Richard Branson is one of the most remarkable entrepreneurs the world has ever seen. Everybody knows about the Virgin Group and its illustrious founder. Starting as a small (like most entrepreneurs) mail order record retailer in 1970, Virgin Records went on to become the biggest independent label in the world, having signed greats like The Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols, among others.
In 1984, he founded Virgin Atlantic and changed the dynamics of the airline industry, setting benchmarks that were way higher than those followed by the incumbents. Today, the Virgin Group has more than 400 companies employing more than 60,000 people in over 50 countries. He is the only businessman to have successfully built eight billion dollar companies in eight different sectors.
Richard Charles Nicholas Branson wasn’t born rich. He was born to working class parents who supported him in his endeavors. Richard has dyslexia and after a poor academic performance, dropped out of school at age 15. On his last day in school, his headmaster, Robert Drayson, told him that either he would end up in jail or go on to become a millionaire!
So what turned a dyslexic youngster into Britain’s greatest success story and one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs? Here’s what every fledgling entrepreneur can learn from the life and times of the great man.
1. Challenge the Status Quo
This has to be the first commandment of every entrepreneur. The wildly successful businesses are those that challenge the incumbent and go a step ahead to show how things are done. In the 1980s, when airlines were just looking at transportation, Branson decided to put the customer first.
He literally changed the playing field by introducing a new standard for customer service excellence and changed the flight class system. He introduced Premium Economy and Upper Class that provides first-class service at Business Class prices. In Virgin Money banks, the branches look more like living rooms. There are no queues or teller windows and the customer is immediately put at ease.
According to Branson, behind every business enterprise, there has to be the frustration of the status quo. If you do not feel strongly enough to change it, you might as well stick to what you are currently doing.
2. I Am the Market
Feel passionately about your product before you launch it. Branson says that he would never start a business unless he is absolutely thrilled with the product. He puts himself in the shoes of the customer and asks himself – Will I be thrilled with this product? If the answer is a resounding “Yes,” he’ll go with it.
Introduce a product/service the customer wants rather than what you want to. Branson often goes with his gut feeling. Surveys and focus groups will help you only so much, but what you deeply and truly believe in will, in all probability, ultimately work.
3. Create Value and Give Back
Sir Richard is a strong proponent of creating a business that will add value to the lives of people. If you start a business just to earn money rather than make a difference in the lives of people, you are less likely to succeed. Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic are testament to this ideology.
According to Branson, “The brands that will thrive in the coming years are the ones that have a purpose beyond profit.” Today, he’s using his name and his brand to fund entrepreneurial programs through the Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship, and support a number of environmental causes through his non-profit foundation Virgin Unite.
4. Stand Out and Be Counted
As a startup, you’ll most likely be short on resources and find it difficult to get money for advertising and marketing. Sir Richard believes that this situation will force you to find new ways to drive attention to your product.
His best advice comes from Sir Freddie Laker, a British airline tycoon. “Make sure you appear on the front pages and not the back pages…. get out there and sell yourself. Make a fool of yourself, whatever it takes. Otherwise you won’t survive.”
Sir Richard’s PR stunts, which have earned him the nickname ‘King of PR Stunts,’ has helped Virgin Atlantic to stand out and be counted in a world of stiff competitors like the British Airways in the UK, and United, American and Delta in the US. He revealed that he spends a quarter of his time working on the marketing and publicity stunts for Virgin companies.
Good PR stunts make good headlines. They do much better than the millions of dollars spent in advertising and marketing activities. As an entrepreneur you need to “get your brand out and about….. A good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front page ad.”
5. Employee First, Customer Second, Shareholder Third
Sir Richard believes that happy customers can come only from happy employees. “If the person who is working for your company … is not looked after, is not appreciated, they are not going to do things with a smile, therefore the customer will be treated in a way in which they don’t want to come back for more.”
In a refreshing team building and training exercise program called, ‘Refresh,’ Virgin America employees learn the intricacies of body language, hone their salsa dancing skills, learn how to change tires in a race car pit, and prepare their own lunches through a tag team relay.
Branson’s secret to keep his employees youthful and exuberant? “Trying to stay small while getting bigger is very important. Any company that has more than 250 people in a building is in danger of becoming impersonal. 150 people are the most that should be working in an organization, so that everyone knows one another by their first names.”
Branson says that he believes in hiring the best people to do the job so that the company runs smoothly even in his absence. Branson believes in empowering his employees “to be open to new ideas all the time.” He wants employees to have a “Yes mentality rather than a No mentality.” Employees need to be given the courage to take risks and “fall flat on their face on occasion.” He also advises not to criticize them too much else they won’t take risks the next time around.
A striking example of how much Branson cares for his employees is when the British Airways ran what is now known as the infamous, Dirty Tricks Campaign, and when Virgin Atlantic finally won a settlement of more than £3.5 million, he distributed all of this compensation money among his staff, calling it the “BA Bonus!”
6. Don’t Take Yourself Seriously. Have Fun!
Humor, according to Branson, is a huge part of building a business. Making a joke of yourself now and then can keep you grounded and makes it easy for you to face and digest failures.
Branson also says that fun is an underrated ingredient and that if you are not having fun doing it, stop and do something else. Why do it if you don’t enjoy it?
Today, at age 66, Sir Richard is the epitome of coolness with his larger-than-life persona and lifestyle and yet, he remains the same youthful and fun-loving person he was when he started Virgin Records. Underneath it all, he is an entrepreneur for life who believes in taking risks, finding better people to work with and creating value for the people of this world, and someone who “enjoys life too much to be complacent.” He is a true inspiration for countless entrepreneurs to come.
Author Bio: Pratik Dholakiya is the co-founder & CMO of E2M, a digital marketing agency, and Preceptist, a content marketing agency. Pratik has contributed on sites like Moz, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine, Huffington Post, Content Marketing Institute and Social Media Examiner to name a few. He’s a “must-follow” SEO expert according to Search Engine Watch and has been named one of the top content marketing influencers by Onalytica three years in a row. Hit him up on Twitter @DholakiyaPratik for a quick chat on any of these topics."6 Things Every Entrepreneur Can Learn From Sir Richard Branson",