15 Small Business Lessons from Richard Branson

On paper, global entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson is larger than life: entrepreneur with over 360 companies, chairman of the Virgin Group, a
September 23, 2010

On paper, global entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson is larger than life: entrepreneur with over 360 companies, chairman of the Virgin Group, author, adventurer, knight, patron, kajillionaire, would-be space traveler with a ballsy mantra, “Screw it, let’s do it.”

As my friend Kyle Lacy commented after we both watched Branson keynote a marketing conference in Indianapolis last week, “You think you’re doing pretty well, and then you meet that guy.”

On stage, Branson projects approachability and humility, which is especially surprising as he has every reason to be anything but. In other words, if a colossal ego were ever justified, it would be Branson’s.

As Chairman of the Virgin Group, he has become a global icon challenging convention and succeeding against the odds. But much of what Branson said has special resonance for small business owners struggling to differentiate themselves in their markets.

1. On big companies vs. small companies

“Small is beautiful,” Branson said. “This may seem like a peculiar boast,” he added, but he doesn’t see size as a competitive advantage.

His Virgin Records label is not the biggest in the music industry, but in 1992 it attracted the Rolling Stones. Virgin Airlines has a mere 37 airplanes versus the 700+ maintained by its competitors. It’s better to spin off a company into a second smaller company (as Virgin Atlantic spun off Virgin America) than grow larger, Branson believes, because smaller companies can stay both more nimble and more customer-focused. They can also maintain the style and “cheekiness” of their early trailblazing if they stay relatively compact.

2. On the foundation of a brand

Branson believes that “outstanding brands are built around great people who deliver consistently great customer service every day.”

Ultimately, a brand is only as good as the products behind it. A business’s top priority is to get its products right, and then wrap a great brand around it. “You can’t kid people,” Branson said.

3. On his inspiration in nature

Virgin has a “lot in common with bumblebees,” Branson says. The aerodynamics of the bee’s biology suggest that it shouldn’t be able to fly. “But it just goes out and does it.”

4. On seeing things through your customer’s eyes

His inspiration for Virgin Airlines grew out of his own miserable experience as a passenger on commercial airlines replete with “dreadful service.” Virgin went head-to-head against the “well-oiled marketing machines” of the “big, boring competition,” Branson said.

“We didn’t know how much we didn’t know,” he added. “We had no idea how serious airlines were supposed to be run—so we looked at it entirely from the passenger’s perspective.”

5. On positioning

Virgin decided to compete on service—rather than price—as a way to set itself apart from other air carriers.  Virgin also “focused on what we knew best—entertainment,” Branson said, positioning his airline as a “well-priced product [that would] make flying fun again” via perks like onboard bars, massages, power plugs at every seat, the flexibility to order food in your seat when you want it, and so on.

“We weren’t out to be the biggest, but definitely to be the best,” he said.

6. On hiring

More companies look for employees with relevant experience first. But from its outset, Virgin “hired friendly over experienced,” Branson said. It sought out employees who had fresh perspectives, great attitudes, and were eager to have fun, and then trained them to do their jobs. Those who arrived with experience from other air carriers were those who essentially “had learned how to not do their jobs,” he said.

Branson also believes in promoting from within. “We try to take people on from within,” he said, because “we know their weakness and strengths.” What’s more, he said, he often promotes people above the position they expect. “We take a risk. You can start off as a cleaning lady and go to the top.” Also, hiring from within “doesn’t demoralize people in company,” Branson added.

7. On listening to customers and employees

Branson is well known for his personable management style. Early on, he wrote monthly letters to all Virgin Group employees, and every employee was given his home telephone number. He extends that openness to customers, too, at times randomly calling select customers to inquire about their experience on his airline, for example.

Have a “fearlessness of engaging with people,” Branson said, because “conversations can change the world.”

“We like to listen to our customers, because it’s an opportunity to be creative,” Branson said.

8. On social media

For businesses, social media offers both challenges and opportunities, Branson said. For example, an unhappy Virgin passenger might use the megaphone of a social media platform to complain, when a push of an onboard call button would resolve the issue, Branson said. But at the same time, social channels can help your customers find one another and allow them a change to interact, which makes an onboard community on an airplane, for example, a “smaller, warmer, friendlier” place.

Branson believes that when businesses carefully monitor and respond, social media helps businesses anticipate needs. For example, when a Virgin passenger expressed his concern on Twitter about whether he might make his connecting flight, Virgin staffers made sure he made it.

Social channels can also offer immediate feedback on what your customers will respond to: When Virgin America announced a fare sale on Twitter, it became the fourth highest sale day in the airline’s history.

9. On having a sense of humor

Approaching business playfully, and with a healthy sense of humor and fun, is critical. Virgin “built its business on free advertising, and largely with a sense of humor,” Branson said. A “cheeky” approach to business and “fun, gentle digs at competitors help put your name on the map,” he added.

10. On failure

Entrepreneurs take risks, Branson said, and as such “mustn’t be afraid of failure.” Failure doesn’t damage a reputation as much as some fear, he said. And anyways, it’s more fun to challenge yourself to succeed than to not act out of fear of failing, especially as success begets success: “If you can run one business well, you should be able to run any business well.”

True entrepreneurs “love challenging themselves, and love challenging the people around us,” especially when it comes to succeeding in otherwise established markets, where most businesses are “diabolically run.”

11. On his fascination with space travel

Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 1990 with a goal of making commercial space travel viable, but the idea grew out of a longtime passion for an idea that he worked hard to make a reality. (Which is, by the way, exactly what entrepreneurs do more generally, in other industries.)

His fascination with space travel took root when he (along with the rest of the world) watched the first manned spacecraft land on the moon in 1969. After seeing Apollo 11, he said, “I assumed I’d be going into space.” And decades later he worked to develop a reusable, safe spaceship that could make suborbital spaceflight a reality. Now, he says, commercial space travel is only a year or so away.

12. On the importance of company culture

Everything comes down to the people you hire to run your company, Branson said. Those running the company have to love it, and they also have to believe in the products you sell. The CEO must care as much about the cleaning ladies and switchboard operators as well as the company's other directors.

The Virgin Group tries to maintain an equal number of men and women on its boards and in it’s staffing. Too often corporate boards are overwhelmingly male, Branson said, but he believes companies benefit from a more equal split. 

13. On partying with employees

It’s important for higher-ups to get to know people on a personal level, outside of work. “We encourage as much partying as possible,” he said.

For executives, that means staying at the same hotel where your staff stays, and hanging out at the bar with them, after hours. “You’ll get the honest feedback at a bar,” Branson said.

14. On success

With success comes wealth and fame, but also enormous responsibility to help other people and improve the world we live in, Branson said. He now spends most of his time on humanitarian and social issues.

15. On which business is his favorite

Branson doesn’t run any business daily, as he’s become expert at the “art of delegation,” he said. But those businesses that interest him most tend to be the ones that are struggling.

“The businesses I become closest to as those that are like a child getting bullied; I tend to spend more time with them than with other businesses” to help steer them onto the right track.


Image credit: Charles Nicholls

Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of

MarketingProfs and the co-author of the upcoming Content Rules (Wiley, 2010).  Follow her on Twitter @marketingprofs