Richard Branson dropped out of school at the age of 16, in 1968 and went to start a student magazine that addressed a lot of issues that were faced by students at the time. Many of the issues were resolved while some continue to plague those students of the UK until today. The objective of the magazine was to give students a voice, and it did. The viewership grew from one large figure to the next. There was only one problem. Despite the ability of Richard and his team being able to land big name interviews, the magazine was not making any money. The company was surviving from hand to mouth on very little advertising money. It was not enough. And Richard struggles continued.
Due to poor academic performances caused largely by Richard Branson’s dyslexic condition, he had left school. He gave a lot of attention but since things were not becoming any better for him, he decided to try something different. The magazine was called Student.
The magazine was not profitable enough to expand, and Branson was not about to settle for such a mediocre business performance. He noticed that people would struggle to get some records because record stores barely stocked any music that wasn’t mainstream. A lot of people would only find popular records at the stores. For those people who enjoyed music from the olden days or genres that were not popular at the time like Hip-hop, it was difficult for them to get the records they needed. That was Branson’s big break. He decided to launch a record store business called Virgin Records.
Owing to the fact that he already had a widely circulated student magazine in the area, it helped launch the records business through advertising. Slowly, the mail-order discount record business started taking off and there were orders coming not only out of his area but in nearby towns. His stores were flocking with people who would come in to just listen to music, but end up buying so many records of artists they had been looking for but couldn’t find in leading stores.
This is the business that launched Branson’s multimillionaire status. It was from this business that all other companies carrying the Virgin name today sprouted. Richard Branson was not very academically gifted, however, when it came to understanding the numbers in a business, there was no one better.
“I found that it was only when i was using real numbers to solve real problems that maths made any sense to me.”
In his book, Losing My Virginity, where he documents the story of Virgin and all his entrepreneurial wins and struggles, Richard Branson takes a rather unpopular approach with the notion of IQ tests.
He writes, “I worry about all the people who have been classified as stupid by these kinds of tests. Little do they know that often these IQ tests have been dreamt up by academics who are absolutely useless at dealing with the practicalities of the outside world.”
With a net worth of over $5 billion, he is the founder of Virgin Group, a company that now runs its own companies in the transport, health, entertainment, banking, hospitality, among other fields. From his experience, he picked one major question that guides all his investments, and choices of what kind of companies to start.
“Do you have an idea that us going to make other people’s lives better? If you do you have a business.”
No two successful entrepreneurs are the same. Different experiences, companies, time, milestones and fields ensure that you are always looking at different successful people from different perspectives. For Richard Branson, this is his perspective which we delve into in detail.
1. Calculated risks
“The luckiest people in business are those that are prepared to take the greatest risks.”
If you do not take the risk and try something out of the ordinary, you will never know what it might have grown to become. However, it is not just the aspect of taking risks but more importantly calculated risks. Before you take the risk, understand what you are getting into. If you are launching a company, survey the market, do your research well, find out what competitors are doing and see where the loopholes are, what the most challenging issues and get the right data. You are able to calculate the risk, mostly, if well informed you stand a good chance of succeeding than someone who hasn’t gotten their market data right.
Taking risks is about being brave, and Branson advises as much. It is pointless to fear that you might fail because the other probability is that you might actually succeed. And you are better if you try, than the 99% of people who are always wishing they would have their own companies but never try.
2. Embracing Failure
Richard Branson has gone through his fair share of failures. From Virgin Clothing to Virgin Cola, these companies took big investments luckily for him because his other companies were established. However, they did fail, and he moved past it. The Student magazine was eventually let go, while it did not fail entirely, the fact that it was close to Richard Branson’s heart and he had to let it go because of lack of profitability and sustainability model means that it was a bit of a lack of choice for him.
“Nobody gets everything right the first time. Business is like a giant game of chess — you have to learn quickly from your mistakes.”
The most important bit is to move past the mistakes. To let go of the hurt that might have come out of that fail, and to embrace the lessons and use them in your next venture.
“I’m a great believer in just getting out there and trying. Sometimes you fall flat on your face; sometimes you succeed.”
3. Thinking big
If it were not for Richard Branson’s thinking big mentality, he would have stayed publishing the magazine because it was paying the bills and his own little salary. However, he knew he is meant to solve bigger problems which allowed him to start looking out for what issues were facing his community in various fields.
“Many of Virgin’s businesses have started off as side projects which have grown into big companies. Always be thinking about what could come next, how you could expand, how you could take your idea global. It will take time but if you’re focused it’s more likely to happen.”
From developing a small solution for students to solving a music-related problem that spanned internationally leading to many other wins.
“When we began Virgin, I didn’t see it as an end in itself, a noun; I saw it as the beginning of a whole range of services, an adjective.”
