In the startup world, five years is an eternity. And a pretty good measure of whether a company is going to make it. After all, almost half of new businesses fail within that time. It's also a milestone that often puts entrepreneurs at a crossroads—they're too big to be small, but not exactly big either. In other words, growing pains.
Or as Sir Richard Branson once described it to me, the toddler stage. While Branson, the iconic founder of Virgin Group, has been at it for some 40 years and counts more than 400 companies in his portfolio today, the 62-year-old billionaire finds himself once again toddling along—with Virgin America, his award-winning airline that celebrated its fifth birthday last August. Now serving 20 cities, with a loyal following and a shelf full of awards, the upstart carrier finds itself at an exciting crossroads in a deeply competitive, increasingly consolidated industry. As Branson's man on the ground, CEO David Cush, says, “I don’t try to predict the future. But when the future presents itself, you have to react. Sure, the world changes, but you do have core principles that you stay true to.”
So how can companies of all shapes and sizes overcome the inevitable growing pains that come on the path to success? I recently caught up with Branson during Virgin America's latest launch at Newark Liberty International Airport —the site, interestingly enough, where Virgin Atlantic launched some three decades ago, and with it, much of the now-legendary Virgin story.
So how have you been? What’s keeping you busy lately?
I’ve been really well. Lots keeping us busy. Whether it’s space or submarines or airlines, whether it’s the Elders or War Room or the B Team...
As usual, I’m getting tired thinking about it.
Lots keeping us busy.
Let’s talk Virgin America. The airline is now five years old, you just launched your 20th destination here in Newark. It’s been long enough that you can have some perspective on the company. What are some of the successes you’re proud of, and what are some of the challenges and opportunities still out there?
Well, I think the latest move by David and the team to consolidate slightly was a wise one, because we need to get some profits under the belt. Last quarter was very profitable and next year will be very profitable. And, so, if you’re running a company, it’s important you have some profits.
That’s good advice, Richard.
[Laughs] Equally important, though, is that you create the best product, and that they’ve won hands down. Great to win the best airline award this week. Great for them, despite all the shenanigans by the other carriers, to get this spot in Newark—to work around, in my opinion, anticompetitive behavior by the other airlines to get us in here. So I think Virgin America’s got a great future.
You’ve become big enough and successful enough that competitors are noticing. In a sense, you’re referring to growing pains, which are an issue, in some form, for a lot of entrepreneurs. What’s your advice on overcoming them?
Well, you’ve just got to fight in every area. So, if you have new competition, you have to fight. You’ve got to make profits. Whatever tough decisions are needed, you’ve just got to get out there and make them. And I think David has delivered on all that, while keeping the spirit of the company soaring high. I’m very proud of the company.
I know delegation is a very important tactic for you, from your assistants all the way up to the CEOs of your various companies. But delegating can be a challenge for entrepreneurs, who worry about losing control. How has it helped you?
The entrepreneurs I’ve persuaded to delegate have been so grateful. Their companies have flourished better, their family lives have been better, their personal lives have been better, their health has been better. And they can think about the bigger picture. I spent all seven days of last week just thinking about one issue, one big issue, to do with satellites for our spaceship company. And if I had been dealing with all the nitty gritty of all the companies, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.
I’ve gotten to know many members of your team over the years—it’s a great team. What do you look for in employees?
Just the kinds of people who care about other people, who look for the best in other people. I was just downstairs seeing all the new staff that have joined [Virgin America in Newark] and they all did an impromptu show for us. It was fantastic. I always look for outward-going, fun-loving, caring sort of people.
And you think that starts at the top with you? We all know you like to have a good time.
[Laughs] Yeah, well, it’s important that it starts at the top. You’ve got to keep a smile up all day.
Rod Kurtz is the editor-at-large of OPEN Forum.
Photos: Virgin America