My First Million: Simon Woodroffe of Yo! Sushi

How Simon Woodruffe opened his first sushi restaurant, despite having no experience in the restaurant industry and only half the funds required.


"I knew nothing about restaurants. I had had many jobs, from a roadie, bus conductor to TV producer. All sorts. But I had no track record in the restaurant business." But lack of experience didn't deter him. After borrowing £150,000 against his house, securing a government grant and persuading some friends to invest in his new project, he had half the money required. So in January 1997, he signed the lease on the first restaurant in Soho's Poland Street, with only half of the funds secured. How he did so is a story in itself.

In front of the new restaurant, he put up a sign, claiming that All Nippon airways, Sony and Honda were sponsoring his restaurant. The backing of big-name sponsors helped persuade a nervous supplier to extend his credit line, and the landlords to hand over the lease. None of it was strictly true however. "Honda had lent me a delivery bike for six months, All Nippon had given me a free upgrade to first class once, and Sony had just given me some free TVs."

Luckily for him, the Soho venue was a success and he used the fresh impetus of cash to pay off some of those he owed, and to launch three more successful restaurants. He attributes the winning formula to word of mouth spreading quickly and the fact that his sushi bars "had a lot of unique and interesting stuff", from automated call buttons to sushi-making robots. "People had never been into something like it before," he says.

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By 1999, Woodroffe felt he was invincible and launched three restaurants, one in the Millennium Dome. None did very well, so he felt it was time for him to take a step back, and bring someone else on board to manage the business. "Most entrepreneurs don't let go," he says, "but I knew it was time to. I felt that although I was once inspiring, I had now become more difficult to work with. My operations manager told me, You'll never do it, you'll never let go.' But I did."

In September 2003 and with 17 restaurants he sold his controlling interest in YoSushi! for £10m and now owns 24% of the business, with a royalty stream on top of that. Does he have any regrets? "One of the secrets of life is knowing what you're good at. I was good at ideas, motivating people, I was a good mentor and good at starting things. But I was crap at running a business. My strategy is to start with 100% of a business, and gradually dilute my share down, using the Yo name." And he says that he now views Yo Sushi! in the same way that Jerry Hall once said she looked at Mick Jagger. "As she said, I just stand on the side of the stage and say, that's my man.'"

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.