A Conversation with Sir Richard Branson

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One of the most rewarding parts of my life is teaching entrepreneurship around the world at institutions including MIT, Manchester and Rice.  Whether I’m working with undergraduates or MBA’s, I always ask the students to tell me who they think is the world’s most inspirational entrepreneur.  Almost without exception, the first name they say? Sir Richard Branson, and it’s easy to see why…

Sir Richard’s entrepreneurship story began at the age of just 16, with the launch of “Student” magazine in 1970.  In just over 40 years, he has led Virgin Group to become one of the world’s most successful conglomerates, with 60+ businesses, employing more than 71,000 people in 35 countries.  Virgin Group businesses collectively serve over 60 million customers each year- generating annual revenues in excess of $24 billion.

Virgin Group’s businesses span sectors including mobile telephony, travel and transportation, financial services, leisure, entertainment, health and wellness, and in 2004 Richard established Virgin Unite, the non-profit foundation of the Virgin Group, which unites people and entrepreneurial ideas to create opportunities for a better world. Most of his time is now spent building businesses that will make a positive difference in the world and working with Virgin Unite and organisations it has incubated, such as The Elders, The Carbon War Room, The B Team, Ocean Unite and Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship. He also serves on the Global Commission on Drug Policy and supports ocean conservation with the Ocean Elders.

Sir Richard is one of our generation’s true renaissance men, embodying many of the most important character traits of an entrepreneur and leader.  He’s a fearless adventurer, full of passion, drive and sees things that others simply don’t.  His companies have become household names, and in my own entrepreneurship journey (which began over 20 years ago, when I was just 14) he has served as an inspiration for how I should be doing things the right way.

In a privileged interview, I caught up with Sir Richard to get his views on entrepreneurship and to learn more about the man behind the brand.

Q: What does ‘entrepreneurship’ mean to you?

[Sir Richard Branson] Entrepreneurship is about taking risks, pushing boundaries, and not being afraid to fail.

I tend to go with my gut feeling and by personal experience –  if I relied on accountants to make decisions, I most certainly would have never gone into the airline business, most certainly would not have gone into the space business, and I certainly wouldn’t have gone into most of the businesses that I’m in. In hindsight, it seems to have worked pretty well to my advantage!

Q: Why should entrepreneurs be open?

[Sir Richard Branson] Virgin has launched many different businesses over the years, including record shops, radio stations, planes, trains and gyms. Fortunately, many of these endeavours have been successful.

Virgin Atlantic started as our first leased jumbo becoming the UK’s second largest airline. Others didn’t quite go to plan…Virgin Brides for instance was not a successful attempt at disrupting the Wedding industry! Nevertheless, it’s important to be open to ideas. When I was starting out with Virgin Atlantic, my mentor Freddie Laker gave me some incredibly useful advice. He told me: “You are going to have to get out there and sell yourself. Make a fool of yourself – whatever it takes. Make sure you appear on the front page and not the back pages.”

All entrepreneurs make mistakes, especially when starting out – it’s important to go through that learning process and to have fun along the way – whether you fail or succeed!

Q: What is the role of entrepreneurs in an economy and society?

[Sir Richard Branson] It’s my strong belief that those with the power to help should be encouraged to do exactly that: It’s important for entrepreneurs to nurture talent, to provide advice and to provide investment where required. Increasingly we are hearing more about how big business needs to play its role in society for the greater good. We all have a role to play and it makes business sense. In fact, consumers demand that business be responsible.

Q: What are the key emotional and psychological drivers for an entrepreneur?

[Sir Richard Branson] It’s a combination of passion, vision, creativity and a sense of adventure.

I have said on many occasions the reason to start a new business should not be about making money!  You need to have a passion for the project and want to make a difference.

At Virgin we enter into new markets to stir up the competition and offer a choice and transparency to the consumer.

Q: How can entrepreneurs take their whole organization ‘with them’ on the journey?

[Sir Richard Branson] I stand by what I have said before – there is no magic formula for great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated yourself.  People are fundamental in driving the success of a business.  You should treat your employees like the smart and capable adults they are. Give them the choice to make informed decisions and you will cultivate an environment in which everyone can flourish.

Q: How do you stay motivated, innovative and stay creative?

[Sir Richard Branson] I love to challenge myself so creativity comes with that. I also think it’s important to keep your body active as well as your mind, so I believe challenges in the physical sense are just as important.

The Big Change team have worked incredibly hard on our third STRIVE challenge this year. It has been a gruelling but wonderful experience doing this alongside my children, Holly and Sam and an amazing group of people all dedicated to this worthy cause. This experience was not shy of some falls along the way, as my accident during training showed! But my attitude has always been, if you fall flat on your face, at least you’re moving forward. All you have to do is get back up and try again!

