Jokull Tomasson is what you might call a serial entrepreneur, although he might laugh at that designation. He has run a store (he was 18), he has run graphic design agencies and advertising agencies, and now, he runs a Reykjavik-based hotel chain. A self-taught graphic designer – “I just love type – I’m typography driven all the way” – he has designed album covers for the Sugarcubes and run campaigns for Fruitopia and Coca-Cola. He is someone who takes risks (obviously) and doesn’t look back when he makes a decision. He says, “If you feel it, do it. Because everybody will tell you not to do it.”
You said you have a background in marketing. What does that mean?
I’m a graphic designer. Then I went into marketing, although I didn’t really know what it was. I worked at an advertising agency. From there I went into publishing, where I felt more in tune with my artistic side. I worked as a graphic designer in publishing for eight or nine years, and then I started fooling around with advertising again, and I got some big accounts. When I met my wife Kathy, in San Francisco, I had just received three major advertising awards, and I had the two biggest clients in Iceland. I was at the top of my game.
Where did you meet your wife?
In San Francisco. I was just visiting, and four months later, I sold my part in my agency, got rid of all my stuff, and moved from Iceland to San Francisco.
So it was like lightening.
I proposed on the 3rd day, and I met her parents on the 4th day. I just knew. I knew right away. I met her, and I thought, “I’m done.” She felt the same way. I was 30, she was 37. We were just like, “Let’s do this.” And we did it.
You moved to San Francisco with no job, nothing.
After a year, I started getting freelance jobs – it was difficult because my entire portfolio was in Icelandic. I got a freelance job from Apple. Then I met the guy who would become my partner for the next nine years, and I opened up an agency. A year later, we were 37 people, and that agency is now 260 people in four cities and three countries. Then I became really homesick for Iceland. When I married Kathy I told her I would do the first ten years in the States, and then we would move back to Iceland. At the time my son was six and didn’t speak a word of Icelandic. I knew that at that age he would pick up the language really quickly, which he did. He was fluent in three months.
What did you do for work when you moved back to Iceland?
I started working at a newly created advertising agency, where I became a 25% partner. I did that for two years, and then it was bought out by a bigger agency. I sold my portion.
Were you losing interest in advertising, or do you still love it?
I still love it, but it’s like a drug. There’s such a rush, the creation and the pressure and actually finding the story where a company lies. It’s really fun, but it’s a lifestyle that’s not really compatible with family or any other lifestyle. So when I was working at this agency, I was working even more than I had in America – every Saturday, every Sunday. I don’t think my wife saw me for a year. I think I had a little bit of a midlife crisis too, because I worked with a lot of 20-year olds. But it was kind of part of the job. In Iceland it’s very party-oriented. You’re up late with clients. I used to come home at 10 in the morning. At some point I knew I had to find another career. You can’t really grow old in advertising.
So how did you get into the hospitality business?
I drifted into hospitality five minutes before the huge recession in Iceland. I thought it would be a little side hobby while I figured out what to do next. I now own three hotels, and I run 89 apartments, five of which are in the style of Airbnb. The rest have a service style that’s like a hotel. I didn’t want to do something where you took the keys out of a box. I always wanted to meet the guests, and I did all of the check-ins for the first three years. I really worked my ass off. Now I employ 29 people. In hospitality you can grow old. The older you are, the better you are, the wiser you are. I never thought I would like it, but I really love what I do.
What has changed?
I do all the creative, so as long as I’m doing new hotels, it’s great. If I had to just run the business, I don’t know if I’d feel the same way. Doing all the design fulfills the creative part of me, and it’s always new, so I don’t get bored. I feel like more branding people should run companies. They’re always telling people how to run them, and they have zero experience whatsoever. It’s kind of funny. It has been interesting for me to go back and see the branding part of things from the business owner’s point of view. I think it’s a very healthy thing for anybody in branding and marketing to try running a factory for a year. That will help them understand all kinds of things. Maybe not a factory, but run a restaurant, run a nightclub, run a shoe store, just to understand the decision making and the budgeting.
Do you like dealing with all the people going in and out?
I love it. It’s fantastic. In the last two years, I’ve also opened a restaurant called K-Bar. I did all the design. Kathy did the menu. I’m trying to get out this food perversity in me.
Are you a big food person?
Huge. It started when I lived in San Francisco, and it continued. I couldn’t shake it. The restaurant is my way of fooling around a little bit. My father-in-law said the other day, “Did you finally get this out of your system?” It’s almost out. I’m doing a new hotel, so I’m able to walk away a bit.
As someone who has taken a lot of chances in life, what are three of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?
- Never look back. You do what you do. Whether the decision is right or wrong, a life-changing decision or not, don’t ever question it. I can leave things and not feel even the tiniest regret about what I’ve left behind.
- Try to enjoy where you are. When I went into publishing, and my friends asked me if I missed agency life, I would say, “I’m in publishing now; it’s fantastic.”
- Take the biggest risk you can. Don’t be afraid of it. The biggest risk I ever took in my life was getting married, and I did it in the worst way possible. Everybody knows you don’t marry somebody after three days. But here I am, on the verge of celebrating my 20-year anniversary. And I’ve never been more in happy and more in love. If I had listened to the people around me, I would never have done it. So you can’t listen to the people around you. Do it, and don’t hesitate.