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: In today’s fast-growing and ever-shrinking world, business partnerships are increasingly being handled online. How would you recommend dealing with partners when you no longer have the luxury of constant, in-person meetings? --Andres Jaramillo
These days it’s possible to deliver a presentation to a client in South Africa in the morning, sell a product to a customer in Australia in the afternoon and end the day with some fish and chips on the British seaside -- all thanks to innovative global technologies that allow businesses to be run from any place with an Internet connection.
For me, making business decisions from Necker Island, a relatively remote location in the Caribbean, has meant embracing different ways of communicating. Today, any successful company must do the same.
Personally, I still prefer having meetings in person. You can learn so much from eye contact, body language and conversational tone (the appropriate tone, after all, doesn’t always come across in virtual conversations). When it comes to business partnerships, if you have the opportunity to first establish a personal, face-to-face connection, go for it. Then when you follow up online, you’ll have a foundation for a good relationship.
Using different platforms for communicating is important for fostering modern business alliances, as is the ability to have an open mind in order to welcome new ideas. It’s important to remember that learning from different cultures and regions can give your business a huge advantage -- the more varied the environment, the more good ideas your team is likely to come up with, which can mean more options for your customers. At Virgin, for example, we’re always using different means of communicating in order to encourage team members around the world to collaborate and innovate.
One way we do this is by using Google Hangouts. This popular online video platform makes it possible to see and hear who is talking in a group, and it allows for a wide on-screen display, which is tough to do on the screen of a smartphone, and impossible to do with email. The platform is particularly good for sharing ideas.
For instance, each month or so, our nonprofit foundation, Virgin Unite, asks entrepreneurs from around the globe - including those from the Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship in the Caribbean and Virgin StartUp in England - to discuss innovative business topics on Google Hangouts. It’s a fantastic, real-time way for our team at Virgin and various entrepreneurs to learn from each other. We also hold internal Hangouts so that staff from different Virgin companies can share their experiences and work more closely.
For quick catch-ups throughout the day, we also use Skype, another handy video tool. Skype is quicker and more informal than email, and I have found that having chats through video allows people to loosen up and relax. This is important - making sure that your working relationships with partners is stress-free and friendly is key to the success of a business. Remember that the best meetings, regardless of format, consist simply of people talking to each other, and regular video chats can act as a good alternative to in-person contact.
When you’re working on a project with someone you can’t chat with on a regular basis, a different type of communication is in order. One relatively cheap tool that many entrepreneurs use is Evernote, a project management application that allows everyone working on a particular task to see what jobs need to be completed. Evernote is a good way to track the progress of assignments and to make sure that your team is on target for the next product launch or promotion.
Virgin Galactic, where our teams are busy building the world’s first commercial spaceline in California’s Mojave Desert ,is a good example of how a mix of virtual and physical communication can lead to strong partnerships and effective collaboration. Because some Virgin Galactic team members are based in London and yours truly is in the British Virgin Islands, we rely on digital communication to connect with colleagues on the ground in California. So even though I’m not with the team every day, I feel well-briefed and very much in the loop about their progress. And I will occasionally head over to the United States to see the team, discuss new breakthroughs and share my own views and excitement about our forthcoming trips to space!
But while new technologies have made it easier than ever to keep in touch and nurture long-lasting business relationships, we shouldn’t forget the old methods. For example, I am still a huge advocate of writing personal letters -- taking the extra effort to say thank you in ink after sealing a business deal, holding an event or making a new connection goes a long way. It shows genuine appreciation and respect. It is also quite pleasurable to turn away from the computer and pick up a pen and paper every now and then. I still send personal notes and am always touched when I receive them myself.
Andres, the key to making sure you can create and support meaningful relationships with potential partners is to take advantage of the many technologies that are now at your fingertips -- technologies that have proved to be useful weapons for anyone looking to start and grow a business. You must also be willing to try new methods as they develop. And don’t forget that the old-fashioned principles of communication still hold true.