Richard Branson on The Art of Asking For Advice
Editor's Note: Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.
Q: When you got started in business, did you have any clue about how to structure a corporation, allocate assets, and so on? Do you learn these things along the way? Was there anyone who advised you on this? And if so, how far along your business adventure did you require that advice? -- Jamie Alleyne, Dominica
Launching a business is essentially an adventure in problem-solving. This is why I rarely quote experts in this column, and why I strongly emphasize hiring the right people, rather than just looking for people with the right qualifications: because every problem is a little different, and applying generalized solutions -- especially by rote -- is not a good idea. A great problem solver is usually open to new ideas, innately curious and good at working with others. Above all, terrific listening skills are essential.
When my friends and I started up the first Virgin businesses, we didn’t know anything about building a company. At our mail-order record venture, everyone received a wage of 20 pounds per week (I think we were all still in our teens). It was a truly flat organization, and as we worked, each of us discovered by trial and error what he was good at, what areas he should focus on, and how to work with the other members of our group.
Back then, because there were no companies like the Virgin Group, my friends and I didn’t have an example to imitate -- and even if there had been, we certainly had no idea of what the future held for our enterprises. But as our businesses grew and grew, I began to delegate responsibilities -- there was simply no better way to get things done well -- and this became the blueprint for the structure that has served the Virgin Group ever since. The CEOs and their teams lead the various Virgin businesses independently, while the management group and I focus on the company’s future.
One of the reasons my friends and I were successful early on was because we always asked a lot of questions. I was willing to listen to anyone who could help, and over the years many people volunteered their advice. Two of the most influential were my mother, who taught me to see every day as an opportunity to achieve something new, and Sir Freddie Laker, the founder of Laker Airways, who advised me to put myself forward as the face of the Virgin brand.
Jamie’s questions point to one of the fundamental challenges that entrepreneurs face during a business’s first years: When you’re trying to solve problems that come up, you need to find the right people to give you advice -- and you may not even know who to ask. You may have trouble getting access to:
Professional resources: Starting a company can be chaotic, and many entrepreneurs are faced with choices about how to handle legal matters, accounting problems and other areas in which they do not have any expertise, and they have to hire professionals. Choosing these advisers well is essential, but this is difficult to do without recommendations from others.
Experience: When you need to make hard decisions, being able to discuss your ideas with entrepreneurs and business leaders who have solved similar problems can make all the difference.
Markets: Once your business plan is in place, your goods or services must be made available to potential buyers. New entrepreneurs often underestimate the difficulty of this crucial step. How will you connect with retailers and persuade them to stock your product? How will you reach people in the target market for your services? A business network might be key.
Experienced business leaders in your industry have the advantage when they run into similar problems, because their business networks are probably already well established -- they or someone on their team will usually know who to talk to. But if you are just entering a field, you may need help to access local and international business communities, as well as peer and industry networks.
We at the Virgin Group are well aware of this problem, having entered so many new industries ourselves over the years. This is one of the reasons we set up the Branson Centers for Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg and Montego Bay, Jamaica, where beginning entrepreneurs can help each other and begin building connections.
There is no quick and easy solution, except to start reaching out. As you work, look for answers wherever you can, continually building your network: your team members, business acquaintances, online forums -- you can also ask me!
This brings to mind a talk I gave in Greece about 20 years ago. There was a man in the audience who kept asking me excellent questions; he must have asked at least half the questions that came up that day, and he listened intently to my answers. I took note of his name because I was sure that he had the drive to succeed. And sure enough, Stelios Haji-Ioannou became the founder of easyJet. That brand has expanded from airlines to hotels, and he is now one of our competitors. (Maybe I should have kept quiet?)