Soho House Founder: How I Built The World’s Most Exclusive Club: Nick Jones | E163 | Transcription
Transcription for the video titled "Soho House Founder: How I Built The World’s Most Exclusive Club: Nick Jones | E163".
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I wasn't experienced enough. I was too young. You were just branded thick. Nick Jones, the founder and CEO of Soho House. With an empire of private clubs around the world. It's the most see and be seen type of place. Not everyone gets it. Your upbringing is particularly compelling to me because you were somewhat counted out. I'm hugely dyslexic. People didn't understand it. You were just branded thick. Wow. There was not much choice for me. You've created a business which brings a lot of people joy. That first Soho House on Greek Street, why did it work? I wanted to prove that hospitality could be done differently. I can't think of a time when I was thinking about making an aspirational brand. I've always been obsessed about the member and that was always my number one thing. They've created that. If you don't make mistakes, you're not pushing yourself. You're not taking yourself out of your comfort zone. Maybe I was trying to prove to my family that I could do this and I think that's an invaluable lesson. At what point does that desire to prove something need to be contained because it might come at the expense of life balance? Um, a very good question. And I think... So without further ado, I'm Stephen Bartlett and this is the diary of a CEO. I hope nobody's listening, but if you are, then please keep this to yourself. Nick, thank you for being here.
Formation And Success Of Soho House
Early years (01:29)
I have to say I'm a big fan of the business you've created and I know you don't like the word, but the brand you've built for many, many reasons that I'm excited to get into. Maybe because I'm a marketeer, but maybe also just because I'm a customer and someone that loves the Soho House brand. But where I wanted to start with you is where I always start. And your sort of origin story, your upbringing is particularly compelling to me because by many accounts, even your own, you were somewhat counted out. Is that true? Well, my childhood was... I don't think I'd say I was counted out. I was, you know, in a nice middle class family where I had two older brothers and a sister, younger sister, mum and dad. But my two older brothers were, you know, they were the sort of stars. They were great at school, they were good at sport and I was a bit not so good at sport and not so good at school. And it was a sort of different sort of childhood that I suppose that they had. And yeah, I think it probably put me in good stead, but at the time it was probably quite tricky. When you say not so good at school, what do you mean specifically? Well, just really bad at exams. Yeah, I'm hugely dyslexic. And so I find spelling really difficult. I find pronunciation difficult. I find, you know, all sorts of things difficult at school. I mean, I've since learned that dyslexia is the greatest thing to have. And at school it isn't. But I was lucky enough that my mum was all over it and it was discovered that I was dyslexic at the age of 12, which is very young for a lot of people. People are still discovering, you know, contemporaries of mine are still discovering a dyslexic right now at the age I am, which is 58. So I was lucky and I got support and I sort of got through school by weird things like they'd give you extra hours on your exam. But I didn't need that. I only needed half the amount of time anyway to fill up the paper because I didn't have enough information. So to get another hour was just another hour of just fiddling around with your pencil. So yeah. The perception towards dyslexia today is quite a common thing and people understand it a bit better. But back then, I'm assuming people didn't really understand what it was or was it more of a sticker? Yeah, I think so. You're just branded thick. Because if you couldn't read or you couldn't write properly, my handwriting is still very not... I try and avoid handwriting at every possibility. So it's still really bad. And I think, yes, because people didn't understand it there. But people understand it now and people talk about it and they should talk about it. And to me, if you have dyslexia, you look at things very differently because you have to look at things differently. You have to simplify things. And by simplifying things, I think that gives you a different perspective on things. When I say candidate, I mean more in the sense of you didn't believe that you would be a success when you were older because especially when you're at that young age, you assume that those that are getting the best grades and spell the best and do math the best are going to be rich and successful. And then there's us, there's everyone else. So at that young age, you didn't see, you didn't envisage you would be a quote unquote success. I didn't think either way. I was just sort of thinking of just getting through school and I wasn't really planning that if I was going to be a success or not a success. And I think that's interesting how you define success. And I don't think success has just been successful, you know, running a business or creating a business. I think it touches all sorts of things. Was there, when I was reading about your parents' dinner parties, that seemed to be the first inspiration for what you would later do in hospitality and restaurants and creating experiences for others.
The first inspiration for soho house (05:45)
Was that the first sort of spark of inspiration for you? Yeah, I was, while my brothers were on the sports field, I weirdly liked doing the supermarket shop with my mum. You know, I found supermarkets fascinating. I found food fascinating. I then found the whole preparation of how to give people a good time, you know, fascinating. And, you know, I loved watching how you could create an environment where people had a laugh and fun. And was that what your parents were doing? Well, yeah, not all the time. I mean, occasionally they did it. But when they did do it, it was, you know, I loved to be part of them trying to create a fun evening. And I think that's probably where I suddenly realised that, you know, hospitality was the route for me because I, you know, we're going back a long, long time. You know, this was, you know, I'm 58 now and I was sort of 13 at the time. And I was, I used to, you know, go to the local sports club and work behind the bar. You know, clean the glasses. And weirdly, I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the interaction with people. I enjoyed seeing people just have a nice time. And back then, people were not going into hospitality. I mean, it was really at the bottom of the ladder of industries that people went into. So I thought that was an opportunity. It's funny because I've sat here with Jimmy Carr and lots of comedians. And when I hear about their sort of inspiration for becoming a comedian, it tends to root back to them being younger and it being the thing that they would see create the most joy in their home. So in the case of Jimmy Carr and Russell Howard and a few of the other comedians I've sat with, they tell me the story about like the thing that would make my parents the happiest was when I would tell jokes. So that was this sort of psychological reinforcement that led me to be a joke teller for the rest of my life. And when I was reading about those dinner parties that your parents had, I was, I was, and also confounded by the fact that you, you know, you said in your own words, you didn't feel like there was a lot of conventional avenues available to you because of your dyslexia, that that was the combination of factors that caused you to... Well, and I really had to, I mean, when I was at school, because I wasn't good at getting exams, I had to rule university out. I had to, there was not much choice for me. You know, there was a person with very few O levels as they were called then. And I think I got an E and an A level. I scraped through on economics, I think. And, you know, with that, there was, there was really not a lot of choice. And, you know, my careers master at school sort of said, I think it's catering, Nick. So when my, when my careers master said that, I sort of thought, and also the fact that I thought there was real opportunity in this. And my dad owned a small insurance broking company and my brothers went into work there. And I think my dad was keen for me to go and work there, but I didn't find insurance very exciting. I still don't. And I didn't find that world of working in the city and insurance and being an insurance broker interesting at all. So I did have that as an opportunity, but I really felt I wanted to try hospitality and catering. As you started your journey into hospitality and catering, did you start to at any point figure out that you had some kind of area of brilliance?
