Richard Branson on the Right Way to Multitask
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: Is it sensible or practical to work on several different ideas at once, or is it better to perfect one at a time? -- Qurat, Islamabad, Pakistan
You’ve asked an interesting question, Qurat, since there are pluses and minuses to each approach. When you launch your first enterprise, you have to learn so much on the job, and so quickly, that concentrating on one project with a clearly defined purpose is almost invariably the best approach. But once you and your team have been through the process, you can apply what you’ve learned to other launches, and perhaps at some point tackle some projects simultaneously.
To choose well, you need to learn when to go forward and when to say no, which can be difficult -- especially if you prefer to say yes, like I do! During the Virgin Group’s early days, one such mistake nearly derailed our company.
From time to time I still receive tweets from people surprised to have discovered that we used to make films. Our venture was called Virgin Films (of course!), and in 1984 we set about turning George Orwell’s classic novel “1984” into a film starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. It was the same year that we launched Virgin Atlantic and, in hindsight, our team took on too much.
As the film’s costs spiraled out of control -- the shoot ended up going three times over budget -- our entire company came worryingly close to bankruptcy. Launching two risky businesses at the same time was proving too much for us to handle, so we agreed to dedicate our efforts to getting Virgin Atlantic off the ground. (I’m happy to report that Virgin Produced, our more recent entry into the movie business, is faring much better than our first. And that you can still find our version of “1984” on Netflix .)
However, it’s important for entrepreneurs to always consider their options and look to the future -- and that sometimes means taking on multiple projects at once, despite the difficulty. For instance, when we were running our first venture, Student magazine, we also decided to start a mail-order records business. After a while it began to take off, so when funding for the magazine became scarce due to a lack of advertising, we were in a position to call it a day and concentrate on selling records. We subsequently launched Virgin Records, which might never have happened if it we hadn’t been working on more than one project.
When you’re getting ready to juggle multiple businesses, you should be sure that you have enough hands to catch every ball. Although being able to afford talented staff that you can delegate work to is a great advantage, this isn’t entirely about money. We’ve found that practice helps -- the more you do something, the easier it becomes, and while starting a company is never easy, it may go a little more smoothly if you have a wealth of experience to call on when a problem comes up.
For example, Virgin currently has mobile phone service companies all over the world -- our most recent additions have popped up in Chile, Colombia and Mexico. There was a steep learning curve when we started up the first of the Virgin Mobile businesses, but we have since been able to apply those lessons to subsequent launches.
We also found that as we built up our brand, offers started to come in from potential clients and collaborators. If this happens to you, the first question you should ask yourself is whether the offer would be a good fit for your brand. If it doesn’t feel right, then it’s best to say no, whatever the financial implications -- both your reputation and bank balance will benefit in the long run.
Qurat, it’s terrific that you have a lot of ideas, and that you’re thinking about how to manage this talent of yours over the long term. I started my first successful business from a phone booth, with 300 pounds given to me by my mother.
Fast-forward nearly 50 years, and the Virgin Group has launched businesses in almost every industry imaginable -- we’re even a leading entrant in the race to start commercial space travel. Maybe you’ll make something similar happen.