20VC The Scaling Story of Soho House Overcoming Dyslexia, Building a Global Brand, Scaling into The US, Retaining Exclusivity with Scale and The Journey to Going Public with Nick Jones, Founder & CEO @ Soho House



In a candid conversation on "20 VC" with host Harry Stebbings, Nick Jones, founder and CEO of Soho House, reflects on transforming a single café into a global private members club brand. Jones, who credits his dyslexia for his preference for simplicity in storytelling and business, discusses the challenges of expansion, the importance of persistence, and the balance between work and family life. He emphasizes the significance of passion, care, and a strong work ethic as the cornerstones of high performance, while also advocating for honesty in hiring and leadership. Despite the pressures of running a public company, Jones remains focused on member satisfaction and the growth of Soho House as an inclusive community for those with a creative spirit.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Soho House

  • Soho House has been a transformative brand in the hospitality industry.
  • Originated from a single location and expanded globally.
  • Celebrated 25 years since the opening of the first location.
  • Nick Jones took Soho House public.

"Today we meet the man who turned a single location above his restaurant cafe bomb in 195 into a global brand, a movement, and as of last year, 25 years since the opening of his first location, Nick took Soho House public."

This quote introduces Nick Jones, the founder of Soho House, and summarizes his achievement of turning a single establishment into a global brand and eventually taking the company public.

Importance of Data and Tools for Venture Capitalists

  • The competitive nature of venture capital requires the right data for maintaining an edge.
  • Coresignal offers high-quality alternative data for identifying opportunities, quantifying startup traction, and assessing risk.
  • Squarespace provides an all-in-one platform for building an online presence and managing a business.
  • AngelList supports fund management and startup needs through their platform and products.

"In an increasingly competitive venture capital landscape, it's more important than ever to have the right data to keep your edge."

This quote emphasizes the significance of having access to good data for venture capitalists to stay competitive.

Nick Jones' Background and Entry into Catering

  • Nick Jones had limited career options due to his dyslexia and poor exam results.
  • Saw an opportunity in the UK for a different dining and hospitality experience.
  • Enjoyed the atmosphere of people having a good time, which influenced his career choice.

"The reason why I went into catering is twofold. A, my options were small because my exam results were nonexistent and I was very dyslexic."

Nick Jones explains his entry into the catering industry was influenced by his limited career options due to his academic challenges.

Early Challenges and Persistence

  • Nick Jones faced initial failures with his first three restaurants named 'Over the Top'.
  • Learning from failures was instrumental in understanding business operations during tough times.
  • Persistence and the belief that people wanted to eat, drink, and have a good time kept him motivated.

"First of all, I did have three restaurants before opening Cafe Burn, which were called over the top, and they didn't work. So I really got to know what it felt like running a business when it didn't work."

This quote reflects on the failures Nick Jones experienced before Soho House and how these experiences taught him valuable business lessons.

The Turning Point for Soho House

  • The success of Cafe Bohem in 1992 was a significant turning point.
  • Jones applied lessons learned from past failures to create a successful establishment.
  • Persistence is a common trait among successful founders, and it played a key role in Jones' journey.

"And when we opened Cafe Bohem, or I opened Cafe Bohem in 1992, I sort of did everything in exact reverse to what over the top was the at."

Nick Jones discusses the opening of Cafe Bohem and how doing the opposite of what he did with 'Over the Top' contributed to its success, setting the stage for Soho House's future.## Cafe Bohem's Transformation and Longevity

  • Cafe Bohem was significantly transformed, contributing to its current success.
  • The cafe created a chameleon-like atmosphere, not fixated on traditional dining.
  • Offered an open kitchen with flexible hours, which was rare 30 years ago.

"I completely swapped it around and changed it around. And thankfully, Cafe Bohem, which is still thriving in an old Compton street today, 30 years on, worked."

This quote indicates the successful overhaul of Cafe Bohem by Nick Jones, leading to its enduring success over three decades.

Evolution of Consumer Demands

  • Consumer expectations have evolved from 1992 to the present.
  • Cafe Bohem's flexible hours and varied offerings were innovative at the time.
  • The approach to customer service focused on atmosphere and choice, which remains important.

"Well, there's a good question now, because I think in 92, when I opened Cafe Bomb, it was one of the first places in London which opened at 08:00 in the morning and closed at 03:00 a.m. In the following morning."

Nick Jones reflects on how Cafe Bohem was ahead of its time by offering extended hours and a range of services to its customers.

Impact of the Instagram Generation

  • The Instagram generation has influenced customer expectations.
  • Despite changes, the quality and consistency of the experience are paramount.
  • Customers are smart and will not return if the experience does not meet their standards.

"First of all, the customer is always incredibly smart. They know what's good, they know what's bad. You can never ever fool any customer."

Nick Jones emphasizes the intelligence of customers and the importance of maintaining high standards, regardless of social media influence.

