Richard Branson on Constructing the Perfect Pitch

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’ve started a music publishing business, and I have two problems. First, I am not good at calling someone out of the blue and trying to persuade them to buy a song or use it in a project. I am no salesman, and in this business you have 30 seconds to make a good impression! How do I learn how to make these calls?

Also, I have trouble finding people who are good at that job because I can’t pay salaries yet. How do I find good people who will work for little to no money until we are successful? -- Marc

Enthusiasm is contagious. When you pick up the phone to talk about the artists you’re working with, the person at the other end of the line will know almost immediately whether you truly believe in the work and in your ideas for it. You can’t be hesitant or unsure, because your listener will sense that, and then they won’t be enthusiastic either.

Confidence usually builds slowly -- it has to come from a deep understanding of the problem you’re trying to tackle and from practicing the skills you need to do a task well. It sounds like it might be helpful for you to sit down and work through the basics.

First you need to define your company’s mission. One of the best places to start is usually by thinking about what prompted you to launch your company. What about the music publishing business did you think was done badly when you started up your company, and what are you doing better? How does your business help the artistic community, along with everyone else?

And how does this set your music publishing company apart? Is your business based on your ability to find great talent, or perhaps because you understand a genre better than anyone else? Are you good at spotting people who may be interested in a particular songwriter’s work?

When we started Virgin Records, we were much more interested in the artists we supported than in the money they might earn, and this made us stand out. Our rivals wouldn’t touch Johnny Rotten’s troublemaking rabble, but we were prepared to take a gamble on the Sex Pistols. Similarly, back when everyone thought that British and American listeners had lost interest in reggae, we saw something special in UB40.

Once you know the answers to the questions I mentioned above, you should be more able to define what it is that you’re offering that your competitors can’t. And it follows that you’ll be better able to tailor your message to each person you call.

There is a secret to sales I can pass along -- although it’s one that’s pretty well known. In his groundbreaking book “A Brief History of Time,” Stephen Hawking wrote, “Someone told me that each equation I included in the book would halve the sales.”

Hawking was passionate about equations, so ignoring this advice worked well in his case, but few others are in the same position. Some salespeople focus exclusively on presenting statistics and accounting-based arguments to make their points, forgetting to put passion into their pitches. They lose their listeners immediately -- there are few things less interesting than a PowerPoint presentation, and hearing someone read the points aloud is one of them. When you are selling something, you do need to present evidence illustrating why it is a great idea to buy it, but you should speak with feeling rather than figures.

Marc, you’ve said that this isn’t an area where your particular strengths lie. It’s always best to delegate such tasks, so my tips may simply help you to recognize people who are talented at sales.

Which brings us to the question of how to attract people to these poorly paid (or even unpaid) positions. Again, it’s all about the mission. You need to inspire people with your vision for your business -- nobody is going to do it for you. You’ll need to spread the word about your publishing company however you can: at concerts, in online forums, at industry meetings and elsewhere, and keep talking about it until you connect with people who understand and share your vision.

The right people sometimes crop up in unusual situations. Virgin Group’s CEO, Josh Bayliss, reminded me recently of where his interview with me for our general counsel position took place: in the back of a taxi stuck in horrendous London traffic. I kept impatiently jumping out of the car to look for shortcuts and commiserate with fellow commuters. It wasn’t the easiest environment for us to get to know each other, but by the end of the journey, we knew we could work together, and nine years later Josh is doing a terrific job leading the Virgin Group.

When you’re hiring, consider these questions: Does this salesperson understand and is she inspired by your company’s mission and offering? Does she find it so compelling that she is eager to tell others about it? This is why you should focus on personalities rather than on formal qualifications and statistics. Someone might have been the top salesperson at another job, but wouldn’t be at your company.

Finally, your startup also offers the advantage of fast career development. So ask potential hires where they see themselves going, and tell them how you will help them get there. And pay them generously on results. A good commission costs you nothing upfront and gives a good salesperson incentive to help get your business off the ground.

You are all on this adventure together, and when you’re working toward the same goals, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish.

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