Founder of YO! Sushi, Simon Woodroffe, started his Japanese conveyor belt restaurant out in 1997 at one of the lowest points in his life, saying his drive came out of pure “desperation”
Founder of YO!
Sushi, Simon Woodroffe, started his Japanese conveyor belt restaurant out in
1997 at one of the lowest points in his life, saying his drive came out of
“I didn’t have a great deal of money, I got divorced so I had even less... Successful people don’t go around succeeding all day. Successful people fail, they’re willing to step out of the comfort zone and do something and fail,” Simon Woodroffe, founder of YO! Sushi said, speaking to a crowd of attendees at Day 1 of the Elite Business Live event on March 9. Mr Woodroffe spoke about the ups and downs of he faced when opening Japanese conveyor belt restaurant, YO! Sushi, before it became an astounding international success.
Simon had left school at the age of 16 with two O-levels before landing a job in London as a theatre stagehand. In the 1960s, he became a roadie and a stage designer for the likes of Rod Stewart, Moody Blues and Jethro Tull. “I left to school with two O levels, anybody has less than two O levels in here?” Simon told the audience. With nobody raising their hands up, Simon exclaimed, “Yes!” jokingly and continued: “To go off and do difficult things is no easy feat, and if you are sitting in this room you are thinking about doing, are already doing it or in the midst of doing something that is a bit like going into a war. You know that you’re going to have sleepless nights, you know that your fear levels are going to be up here, you know that you could succeed, you know that you could fail. Probably statistically more likely to fail, not such a bad thing to do... But there has to be something. Just observe yourself for a second. I call it the grit in the oyster, something that drives you. I know as a kid growing up, I think as a family we always had a bit less. Apparently, I used to tell people I was going to be a millionaire by the time I was 20.”
At the age of 40 years old, Simon left the music the industry and shortly went through a divorce, battling depression. He stumbled about the idea to start his restaurant chain YO! Sushi out of “desperation”, he said. Simon came up with the idea after a Japanese friend suggested he set up a conveyor belt-style restaurant in the UK. In 1997, Simon opened his first YO! Sushi restaurant in Poland Street, Soho without any start-up capital. He was able to persuade a bank manager to back the idea and secured a £200,00 loan guarantee from the UK government. Simon had asked his largest supplier for extended terms to pay off his debt, and they believed YO! Sushi was a “safe bet” as it had the support of Honda, Sony and All Nippon Airways. But Simon revealed those companies had provided very cheap sponsorship, consisting of some televisions and motorcycles.
In the early days of starting his restaurant chain, Simon said he had a voice at the back of his head telling him he couldn’t do it. But he managed to train himself by becoming an “actor” and pretend he had it all figured out until he truly believed he did. “To delude that side that says it’s all going to go wrong, I had this thing called ‘acting as if’,” Simon said. “All said to myself is, I’m going to be an actor and act like somebody who’s and do something like that. And I remember giving myself 3 months resting period of time, which is nearly a hundred days. And if you just chip of 1% improvement a day, and at around the end 3 months you have 100% improvement. And after those 100 days when I woke up in the morning, that voice was gone. Quiet as a church mouse. And I've got this other voice waking me up in the morning, and this voice says, ‘you are going be very rich and very famous and very successful’. And fortunately, I've been around long enough in the business to know this positive voice is as big enough of a delusion as the other one, but this one gets you jumping out of bed in the morning! Because I got to a point where I believe in something, if there’s one thing I got, I have enthusiasm for a new idea. Because I believe it. You at least think you could be right. You can walk into a room at any level you want if you have confidence. And confidence is such a strange thing. But you have to act to get to that point.”
Simon opened two more restaurants in London department stores Harvey Nichols and Selfridges which were incredibly successful and had huge influxes of customers pouring in daily. However, problems began to surface with a branch in Edinburgh and one in London’s former County Hall which flopped. He brought in an outside manager, Robin Roland, who has remained chief executive of YO! Sushi and spearheaded its expansion. The YO! Name has been taken into other areas including hotels business Yotel and homebuilder YO! Home.
"I had that feeling of a call to action,” Simon said. “That suspicion that you could do something more in this world. I always used to think that when I was a kid at school that people who went out and did difficult things were very special people. But actually, I’ve learnt business is pretty simple. The hard bit is people. And the hardest one of the lot is us, what we are doing ourselves.”