Where to start with Simon Woodroffe OBE? Most of us are familiar with the YO! Sushi founder, such is his ability for using his own profile to publicise his ventures. In 2003 he sold his controlling interest in YO! Sushi in a £10m deal backed by Primary Capital, which has since invested significantly to expand the restaurant chain to more than 41 restaurants across six countries.
His big project right now is YOTEL, for which he and equal partner Gerard Greene secured £30m private investment from the Middle Eastern family behind IFA Hotels and Resorts, is still in its infancy, with hotels at Gatwick and Heathrow now open and with one in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport set to follow soon.
International roll-out beckons. And to keep Woodroffe busy he’s getting closer to opening his health spa concept YO! Zone at Battersea Power Station in 2009
When did you realise the value of personal branding?
I opened YO! Sushi to survive, which is well known. We had a lot of attention when we opened. After a while there’s only so much you can say about the food and about the ambiance, so I started talking about what had happened to me – the world, and life and everything.
How did the transition occur?
When I started talking about what had happened in my life, that I’d always been in business, and didn’t have any qualifications, and I’d come into the restaurant business late in life and said ‘I just did it’ people were very interested. A lot of the story that built my personal brand was that I was an ordinary Joe – or Simon – who was pretty desperate in his life a couple of times, and really went for it. I never had a strategy to say ‘this is what you say, this is what you don’t say’.
What sets a business with personality apart?
You can’t invent a really great brand anymore in an advertising agency. You can tweak them when you’re Apple and have a big process needed to do it. Innocent Drinks didn’t become a brand because it said ‘we will sell more bottles if we write funny things on the bottles’. With very sophisticated consumers today for the most part we want to see something that’s authentic.
Entrepreneurs almost need a ‘back story’.
It’s de rigueur to have a story. But another way to look at it is that there’s always a story and now it’s ok to talk about it. Instead of being boardrooms, cufflinked and fat catted, it is for young people with dreams.
How have you used personal branding to your advantage?
The truth is, YO! is really quite a small company. We’ve got a chain of restaurants – if you count the overseas ones it must be going up towards 50 now – we’ve got two hotels operating, a lot of plans and some very substantial funding. All the rest of the things are in process. Yet we’ve built an image. You say Virgin and easyGroup and who else is there?
When has personal branding opened doors?
It’s the oil that makes it. I’ve always done lots of TV, always been a commentator, but it takes a series such as Dragons’ Den, to become really well-known. In the old days everyone steered clear of the TV for fear of being slated and today everyone wants to go on it. It’s useful at every single level. I’ve met people we’ve done things with and have employed through it. You phone people up and they’re interested in talking business. And people approach you with ideas. Every day something comes in. ‘Why don’t you have YO! this, YO! that, YO! Funerals?’.