Simon says you can do business the YO! way

Simon Woodroffe (AFP)

The UAE will soon be home to several innovative concepts spawned by the fertile mind of British entrepreneur Simon Woodroffe, OBE, among them a budget hotel concept and a rock-and-roll-style spa.

But first, the man behind the YO! retail success story will share his business secrets with our own corporate trailblazers on May 25 at a leadership forum in Abu Dhabi.

Woodroffe's Yotel pod hotel concept is already open at London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports in collaboration with Kuwait's IFA Hotels and Resorts. Dubai is among the several international locations that have been identified as prime opportunities for Yotel, which has challenged accepted notions of hospitality by selling rooms on an hourly basis, and by bringing quality hotel accommodation within the reach of the ordinary traveller.

But construction schedules and opening dates are as yet unavailable – even from Woodroffe. "We'll tell you when we're ready. It's all very well saying we're going to rule the world in six years, but it's something that happens over time," he tells Emirates Business, and, rather frustratingly, will not be drawn into a comparison with the easyHotel brand, whose first UAE property is already being built in Dubai's Al Karama district.

"We're not in a race with Stelios [Haji-Ioannou]," he says.

Woodroffe does, however, explain how his Yotel concept will fit into Dubai's ultra-luxe hotel market. "It's so easy for people to point fingers and say, have you done your market research? But you can't market research seven- or 10-square-metre rooms. What we do get a lot of is people who walk in and say, 'Why haven't you done this before?' When we come to Dubai, though, we will be building suites that will be the same size as anyone else's normal rooms, sort of like taking a luxury Mini Cooper S and stretching it a bit."

If that boggles the mind, his YO! Zone spa should provide a further mental workout. The prototype of this new mid-scale luxury concept, being described as an alternative social occasion where beautiful spa meets dancing by the pool, is set to open on the roof of London's redeveloped Battersea Power Station. But Woodroffe says the Middle East would be a perfect market for the venture.

Outrageous concepts, then, are all quite the norm for Woodroffe, who is one of a select breed of entrepreneurs, such as Richard Branson and Vijay Mallaya, who seem to take a flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants approach to business, innovating as they hurtle forward from one idea to the next, dragging the world's media along with the promise of inspired headlines and spectacular photo-ops.

Like the others, Woodroffe has had spectacular successes – such as YO! Sushi, now at a neighbourhood mall near you – and failures. He will share some of that know-how – or YO! How, as he puts it – with our own community of business

leaders and wannabe entrepreneurs at the Leaders in Abu Dhabi forum on May 25.

"You learn as much from your mistakes as you do from your successes," he says. "Success in life is all about giving up what you are not good at and focusing on the things you are."

While the Dragon's Den star is not telling whether his talk will incorporate poetry, music and acting – as it has in the past – he says it will focus on his life and his success secrets. "I will not be offering advice. When people stand up and tell you how to run your life, my reaction is always, 'Who do you think you are?' So it's about what happened to me as a businessman and entrepreneur. And like I always say, it's a legalised form of theft: you can nick the speaker's best ideas at events like this," Woodroffe tells us in advance of his trip – his second to the capital. (The last time he was here, he says, Gulf Saatchi & Saatchi chairman and managing director Khamis Al Muqla took him shopping in Abu Dhabi's souqs, for the "full-on experience".)

One of five entrepreneurs to advise the British government on economic policy, Woodroffe has a strong reputation on the international public speaking circuit, in part because he eschews business clichés, but also because his own story is so fascinating.

Having dropped out of school at 16 with a burning urge to prove himself (he talks of self-esteem and financial security issues), he then spent 25 years in the entertainment business; his production companies in London and Los Angeles designed and staged concerts for artists such as George Michael, Rod Stewart and Stevie Wonder in the 1970s and '80s. In the '90s, he spearheaded the development of television deals to show huge rock concerts worldwide, including the Nelson Mandela concerts and shows for Amnesty International and The Prince's Trust charity.