What did you have that others didn’t? (09:24)
There was something you were good at compared to others. No, I remember clearly the first, no, the answer to that was definitely no. My first day, I worked for Trust House Forte. I was a management trainee and it was a five-year course. And I applied to the Savoy management training course to start with. And they, I remember it to this day, the interview I had and I just froze. I couldn't speak. I was so nervous. I absolutely froze. And because I was a pretty shy kid and, you know, I was shy at 17 when I was going for these interviews. And I just was, I just got stage fright. I just couldn't, my mouth, no words came out of my mouth. And I didn't get into the Savoy management course, but then I applied for Trust House Forte. And luckily when I went for the interview, I was able to talk and I got onto a five-year course. And my first part of the course was a year in the kitchens. And it was at St. George's Hotel in Lagan Place, which is just here in London off Oxford Street. And I arrived and the chef looked me up and down. And he called me a nickname, which I'm not going to say on this. It began with a C. And he threw a sack of potatoes at me, which sort of landed in my belly. And he said, "peel them." And so I went off to the area where you peel the potatoes. And I hadn't really ever used a knife before. And the first one, the first potato, I cut my finger and I thought, "Oh God, how do I hide this?" And the water I was putting the potatoes in was getting redder and redder and redder. And I thought, "Oh no, this is my first day." And the nickname stuck. And I was really sort of learning on the job, which I think is a really great way to learn anything. And I kept making mistakes, but I was determined to sort of fit in to the kitchen because it was an environment, because I came from this sort of cotton wall, middle-class background. And then going into the kitchen into the early 80s, where it was long hours. And someone who comes in with a slightly posh accent. And it was a good moment. It was a good moment for me. What was it about that? Because that sounds pretty horrific. Having worked in a kitchen, my mum had a restaurant at a very young age. I started working there at seven. Super high stressful, people always complaining, it's hot in there. People weren't throwing things at me and calling me the C-word, but it was really unpleasant. So I'm wondering what in that context, despite all of that, tickled your fancy. Well, do you know what it was? I was coming out my shyness. I was learning how to get on with people. And I went to a private school. I was surrounded by people who went to private school, which is 7% of the population. And by going into the kitchen, you really learn to really get on with everyone. And I think that's an invaluable lesson. And I really became friendly with a lot of the chefs and would go out with them at night. And I just enjoyed it. And even though it was hard, I just enjoyed the environment. I enjoyed creating food. I enjoyed the buzz. I didn't mind the heat. I didn't mind the fact that it was long hours. I just enjoyed it. If I had spoken to maybe your colleague or someone that was maybe above you and a line manager at that time and said, what isn't it good at? What would they have said to me? I'd like to think not peeling potatoes or making porridge, but getting on with people and being part of a team and getting stuck in. You said earlier that dyslexia is actually a great gift.
Why dyslexia is a great gift (13:40)
Can you explain why you've now come to believe that is a real sort of superpower for you? Well, I wouldn't say it's a superpower, but I talk a lot about dyslexic because I really want people to feel that if they get the test and they're dyslexic, I don't want them to ever feel bad. I want them to feel good and go, well, this is a huge opportunity. Because I think when you look at things differently and the reason-- one thing being dyslexic, I have to simplify everything all the time. I have to-- I want something on one sheet of paper. I don't want it on four sheets of paper. I want everything to be scaled down and simplified. And I think we live in a world where everyone's over-complicating things always. And it doesn't matter what area of the business I work in now, whether it's the designers or the chefs or the tech people, it's all over-complicated. And I spend a lot of my time just editing down and simplifying it. And I think dyslexic, being dyslexic has made me do that because it's the easy route because complication panics me and confuses me. So I spend a lot of time simplifying. And I think when you do simplify things, people understand it. They get it. They like it. Yeah, so true. Someone once said to me a phrase I always forget, which is if someone's ability to simplify something also correlates their ability to truly understand it. And typically when you meet these salesmen that are trying to blag you in some way, they purposefully over-complicate something. And sometimes they don't actually understand what they're saying. But distilling it to simplicity gets it closer to truth. And it's also a sign that the person communicating it really truly understands the essence of the idea or the concept. By '22, you started your own restaurant chain.
