Richard Branson is the only entrepreneur to have built eight separate billion-dollar companies in eight different industries — and he did it all without a degree in business.
“Had I pursued my education long enough to learn all the conventional dos and don’ts of starting a business I often wonder how different my life and career might have been,” he writes in his book, Like a Virgin: Secrets They Won’t Teach You at Business School.
We’ve compiled some of the best tips from “Like a Virgin,” and his new book, The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership, here.
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Don't do it if you don't enjoy it
Running a business takes blood, sweat, and tears (and caffeine). But at the end of the day, you should be building something you will be proud of.
Branson says, “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 … 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.”
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Branson received some timeless advice when building Virgin Airlines from Sir Freddie Laker, a British airline tycoon: “Make sure you appear on the front page and not the back pages,” said Laker. “You are going to have to get out there and sell yourself. Make a fool of yourself, whatever it takes. Otherwise you won’t survive.”
Branson always makes a point of traveling often and meeting as many people as he can. This, he says, is how he came by some of the best suggestions and ideas for his business.
Choose your brand's name wisely
The unique name and brand that Virgin employs is one of the things that has made the company a success. Branson makes sure that the name “Virgin” represents added value, improved service, and a fresh, sexy approach.
Branson says he’s asked all the time about the origin of the Virgin name. “One night, I was chatting with a group of 16-year-old girls over a few drinks about a name for the record store,” he says. “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 risqué, so, thinking it would be an attention-grabber, we went with it.”
Listen more — talk less
Rearrange the letters in the word “listen,” and you get “silent,” Branson points out. The only way to listen to the other person is to be silent, without interrupting them or planning what you want to say before they’re done.
Branson never goes anywhere without a physical notebook so that he can write down things that other people say and remember them. It’s his secret business weapon, he says, as it also leads to new business ideas as he goes.
You can't run a business without taking risks
Branson thinks of one of his favorite sayings when advising people about taking business risks: “The brave may not live forever — but the cautious do not live at all!”
Every business involves risks. Be prepared to get knocked down, says Branson, but success rarely comes from playing it safe. You may fail, but Branson also points out that “there’s no such thing as a total failure.”
The first impression is everything — so is the second
The first impression you make on customers will probably be when you acquire them. The first impression is extremely important, says Branson, but the second is just as important.
The second time a customer contacts Virgin, it’s usually because they’re having problems with the product or service. How you present yourself and your brand in these situations says a lot about how your brand maintains good customer relationships and handles obstacles.
Perfection is unattainable
“There’s an inherent danger in letting people think that they have perfected something,” says Branson. “When they believe they’ve ‘nailed it,’ most people tend to sit back and rest on their laurels while countless others will be labouring furiously to better their work!”
For this reason, Branson never gives anyone a 100% perfect review of their work. He believes that no matter how “brilliantly conceived” something is, there’s always room for improvement.
You can't do it all by yourself
“The art of delegation is one of the key skills any entrepreneur must master,” Branson writes. It’s impossible to do everything yourself, and it’s impossible to be good at everything you do. That’s why Branson recommends you “hire your weaknesses,” people who can fill in the gaps and take the tasks off your plate that you’re not strong in or that you’re too swamped to do yourself.
“[Delegating] also gives you time to spend with your family, which is really the most important thing of all,” he says.
The customer is always right, most of the time
The customer is always right… unless they’re wrong. Customers’ opinions are important, but “you should not build your customer service system on the premise that your organisation will never question the whims of your clients,” says Branson.
Branson warns that many entrepreneurs think providing services based on a the-customer-is-always-right philosophy will improve their businesses. This isn’t always true. Be wary of damaging relationships with customers or staff with your customer service policies.
Define your brand
When it comes to defining your brand, Branson advises you do the opposite of what he did with Virgin, which is spreading out all over the place. And while it’s true that Virgin branches into many different industries, the company succeeds at it by focusing on just one thing: “finding new ways to help people have a good time.”
Stick to what you know. Underpromise and overdeliver. Because if you don’t define your brand, your competitors will.
Explore uncharted territory
Branson compares exploring new territory in business to exploring new territory in science or geography.
“We will find new species and better understand the make-up of the deep-level waters,” says Branson.
Business translation: There are still many things out there that haven’t been discovered, invented, or achieved. Exploring uncharted areas can spark new ideas and innovations.
You make your own luck
It’s not that Branson doesn’t believe in luck. He just believes that it’s something you can change and manipulate simply by not being afraid to fail.
