Saturday, May 7, 2022 – La Minute Monocle
This week I interviewed Nick Jones, the founder of Soho House, at an event in sunny Berlin – what’s not to love about that phrase? It was at the International Hospitality Investment Forum; there were money people in the room, lots of hotel owners, people doing smart stuff with loyalty programs. But by the time it came to Jones and Tuck – the closing act – people had been fried in the conference chat and a few were clearly off to explore Berlin or maybe just a stein or six. But Jones was ready to win the crowd back, and just before I got on stage, he told me to ask him anything.
I like Jones. He spoke once at a Monocle quality of life conference – coincidentally the Berlin edition – and not only was he good value for money, he took the time to sign the Soho House books (well, I guess every penny counts) and then talk to the delegates. He is easy with people. On stage this time, he was true to his word “quiz-me”. We discussed the company’s flight path to profitability – Soho House continues to post a loss. “Every house is profitable, so if we stopped opening houses, the company would make a profit,” he explained patiently. (Meanwhile, the pace of expansion seems to be picking up.) I asked if it’s hard for a brand to stay attractive and cool after turning 25; he pointed out that being cool was not what Soho House was built on. We explained why he ditched the Cow brand names for his various shampoos (too easy to offend; one shampoo was called Grumpy Cow, which just doesn’t wash out these days – the name, that is – not say the product).
But – and I hope people in the audience took this too – the most impressive thing about Jones is that, despite all the constraints of this rapid growth (Brighton is about to open, Copenhagen imminent , Stockholm en route), he clearly loves his job. He beams when he talks about the company. And he rejoices that Soho House is young, diverse, provides a way for people to connect over a bottle of wine, a place for all kinds of adventures. And it looks like a digital version of Soho House is just around the corner. I may have even seen it, but that would be telling.
The next morning, Jones left for Copenhagen to inspect the new house. I asked him if he was still changing everything at this point. “Well, the bar will probably move,” he joked. His mode of transport to CPH? Easyjet leaves BER, Berlin’s new airport. It was a good demonstration of what his brand represents: it is not a question of wealth but of experience.
But the hell, what happened to the airports? They are all so squeaky. It took nearly an hour for the queue to meander just to get through security in Berlin. Each person had to stand in a body scanner but, unlike other airports, instead of waving their arms in the air like you didn’t care, you had to point them down like a wobbly Frankenstein monster. But time and time again, people instinctively threw their arms up in the air and had to be retrained on the spot, with staff sometimes physically moving them into the right monster shape. Wow, that was painful to watch.
Then there was a large Turkish contingent in front of me. The security guards pushed and pushed each veiled woman; three-year-olds were being searched as if the airport had been informed of a miniature Mafia gang on the prowl. Then to passport control, where, for no clear reason, they had set up a member of staff who was asking everyone where they were going. And every time someone said ‘London’ they would bark, ‘London has five airports, which one? It was like being in a pub quiz where the same question is asked over and over again. Finally we were through! Flight delayed.
I took the train to the airport. Navigating public transport in a city you don’t fully know seems to get trickier. Ticket machines in Berlin were confusing, orientation at stations confusing. So I asked a man who looked like a local what platform I needed. Within seconds he opened an app on his phone that had beautiful easy to understand graphics, a world of information only true Berliners knew how to access, and he found my train and sent me on my way. . At that moment, I could have hugged him but, not wanting to be stopped, I settled for a slap”Danke schön!delivered as if he had just given me a kidney.
One last thing from Nick Jones. Don’t underestimate what your brand can do and become, while remaining true to its values. Even with the scale of Soho House’s expansion, the members love being a part of it. Jones said people have remained loyal throughout the pandemic and if he ever gets a letter of complaint, he knows it’s because people care. Bigger can be better. At work and in life, maybe we all need to have a little more Jonesian confidence and go for it, without being restricted by the limitations imposed by people who don’t know what we know. Gosh, I’ll write self-help books next.