Starting your own restaurant chain at 22 (15:30)
Well, I went around lots of departments within Trust House Forte from Front Desk to the bar to housekeeping. I was a housekeeper. I cleaned the rooms at the Westbury Hotel in Conduit Street. I was a barman at Brown's Hotel in Albemarle Street. I remember clearly serving in the barman. And I remember making cocktails for George Best. That was a highlight of-- he was such a nice guy. And I suppose at that time, I always thought the determination was to open something, to open my own restaurant. This is-- I want to learn this. And then I ended up doing marketing at Trust House Forte. And then I was marketing manager at Grove in a House in Park Lane. And it wasn't because I was brilliant at it. It was-- I was cheap. I didn't just cost a lot of money. And that's what they were looking for at that precise moment. And but I always-- when I was working there, I was always working on a plan to not work for Trust House Forte, which was a big, big hotel company. And I was thinking, I want to get out of this at some stage. I don't want to keep going on the ladder when you keep getting-- hopefully, I would have kept being promoted into other jobs. And then it would have been too difficult to leave. So I thought, I want to go when I'm still relatively at the bottom. And then I went and tried working in fast food restaurants or casual restaurants. So I went to work to Maxwell's in Covent Garden as the night manager. I then went to work at Pasta Mania as a junior manager. And then during that time, I was building my plan to open my first restaurant, which was called Over the Top. And that opened in 1988. And it was-- I was too young. I wasn't experienced enough. It was terrible. The design, which is something I'm obsessed with now, and I love design. That was my first design outing. And it really was terrible. The food was really bad. My friends had to come. And that showed-- I really knew who my friends were because they would come and support me in the restaurant. But it was a good experience of getting something really wrong. It's not cheap to open a restaurant. How did you fund that at the time? Well, my dad put a bit of money in. Family friends put a bit of money in. And I got the bank to put some money in. So I was lucky. I was given that chance to be able to open my first restaurant. And it's something we do a lot now. I love people doing that. When anyone comes to me and wants to be an entrepreneur and start something up, I really make time to see them and help them. And I was lucky. I was given an opportunity. And I learned a lot. That, I guess, would increase the pressure if you've got family betting on you. Yeah. I think they never made me feel like that. My dad, I think he was proud that I was trying to do something. I was trying to do something on my own because he had his own small business. But he never made me feel like that. And the other shareholders, I think in their head, when they first came and tried the restaurant, they probably knew that it wasn't going to lead anywhere. But actually, the company is still the same company as it is today. It never went bust. We hang on in there and eventually opened Cafe Boem in '92, which was really all the experience of getting over the top so wrong. And let me explain what over the top was. You either chose a burger, a piece of chicken, a bit of lamb, or a steak. And over the top of it, you could choose one of 10 sauces. But the sauces were terrible. And it was just bad. And it just sort of taught me how to manage a business with little cash and with no cash, how to pay the staff every week, how to use initiatives to try and get more customers in. And I think it taught me at a very early age, marketing restaurants is not the way to solve a restaurant. You just have to make the restaurant good because the customer is so clever. They know what good is and they know what bad is. And it taught me that very early on. There was no way that you could-- you can't fool a customer. They know. And you could walk into over the top and you could sort of feel-- you could sense that it wasn't good enough. But what I learned at that time was it's sort of-- I didn't feel it was a failure. I just thought I was on a journey of learning. And I really, even now, encourage all our people that making a mistake is not a problem. If you don't make mistakes, you're not pushing yourself. You're not trying. You're not taking yourself out of your comfort zone. And so I really encourage people to think that failure is not what it sounds like. OK, it's just part of the journey. What did that process teach you about feedback? I asked that because in my first business, I had this tech business. And I was very romantic about this hypothesis, about the way that I thought my customers would behave and about the solution that I thought that they would care about. And I spent too long not listening to their feedback. And ultimately, that was pretty fatal. And I just wish earlier I'd been less romantic and stubborn almost about what I thought the customer would want and listen. But I'm wondering what that first failure taught you about the importance of what feedback you listen to and how you listen to it. Well, I think feedback's key. And people be-- it's funny. Being a Brit, people are funny about complaining, aren't they? In restaurants, they think it will offend you. They think, well, I can't complain to Nick about I had a bad meal last night because he might upset him. But to me, you can only get better by getting really honest feedback. And I'm lucky now because I have members who all have my email address. And if they're not happy, they email me. So I think listening to feedback is super, super important. Did you listen to it at over the top? Well, I could just see it because there wasn't many people to give feedback to. I wish there was more customers in there giving me feedback. But people did give feedback. But I didn't have the tools to be able to get it better. I didn't know. I started going down. Because we kept running out of money. So you kept cutting the team down. So at the end, it was just me in the kitchen serving. And we even set up a delivery service to try and booster sales. But that didn't work. I was so really inspired by you saying that the customer is smart.