Brand Perception and Evolution

  • Nick Jones prefers to view his ventures as a lifestyle rather than a brand.
  • The concept has global appeal, transcending the idea of a traditional brand.
  • The focus is on creating a home away from home for members.

"I don't really like the word brand. I like to think that what we're doing at so a house, and ultimately, the MCG, is just a way of living, really."

Nick Jones expresses his distaste for the term "brand" and describes his business as a way of living that resonates globally.

Balancing Exclusivity with Scale

  • Scaling a luxury brand while maintaining exclusivity is a challenge.
  • Expansion adds value to members by providing a network of homes away from home.
  • Growth is targeted towards cities with a creative and kind population.

"The way that I answer that is what our member loves is more houses."

Nick Jones discusses the strategy behind scaling his business, focusing on the value added to members through expansion.

Challenges of Expansion

  • Expanding into New York was particularly difficult due to financial and cultural barriers.
  • Overcoming skepticism about the private members club concept was a hurdle.
  • Raising money during a time when banks were not lending added to the challenge.

"Because it was incredibly challenging, because I had to raise money to do it. It was at the time when banks weren't lending money."

Nick Jones recounts the difficulties faced when opening a new location in New York, highlighting the financial obstacles during a tough economic climate.

The Art of Storytelling

  • Great storytelling is rooted in simplicity, especially in business.
  • Nick Jones uses simplicity to manage his dyslexia and prevent confusion.
  • Simplifying complex ideas makes them more accessible and understandable.

"Great storytelling is simplicity. And I think anything in life, and I think that's one advantage I have from being dyslexic is the fact that I have to simplify everything."

Nick Jones shares his perspective on storytelling and its importance in business, crediting his dyslexia for his ability to simplify complex concepts.

Leadership and Learning

  • Leadership involves continuous learning and adaptation.
  • Understanding different aspects of business, like finance, is crucial.
  • A strong leadership team enhances the company's capabilities.

"I learn every day. I keep learning. I think that's one of the exciting things of running a company."

Nick Jones speaks to the ongoing process of learning within leadership, emphasizing the dynamic nature of running a business.

Leadership Style Evolution

  • Nick Jones' leadership style has evolved from hands-on to strategic as the company grew.
  • Initially, he was involved in all business aspects, including accounts.
  • Today, he relies on a talented leadership team, allowing for a broader focus.

"As we got bigger now, I'm blessed by the fact that we have a fantastic leadership team who are incredibly talented and a lot more able than I am in all these areas."

Nick Jones reflects on the evolution of his leadership style, from managing every detail to trusting a skilled team to handle various business functions.## Leadership Style Evolution

  • Harry Stebbings describes his leadership style as having evolved significantly since 1992.
  • He emphasizes the importance of hard work and being influential within the company.
  • Harry acknowledges that while he aims to be motivational, he also maintains a challenging and demanding approach to leadership.
  • He does not perceive himself as "Mr. Nice Guy" due to the nature of running a business that operates globally and continuously.

"I think my leadership style is constantly evolving. Back in 1992, I was very different from now. I've learned hard to work, how to be the most influential I can be in the position of the company."

This quote highlights Harry's belief that effective leadership requires continuous growth and adaptation, with an emphasis on influence and hard work.

High Performance

  • Harry Stebbings defines high performance as a combination of passion, caring for people, and caring for the product.
  • He believes that focusing on these aspects will naturally lead to profit, the "fourth P."

"High performance to me is people with passion who care, who care about people, who care about the product."

Harry connects high performance to passion and a caring attitude, suggesting that these qualities are foundational to achieving success in business.

Hiring Philosophy

  • Harry Stebbings shares that he has not always made the right hiring decisions and acknowledges the difficulty of interviews.
  • He advocates for a mix of internal promotion and external hiring, emphasizing honesty during the interview process.
  • Harry advises being upfront about the challenges of the job to set realistic expectations for candidates.

"I think it's a mixture of promoting within and then bringing in people from the outside and just being honest with people."

This quote reflects Harry's belief in a balanced hiring approach that values transparency and honesty with potential hires.

Balancing Internal and External Talent

  • Harry Stebbings discusses the challenge of integrating external talent without demotivating existing employees who might have expected promotions.
  • He suggests that clear and honest communication with employees who do not receive promotions is key to maintaining morale.

"If you end up having to go to the outside to bring in rather than promote within, it means that the person isn't right, but it doesn't mean they're not always right."

Harry implies that sometimes hiring externally is necessary, but it should be handled with clear communication to those within the company who were considered for the role.

Handling Difficult Conversations

  • Harry Stebbings addresses the issue of conflict avoidance and the importance of having hard conversations.
  • He believes in being direct and honest, as it leads to quicker resolutions and is generally respected by others.

"I think you can get to a to b much quicker by just being a bit upfront and a bit honest rather than not saying a word."

This quote encapsulates Harry's approach to difficult conversations, valuing directness and honesty to foster respect and efficiency.

