The iconic Virgin Group founder seems to have done it all. Now he explains to Inc. how to start a company from pennies, when to “snoop around,” and his trouble saying “no.”
Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group–an empire of more than 400 companies that includes an airline, a mobile phone company, and a credit card company–sat down Wednesday with Inc. editor-in-chief Eric Schurenberg. Their exclusive interview kicked off Inc.’s GrowCo conference in New Orleans.
Branson spoke about the power of delegating, the importance of branding, how to assess risk, and why he wants to change the entire concept of space travel–soon.
Here are some of the interview’s most poignant take-aways.
1. “A business can be started with very little money.”
When Branson was 15 years old, he decided he wanted to start a magazine to give young people a way to speak out against the Vietnam War. He didn’t have any money–not even enough change to make a phone call. But when his mom found a necklace and turned it over to the police, nobody claimed it. So she sold the necklace, and gave Branson a couple hundred dollars. That money enabled him to bring on advertisers, which led him to start printing his publication.
2. “Consider getting smaller in order to get bigger.”
Rather than grow his original record business exponentially larger, Branson instead set up 30 different record companies. Rather than have a few top managers overseeing layers upon layers of people below them, some lower-level employees became managers of those smaller entities. A hearty spirit of competition developed. Branson attributes this strategy’s success to the fact each company knew directly and immediately when it had succeeded, and when it had stumbled. Virgin today is a huge entity with more than $20 billion in revenue–but Branson’s original strategy has been retained in that it also is a series of smaller companies.
3. “You can be a David vs. a Goliath, if you get it right.”
When Branson launched Virgin Atlantic, it had tough competitors such as TWA, Pan Am, and Air Florida. “I mention these names,” said Branson, “because none of them exist anymore.” Why’d the others fail? The others didn’t focus on the customer, Branson said.
4. “A business is simply an idea to make other people’s lives better.”
Branson explained this is what drives him as an entrepreneur: “If you can make peoples lives a lot better, you’ve got a really good business.”
5. “Unless you dream, you’re not going to achieve anything.”
Branson is funding Virgin Galactic to make space travel more accessible to average people–even if it would still cost an individual a couple hundred thousand dollars. Because governments have traditionally overseen space travel, only a select and elite (and very small) group of people have been into space in the last six decades. Branson is trying to change that. “People in this room under the age of 50,” Branson said, “if they want to go to space will be able to go to space in their lifetime.”
6. “You can get too close with a doctor, or banker, and not realize you should actually snoop around.”
When he launched Virgin Atlantic, Branson found a manager at his bank on his doorstep one Friday evening in a complete panic, questioning how someone in the record business could launch an airline. The banker said he would foreclose on the whole Virgin Group that Monday. “I just pushed the bank manager out of my house and told him he wasn’t welcome,” Branson said. He then explained that, in a state of “half-anger, half-fear,” he spent the weekend asking people he knew to chip in to help him gather the money he needed upfront. And the next week he changed banks–something he should have done much earlier (he even got a better package from the new bank).
7. “Detail is very important.”
Richard Branson carries a notebook at all times, so he can write down conversations. He doesn’t want to forget on, say, a Virgin Atlantic flight, what his customers or staff tell him. He brings the notebook along when he visits out-of-town teams and goes out with them. “When I get drunk with staff, I won’t remember, so I’ll definitely write it down,” he laughed.
8. “You can create a business, choose a name, but unless people know about it you’re not going to sell any products.”
When Virgin Atlantic was getting started, it was so much smaller than its competitors that Branson went to extraordinary lengths to put the brand on the map, including stunts like attempting to get a boat across the Atlantic in the shortest period of time. “Luckily when it sank, the Virgin brand was sticking out of the water,” he joked. Likewise, when Branson tried to be the first to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon, it was rescued by helicopters–but Virgin was all over the newspapers.
9. “Find somebody else to run your business on a day-to-day basis.”
Branson recommends you should be brave enough to find somebody else to run all the day-to-day, and nitty-gritty details of your company, and then step aside and work from home for a while, so you can start to think about bigger picture–or your next business.
10. “Protect against the worst eventualities. Make sure you know what they are.”
Ask yourself when you embark on a new venture if you can afford the absolute worst-case scenario, and then just go on and do it. “You may say, ‘OK, I feel so sure about it I will mortgage the house.’ I have done that against my wife’s wishes on two or three occasions,” he said.
“Sometimes you’ll fall flat on your face, sometimes you won’t,” he added.
11. “I think because I have great difficulty saying the word, ‘no,’ almost every day’s a different adventure.”
Branson’s not one for taking it slow. Or turning down opportunities–even if they mean jetting around the world and back. Inc. caught up with Branson in New Orleans between a trip to New York–where he announced the Virgin Atlantic service from two New York City-area airports to Los Angeles and San Francisco–and his next stop: Peru.