Virgin territory: A conversation with Richard Branson

by MPA21 Oct 2013

Like him or loathe him, Sir Richard Branson is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world. In this exclusive interview, MPA probed the Virgin mastermind about the secrets to his success

MPA: Many of our readers run small- to medium-sized businesses. What’s the difference between a business that chugs along at a happy medium and one that develops into a world-leading, global empire? How do you go about building an empire rather than just a business?

Sir Richard Branson: Big or small, I believe that all successful and innovative companies need to have an excellent product or service, they need strong management to execute the plan and a good brand to give it the edge over competitors. Often entrepreneurs can create a good product and a brand but lack the management to help expand and create a truly great company – people are the core differentiator between a business that just chugs along and one that grows into an empire.

An entrepreneur needs to build up a very strong and capable management team and delegate out the responsibility to run the existing companies to them, so that he or she can focus on new ideas and finding the next business to start up. Just remember that it is impossible to run a business without taking risks. Virgin would not be the company it is today if we had not taken risks. I couldn’t tell you which was the riskiest – there has been quite a few!

MPA: Both Virgin and Sir Richard Branson are names that are known the world over. How important is a strategic approach to branding – personal and/or corporate? Can they be separated? What are the must-do’s when building a brand?

RB: Brands ultimately belong to the consumer. While a business can influence its brand by what it does and how it behaves, it is what the customer thinks at the end of the day that is the only important thing. With this in mind, I think that it is important to try and identify early on what attitude you would like your brand to convey, and then go about building it!

Brands need to be constantly nurtured, to be kept fresh and be seen. When I was thinking about setting up my own airline, the late Freddie Laker said to me: “You’ll never have the advertising power to outsell British Airways. You are going to have to get out there and use yourself. Make a fool of yourself. Otherwise you won’t survive”. I’ve been following his advice ever since and used myself to get the Virgin brand in the headlines and become more visible.

MPA: Our readers’ businesses deal with intangible services in the financial sector. What are your tips for effectively marketing and selling intangibles? What have you learned from ventures such as the Virgin Money companies?

RB: Even today, the Virgin brand is not a product like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s; it’s an attitude and a way of life to many. At Virgin Money, we’re building a better kind of bank. A bank that genuinely cares about the customer and provides a better experience and better-value financial products in a straightforward, transparent way. I think that it is important to build up a strong brand when selling an intangible service as it makes your service distinct and different from anyone else’s.

MPA: You’re famous for your ‘Screw it, let’s do it’ approach, which has led to missteps as well as successes. What is your biggest business failure, and why? How do you pick yourself up from mistakes – both personally and financially?

RB: Whenever I experience any kind of setbacks, I always pick myself up and try again. I prepare myself to have another stab at things with the knowledge I have gained from the previous failure. My parents always taught me never to look back in regret but to move on to the next thing. The amount of time people waste on failures rather than putting that energy into another project always amazes me. I have fun heading the Virgin group of businesses, so a setback is never a bad experience, just a learning curve.

MPA: Part of the skill of a successful entrepreneur is identifying tomorrow’s growth sectors and opportunities – Virgin Galactic being one of the most high-profile examples of this. How do you discover tomorrow’s opportunities today?

RB: There are many different reasons for entering new businesses. It can be as simple as a business sector really interests me or one of our directors at Virgin, and we see areas in that sector where our brand can make a real difference to the consumer. Sometimes it is as simple as the fact that an existing service has frustrated us and we believe we could do it better.

Having the will to say ‘screw it, let’s do it’ and make things happen is what sets entrepreneurs apart. It takes bravery to start a business, but people with enterprising spirit who seize chances when they come along will be the ones who drive the economy and make a difference in the future.

MPA: Another aspect of business that every entrepreneur understands is getting the right people around you. How do you find the best talent for your businesses – and how do you keep them interested and engaged?

RB: We don’t really have a general recruiting process at Virgin – it depends on the type of business and the position we are looking to fill. However, as a rule we tend to pick out employees who are inquisitive about the bigger picture, and have a ‘can do’ attitude, are positive and enthusiastic and, most importantly, have a strong sense of fun! I have found that choosing enthusiastic, talented and positive people has helped to shape a positive character for our businesses.

MPA: Innovation is clearly something that is central to the Virgin ethos. How do you unlock this, both personally and in your business teams? Can you create a culture of innovation and, if so, how?

RB: I believe our culture of innovation is a result of our ability to adapt to changes quickly. We run our companies small; there is very little red tape and certainly no bureaucracy – we make decisions quickly and implement them, before our competitors in the market have held their fifth meeting on the same issue.

Additionally, Virgin has many, many entrepreneurs within the organization. In business, the picture is constantly moving and changing so I try to employ people who enjoy thinking outside the box and are constantly creative and inspiring. Our people don’t just think about the numbers but think about how a deal will enhance the whole brand.

MPA: You’re a globally recognized philanthropist and supporter of charities. How important is it to devote time and capital to not-for-profit work as a businessperson? Does it matter what size your business is? Is it more important to donate time or capital?

RB: I believe that today’s businesses – regardless of their size – must be prepared to do good in societies around the globe. I am optimistic that we can make the world a far better, safer and more equitable place, but business and enterprise must sit at the heart of this process. We need government, business and the social sector to work together for the benefit of everyone.

It should no longer be just about typical ‘corporate social responsibility’ where the ‘responsibility’ bit is usually the realm of a small team buried in a basement office – now it should be about every single person in a business taking responsibility to make a difference in everything they do, at work and in their personal lives.

Virgin Unite, the non-profit arm of the Virgin Group, calls this approach ‘Capitalism 24902’ because it’s focused on getting business leaders all over the world — all 24,902 miles of it — to look at how we can do what is right for people and the planet. Virgin Unite also helped incubate a recently launched not-for-profit organization called ‘The B Team’ which is framing a new approach to business where people and planet are priorities alongside profit.


MPA: It’s all too easy for an entrepreneur to get stuck dealing with the daily workings of a business. How important is it for an entrepreneur to get out of the office and do other things? What helps you refresh yourself mentally and physically?

RB: I do try to keep fit – anytime I’m near a Virgin Active club I make sure I get in there and work out. I love tennis and kite-surfing and pretty much do some sort of exercise every day, without making it too rigid, as that just doesn’t work for me. I enjoy being outside and being active – keeping fit as a result is almost a by-product of doing something I enjoy! I recently completed the Pick n Pay Cape Argus Cycle Tour, a wonderful 109km ride with 36,000 cyclists, and an extraordinary atmosphere with breathtaking views.

I have always believed that I needed to find good people to run my businesses and to delegate day-to-day management to others. I did this from a very early age and, importantly, that has allowed me to go and set up new ventures, sometimes in a new sector or country.


MPA: From big data to social media, the digital revolution is disrupting industries across the world, with business models being forced to change, whether they want to or not. As an entrepreneur with a history of disrupting established industries, does the potential of digital excite you? What’s your advice on how to make the most of merging technologies?

RB: The mobile revolution has allowed entrepreneurs to better talk to their customers, suppliers and staff in real time to determine exactly how each one is responding to particular situations, and determine exactly what they want and need. An entrepreneur who takes full advantage of this is well on the way to making himself a success, because he knows how to approach his consumers and how to deliver his offer in just the right way. I know it’s a cliché, but knowledge is power.

Virgin is a major advocate of social media and the power it can hold for companies. My advice to the businesses of the future would be to improve their social media presence and use it as a way of knowing their customers more intimately. It can act as a wonderful warning system for businesses as well as a cost-effective way to get your message out.


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