Hiring Mistakes and Lessons

  • Harry Stebbings admits to making numerous hiring mistakes over the years for various reasons.
  • He emphasizes the importance of being very clear about the realities of the job to prevent misunderstandings.

"I think what you have to be when you're hiring people is very, very clear."

Harry underscores the need for clarity in the hiring process to manage expectations and reduce the likelihood of hiring mistakes.

Self-Challenge and Admitting Mistakes

  • Harry Stebbings reflects on his tendency to challenge himself and the importance of admitting his own mistakes.
  • He believes that acknowledging errors and being willing to change course is a sign of respect and humanity.

"I often don't get it right, Harry. Often make mistakes."

Harry's candid admission of his own fallibility highlights a leadership approach that values honesty and the ability to pivot when necessary.

Creating a Safe Work Environment

  • Harry Stebbings discusses the importance of creating a workplace where employees feel safe to admit mistakes.
  • He talks about the value of acknowledgment and the need for a culture that supports learning from errors.

"But it's always work in progress."

This quote suggests that creating a safe and accepting work environment is an ongoing effort that requires consistent attention and reinforcement.

Parenting and Entrepreneurship

  • Harry Stebbings shares his perspective on fatherhood, mentioning his four children and the importance of being decent, kind, and hardworking.
  • He credits his wife for her role in parenting and expresses a desire to shift into a less challenging mode at home.

"I think from my children's point of view is learn to be decent and kind and get on with people and learn to go out and work."

Harry conveys his belief in instilling fundamental values in his children and balancing his demanding work life with his role as a father.

Work-Life Balance

  • Harry Stebbings addresses the concern of maintaining high performance in work while being a present husband and father.
  • He acknowledges the difficulty of finding balance as a workaholic entrepreneur and emphasizes the importance of recognizing one's work habits.

"Balance is always a tricky thing, especially when you're a workaholic entrepreneur."

The quote highlights the ongoing challenge of achieving a healthy work-life balance, particularly for dedicated entrepreneurs.## Work-Life Balance

  • The importance of having a balance between work and personal life is emphasized.
  • Overworking is often praised, but balance is healthier and more important.
  • Family time is highlighted as a crucial aspect of life that should be enjoyed.

"Surely you should be getting a bit more balance in your life, because that's a lot more healthy."

This quote reinforces the idea that while hard work is often commended, striving for a healthy balance in life is essential for overall well-being.

Approach to Feedback

  • Feedback from members is considered to come from a place of care.
  • Negative feedback can be upsetting, but it is important to contextualize it and not take it personally.
  • Encouragement of honest and brutal feedback is seen as a way to improve and grow.

"It's really important for me to put that in context and not get upset."

The relevance of this quote lies in the speaker's approach to feedback, emphasizing the importance of not letting emotions cloud the reception of constructive criticism.

Motivating the Team

  • Keeping the team motivated and optimistic about their future is a key challenge.
  • Ensuring the team's happiness is a priority in leadership.

"Keeping the team motivated and happy and thinking that they've got a really successful future."

This quote highlights the speaker's perspective on the importance of team motivation and maintaining a positive outlook for the team's future.

Transition to a Public Market CEO

  • Becoming a public market CEO increases exposure and pressure on the team.
  • Despite the challenges, there is a positive aspect to it, such as investor and member satisfaction.

"You're a lot more exposed. Your team are under more pressure."

This quote describes the changes and challenges faced when transitioning from a private company CEO to a public market CEO, emphasizing the increased scrutiny and pressure involved.

Changing Perceptions of the Hospitality Industry

  • Advocating for a better understanding of the hospitality industry's value.
  • The industry teaches lifelong skills, such as social interaction and practical abilities.
  • The speaker wishes people would consider working in hospitality for at least two years.

"I would love everyone to realize that it's such a brilliant industry to go into."

This quote expresses the speaker's desire to change the common perception of the hospitality industry and to highlight the valuable skills it provides.

Traits for Children

  • The speaker values kindness, decency, and a strong work ethic for their children.
  • These traits are seen as fundamental for personal development.

"Could choose kindness, decency and a decent ethic of work."

The quote lists the three traits the speaker believes are most important for children to adopt, reflecting the speaker's personal values.

Future of Soho House

  • The speaker envisions Soho House as a global and inclusive space for creative individuals.
  • Aims for Soho House to contribute to both social and professional development within communities.

"I want it to be a place, an inclusive place where anyone with a creative soul can come and flourish."

This quote outlines the speaker's aspirations for Soho House's growth and impact over the next decade, focusing on inclusivity and support for creative individuals.

Personal Reflection on the Interview

  • The speaker expresses gratitude for the interview opportunity.
  • The host reflects on the importance of storytelling and simplicity in conversations.

"Well, thank you very much for having me on. I was honoured with the invite. So thank you, Harry."

The quote captures the speaker's appreciation for being part of the interview, indicating a positive interaction between the host and the guest.

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