What This Guy Learned Working 8 Feet Away From Richard Branson

A startup entrepreneur and former Virgin exec reveals valuable inside lessons he learned while working with Richard Branson on a daily basis.
January 10, 2013

The lessons you learn when first starting out in business are crucial to your ability to succeed. And who better to learn business lessons from than Richard Branson?

Alexis Dormandy got his first big break in business in 1996, joining Virgin at age 24 and working for Richard Branson himself, just eight feet away from his office. 

We spoke to Dormandy about the lessons he took away from his time at Virgin, and how they fueled his own successful business, social recommendation sharing site LoveThis.

Melissa Stranger: What did you do at Virgin?
Alexis Dormandy: I worked my way up and ended up on the board of Virgin Group, ran all their new businesses, and was the founder of Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. Then I ended up running Orange, the British mobile service. It was an incredible opportunity. It all happened very quickly. You learn very fast and work very hard. 

MS: What was it like being in business with Richard Branson?
AD: I absolutely loved it, without reservation. The whole business is run on trust, so you get to run the small projects when you start off, and if you do a good job you get the slightly bigger projects, and if that works out you get the slightly bigger projects. And then six years later, you end up doing about five jobs all at the same time because you want their trust, and they trust you. I don’t think there was a single decision I made that Richard ever second-guessed me on.

The creative autonomy is incredible. But that’s after you understand what’s expected and the culture of the organization, and you have to make decisions on that basis. I had the freedom to get things done that you wouldn’t believe, not ever being second-guessed about what needs to be done. It seems almost totally unrealistic. You may have a 12-week target, but you’d never quite need it. It may take you 12 weeks, but it may take you 20, and that’s still five times the speed anyone else could do it, and it shows an incredible level of customer focus. 

And the business had this incredibly good attitude about things. The customer is focused on with a level of detail you wouldn’t believe. He cared about the customer experience. And if he does, then everybody else does. Second is the culture of the organization. You just breathe the culture, which is about trying to do something that nobody else has done, and helping people; it’s about the attitude of everyone there, and so you feel you’re sort of on this mission for the future, to produce something, which is very motivating. And lastly, I’ve never met anyone who can negotiate a deal like Richard can.

MS:How closely did you work with him? What was your relationship with him like?
AD: At the time, my office was about 8 feet away from his. I worked in his house for about two years, so I saw him every day. I certainly wouldn’t want to exaggerate my relationship with him, as it was a while ago, but while we were in London, I saw him every day. 

MS: What did you learn from him?
One is that the product is everything. You’ve got to have the best product in the market to even be admitted to it. I think many large businesses think the products are just one thing, one thing of many, whereas at Virgin the product is everything. The second bit is that setting totally unrealistic expectations is the way to go. You’ve got to set them ridiculously high, especially when it comes to deadlines. If you aim for 12 weeks you might pull off 20; if you aim for 30 weeks it might take you a year. And it makes people think very rationally about how long it’ll take to complete a big project, and plan.

It’s not so much advice, but I think he genuinely and readily cared about the customer and the employee a lot, and a lot more than the money. I’d say if I had to rank it, he put the customer first, the employee second, and money about sixth. And people didn’t believe you could be so successful without being obsessed with the money.

There’s nothing more likely to get him interested in doing something than to be told it couldn’t be done. If you were to meet with someone who said, ‘Oh, that can’t be done,’ you’d probably say, ‘Okay, I won’t do it then.’ Richard would say that those people wouldn’t succeed in business. If your first nature is such that if somebody says it can’t be done, and you say, ‘Excellent. If I can find a way of doing that, then we’ll make lots of money,’ then you will succeed in an entrepreneurial environment. Someone says it can’t be done, and you just walk away and do it anyway.

MS: What’s one thing you wish people knew about business that you know? 
AD: In all the really successful businesses that Richard’s been involved with and I’ve been involved with, it’s all come down to the numbers. I was also involved with Bono’s charity, RED, and that made $120 million in 18 months. The reason it made that much money is because it had a very exciting commercial model, which is actually a profit share with a bunch of businesses it did deals with. Virgin Mobile made Richard a billion dollars because of the very clever commercial model. And too often people think, ‘Well, if I’m really enthusiastic and it’s a really exciting idea and so on, it’s going to work.’ But actually you’ve got to have somebody on your team who really understands the numbers, because it’s the numbers in the end that are going to make you money. And it’s fine if you’re personally not excited by numbers, but you’ve got to have somebody around who is, because otherwise it makes it very difficult to succeed.

MS: You've mentioned that the best advice you learned from Virgin is to hire for attitude. Why is that important?
AD: What I usually see is you tend to fire people for attitude and hire people for skills. But attitude is the most important thing in a business, and you should hire for attitude, not just fire for it. You’d probably be firing a lot less people if you did. And that’s what Virgin does. They look at the CVs of the people applying for jobs, and they’re looking for skills, but hiring more for the can-do attitude and approach, because it gets more done and is more important than the CV. 

What I learned at Virgin is that if you don’t put attitude at the top of the list, then actually that person tends to get themselves rejected by the system as soon as they’re hired. I don’t mean rejected physically, I mean that they don’t get stuff done. If you’re in a group of 99 people all with a similar approach, and you have a different approach, it doesn’t really work. You’ve got to hire people who will fit in with the team. 

Photo: lovethis.com