The best marketing tactic (23:20)
And also, you alluded to the fact that the best marketing is word of mouth. Yeah, absolutely. That really is at the heart of what you even do today is a belief in the customers. Yeah, I'm very lucky that we have fantastic members who are loyal. If anyone says that we've done OK or I've done OK, it's thanks to our members. And our members are the people who pushed me from doing Sowerhouse, the original Sowerhouse on Greek Street, where it worked. There were hairy moments when I thought it really wasn't going to work. And it would go quiet or it would go-- I remember the first year we opened in May, it suddenly gone quiet. And we'd opened in January. I thought, oh, god, I thought it would last a bit longer than this. And a member turned around to me and said, we're all down at the Cannes Film Festival. That's where your members are. So I suddenly thought, well, next year, I'm going to go down and create a pop-up down there. And this was pre-pop-ups. You know, this was in '96. And so we rented a boat in the harbor. And I remember, in fact, I remember clearly because there was a lady who still works for us to this day, Veronique. And her and I had to fill up this lorry full of stuff in London to drive down to-- I didn't drive a lorry because I couldn't drive a lorry-- but to go down to the South of France Cannes. And we opened this boat. And it was like a temporary club for the 10 days of the Cannes Film Festival. And members, if they weren't in London, they could come to the club in the boat in the harbor. And we did that for lots of years. And I think our members really enjoyed that. And that sort of taught me again where wherever the member was going, go. Because if I hadn't-- I didn't understand the film business or the media business. I was in catering, hospitality. So I was sort of new to this. And when I first created the first ever committee at Sauer House, I was really knocking on doors and phoning people, cold calling them, saying, do you mind? And you had to sort of explain what you were trying to do to get them to come on the committee. And that was where our first 500 members came from. And I think there, I've always just listened to the member. They kept saying, well, Nick, it's great, this one. Why don't you do one in the country? And I go, oh, let's do one in the country then. So off I go. I phoned Savills up. And I say, any hotels for sale? I didn't have any money. But I thought, well, I'm going to go on that route and see how I could get somewhere in the country. And I remember stumbling across Babington House. And I remember it was on the market for a million, million and a half pounds. This was back in a long time ago. And I remember driving up the drive. And as soon as you drive up the drive at Babington, you sort of fall in love with the place. And I fell in love with the place. And I thought, oh my god, how am I going to get planning permission to turn this into a hotel and how am I going to have enough money to buy it? I had just a small amount of money just to put the deposit down. And luckily, the people who were selling it, they said, well, we want to stay here for the summer. We want to exchange. And then we will complete in nine months time. And I thought, yes. And then it gave me nine months to find the money and get the planning permission, raise the money with our members to pay for the completion and also to pay for the refurbishment. And I sort of just remember even before we exchanged, the agent phoned me up and said, you know, a higher offer has gone in. So I was sort of being gazumped. And I thought, well, I don't have the money anyway, so I can put another couple hundred grand on it because of and so I increased my offer. I got Babington House and, you know, I was able to raise the money. We and we raised the money through our members. You know, lots of members put sort of five grand in. And that's how I was able to get the money to open Babington House. So it was a it was a led by our members of the members helped invest in it. You know, they luckily have all got their money back. Plus, plus. And, you know, when that was the second thing we opened.
Why did the first SoHo House work? (28:29)
That first Soho House on Greek Street, why did it work? You know, I was running the restaurant downstairs, Cafe Boheme. That was my survival. Cafe Boheme was you know, it was the same company as over the top. It was it was it was me doing everything totally different to what over the top was. So the food was edible and nice. The service was good. The atmosphere, you know, and if I was in there last night and it was you know, it made me very happy because it was packed and it was fun. And when the building came up available above Cafe Boheme, which is on Greek Street in London, I the landlord phoned me up and they said, well, do you fancy taking the space above? And I go, well, what on earth for? You know, there was no plan to do a private members club. My plan was just to survive and make Cafe Boheme work after four years of attempting over the top. And I still do this today. I always look at everything. When people phoned me and said there's an idea, I was going to have a look. And so I said, OK, well, I'll go and have a look. So I wandered around the offices and it was a small door, you know, on on Greek Street, 40 Greek Street. And and I thought, hmm, hmm. And I hadn't been to a private members club. You know, I wasn't I wasn't part of a Groucho club. I wasn't I wasn't I wasn't part of that, that that was only the Groucho club, although we were always clubs down in Palmisle. I wasn't part of that. Maybe that's a good thing. Yes. And I and I look around and I thought, oh, this is like a home away from home. And and and, you know, this is this could work. How could I you know, this this this is an idea. So but I didn't have any money. So again, and I went to see my landlord, which is Paul Raymond, and I went to see him and he said, well, you do want to take it? And I said, well, I'd love to take it. But what would you invest? Because the family investment and for over the top, they had had totally enough. They were out. You know, the banks were trying to pull out of, you know, trying to get their loan back. It was that bit of it was, you know, just it was it was it was that bit of the family help was done, finished. And so I thought, well, how am I going to raise the money for this? Because it's going to be separate. I'm going to have to do this separately to what Cafe Boheme is. And so I went to see Paul Raymond. He said, I'm not investing. I don't invest in other people's businesses. And then it was when I was leaving. He said, well, what happens if I put the money in but decided it's your rent? So you ended up with a higher rent. You know, a percentage of the money he put in was added to my rent. And I thought, well, to do the fit out to do the fit out. I thought, OK, well, that sounds like it can work. So I set up Soho House. It was it was simple to come up with a name. It was a house in Soho. The logo was pretty simple. It was it was so simple. It was three buildings, three floors. And and I and I owned 100 percent of it because the Cafe Boheme lot, you know, my my family didn't want anything to do with it. And and the other investors. And I thought, well, you know, when Soho House works, I'm going to transfer everything back to the, you know, the same percentages as it was as when it was over the top. So I merged the two companies. So I didn't want I didn't want to be a success on one hand and on Soho. And they were suffering on Cafe Boheme and over the top. So we merged it all together and and we found the members. And and and, you know, a lot of the people who opened Soho House in 95 still a part of Soho House to work. You know, the guy Pierre, who was a server in in in the blue dining room, the blue room in the in the restaurant now runs North America for us. And Marcus Anderson, who runs our membership, part of our membership team, who was a server in one of the dining rooms. So the guy Marcus Barwell was a barman in the Circle Bar. Now he's managing director of Soho House Design. So it's lovely seeing, you know, people who are right there at the beginning still be part of a company now. And it it but it was it was a journey as well. It was we were moving into this new area of membership, understanding membership, understanding, looking after people and and just listening to your members, because I'm going back to your original sort of feedback question. So the feedback which comes from our members has sort of really helped us where we are today. Was Cafe Boheme successful when you embarked on the Soho House journey upstairs? Yes, but it was having to be on top of a disaster of Soho House. So it was quite a lot of it was a lot of sort of it was the same company. And and so, yes, it worked. Cafe Boheme worked. It gave me the confidence to do something else. It it worked because it it you know, it was 30 years ago. So and there weren't many places. I don't think there were many places which were opened at eight in the morning and closed at three in the morning. And you could go in there and eat whatever you wanted or just have a coffee or just have a drink. It the kitchen was always open. You could, you know, drink chunks of beer or you could have a state free or and we had jazz in the afternoons. It was really creating it sort of really created a real regular following within Soho. And it was the turning point, really, of the disaster of over time. I had a few words to say about one of my sponsors on this podcast. For many years, people have been asking for a coffee flavoured huel. And quite recently, he released the iced coffee caramel flavour of their ready to drink hills. And I've just become hooked on it over the last couple of weeks. I've been on a really interesting journey with huel, which I've described and talked about a little bit on this podcast. I started with the berry ready to drinks that I moved over to the protein salted caramel because it's 100 calories and it gives you all of your essential vitamins and minerals, but also gives you the 20 odd grams of protein you need. And now I'm balanced between them both. I drink mostly the banana flavour ready to drink. I've got really into the iced coffee caramel flavour of huel's ready to drink. And now I'm drinking that as well as the protein. Make sure you try the new ready to drink flavours. That the caramel flavour is amazing. The new banana flavour as well is amazing. And obviously, as I said, the iced coffee caramel flavour has been a real smash hit. So check it out. Let me know what you think on social media. I see all of your tags and Instagram posts and tweets about huel. Back to the podcast. So when you look back then on that Soho House, a lot of people, I'm sure, started very similar style businesses around the time.