Q: What can entrepreneurs learn from nature?

[Sir Richard Branson] I have always had a love of nature. When I was younger I spent lots of time running around outside, climbing trees and getting into adventures. My early experiences with nature really helped shape my personality and thirst for exploration.  I have a very busy mind and being outdoors and surrounded by nature gives me time to think, put things into perspective and it encourages me creatively.

Q: How do you stay productive and manage your mental-health and wellbeing as an entrepreneur?

[Sir Richard Branson] Similarly to how I stay motivated, staying active is something that I champion as giving me energy to keep me productive. Setting goals is also something I find helpful. I don’t know how many red notebooks I have gone through over the years! I always have one with me to journal my thoughts and set goals as soon as they come to me. By writing things down, I find them easier to process into action.

The key to productivity and mental health of course is to enjoy what you do and remember why you do it. A work-life balance is so important and balancing doing and being has been a lifelong lesson for me, but something I finally feel comfortable with. Alongside the meetings, appointments and emails, find time to be inspired, take in the beauty of the world and laugh with your loved ones.

Q: What are the sources of entrepreneurial ideas?

[Sir Richard Branson] There are many things that can inspire an entrepreneurial idea – for example if you receive poor customer service you may be inspired to create a better product or experience.

Listen to friends and family – they often have great ideas and can offer invaluable advice.

I always carry a small note book to jot down thoughts, ideas and conversations I have with people when traveling or working. The idea to start an airline came when I was stranded in the Caribbean and decided to charter a flight out – I sold seats to the other stranded passengers to pay for the charter.

Have an open mind as you never know when an opportunity or idea might present itself.

Q: Which sector do you feel are the greatest source of entrepreneurial activity?

[Sir Richard Branson] In the next 10 years, we will all head into unknown territory as we face a vast increase in our demand for energy, yet remain worryingly over-dependent on oil. If entrepreneurs go into the field of renewable energy for the right reasons, along the way they are likely to create some very exciting new technologies and successful new businesses.

Q: What do you feel are the characteristics of a successful enterprise?

[Sir Richard Branson] I believe that success in business can be measured by if you enjoy what you are doing; create something that stands out; create something that everyone is really proud of.

A great company needs to have an excellent product or service at its core; needs strong management to execute the plan and a good brand to give it the edge over its competitors. It also needs excellent people who really believe in what they’re doing. People are at the heart of all Virgin businesses. Often entrepreneurs can create a good product and a brand but need to bring in management to help expand and create a truly great company.

Q: What does wealth mean to you as an entrepreneur?

[Sir Richard Branson] Money is not my first priority – I have always pursued what I am passionate about whether that will make me money or not, my fascination is learning and discovery more than being rich and powerful. I believe that success in business can be measured if you enjoy what you are doing; create something that stands out, create something that everyone is really proud of; be a good leader and be visible.

Wealth may improve aesthetic aspects of life in terms of being able to over indulge and travel to luxurious locations however, true success in life can only be gauged by something which is priceless; how much love you have in your life – I am truly fortunate to be surrounded by extremely loving and fun family and friends and nothing beats spending time with the people I love.

Q: What is the role of fairness and compassion in business?

[Sir Richard Branson] Fairness in life is so important. It helps us to stay level headed and strive towards changing the world for the better. From human rights to industry competition, fairness makes the world go round and ensures we never settle for anything other than what is right. One of the issues I am passionate about is prison reform and what happens to ex-offenders when they have been released. The first year following custody is the most crucial, and this is where business – in collaboration with parole officers and social workers – can make the greatest contribution. Virgin Trains have been working with ex-offenders for some time and we hope that their approach is something other businesses will adopt. We need far more businesses to make a commitment to training and hiring ex-offenders.

Q: What is the role of entrepreneurship in addressing global issues such as poverty, economic crises, climate change, health, education and more?

[Sir Richard Branson] I’ve always regarded business as a powerful tool for delivering positive change in the world; so in my opinion entrepreneurship has a crucial role in addressing these Global challenges and many others besides. Public funding and open-ended research is absolutely crucial for coming up with better ideas, novel technology and progressive policy, but it seems only the markets are capable of pouring resources into truly scaling things up; and those markets began with entrepreneurship.

Prizes can be a real catalyst for moving an idea along, especially if it’s a novel but profoundly important area. The X Prize foundation are a shining example of how prizes can incentivise innovation, and we liked the concept so much we even have our own equivalents, like the Virgin Earth Challenge, a $25m prize for ways of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to help tackle global warming and help people and the planet.

