‘Just be yourself’

Thursday 28 August 2008 by

Original Dragon's Den panellist and Yo! Sushi founder Simon Woodroffe has advice for speakers and interviewees

Yo! Dragon

Simon Woodroffe was the dragon who didn't want to breathe fire. Chris Morvan met him and found he had advice for both public speakers and candidates at interview:
'Know your subject, know the background, but stop thinking about what you're going to say. It's the same when you go into any presentation or meeting.'

Here on the third floor of Fortis Guernsey's seafront office block there is a familiar face ploughing wearily but good-naturedly through an afternoon of media interviews. A businessman? Certainly. A highly successful one. But Simon Woodroffe doesn't look like millions of businessmen around the world. Sure, he's wearing a suit, but it's a medium shade of blue and has a satin collar. There are overlapping, jeans-style seams down the sides of the trousers. Wacky, decidedly unconventional shirt, and I don't know if you've ever seen purple socks, but I have, because he's wearing some.

And then there are the sideburns, which slink down his cheeks into points, like knives.
It all adds up to this: he's a rock'n'roller at heart. The freedom to wear what he likes, to bend the rules that bind the average nine-to-fiver, comes from his success and the fact that he is an entrepreneur - a maverick. This is the man who dreamed up the Yo! brand, the first manifestation of which was the Yo! Sushi chain of restaurants and which now includes Yotels - with their small airline/ship-style cabins rather than conventional rooms.

It is a way of thinking that is truly, to use an overworked word, innovative - and it has earned him an OBE.
Despite that, Woodroffe is best known to most of us as one of the original panel on Dragons' Den, the top-rated TV programme on which hopefuls with business ideas pitch them to five millionaires in the hope of getting them to invest in the company.

Woodroffe was born into a nomadic army family, which traipsed around the world according to where his father was posted next. Young Simon escaped much of this through being sent to an English public school, which he left, aged 16 and with two O levels, at the end of the 1960s. 'That focused my mind,' he says self-deprecatingly of his lack of qualifications. 'I was variously a bus conductor, a roadie and a stage designer.' The latter was his first serious business. 'We did very well. We worked with bands from Motorhead to the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, The Faces, Elton...' He trails off. 'There were very few people doing it at the time [the 1970s and 80s] because in those days there was rock'n'roll and showbusiness, and never the twain should meet.'
Another overused word that springs to mind is entrepreneur. Is that how he thinks of himself? 'A classic entrepreneur,' he says firmly. 'I didn't come from money - I didn't come from poverty either, but certainly not from money. There is something that drives all of us and I was going to be a millionaire by the time I was 20, but I was having a good time at that age, so I put it off first till I was 30 and then till I was 40. Then I thought "I'm running out of time, so I'd better do something about it." Then I came up with the idea of Yo! Sushi after talking to a guy called Mr Uahara, who told me I should do a sushi bar with conveyor belts and girls in black PVC miniskirts. Two years later we opened, and I'm making it sound easy, but it was quite a struggle. I always knew I had the vision for it and that I would find people to make the whole thing work, but I lacked two fundamental things: I didn't have a track record in the restaurant business and I didn't have any real money. I put in the last £150,000 that was left after my divorce. Rationally, I knew it was a very high risk, but emotionally I knew it would work. At that level I think you often do things because you believe in them.'
Woodroffe actually turned down Dragons' Den at the first time of asking. 'We were scared of it,' he says candidly. 'A programme in which you had to invest between £300,000 and £500,000 of your own money? That actually turned out not to be the case, but it sounded like paying to be on TV and throwing your money away.' When he says 'we' he means himself and other entrepreneurs, many of whom knew each other through their shared interests and lifestyle, bumping into one another at awards ceremonies and the like.
The pilot episode went ahead without him, but then the producers approached him again, concerned that one of the dragons wasn't suitable. The format of the show had settled down and it was a less alarming proposition, so this time he said yes.

What, I wondered, was the best deal he did through the show?
He smiles. 'I made more money out of the first two series than anyone else - and what I made was... zero. You don't do Dragons' Den to get great investments. What I would say to the people walking up the stairs is "Don't think there are five people up there waiting to make money out of you: there are five people there thinking they're on a TV show and they're going to give a performance." The one that I'm best known for is the truffle farm, but like a lot of those investments, nothing ever really happened. The young man thought he could inject fungi and make truffles, which I later found out was the holy grail in that business, but it turned out that he didn't have the formula and it didn't actually work. What you don't see on the show is that a presentation can take up to an hour and a half, rather than the couple of minutes you do see, and while the other dragons were saying "It's never going to work," I was saying "I know, but I'm going to make a fortune out of truffle-hunting clothing and merchandise: big trousers you can put the truffles in, secret service glasses, special truffle-hunting torches... people are going to be going clubbing in truffle-hunting gear."'

Devotees of the show will know that it is set in a disused warehouse, but again, things are not what they seem, as Woodroffe reveals:
'For the first two series they used a lovely old warehouse in north London, and all the features you saw were real, but for the third series they couldn't use it, for some reason, so they recreated it in a studio in east London.'

The people pitching their ideas are kept two floors below, and Woodroffe says he felt sorry for them. 'They had to climb two sets of quite steep stairs, so by the time they got up there they were out of breath and also terrified, especially on the first series, because they didn't know what they were walking into. You hear the word "jeopardy" in TV companies a lot, because they like to create it, the possibility that someone could fail, because it makes good TV. It's a very intimidating thing, especially if you're not used to speaking in public. But the advice I would give is don't prepare anything. Know your subject, know the background, but stop thinking about what you're going to say. It's the same when you go into any presentation or meeting where you're trying to raise money in real life. Do your preparation, but be yourself. It's much better to do something from the heart than if you do some prepared speech. It's the same in anything: just think "I'm going to be myself and if they don't like me, who cares?" And when your brain relaxes enough, natural things come out and you can be spontaneous.'

He stayed for only two series and still feels he was slightly out of place. 'I wasn't prepared to be a horrible, nasty dragon. They always said to me that I was the nice one,' he says, suggesting that the programme-makers would have preferred him to join in the criticism and occasional savaging of one of the hapless applicants when his or her bizarre idea was exposed as unworkable. 'The real reason was that I couldn't do the next series because I had speaking engagements and other things, but I'm actually glad I didn't do it. It stood me in good stead, but it's become a bit of a cartoon of itself now.'

Nowadays he spends much of his time on the Yotels - there's one at Heathrow, another at Gatwick and a third coming soon at Amsterdam's Schipol airport. He stayed at the Gatwick one the night before this trip - in one of the economy rooms, rather than a luxury one. Now, he could just be saying this for effect, but you get the impression it is the kind of thing he would do, when he follows it up with this: 'The holy grail of retail is to give to ordinary people what rich people have. To do that you have to have a quantum leap, and in this case that leap is the size. They're designed by people who do the designs for luxury aeroplanes.'

Japanese food has nothing to do with it. 'Yo! is into a number of things at the moment. There's the radio thing I'm doing, RadiYo!; there's a publishing business, Yo! How, which is mainly my own stuff at the moment. We're doing Yo! Home, residential property, and Yo! Zone, the spa, is on its way.'

A version of this interview appeared in Business Active magazine. Adapted and used by permission of The Digital Works.