the factors that made SoHo house what it is today (35:44)
I'm trying to figure out why Soho House went on to become what it is today. What were the factors that, in your view, you talked about customer feedback shaping everything, but... Well, I would give that accolade to our members. I would say it was the members who pushed me. And when we opened in New York, because I think we'd opened the electric house. We were about three then. And someone said, "Well, you should open in New York. I'd love this." I thought, "Oh, yes, maybe." So off I go to New York and determined to open a Soho House in New York. First of all, look in the district of Soho and couldn't find something. Came close. It was difficult learning permitting. It was just difficult. And I remember we found the warehouse. It was an old electrical warehouse and meat packing. Meat packing was a very different place to what it is now. It was rundown. It was full of really interesting life. And I remember we found this warehouse. And I thought, "Okay, I'm going to get the warehouse." And again, we had to raise the money to do it. So it was a question of trying to... How do you get raised money in New York? Because it was a bad time in the UK. I think there might have been a recession going on. So the banks were, "We're not lending you money in New York." So I thought, "Okay, well, I've got to start raising money again." From our members and from people in New York to put money into the Soho House in New York. And everything was nerve-wracking. You know, the week I was flying out there to try and get the permit to be able to allow to open a club in a warehouse was 9/11. So I arrived on, I think it was a Monday evening. And I was nervous because it was this big meeting on the Thursday where in front of a local community board to see whether we'd get permission to be able to open up a club and have a license in this premises. And I was having breakfast on the Tuesday morning, 9/11. And I was having a boiled egg. I remember it. And as I was hitting my boiled egg, I heard this big bang. And I thought, "What is that?" So I ran out on the street and I looked up and I could see one of the twin towers with smoke coming out of it. And I asked, there's a guy sweeping the street. And I said, "Well, what happened?" He said, "Well, a plane went into the side of it." I said, "Well, was it just a, what did it look, was it?" He said, "It was an airliner." He said, "It wasn't like a private plane." And I thought, "Oh my God." So the first thing I did was phone Kirsty, my wife, because she was in news then. She was a news presenter on ITN. And I said, "I think maybe you should get into work. There's something going on here." And then I was still out on the street and I saw the second plane go in. - You saw it coming in? - Yeah. It was coming in from the river. So you didn't actually see it coming in, but you saw the impact of it coming in. And then, you know, that day was, it made me really fall in love with New York. It's sort of the resistance of the people, how they cope with it, how they... It was amazing, the people of New York that day and that week. And anyway, weirdly, the community board still happened on the Thursday. And I went up and did my presentation. I said, "I don't know why I'm doing this. It seems irrelevant. It seems not something we should be doing, but, you know, you're running the meeting." There was a lot of other points on the agenda, so I was just one of them. And we got our permission. And that's how New York started, but it was a big, big sort of race to find the finance. And I was calling everyone. I was calling everyone. I did more show rounds of that warehouse building, you know, running up and down the stairs, showing people around, trying to be enthusiastic. And then, you know, I was sort of getting to know people in New York. And I put together this hard-hat dinner where... I don't know how it happened and I don't know why it happened. But, you know, the really well-known people turned up to this dinner. And we had just had a six burner on the sixth floor and we cooked some chicken. And we laid up the table in the building site with a white tablecloth. So it was real grit and glamour. It was... And these people just turned up. And I remember David Bowie being there. And I remember I was so nervous. I was... And I started talking to him and he said, "This is a great idea. Can I buy it?" And I said, "Well, there's nothing to buy at the moment, but can you invest in it?" "Yes." And so he was one of the investors of Sauer House New York, which was fantastic. And then momentum came and we raised the money. Everyone sort of before that was saying a private members club wouldn't work in New York. You know, people wouldn't pay a membership fee. People treat their restaurants like private members clubs. And the Velvet Rope was the big thing in New York. And I wobbled so often about, "Should we charge for membership?" And I was so nervous opening Sauer House New York. And I remember the opening party and it was raining and they hadn't finished putting the roof on. And people were staying in the hotel and there was no water. So we had to borrow the showers at the local gym. People had to go down to the local gym for hot water. We had water, but there was no hot water. And it was just this roller coaster of an experience opening in New York where we didn't quite have enough money. And the team, we were carrying sheet rock or plasterboard over here and sheet rock over there up to the floors to try and finish them. We're putting the ceilings in and it was a journey. But then eventually we opened and it worked. People sort of took to it. - Why bother? You know, like you had a great business here in London. You know, things are going well. Why put yourself through all that pain? - A very good question. And I think I could have just carried on doing things in London, but there was an ambition in me. There was, you know, there was this thing about being a Brit and going to New York and trying to take the thing which I loved in London and see if it worked in New York. And it was, and at points, it nearly took the whole thing down. And, but I really felt at the time that if it did bring the whole thing down, at least I tried. At least I gave it a go and I wasn't going to be sitting in a rocking chair thinking I didn't give