But soon after, things went all pear shaped. Forty years old with a family to support, Woodroffe was nearly broke. Back to the wall, he launched YO! Sushi, a conveyor belt sushi bar in London in 1997, he knew nothing of the food service business – but made sure his outlets were big entertainment draws with features such as call buttons, robot drink trolleys and Japanese TV.

Five years later, he was crossing Japanese capsule hotels with first- class air travel to create the Yotel. Among his ventures since are YO! Zone; RadYO!; a YO! Japan clothing range; a YO! To Go food takeaway concept; and his latest, YO! Home, which, he says, is an attempt to revolutionise urban living.

"City centre apartments have not changed for hundreds of years, and I want to radicalise them to create spaces that are super flexible, that can be bedrooms, party spaces, dining rooms, studies, chill out areas – all in one." And to get there, he's using the same mechanics that shift theatre scenery around the stage to create what he calls branded superhomes that will offer all the benefits of serviced apartments, from concierge to plumbing and IT services inhouse. "I'm now truly a serial entrepreneur. I was a bit of a scam before," he laughs.

Along the way, he has sold his stake in YO! Sushi three times, but retained the royalties in a move he says will ensure that, unlike KFC's Col Sanders, he will never have to talk about how I lost my YO!

"It's the same equation as raising children. You've got to move on," he says of why he sold his equity. "Children grow up and go on to do their own thing, businesses are the same. Most entrepreneurs, however, like to hang on to their businesses." In the process, he says, their growth is often stifled.

Woodroffe himself allows his partners to run each of his businesses, and has handed them total control. "It's effectively an ideas business now," he says. So he travels the world, staying in touch with his lieutenants, offering ideas and inputs, but essentially, "allowing them to get on with it. I don't go to the office everyday anymore. I like it that way and my partners like it that way."

So what's next for YO!? "More of the same," says Woodroffe. He is working on a series of audio books called YO! How, and tinkering with new ideas. "I don't want to do what Virgin is doing, hundreds of different things. I'd rather do four or five, and be the best in each."


Outrageous, Inc

Business must be outrageous for success, says Simon Woodroffe. And for some, that means outrageous publicity stunts – for the bigger the stunt, the more press your company gets.

Among those who have benefitted from this way of thinking are Richard Branson, who has driven a tank down Fifth Avenue in New York to launch Virgin Cola in the United States and EasyGroup founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou, who booked himself and a team, in trademark orange, onto a competing airliner's maiden flight to hand out free EasyJet tickets to passengers.

Another is Indian liquor baron and airline owner Vijay Mallaya, self-styled 'King of Good Times', who flies in the face of traditionally conservative business practices with his annual swimsuit calendar and by buying historic, pre-colonial relics. "When it comes to business, I leverage everything possible – that's my job," he has said.

Branson goes one step further: he reportedly sets aside 25 per cent of his time for public relations activities, and his highest-paid employee is Will Whitehorn, his PR and communications director.

But the publicity gimmicks, however, are only an example of the lateral thinking approach that makes these entrepreneurs successful. And therein lies the lesson.


Talking business

The first Leaders in Abu Dhabi forum will bring together some of the most well-known strategic leaders in the world for an intensive one-day boot camp being held in the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi.

Besides Simon Woodroffe, keynote speakers include management guru Marcus Buckingham, world chess champion Garry Kasparov and former Nato Supreme Allied Commander General Wesley Clark.

Alan Kelly, divisional director with organisers Leaders Presents, said the inaugural event follows on from the successful Leaders in Dubai conferences that have taken place over the past four years.

"Unlike Leaders in Dubai, which attracts more political leaders, Leaders in Abu Dhabi is a business forum focusing on back to basics pure leadership. This is about developing future leaders in the region and inspiring people to be the best that they can be."

Participation costs for the day-long event are $1,895. Leaders Presents can be reached at 04 335 2673.