At almost every established company, there are employees who have been around for such a long time and are so good at their jobs that everyone else has a hard time imagining the business functioning without them. They know every client, or they’re expert at getting things done, or when a problem comes up that no one else knows how to solve, they can remember a solution that worked once, a long time ago, and will do the trick now. For that reason, some may be quite happy in their current positions and not looking for promotions, but in many ways, they are your “star performers” -- their deep knowledge of the company is invaluable, and often, irreplaceable.
It’s often thanks to that reservoir of experience that a company can find exciting new applications for great ideas from the past. Sometimes, your most experienced people may suggest a look backward rather than something new, but this can be very useful: A lot of supposedly new ideas are nothing more than recycled old ones.
When we at Virgin started up our very first record store in the 1970s, we tried to create a hangout atmosphere, with free coffee and cushions and beanbags for our mostly teenage customers, hoping that if they relaxed and talked about music, they might be more inclined to buy a record or two. It was nearly a revolutionary concept at the time, and our much larger competitors dismissed us as a bunch of crazy kids who didn’t understand the business. I guess it takes a crazy kid to understand what motivates a crazy kid, because over the next few decades Virgin Megastore grew to be one of the largest music retailers in the world.
This idea became a deciding factor again in the next decade, when we started up Virgin Atlantic. Granted, we cranked it up a notch or two when we designed our business-class airport lounges -- the complimentary food and drinks, and various services including hairdressing, hot tubs and massages at our Clubhouse Lounges quickly became a major draw. But the idea was basically the same, and though our competitors predicted that the “needless expense” would only hasten our demise, 30 years later our lounges are still winning awards -- and our competitors are still scrambling to catch up.
This idea had almost become part of our DNA by the time we acquired the mortgage lender Northern Rock from the British government in 2012. We were determined to change the stodgy face of retail banking for our Virgin Money customers, so we did a lot of fine-tuning of the bank’s website and app. But the innovation that really captured peoples’ imaginations was the introduction of our Virgin Money Lounges -- an innovation that came about thanks in part to the deep knowledge of the more experienced members of our team.
Located in separate buildings from the bank’s branches, the lounges have reintroduced the concept that worked with teenage record buyers and business fliers. This time we’re providing a space for bank customers who need a quiet city-center refuge. Whether they want to relax with a cup of coffee, send an email, call home or change the baby, as a Virgin Money account holder they have a place to do it. Not only has this differentiated us from the rest of the drab banking segment, but those branches with lounges nearby have all reported dramatic upsurges in new accounts.
Of course, the founder of a company also has a lot of deep knowledge to contribute, as I realized the other day when I heard that our marketing team at Virgin Galactic was about to announce an exciting “new” strategic relationship with Land Rover. The news release explained that a fleet of Land Rover vehicles will be based at Spaceport America in New Mexico, where they will be the primary means of transport for our astronauts.
No one but me seemed to recall that in the late '80s Virgin Atlantic Upper Class passengers were shuttled to and from the airport in Range Rovers: It was a perfect shop window for the automaker’s then-revolutionary SUV-type vehicle. Or that in 1987, the Range Rover was the official vehicle in the United States for my first major hot air balloon trip, when Per Lindstrand and I crossed the Atlantic before (involuntarily) splashing down in the Irish Sea. The launch team in Maine drove nothing else.
As the founder of a company, you’re in a unique position: You know your business better than anyone else -- except, that is, for the people who joined the firm at the beginning, and who stuck by you through the ups and downs. So no matter what happens over the years, try to keep in touch with those who move on and make sure that employees who stay aren’t overlooked or taken for granted. They should know that they are valued.
As that old French saying goes -- I’ll spare you my fractured Français -- “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” You and your team will have solved countless problems by the time your startup is 2 years old, so just imagine what that experience will mean for your company by year 20. If you treat your employees well, you might be in a position to try reaching for the stars too.