The career path of an entrepreneur is tough -- it involves a lot of hard work, sacrifice and risk, and it can be very lonely. When you hit a rough spot or encounter a problem you don't know how to solve, it can be difficult to figure out where to find information and who to ask for help, and you can get into trouble.
This was the essence of a problem I ran into in 1969, when at the age of 19 I started a mail-order record business. I did not ask my family, friends or mentors for advice on how to carry out a business plan. I thought I knew it all -- until I stupidly decided to take a shortcut and smuggle records through customs to avoid paying taxes. I was caught by British customs officials and spent a night in jail, not knowing what the outcome would be. (Luckily, customs agreed not to press charges as long as I paid back three times the tax that had not been paid.)
We all make silly mistakes from time to time, but the bottom line is that entrepreneurs should seek input from the start. You will need advice on how to improve your business, beginning on the first day, and throughout the rest of your career.
When your prospective business is still in the planning stages, it can be difficult to understand how best to differentiate your product or service from the competition. At this stage, it may be that all you need to do is look around: the best ideas in other fields for products and services can help you improve your own.
My team and I bounced back from our bad experience and learned a lot from launching a chain of record stores (Virgin Records) and from our music label (Virgin Music) that carried over to most other Virgin businesses. By the time we launched our airline, Virgin Atlantic, we knew that customers considered our products and services to be entertaining and fun, and that this would keep them coming back.
Once your business is up and running, you'll need to know at a granular level whether your customers are satisfied with your product or service. It may be difficult to handle a disappointed or even angry customer, but you shouldn't avoid such calls and leave them to your front-line staff. Learn from your customers by answering some of the calls to the help line yourself or by watching the comments on Twitter and other social media channels, then responding to the complaints. If a small problem is starting to emerge, this is likely where you and your staff will first learn about it.
You can also glean a lot of useful information from your competitors. If one of your rivals' ideas succeeds, it's always good for you and your team to recognize that -- it will probably drive you to achieve even greater triumphs. Or sometimes you can learn from their reactions. For example, in the 1990s when British Airways was trying every trick in the book to put Virgin Atlantic out of business, I knew we were onto something good -- they wouldn't have bothered with us otherwise. Our emphasis on providing great service was a real threat to their business, and knowing that, we redoubled our efforts.
You'll also need to stay informed: A successful entrepreneur is one who knows what's going on both in the local market and internationally. Keeping your eye on the news may give you an edge (I often read The Economist and The Financial Times).
Sometimes you will run into a specific problem that only others who have been in your position will understand. It is important to build a network of mentors and advisers so that you have someone to turn to for advice in bad times -- try local business groups and industry associations for information about finding a mentor. Or if you need feedback from peers, try one of the many great online forums for entrepreneurs. I like The Huffington Post, especially the small business page -- the rate at which thoughts are shared and commented on means you will always get a response.
Finally, sometimes you may simply need help from someone who knows you best. Some of the best business lessons I've learned have come from my mother. She always encouraged me to pursue my entrepreneurial interests when I was young, and when I got into trouble, she was the first person I turned to for help. Having your mother pay your bail money isn't something you would ever want to happen, but I was very grateful when she did!
So listen to your mother. Thinking back to 1969, my mother's common-sense advice would have been just the thing I needed to hear.