A: The very first thing I did that was a success was Student Magazine. I was a teenager at the time and we operated from a London basement. By the summer of 1967 the magazine started to take off and had a circulation of over 50,000 copies an issue. All of us working on the project felt like we were students, living away from home in a rented basement with a constant flow of people in and out of the project. It was a very exciting time. Inspired by that, in 1969 we decided to develop a mail order record company.
Whenever I experience any kind of setbacks, I always pick myself up and try again. I prepare myself to have another stab at things with the knowledge I’ve gained from the previous failure. My mother always taught me never to look back in regret, but to move on to the next thing. The amount of time that people waste on failures, rather than putting that energy into another project, always amazes me.
I have fun running the Virgin businesses, so a setback is never a bad experience, just a learning curve.
Q: What would you say are the key things that entrepreneurs need to make a successful business?
A: I think one of the reasons for our success is the core values which Virgin aspires to. This includes those that the general public thinks we should aspire to, like providing quality service. However, we also promise value for money, and we try to do things in an innovative way, in areas where consumers are often ripped-off, or not getting the most for their money. I believe we should do what we do with a sense of fun and without taking ourselves too seriously, too! If Virgin stands for anything, it should be for not being afraid to try out new ideas in new areas.
Branding is also important. If you get your face and your name out there enough, people will start to recognize you. Many people know the Virgin brand better than the names of the individual companies within the group. A young girl once came up to me and told me I could be famous because I looked just like Richard Branson! Branding is everything. I think it’s also wise to diversify; this enables you to have a contingency plan when the economy is going through a rough patch.
Finally, I’d better not forget luck. The odd bit of luck goes a long way. We were lucky to sign Mike Oldfield and we were lucky to get hold of the Sex Pistols in 1977. We’ve also been lucky that people liked Virgin Atlantic’s unique airline service across the Atlantic, and I was lucky to survive all my balloon and boat trips!
Q: Besides your family, what else is important to you?
A: Loyalty means a lot to me. Working with people I know and trust makes me feel secure. I guess that’s why I prefer to promote from within. People who join Virgin know that there are plenty of opportunities to progress their career.
Q: How would you describe your management style?
A: Most importantly, management is about exactly what it says: “managing”. To manage you have to make decisions about people, events unfolding and you usually have to spend money in order to make more. One of the sad realities of big business is that often people tend to forget the bit about making decisions, which is why so many large companies seem to suffer from inertia. One of the reasons that we run Virgin as a series of independent businesses is precisely to keep people focused on managing their individual companies and keep the decision process fluid. It’s worked for us.
Q: Public relations obviously plays a big role. What would you say is the secret to good PR?
A: Good PR is really about having something different to say in the first place. Your PR is about your relationship with the public as a whole, rather than just the media. Therefore, it is about getting products right and the challenge of fixing things that are not. It can never be about empty promises never met.
Q: Is there a danger that the more businesses you launch, the more the brand gets diluted?
A: Clearly in the eyes of the consumer the brand has not been diluted, but we must guard against that happening at all costs. Our model is to develop each business separately with its own shareholder and management – this way we can concentrate on the job in hand, rather than be part of some enormous and faceless conglomerate. We don’t actually plan to launch new businesses over the next few years, but we are planning to take the ones we have into new territories. People have been asking me that same question every year we’ve been in business! The fact is, Virgin is unique and can’t easily be compared to other brands. Research as recently as this year shows that we’re one of the UK’s top three favorite and most respected brands.
Keeping with the pace and continuing to experiment into new ventures means that I am doing different things all the time anyway.
Q: So, what’s next for the Virgin brand?
The next phase of growth for the Virgin brand will be starting businesses in new countries and markets, rather than expanding the range of things that we do. The brand is a major multinational one and that gives us lots of opportunities to create a truly global presence, and to do some good, too.
Compiled by Phil Robertson