Five Secrets to Starting a Business: And making it work
There are two questions I get asked all the time. The most popular is 'How did you come to name the business Virgin?' A close second is 'What's your secret to successfully building businesses?'
The first is easy to answer but the second one always takes some thinking about. The fact is that there's no one thing that characterises Virgin's many successful ventures or, for that matter, what went wrong when we didn't get it right. Reflecting across forty years, however, I have come up with five secrets for improving the chances of a new business surviving and with luck — something we all need — flourishing.
1. If you don't enjoy it don't do it
Starting a business takes huge amounts of hard work and time so you had better enjoy doing it. When I started Virgin from a basement in west London, there was no great plan or strategy. I didn't set out to build a business empire. I simply wanted to create something people would enjoy using, have fun doing it and at the end of the day prayed that it would make enough to pay the bills.
For me, building a business is all about doing something to be proud of, bringing talented people together and creating something that's going to make a real difference to other people's lives.
Business people are not unlike artists. What you have when you start a company is a blank canvas; you have to fill it. Just as a good artist has to get every single detail right on that canvas, a businessman or woman has to get every single little thing right when first setting up in business in order to succeed. However, unlike a work of art, the business is never finished. It constantly evolves and it's also not that easy to paint over your mistakes!
If a businessperson sets out to make a real difference and achieves that objective, he or she will be able to pay the bills and have a successful business to boot.
2. Be innovative — create something different
Whether you have a product, a service or a brand, it is not easy to start a company and to survive and thrive in the modern world. In fact, you've got to do something radically different to make your mark today.
Look at the most successful businesses of the past twenty years. Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook all shook up the world we live in by doing things that had never been done before and then by continually innovating. They are now among the dominant forces.
Not everyone can aspire to such levels; however, should you decide to enter an already crowded segment you had better be ready to offer customer service that blows the competition away.
When we started Virgin Atlantic the positive buzz that we created focused on the simple fact that our crews were really nice to our passengers. Go figure — what a breakthrough idea for an airline!
3. Pride of association works wonders
Businesses are nothing more than a group of people, and they are by far and away your biggest assets. In fact in probably the majority of businesses your people are your product.
For me there is nothing sadder than hearing someone being apologetic about the place where they are working. When people are proud to be associated with their company it generates a special level of advocacy and dedication that is a huge differentiator in a world full of mediocrity and indifference.
4. Lead by listening
To be a good leader you have to be a great listener. Sure, you need to know your own mind, but there is no point in imposing your views on others without some debate and a degree of consensus. No one has a monopoly on good ideas or good advice.
Get out there, listen to people, draw people out and learn from them. As a leader you've also got to be extremely good at lavishing praise. Never openly criticise people; never lose your temper, and always be quick to applaud a job well done.
People flourish on praise. Usually they don't need to be told when they've done wrong because most of the time they know it.
5. Be visible
A good leader doesn't get stuck behind a desk. I've never worked in an office — I've always worked from home — but I am constantly out and about, meeting people. It seems I am travelling all the time but I always have a notebook handy to jot down questions, concerns or good ideas.
If I'm on any of the Virgin airlines I always try hard to meet as many of the cabin crew and passengers as possible, and will usually come away with a dozen or more good suggestions or ideas. If I didn't write them down I might remember only a few, but putting them in the infamous notebook means I remember them all. Talk to your staff and customers at every opportunity, listen to what they tell you, good and bad, and act on it.
Some might say, 'Well, all that's easy when you have a small business', but at Virgin we strive to appoint company heads who have the same philosophy. That way we can run a large group of companies in the same way a small business owner runs a family business — keeping it proactive, responsive and friendly.
Oh yes: I still have to answer that first question as to the origin of the Virgin name. Sadly there's no great sexy story to it as it was thought up on the fly. One night, I was chatting with a group of sixteen year old girls over a few drinks about a name for the record store. A bunch of ideas were bounced around, then, as we were all new to business, someone suggested Virgin. It smacked of new and fresh and at the time the word was still slightly risque, so, thinking it would be an attention grabber, we went with it.
But no matter how good the concept and/or brand name, even the best of them can fail at the first attempt. For example, in the early sixties, another group with a catchy name, the Beatles, were turned away by no fewer than seven record labels before they found one willing to take them on.
So, if you don't survive, just remember that the majority of new businesses don't make it and that some of the best lessons are usually learned from failure. And like the old song says, 'Just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again'.
From Like A Virgin: Secrets They Won't Teach You At Business School by Richard Branson. Copyright 2012 by Richard Branson. Excerpted by permission of Portfolio/Penguin.