I am often asked if I have found a secret -- or at least a consistent answer -- to successfully building businesses over my career. I've spent some time thinking about what characterizes so many of Virgin's successful ventures and, importantly, what went wrong when we did not get it right.
Reflecting across 40 years I have come up with five "secrets."
1. Enjoy what you're doing.
Because starting a business is a huge amount of hard work and requires a great deal of time, you better enjoy what you're doing. When I started Virgin from a basement flat in West London, I did not set out to build a business empire. I set out to create something I enjoyed that would pay the bills.
There was no great plan or strategy. The name itself was thought up on the hoof. One night some friends and I were chatting over a few drinks and decided to call our group Virgin, as we were all new to business. The name stuck and had a certain ring to it.
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.
A businesswoman or a businessman is not unlike an artist. 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 businesswoman 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.
If a businessperson sets out to make a real difference to other people's lives, and achieves that, he or she will be able to pay the bills and have a successful business to boot.
2. Create something that stands out.
Whether you have a product, service or a brand, it is not easy to start a company and survive and thrive in the modern world. In fact, you've got to do something radically different to make a mark today.Look at the most successful businesses of the past 20 years. Microsoft, Google and Apple, for example, shook up a sector by doing something that had never been done and continually innovating. They are now among the dominant forces.
3. Create something that your employees can be proud of.
The people on your team are your biggest assets.
4. Be a good leader.
As a leader, you have to be a really good listener. You need to know your own mind but there is no point in imposing your views on others without some debate. No one has a monopoly on good ideas or advice.
Get out there, listen, draw people out and learn from them. As a leader you've also got to be extremely good at praising people. Never openly criticize people or lose your temper, and always lavish praise on your colleagues for a job well done.
People flourish if they're praised. Usually they don't need to be told when they've done wrong because most of the time they know it. If somebody is not working out, don't automatically throw him or her out of the company. A company should genuinely be a family. So see if there's another job within the company that suits them better. On most occasions you'll find something for every single kind of personality.
5. Be visible.
A good leader does not get stuck behind a desk. I've never worked in an office -- I've always worked from home -- but I get out and about and meet people. It seems like I'm always traveling, but I always have a notebook in my back pocket to jot down questions, concerns or good ideas that occur along the way.
If I'm on a Virgin Atlantic plane, I make sure to get out and meet all the staff and many of the passengers. If you meet a group of Virgin Atlantic crew members, you are going to have at least 10 suggestions or ideas. If I don't write them down, I may remember only one the next day. Get out and shake hands with all the passengers on the plane, and again, see if anyone has a problem or suggestion. Write it down, make sure that you get their names, get their e-mail addresses, and make sure the next day that you respond to them.
Of course, I try to make sure that we appoint managing directors 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 responsive and friendly.
When you're building a business from scratch, the key word for many years is "survival." It's tough to survive. In the beginning you haven't got the time or energy to worry about saving the world. You've just got to fight to make sure you can look after your bank manager and be able to pay the bills. Literally, your full concentration has to be on surviving.
Obviously, if you don't survive, just remember that most businesses fail and the best lessons are usually learned from failure. You must not get too dispirited. Just get back up and try again!
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