"Nice guys can finish first."
Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, shares advice that he has gleaned after four decades of running one of the world’s most recognizable brands. Starting out with a small group of friends publishing a student magazine out of their apartment, Branson’s (and, subsequently, Virgin’s) goals have never been about profits, but rather to serve their customers and provide them with a bit of fun where they least expect it. They just hoped they’d have enough to pay their bills every month.
To be as successful as Virgin has, there obviously is more to it than merely having fun, and Branson’s book is full of tips and thoughtful advice for entrepreneurs just getting started.
Your Most Important Business Relationship
"The credit for Virgin’s enduring and varied success is often attributed to me, but it’s actually due to the employees themselves. My biggest contribution has always been to give our people autonomy, responsibility, and encouragement to take risks and just get it done."
“The customer is always right” is a maxim that has led to the downfall of many misguided entrepreneurs. While customer service is extremely important for businesses, it is also essential to give employees the autonomy to handle customer complaints in an appropriate manner. Overstepping your position as CEO and choosing the side of the customer over your employee creates resentment among the staff.
It would be much better for the CEO to act as the “Chief Enabling Officer”. Leaders should provide direction and exemplify their desired service levels through their own behavior, while allowing employees to decide how to best live up to the service ideal.
The Importance of Branding
"Brands always mean something. If you don’t define what the brand means, your competitors will."
The Virgin Group has taken brand extension to new levels. To the untrained eye, Virgin’s businesses (trains, planes, banks, cell phones, music, fitness centers, etc.) are so distinct it hardly makes sense to keep them all under the same brand name. But to Branson and his stakeholders, Virgin is highly focused. It’s about the Virgin experience. The Virgin brand is a guarantee that you’ll receive a high-quality experience and get more fun out of your purchase than you expected.
The Virgin Group has a unique process for deciding what types of business to invest in; does it pass their brand test:
- Could the opportunity potentially harm your brand? If yes, don’t do it.
- Is there a chance to shake up the industry and make an immediate impact?
We can apply the lessons of branding to our lives either as individuals or as leaders of a company. The first step is to define who we are; the second is to look for ways to grow our brand through opportunities that align with our values.
Always Protect the Downside
"If it means taking a hit, then take it on the chin. Don’t even think about it again. Just move forward."
If one word were to describe Richard Branson and the Virgin Group, it certainly would not be conservative. On the contrary, Branson takes large risks, but he always does so with an escape plan in mind.
Virgin’s ability to figure out very quickly why things went wrong and make changes is a key component of protecting their downside. As Branson says, “there’s nothing wrong with mistakes as long as you don’t make the same ones”. Branson believes in taking risks, and empowering employees to take risks as well, but he wants to ensure that they think of all the things that could go wrong and plan for that, too.
We can apply these lessons in our lives by analyzing opportunities before we take the plunge. If you’re considering a new career or starting a new venture, it would be wise to take some extra time and look at all the potential pitfalls, planning your own escape hatch in case you fall into one.
Richard Branson’s career has been anything but conventional. The advice he offers in Like a Virgin helps explain many of the decisions he has made over the course of four decades in business, and it might just help you last that long too.