Q: Why are young entrepreneurs so important, and how can we stimulate entrepreneurship in young people?

[Sir Richard Branson] Ultimately, the children of today are our future and we should understand the importance of nurturing their talents. I think encouraging curiosity is important and also to remind them it’s ok to ask for help. No one is good at everything. Some skills take years to master, while others you might not master at all. And that’s ok – focus on your strengths and keep trying. Learning to delegate and share responsibility are important skills to hone as well. I think exploring less traditional ways of how we use education is key to stimulating entrepreneurship. I have never been shy in sharing my opinion about this area. Math’s and literacy are of course important, and university is the right path for many and it’s wonderful that we have a choice towards further education. But as an entrepreneur, I got my education out in the world – real life learning is the way forward for young entrepreneurs. And this is what we must encourage and support.

Q: How does entrepreneurship manifest in the arts?

[Sir Richard Branson] I think within the arts and entrepreneurship you have to show a desire to be creative, to stand alone and follow your passions, even when those around you might not share your idea or vision.

I believe we need to encourage all young people to consider an alternative to the traditional career path, and I think entrepreneurship offers some hope. I identify with these young people. As a young businessman, I faced my fair share of difficulties when I was starting up. Our music mail-order business was almost brought down by postal strikes in the early 1970s, but we adapted, and that prompted me to start Virgin record stores.

Q: Do all entrepreneurs need mentors and to be mentors?

[Sir Richard Branson] I think it’s important to remember that you can always learn a lot of valuable lessons from others. When you experience success, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking you know it all. We all have the potential to continue learning, and all need to be brave enough to ask for support. Entrepreneurs need mentors but I also think entrepreneurs should be mentors themselves. I have had the pleasure of mentoring a number of people over the years. Having the opportunity to share my failures as well as successes is important and helps me look at things with a different perspective.  It’s important that we all help each other out where we can so we can all work on changing business for good! I’m extremely proud of the work that Virgin StartUp does. As a non-profit company, it offers financial support, mentoring and business advice to thousands of young entrepreneurs throughout the UK.

Q: What is the role of education and mentoring in entrepreneurship?

[Sir Richard Branson] In 2010, we launched Virgin Media Pioneers, an online community for young entrepreneurs, with the aim of helping young people realise their potential. By championing a cause that is both close to my heart and vitally important to the future of the UK’s economic recovery, we are providing easy access to peers, practical advice from experts and tangible support for young entrepreneurs.

I still find it strange that you can access money as a young person to go to university but that level of funding or even a fraction of that amount is not available to people with good ideas to set up a company. We must try to make early stage finance more available and ensure the banks do look at micro-financing or low rate long term loans for aspiring business builders.  Together with Virgin Media Pioneers, we are campaigning for a fund for young entrepreneurs on similar terms as student loans.

Q: What is the role of government and policy in entrepreneurship?

[Sir Richard Branson] Governments and policymakers usually have an important role to play in creating the fertile grounds for entrepreneurs to succeed. Many of our Virgin businesses wouldn’t be able to operate without the rules and regulations that govern their sectors. Though as with many instances in life, one must generally find a balance between enough policy and regulation and not too much.

An analogy I find useful is to think about entrepreneurship like a game of football. There are certain rules of the game which you must follow, such as there being two halves, running for 90 minutes and not being able to use your hands, but when it comes to how you arrange your team, and what strategies you use to score goals, it’s completely up to you. The same should be true for business: policies and regulation can create the pitch and the rules and then entrepreneurs can play how they like.

Many democracies go hand in hand with entrepreneurship, though I’ve seen many examples of people building successful businesses in less democratic political regimes. Like nature, even if the environment isn’t ideal, entrepreneurship will find a way.

Q: How do you feel entrepreneurship has changed over the last quarter-century, and what do you think the future holds?

[Sir Richard Branson] The big change to entrepreneurship over the past 25 years has been technology. Now, more than ever, anybody can create their own business and be up and running in the time it takes to register a website. The growing start-up community has fostered a spirit of creativity and collaboration where everyone feels they can become a successful entrepreneur. And they’re right – they can! In the future I think entrepreneurship is going to become even more widespread than it is today. More and more people are realising the way to get ahead in the business world is to get out there, be brave and make things happen.

Q: Who are you?

[Sir Richard Branson] I think the best way to describe me can be found in my Twitter profile: Tie-loathing adventurer, philanthropist and troublemaker, who believes in turning ideas into reality. Otherwise known as Dr. Yes within Virgin!


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