it a go. So I think there was a sort of inner something in me which wanted to see, and maybe it was sort of going back to my childhood when my brothers were so good on the sports field or good at school. I was trying to prove a point. - Because I sense that a lot, even when you have this successful cafe, for you then to take the risk of taking upstairs with an unknown idea just because someone said it's available. And it's that, you know, some people are more like, I don't know, they stay within the zone of comfort and they just harvest, but you have this hunting sort of predisposition as well, even when things are going well. - So, well, there's something inside me. Maybe I was trying to prove to my brothers, my family, that I could do this. And yeah, and I do always look at things in a positive light. I do look at things like, you know, if I look at a glass of water, I'd say that's half full, not half empty. And hospitality, I wanted to prove that hospitality could be done differently. And I think with Cafe Boheme, where we opened it all day and it was chameleon, it just kept changing to the time of day it was and putting jazz on in the afternoon and just sort of making it much more customer-focused, where you would go out 40 years ago and kitchens would close at 2 p.m. and you couldn't eat in the afternoon. And I think that was something I felt I was onto something to be able to make it better for the customer. And that sort of took me back to when I liked helping my mom and dad when they had people around for supper. And I loved seeing rooms full of people having a good time in Cafe Boheme. And I loved laughter. I loved people connecting with each other. I loved people enjoying themselves. And I think I just thought, why don't I just carry on doing this? - At what point does that desire to prove something need to be contained?
The line between ambition & family (45:57)
Because it might come at the expense of life balance. You know, this question I've asked myself a lot, it's like, when you are successful in one thing, you have more opportunities to go and do more things. And then you might end up being pulled so much by your ambition and your desire to prove a point or your insecurities that you then end up compromising all of these other things like friendships and the other things that make life fulfilling. - Yeah. It's a balance I've never quite got right. And I'm super lucky. I have an incredibly supportive wife, Kirsty. And she sort of really went on the journey with me. And I know without her, you wouldn't be asking me onto this podcast. And so she's been a great support. And my kids were sort of part of, they had to come to work when I was doing the rounds on a Saturday morning or during weekends, other pushchairs and toddlers. And they were just part of what was going on. And it had to sort of merge into one thing. And what I've successfully done is try and demerge it and have, you know, when I'm at work, I'm at work. And when I'm at family, I'm with family. And that's taken a long time. So the balance is something I think all entrepreneurs suffer. - When you say it's a balance you've not got right, what was the indicator that you didn't get it right? How do you know you didn't get it right? What was the symptom? - I was always knackered. I was always sort of pretending not to be. I was always sort of, you know, yeah, it was, yeah, I was internally coping with all the pressure where I could, but I wasn't doing that very well. So I think it was sort of a combination of just realizing that, you know, this was all consuming. It was really dragging. And I was very lucky. I had, you know, great friends who are still my friends from when I was a kid. And I didn't see them enough. And you sort of, in our business, hospitality, it is weekends, it's nights, it's days, it's all the time. And when you take it to a different country, then you have to think, well, the days just got longer and it's got five years, you know, go to New York, got five hours longer. And so, yes, it does take its toll. - What is that toll? You said about coping with pressure. - Well, I think, you know, I sit here today and I think I'm lucky because I think I got a great, you know, I have great relationship with my kids. It's my favorite thing. It's been with the family and been with them all together. But I think at times when you're trying to prove yourself, I'm trying to prove that I could work in New York and America. I was trying to prove that we could open solar houses in other parts of the world. I think it was hard. But, you know, you suddenly then do realize that you have to sort of balance it. - Was there a point in your journey that was particular, so the pressure becomes so much and you almost feel within your being, whether it's your health gives out or your mental health or you get anxious where you think this is not sustainable? - I never thought it wasn't sustainable because I'm always such a positive person. But I think, you know, Kirsty was great. You know, she kept saying, you know, we don't need any more. This is, we don't need another house. The world doesn't need another house, Nick. You know, you don't need to be on a plane all the time. What, who are you, what are you trying to prove? And there was a stage where I was buzzing around everywhere, flying here, flying there, and thinking it was all making a big difference. But really, and I think the pandemic taught me that, was the fact that there's better ways of using your time. - And what are those better ways of using your time? - Well, you know, instead of buzzing around on a plane all the time and spending 12 hours in a city and then going to another city or doing one night in one, you sort of, where, you know, the teams are clever enough to put on a bit of a show for that period of time. So you're not actually seeing really what's going on. And it was just smarter ways of doing it. And also having a lot more trust in the senior leadership team and letting them get on with it and thinking that I didn't have to be everywhere for it to work. And actually, often it worked much better when I wasn't around. And I mean, I, you know, because they were able to just get on with it and not worry about what I was thinking all the time. - That sounds like great advice for a younger version of Nick at the start of the Soho House journey.
