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: I am a young entrepreneur who ventured into a popcorn-selling business in a small town. A long time has passed, but I am not reaping enough profits. Should I quit? -- Kimosop Kibet, Kenya
Kimosop, I’m sorry that you’re at this low point -- the moment when you’re getting ready to concede defeat is always tough. While the Kenyan popcorn market is not one I’m familiar with, Virgin has done business there, and recently opened a safari lodge called Mahali Mzuri in the southwest.
The core challenge you face right now is deciding whether to persevere with your idea or to adapt it to meet customers’ demands. This can be a difficult call to make, because many entrepreneurs start their businesses after gaining some insight into how to do things better. But there’s not much point in persevering with an approach that is failing to make adequate profits or drive your company forward.
When you put your heart and soul into your work, it can be very hard to let go. One of the most difficult moments of my career took place in the early '90s, after a couple of years during which British Airways had thrown all its resources into driving Virgin Atlantic out of business. We realized that if we were going to defend ourselves adequately, we were going to need a lot more money. Our only option was to sell Virgin Records, the label that we had used to launch some of the most influential artists of that generation, making our brand a household name.
I had loved creating and running Virgin Records -- every bit of it. Gritting my teeth and signing the documents of sale wasn’t easy, but it needed to happen. If I had refused or delayed, the Virgin Group would probably be a shadow of the company it is today. That’s why, one day in 1992, I found myself running down Ladbroke Grove in London, crying my eyes out, despite the check for $1 billion in my pocket.
Before you throw in the towel, there are a number of questions you should ask yourself, no matter what industry you’re in -- whether it’s selling popcorn or Porsches. Have you done your market research and discovered what your customers are looking for? Have you offered them something that’s not already out there? And perhaps most important, is your business making a difference for them?
If you’re satisfied that your product, branding, marketing and customer service are all spot-on, then think carefully about how and when your potential customers buy the product you’re offering. If possible, you want your shop or your product to be at hand exactly when people find themselves in need of what you’re selling.
If you’re not yet making a difference in your customers’ lives, consider helping your community in a way that’s integral to your business. If you don’t know where to start, try leveraging the power of social media. It might seem a little disheartening to start from a small base of followers, but if you give this the attention it deserves, that can quickly change -- interactions with potential customers are gold dust. Use them to discover your company’s unique voice and find out what people are looking for. Tell everyone what you’re all about, so that by the time they come to your shop they already know what’s on offer.
Finally, there is no substitute for innovation. If you’re feeling disheartened because larger competitors have saturated the market with their products, well, that’s exactly what they were hoping for. Remember that once upon a time, there were lots of airline executives and industry experts who thought they understood the market and that a new entrant like Virgin Atlantic, which was run by a company with a background in music, wouldn’t be able to keep up. Yet it was our fresh perspective and unique take on travel that brought about our success, and Virgin now has three thriving airlines, while many of our former competitors have gone out of business.
Remember that you can always take a new angle on a familiar product. How does your popcorn taste? How do the flavors your business offers compare with those already on the market? Do they truly pop? (Pun intended!)
Most important: Are your popcorn-loving customers being given what they want, how they want it, when they want it?
If you get these essentials right, your popcorn company could have a Hollywood ending.