He knew from the beginning that he would not just stay small, he was thinking big and scaled both horizontally and vertically for his companies. Once Virgin Records was selling a lot of records in his country, he knew there was more to come, while his team thought that the business was now set in stone, he had to keep sight of the goal.
“The responsibility made me grow up fast. You might almost say that I was old before my time. While the others might happily sit around in the evening getting stoned, unconcerned about waking up late the next morning with a hangover, I was always aware of the need to keep a clear head.”
4. Building a strong team and delegating
One of the strongest skills about people who run hundreds of companies like Branson is that they hire some of the best talent available, and they have a very good eye for excellent employees. Even more, they delegate like real bosses.
Another strong skill is that they delegate and trust their employees to actually deliver. One of the most pressing concerns for startup founders is usually hiring a winning startup team, and trusting them to do what they are good at.
“It’s a fairy tale to think that you can do everything by yourself — it’s vital to the success of your business that you learn to hand off those things that you aren’t able to do well.”
Richard Branson is an idea man, and he thrives in building solutions for various issues. Running and managing day to day affairs are not things he enjoys, so he hires the best managers and CEOs so that they do what they are good at as he focuses on his best and most enjoyable duty; to innovate and build. He has learnt the art of hiring people who are better than you in all facets.
Good communication all through the company ensures that nothing falls through the cracks. It ensures that people are open to one another and information flows without blockages or stagnation.
“Communication makes the world go round. It facilitates human connections, and allows us to learn, grow and progress.”
Entrepreneurs need to have great communication skills in order to steer the ship. Their communication is relied upon from marketing to finances. They cannot afford to be poor communicators lest they drown the company.
6. Saying Yes to opportunities
Richard Branson advises aspiring entrepreneurs and those ones who are in the business all ready to say yes to opportunities that come up. According to him, one of the biggest impediments to a company’s success is a founder who always says no to opportunities that beckon, for fear of pursuing and failing.
It is important to go out and meet like-minded people and learn as much as possible. This only happens if you are willing to try that suggestion from someone, or attend that conference. A lot can come out of that.
7. Following your passions
What is the point of spending your whole life building a company if you are not having fun while doing that? Passions are meant to be fun. Every entrepreneur needs to pursue a problem-solving venture that is close to their heart and allows them to have the most fun while at it.
“You’ll spend a lot of your life working but if you’re doing something that interests you and you’re passionate about then you’ll keep going even when it gets hard (and it will get tough). Think about your talents, what subjects and causes interest you the most, what problems you’d like to solve.”
8. Being resourceful
In his book, Losing My Virginity, Richard Branson shows how many obstacles and stumbling blocks he faced building his companies. Sometimes licenses were hard to get, sometimes it was the competition jeopardizing them, sometimes it was just hard to even do a launch.
However, as resourceful as you deem him to be, he went around all these impediments and found a way to make things work the way he wanted. He sent hundreds of letters, he found a way to get something when the system was failing him. This is what he speaks of an entrepreneur worth their salt. They have to be resourceful and persist in that very aspect on a day to day basis in order to be successful.
9. Being flexible
A good lesson to learn from how Richard Branson quickly moved from the magazine to the records business is that it is important to be flexible and quickly move from an idea if it is not working.
The ability to do this allows you to save time and money. It also allows you to be open-minded that another of your ideas could work better. It is this mentality that sees you trying out different ideas until one works successfully. Sometimes, founders have gotten themselves stuck in a startup idea for longer than it should have been. Know when to quit and chase another idea.
Virgin Cola was a drink meant to compete at the same level as Pepsi and Coca-Cola. However, within no time, Virgin noticed that there was really nothing unique about the drink and it was just as similar in taste to the other sodas in the market.
“Coke is the best-known brand in the world, and if we could topple Coke, we thought it would be a lot of fun.”
However, that never worked out and they eventually shelved the company after realizing that the market was not picking the product up.
“If you are not unique you won’t get noticed.”
11. Guarding your reputation
Always guard your reputation and that of your firm. If you ruin the reputation you have built, you mess the whole ideology people have known you for. You ruin your credibility and it takes a toll on the company too. Startups need to stick by their authenticity, goals, objectives, mission and vision. The message needs to be consistent, as should be the behaviour of the team and company towards customers.
“My parents had always drummed down into me that all you have in life is your reputation: you may be very rich, but if you lose your good name you’ll never be happy. The thought will always lurk at the back of your mind that people don’t trust you.”
A lot of times when other companies have attempted to ruin the name of companies owned by the Virgin Group, Richard Branson has heavily defended his companies and even sued the competition for unfair practices and defamation. Entrepreneurs need to guard their reputation because it is the biggest sign of trust, and once it goes the trust goes as well.
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