What do you wish you had known? (51:20)
What else would you say now in hindsight you wish someone had, maybe they said it, but you'd wish you had known about how to achieve, get to where you are now or further, but in a more effective, whether that relates to health or finance way. What would be that advice you'd give to that Nick starting out on the Soho House journey? - Well, I've always been obsessed about the customer, the member. And that was always my number one thing and the people who work for us. They were my two obsessions. And the advice I think I'd give to a young Nick would be, you know, let them take more. Don't think you have to, you know, your team, you know, put it more onto your team to get on with it and don't try and do everything yourself. And also, you know, there's a point when you can prove yourself that you can, these things can work globally. And, you know, there's a time when, you know, you have to really properly delegate and let other people get on with it. - What are the, you know, because one of the things that Soho House is known for is this quote unquote brand. And I know you don't like that word, but this very, I think I'd say it was an aspirational brand. People want to be a Soho House person. How much intentionality, I don't even know if that's a word, has gone into making that brand aspirational? - I can't think of a time where we had a time where I was thinking about making an aspirational brand. I think that's, and if that's people's perception, great. That sounds good. And all I concentrated on what our members wanted and they've created that. They have created the fact that, you know, there's a desirability to be part of Soho House. And yes, and we got a brilliant team, brilliant membership teams globally. We got people who really care, people who have been on the journey for a very long time. And I think with their help and with every house, we have a determination to make it better than the last house. You know, we always start with a fresh piece of paper. We don't think, well, you know, let's just keep repeat, repeat, repeat. We go new, new, new. How can we make it better? What are we going to change to make this better? What are we going to change to make it more efficient? What are we going to change to make it better for the member? And I think our members really appreciate that and they see that and they talk about that. And that's probably what's created what you have just described. - What has in hospitality taught you about life?
Whats hospitality taught you about life? (54:15)
- Everything. I sort of think, you know, it should be the national service. People should go and do a year in hospitality because I think it teaches you so much. I mean, I spoke earlier about me going into that kitchen and really learning how to get on with people and from different backgrounds, different countries, different everything. And I think it really teaches you, you know, to be part of a team. And there's a customer, there's all your, you know, people you work with in the kitchen or the person cleaning the dishes or the person, you know, cleaning the rooms. You all have to work together to make it happen. And I think so it really takes the shyness out of you and it gives you an ability to get on with people, which I think is a really useful tool. I think it's better than a mass degree, I think, getting on with people. I think you learn, you know, just useful practical things like making a bed or keeping the place tidy or clearing a table of plates. And when you've got a family gathering or something, you can suddenly clear the plates and stack them up or you can make a cocktail, you know, which is really nice. Even if you're not in hospitality anymore, you can still make a cocktail. You can still make a bed. You can still hopefully get on with people. You can still, you know, clear a table. You have to become quite organized in your mind. And I think hospitality is a very rewarding industry for that. Hospitality is quite a broad term, but at the crux of it, what do you think it is that you're actually selling to people? What are they buying from you? Well, I think what we want our member to do is flourish. You know, we want them to flourish socially and we want them to flourish, you know, at work and I think creating memberships and that word community of people who are sort of like-minded and they all have a creative soul and you put them in one house, you know, that is like, you know, they bump into each other, they talk to each other. I've seen businesses created. I've seen relationships created, friendships created, ideas created. And I think when you put people together in a space and that is pretty special. And to see that happen in different countries and different cities, to see members sort of really using the fact that you go into the house, you can just go into the house on your own, just wander down there and, you know, you'll bump into someone. You'll start having a drink with someone or a cup of coffee with someone or you and you're sort of, you're in the house, you're part of that membership. And I, you know, people do it, you know, a lot now and, you know, you can do it digitally and they use Algerivans and they use all sorts of things. And I think, you know, being part of Soho House and, you know, these 500 members I talked to you about earlier, you know, they're still part of us. They still pay their membership. But they're still here, they're still part of it. They don't give it up. And so you, on one hand, the original founding members of 27, 28 years ago and then on the other hand, you got, you know, huge under 27 membership going into our houses, huge, you know, it accounts for 22, 23% of our overall membership, you know, under 27s. And it's seeing in a room, you know, the most successful scriptwriter in one corner and in another corner there might be the struggling scriptwriter who's still trying to write, you know, their first script or, you know, the art, a really well-known artist or an artist who hasn't sold, a new painter who hasn't sold their first bit of work. And, you know, and taking that and trying to think, well, how can the person who's done it help the person who wants to do it? And, you know, that's why I'm so passionate about our mentoring scheme, where, you know, there is so much creativity in the world and there's so much creativity, you know, and creativity is not owned by the middle class. It's everywhere. And to be able to offer mentoring to people who are less fortunate, who might not be able to afford a membership or might not know what door to knock to get that opportunity is sort of one of the favorite things that we're doing, my favorite things I'm doing at the moment is seeing that happen.
