Simon Woodroffe lives on a houseboat in Chelsea. Damian Hirst has a boat a few berths away, and another vessel in the area recently sold for £800,000.
But although the founder of YO! Sushi and Yotel’s floating home is undeniably plush, it is not extravagant. Nor is it a third home for occasional quirky London living. The boat is his sole residence after he sold his Oxford Street flat (from which he directed operations for his first YO! Sushi restaurant) and his country pile, a few years ago. ‘Now this is my only house, life is simple,’ says Woodroffe as he gazes across at Battersea Bridge.
Simple in multi-millionaire terms anyway, but for a wealthy man Woodroffe is surprisingly unmaterialistic. ‘I don’t hanker after owning things because everything can be rented,’ he explains.
Clearly there are exceptions. He recently bought a boat to satisfy his love of sailing, and he proudly shows off his two recently purchased antiques.
One is a chair crafted from the timbers of the 98-gun Temeraire – the ship immortalised in JMW Turner’s 1838 painting ‘The Fighting Temeraire’. The second is an eighteenth century painting of a warship in the English Channel.
Woodroffe bounds out of his seat and goes over to the painting, pointing out the impressionist style the waves are painted in – an unusual device for a period when lifelike accuracy was the fashion.
‘This is the first piece of expensive art I have ever bought,’ he says. ‘It was painted in 1750. Seventeen-fucking-fifty. That’s nearly 300 years ago,’ he adds, reverently.
Why this particular painting? ‘I like boats, so I bought a naval painting. Simple,’ he explains.
Simple it may be, but there is always a theme with Woodroffe. The painting is of a warship that would probably have been around in Nelson’s time, and the Temeraire protected Nelson’s flagship Victory as she sailed into battle at Trafalgar. The chair has a plaque on it with Nelson’s famous ‘England expects…’ command. A similar plaque sits above the door of the houseboat, which, coincidentally, has been called Trafalgar since the 1960s.
Woodroffe clearly likes things – be they possessions or brands – to relate, but his view of branding is unusual to the point of contradiction.
‘People say brands should be the same, which I think is global domination,’ he explains. ‘I want all of our brands to have their own separate identity – to be cousins within the YO! family if you like.’
When Yotel opened for business earlier this year, it was billed as offering ‘luxury at affordable prices’. The idea for the small pods came from airline travel and one of the three designers involved in the project was aircraft interior designer Priestman Goode.
Woodroffe is adamant neither YO! Sushi nor Yotel could have been the product of a large corporate entity.
‘If you asked a big company’s marketing department whether they thought people would want to stay in a 10 square metre room with no natural light, or eat raw fish from a conveyor belt, they would say “no way Jose!”. For that type of thing to work, you need a quantum leap. That can only be done by an entrepreneur.’
Although clearly something of a maverick, Woodroffe remains honest and candid.
He talks of being ‘frightening and difficult to work with’ in the past until he learned that he was great with ideas, but not a person to run a business. So now he gets projects off the ground and then hands them over to trusted lieutenants.
‘I’ve spent a lot of my life suffering from the delusion that I could do anything better than you could. When I learned that was a delusion, it liberated me to be happy,’ he explains.
He speaks of this ‘liberation’ almost as if it was something of an epiphany, but it has clearly made him aware of his faults.
His thoughts come rapidly and he launches into answers at breakneck speed, stopping abruptly, pausing, and re-starting suddenly as more things occur to him.
It makes him a slightly difficult interviewee (writing notes is next to impossible), but a thoroughly engaging one. Some people who meet him are convinced his slightly eccentric air is part of some act, but watching him bound around his beloved houseboat he appears genuine.
With his red suede shoes and the velvet trimmings on his jacket, he has an exotic and slightly avuncular air.
Keeping it simple
Woodroffe loves to simplify things, and his general philosophy is summed up thus: ‘Travel the world, meet interesting people, establish the nice ones and try to do things with them.’ He concludes many sentences with an ‘it’s as simple as that’ type shrug.
His career has had its downs as well as ups, and he hasn’t lost empathy for the bright young entrepreneur. ‘Anybody that does anything should get a round of applause,’ he says, when asked about heroes.
Branson is a model though, because ‘he took off his tie and had fun, and created a brand that could be in lots of different things’.
Returning to his theme of simplicity, Woodroffe finally turns his attention to PR.
‘The secret to spreading word of mouth is very simple – do something interesting,’ he shrugs. ‘What good PROs do is distribute good information. If you’ve got something interesting to talk about and someone interesting to talk about it, then that’s the best PR there is. You can wrap it up in clever stuff, but that’s all there is to it.’
Staff at consumer shop Threepipe, which is promoting Yotel, are described as ‘nice people who work hard’, fitting his absolute requirements in a business partner.
Grabbing another cigarette, Woodroffe concludes by summing up his working life.
‘I try to be a decent human being. Business is cutthroat with people trying to screw each other left right and centre, but that’s not my scene.’