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Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, is at the helm of a multi-national corporation with more than 400 different businesses under its umbrella.
Among those are telecoms arm Virgin Mobile and entertainment and broadband provider Virgin Media, both born from Branson’s tendency to disrupt industries.
At the event, Branson proved the responsibility of being associated with a global brand has not stifled his sense of humour.
Recounting his involvement in a media stunt Virgin pulled in 1999, where the firm flew a blimp with the tagline “BA can’t get it up” over the not-yet-upstanding London Eye, he told the audience: “Being a bit cheeky and having a bit of fun is good – not taking yourself too seriously is important.”
Startups and entrepreneurship usually adhere to the same two fundamental rules – having a great internal culture and not being afraid to fail fast, learn and adapt.
Branson has snapped up and adapted hundreds of companies – tech and otherwise – but has always tried to focus on culture and adaptability to keep staff loyal and keep the brand fresh.
With hundreds of diverse companies under one brand, it can be difficult to promote brand loyalty, but Branson said sticking to high quality is what ensures customers and employees are on board.
“Every new venture we go in to, we try to make sure it’s going to enhance – and not damage – the brand, which sounds simple but it is critical,” he said.
Adapting to industry change
When Branson’s main venture was Virgin Megastores, he “played a prank” on the music industry by claiming to have invented a box to store all of the music in the world – a joke described as “the end of the music industry”.
However, Branson said the joke backfired on him when Steve Jobs invented the iPod, and Branson’s megastores became “defunct”.
To adapt to the shift in the music industry, Branson realised he could use his stores to understand customer trends.
It was at a time when mobile phones and video games were becoming popular, and Branson decided to create separate businesses to serve these customer demands.
“When we saw the writing was on the wall for music retailing, we decided we didn’t have to stay a retailer – just because you start a retailer doesn’t mean you have to stay a retailer,” he added.
According to Branson, entrepreneurs are more willing to fail, stating: “People don’t mind people trying and failing as long as they don’t leave people with debt and they keep their reputation intact – I suppose we’ve had more successes than failures.”
Changing direction or adapting as a result of a failure can lead to huge successes, said Branson. With the retail industry shifting away from bricks-and-mortar and towards technology-driven omni-channel, it’s more important than ever for retailers to be agile and embrace change.
“People who own retail stores should not think themselves as forever being retailers, they need to be entrepreneurial. The companies we started by using the stores to see what products were selling became much bigger than any of our stores could have ever been.”
While apologising for name-dropping, Branson describes how Virgin Active went from a handful of gyms to hundreds of gyms worldwide after Nelson Mandela called and asked if he would help save 600 jobs after a South African fitness firm went bust.
“Being willing to move quickly and grab opportunities is important. Changing the world begins with a small group who are unable to accept the unacceptable,” he said.
Encouraging social change
Branson said he had “made enough money” for himself and his family, preferring to focus on his philanthropic ventures.
But his dream of going to space is one of the technological advancements Branson is still working on, and he aims to make flights affordable and with the option of a return ticket.
When registering the name Virgin Galactic Airways, Branson said: “I also cheekily registered the name Virgin Intergalactic Airways – I’m forever the optimist.”
Part of the project is also to launch new satellites, with the aim of connecting some of the four billion people worldwide who are currently off the grid.
Branson said companies should become “more than a money-making machine” and pay it forward by taking on a challenge to help make the world a better place.
“If you could get every single company in the world to adopt a problem and overcome it, most of the problems in the world would be solved.”
This could start with a focus on internal culture and staff, making sure they want to come to work in the morning and are more likely to pay it forward themselves.
Virgin Group tries to behave internally as a small company, recruiting people who care about its brands and the company has an open culture for allowing people to chop and change roles as it helps keep people in the business.
Branson said: “The people in the company will work that much harder if they feel they can be proud of the company. We have a lot of loyal staff at Virgin and we have a lot of fun.”
Technology has made a transformational and disruptive impact on most industries, and change is happening much faster now than it ever has before.
“Every decade the world has gotten dramatically better. We’ve just got to keep that momentum up. By 2020, most people in the world will have a survivable wage, most people will be connected,” said Branson.
As a leader, Branson said listening to people is one of the most important things someone in charge can do – but his best tip for other leaders and entrepreneurs was to simply “write things down”.
Branson said he notes down even the smallest things he can glean from his staff, including problems such as Virgin Atlantic cabin crew complaining of an uncomfortable uniform. He then advised people to take that critique and “fix it quickly”.