“Those people and businesses that are generally considered fortunate or luckier than others are usually also the ones that are prepared to take the greatest risks and, by association, are also prepared to fall flat on their faces every so often,” Branson says. “Anyone who wants to make the effort to work on their luck can and will seriously improve it.”
Beware the 'us vs. them' environment
A workplace should be one in which the boss and his or her employees communicate well and work together toward the same goal. “If employees aren’t associating themselves with their company by using ‘we,’ it is a sign that people up and down the chain of command aren’t communicating,” says Branson.
If you think there might be discrepancies or tension between employees and management, Branson advises to check with the middle management first to try to uncover the source of the problem and address it head-on.
Build a corporate comfort zone
Employees must feel free and encouraged to openly express themselves without rigid confines so they can do better work and make good, impactful decisions.
“This may sound like a truism,” begins Branson, “but it has to be said: It takes an engaged, motivated, and committed workforce to deliver a first-class product or service and build a successful, sustainable enterprise.”
Not everyone is suited to be CEO
A manager needs to be someone who “brings out the best in people,” someone who communicates well with others and helps an employee learn from a mistake instead of criticizing them for it.
Not everyone does this well, and that’s okay. The founder can but doesn’t have to be the CEO; if the fit isn’t right, he or she should know when the role is meant for someone else.
Get a mentor
As a young man, Branson found a mentor in David Beevers, an accountant and friend of his parents who taught him the basics of bookkeeping and provided him with a wise and patient approach to business that Branson still uses in his own life.
A good mentor will understand how to work with and guide you. “Going it alone is an admirable but foolhardy and highly flawed approach to taking on the world,” Branson says.
Seek a second opinion, and then a third
Branson says you must learn to be a good listener in order to succeed, and that means bouncing “every idea you have off numerous people before finally saying, ‘We’ll give this one a miss,’ or, ‘Let’s do it.’”
That means being thorough and deliberate before executing any decisions. In business, seeking a variety of opinions “can save you a lot of time and money,” says Branson. “Don’t tell people about others’ suggestions until you’ve heard what they have to say. In the end you may decide that the best advice is to walk away — and later find out it was the very best solution.”
Cut ties without burning bridges
Business ventures with another person, be it a friend or a partner, don’t always work out. If this is the case, successful entrepreneurs know when to part ways.
But just because you decide to go in another direction doesn’t mean things have to end badly, especially with a friend, says Branson. Handle any problems quickly and directly, and end the relationship as amicably as possible.
Pick up the phone
It’s great to be tech-savvy, but don’t text or email when you should be calling. “The quality of business communications has become poorer in recent years as people avoid phone calls and face-to-face meetings, I can only assume, in some misguided quest for efficiency,” Branson says.
Problems are more difficult to solve by text or email, and “there is nothing efficient about allowing a small problem to escalate,” says Branson, when it could have been easily addressed with a phone call.
Always pick personality over experience
Some people have a knack for certain tasks, but skills can almost always be taught. Branson says that, when it comes to hiring someone, “the key is focusing on personality rather than anything that you might see in their CV.”
Some people may be used to doing a job differently, but if you see a personality fit and give the person the opportunity and room to expand in a new role, they may surprise you with what and how much they’re capable of.
Change shouldn't be feared, but it should be managed
“Companies aren’t future-proof,” says Branson, and nothing lasts forever. An entrepreneur should be prepared to adapt, and avoid being nostalgic about the company itself.
“Sometimes you have to take your company in a new direction because circumstances and opportunities have changed.” If this is the case, Branson advises that you should “find ways to inspire all employees to think like entrepreneurs … The more responsibility you give people, the better they will perform.”
When it comes to making mistakes, bounce back, don't fall down
Your decision won’t always be the best decision. Everyone makes mistakes, but the best thing you can do in the face of a mistake is own up to it.
Honesty isn’t just the best policy, it’s the only policy, notes Branson. When a mistake is made, don’t let it consume you. Uncover the problem and get to work fixing it.
Be a leader, not a boss
Branson sees the classic image of “the boss” as an anachronism. A boss orders, while a leader organizes.
“Perhaps, therefore, it is odd that if there is any one phrase that is guaranteed to set me off it’s when someone says to me, ‘Okay, fine. You’re the boss!’” says Branson. “What that person is really saying is, ‘Okay, then, I don’t agree with you, but I’ll roll over and do it because you’re telling me to.’”
A good leader is someone who doesn’t just execute his or her own ideas, but also inspires others to come forth with their own.