monthly raw fish board meeting. Robin Rowland, who runs the business and led the partial buyout, is there, as is Miles Templeman, the former Whitbread brewing boss, who now chairs the Institute of Directors as well as Yo! Sushi. Mr Woodroffe claims he's not worried about all the me-too Japanese chains such as Itsu that are springing up all over the capital. " Who's the Coca-Cola? We are." But he contradicts himself, by going on to add: "The trouble with being Coca-Cola is that if you want to be their chief executive then that's the worst job in the world to do because you can only fall from the top."


The three-hour meeting done and dusted, he tries to fix an early evening drink with Charlotte, who along with his houseboat is his pride and joy. Despite deciding last year that school wasn't for her, she appears to be in high demand: she's meeting a production company, Tiger Aspect, the guys behind Vicar of Dibley, who apparently filmed her 16th birthday party. Now they're talking about making a series, Charlotte's Summer, about what teenagers like to get up to. "People said to me 'You should get her to do work experience,' but the idea of going in and doing stationery filing or working in a shop just didn't seem Charlotte's style." [That much will be clear if you catch the show.]

Tired after his early start, he eschews both of his hot tickets for that night­ an evening sampling top chefs' fare at the Taste of London Food Festival in Regent's Park, or attending the birthday party of the restaurateur Mark Fuller at his Embassy Club ­ and instead hangs out with an old friend, millionaire-style. Christian, who is over from his African farmstead, is enjoying some return hospitality; Mr Woodroffe often visits Christian to play a spot of international polo on the South African-Lesotho border.

Tonight, the Yo! entrepreneur fires up his 100-horsepower rig (an inflatable boat that people with yachts use to access the harbour) and the pair nip down the river to Chiswick where they park the rig on the Dove pier, " pay our fiver mooring fee", and settle down in the Fuller's pub for a couple of pints.

That the evening is spent close to the water encapsulates how Mr Woodroffe likes to spend his spare time these days. And having learnt early on that he's not exactly your typical hands-on manager, time is something he likes to have in spades.

"The great, great lesson in life," he expounds in one of the many quasi-jargony asides that pepper his conversation, "is to find out what you're good at doing and spend 95 per cent of your time at doing just that. I'm crap at operating and running restaurants or businesses. What I'm good at is starting them, inspiring them, conceiving them, talking about them, you know, building things. Because the biggest thing I've learnt in the last 10 years is how to let go, it consequently means that in my typical day I don't run anything so I'm not constantly getting calls about what to do now."

Which leaves the 57-year-old bachelor with a penchant for brightly coloured shoes ­ he bought a lime green pair 10 years ago and has never looked back ­ the time to enjoy himself. "We have a lot of nice parties with interesting people, and we go out on the boat and sit on the deck and watch the sun go down. At night, it's all lit up like New York out here, and the boat goes up and down on the rising tide. It moves five metres every six hours. Isn't that unbelievable, the power of the moon. Whoh!"