Are you shy? (58:50)
So going back to what you were saying about creating people in a room who all help each other, they all feel like they're looking out for each other. They all want to help the person who's down on their luck or who is starting out or they want to help the, you know, they want to create an idea with another bunch of members. And I think that is special. And it goes back to seeing people in a room having a great time. And if our members can flourish in their lives, if so has can just make their lives just a little bit better, then I think that's a good thing. Are you naturally a shy person? I think so. Because it's funny because when I meet entrepreneurs, there's various different types of entrepreneur. Once in a while, I meet an entrepreneur and a founder that's created a really great business, but it's quite, I think the word is unassuming, as in they're not very self-promoting. You know, you ask them certain questions about what their brilliance is, for example, and they don't necessarily point at themselves. They tend to defer it to others. So it just made me, it's curious because it's kind of unconventional to meet an entrepreneur that feels so unassuming in a sense in terms of not having a huge ego, I guess. Because the question I was going to ask you and my head was going, he's probably not going to, he might defer this to something else is you created such an amazing business and it's such a wonderful brand and it's admired by people that are customers and that aren't customers just for the business. But I can't seem to get you to tell me why you out of everyone else that was trying to do this were successful. Because I got the ambition piece. I've got that persistence and that persistence that comes from that childhood sort of maybe chip on your shoulder. But I know there's more. Well, I can only tell you what I think and what I do think is I love what I do. I'm lucky. I get up every morning. I have a skip in my steps. I'm skipping around. I'm looking forward to getting to work. I have a fantastic team around and I care deeply. And if that all adds up to it working, that's the reason why. Because it was never for me a money play. It was more a thing that I wanted to try and make hospitality. And that is a, I used to say catering, but I've upgraded it to hospitality and to make hospitality a sort of area where you can change it. When we opened Babington House, it was the first country house hotel where you could get breakfast when you wanted, when there was no rules. It was your bedroom at Babington House probably nicer than your bedroom at home. So people would come down and go, well, Nick, where do you get that TV? Where do you get Sky? That's new. I'm going to put Sky in my houses. Or I'm going to, where do you get those sheets? And so I'm not trying to avoid your question here, but I'm just trying to again answer how I feel and why I do it. I did get something more from that, which is just your care, how much you care. And your passion and your care seem to have a relationship together. But that's so important because a lot of people would be launching it for money and then therefore they'd care about something else, whereas you really seem to care essentially about the customer experience more than anything else. Well, I think I always say to our team, if our people are happy and the members are happy, then sort of everything else will look after itself because your places will be busy. And if you're smart and you're cost controlled, everything else should be fine. Do you think you're a success? I think I said earlier, success, you can judge success in lots of ways. You know, I'd much rather be judged as a father than as someone who runs a business. And, you know, I suppose you'd have to ask my kids that. Professionally, do you think you're a success? I, people tell me a lot and I suppose I have to listen to them. In their eyes, I've done all right. I'm still there. I'm still, you know, we're still growing. It's, you know, sales go up, you know, it's a good business. In your eyes? I think so. I think if I was to be honest, I couldn't sit here and look at you in your eyes and say, no, I don't see what I've done as something which isn't successful because it works. And when things work, I presume that's a success. And so what's next then for you?
Whats next? (01:04:11)
I mean, tremendous business all around the world and it's becoming so much more than just houses. What is the big next mental challenge, ambition, excitement? Well, we're recently public and, you know, we went public during the pandemic. I'm enjoying that challenge. Really? Yes, I'm enjoying it. I'm enjoying dealing with, you know, and I view all the analysts as smart and I think it's making us a better business. And I think, you know, so there's a journey on that, you know, we're only 12 months into it and people understanding that it's a subscription, recurring income, that, you know, a third of our revenues come from membership and our hotels, our bedrooms are always nicely full and we don't have to use what other hotels have to use to fill their hotels like booking engines, etc. I think that is an interesting future on how to be properly successful as a public company. And there's so many more places we can open houses. You know, we haven't even touched Africa. We've only dipped our toe into Asia. We're going to Latin America later this year to open in Mexico. So there's a lot of exciting new houses opening and being a public company and just trying to get better every day. We have a closing tradition on this podcast where the previous guest leaves a question for the next guest and the previous guest has left you a question.
The last guests question (01:05:51)
They have written, they obviously don't know who they're writing it for, but here we go. If you could go back in time and change one specific moment in your life, what would that be and why? I would definitely have come up. I definitely would still would have done over the top. I would have done that. One specific thing. I think I would have tried to get my life, the balance between life and family a bit better. Why? Because, you know, running at 100 miles an ad over time doesn't always sort of, you know, achieve everything. So I think I've talked on the behalf of many entrepreneurs and many CEOs who just get a bit obsessed about their world, their business. And I think, you know, you're slightly better of it if you're not so if you have a more balanced view. Yeah. I was actually talking to one of my friends about this last night that you'll know that runs one of the big, big companies in this country that's a billion pound company. And he was, we were having the same conversation about just trying to remember amongst all of this ambition that the like, the actual most important question is like, are you happy? Yeah. And that's one that I've definitely lost sight of for many, many years of my life in the pursuit of building more and more and more. And then eventually loneliness or some other kind of consequence will show up and remind me that I've mis-prioritized. It's a great subject now, isn't it? And I think people come out of the pandemic and they think we want our lives to be slightly more balanced. And I think, you know, that wasn't the case 25 years ago or 15 years ago when you started your business. It was, it was, you know, it was that mission and I think balance is good. Well, thank you, Nick. Thank you so much for your time, the generosity with your time. And thank you for creating a business that I love and that I'm probably at every week at a current rate. Thank you for being a member. Yeah. A loyal member. Yeah. And, you know, I think most of our team as well, I bought memberships for them as well. And you've created a business which brings a lot of people joy. But the thing that I actually love the most about your business, which is I think is a bit of a dying human, Maslovian need is community and everything, whether it's the industry I worked in, social media, or whether it's other things or even remote working now seems to be taking community away from us, which seems to be so integral to like the human being a human. And so House and the brand is bringing that back. And I think that's why I would personally bet on that because I think regardless of how the world change and technology and all of that, we're still going to always love and have a desire for community. So, yeah, I agree. I agree. The human connection and people getting together and laughter and ideas and not doing it digitally, doing it in a physical space is great to see. Thank you. Quick one, as you might know, Crafted are one of the sponsors of this podcast and they make really meaningful pieces of jewellery. This lion piece they've made, I wear all the time along with the little timepiece, the sand timer that I wear often. And the lion piece, you might have seen Conor McGregor has a similar piece, which was custom made for him. For me, it represents courage. And if you walk through my house, the house that I'm in right now, if you walk six feet in that direction, you'll see a huge lion portrait. If you go upstairs, you'll see a lion portrait. If you look behind me on the shelf near the top there, you'll see a lion as well. The reason my house and my life is surrounded by lions is because they represent courage, calmness and that tenacity that I've applied to my business success, to my professional life and to everything in between. For me, the lion has always been an animal that can be almost a bit of a contradiction. They are so loving and so caring of their own and can be powerful and courageous when necessary in order to achieve what they want to achieve. So if you, like me, are a big fan of courage, bravery, ambition, while also being calm and composed, check out this lion piece and let me know if you get it.