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Richard Branson: Five Questions on Business Philosophy

The celebrated entrepreneur offers his views on advice, inspiration, motivation and regret.
October 5, 2010
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/217385

I thought it would be helpful to answer the five questions I am asked most often on my travels. They cover advice, inspiration, motivation and regret. Let me know if you have other questions you are keen to know the answers to.

1. What is the best advice you ever got?

Three gems come to mind. First, an enduring one from my mother, Eve, who always taught me never to look back in regret but to move on to the next thing. The amount of time people waste dwelling on failures rather than putting that energy into another project always amazes me. I have had fun running all of the Virgin businesses, so I never see a setback as a bad experience; it is just a learning curve.

My mother also told me not to openly criticize other people. If she heard me speaking ill of someone, she would make me stand in front of the mirror for five minutes and stare at myself. Her reasoning? All my critical talk was a poor reflection on my own character.

In the 1980s Freddie Laker, the British airline executive, gave me a great piece of advice on setting up my own airline. He told me two key things: “You’ll never have the advertising power to outsell British Airways. You are going to have to get out there and use yourself. Make a fool of yourself. Otherwise you won’t survive.” He also wisely said: “Make sure you appear on the front page and not the back pages.” I’ve followed that advice ever since. I’ve been very visible and made a fool of myself on more than one occasion.

2. And the worst advice?
I’d never embarrass the person who gave it by revealing that. Advice comes in many forms. I believe in never asking just one person but in asking many. Opinions always vary. By asking several people what they think, you get many angles and can weigh them all. This way, you are never considering just one person’s opinion, so no one piece of advice is ever truly bad.

3. What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs on how best to start?
To remember that it is impossible to run a business without taking risks. Virgin would not be the company it is today if we had not taken risks along the way. You really do have to believe in what you are doing. Devote yourself to it 100 percent and be prepared to take a few hits along the way. If you go into something expecting it to fail, nine times out of 10, it will.

Above all, remember to have fun with it. That keeps you and your colleagues enthusiastic and motivated. One of my favorite sayings summarizes this perfectly: “The brave may not live forever -- but the cautious do not live at all!”

4. In your career you have had lots of successes, but you have failed in some businesses. What have you learned from those?
As an entrepreneur you have to learn very quickly that there’s no such thing as a failure. Looking back on Virgin’s history, our ability to adapt quickly to changes has helped mitigate reverses. You must be quick to accept that something is not going well and either change tack or close the business. We run our companies lean and small; there is very little red tape and certainly no bureaucracy. We make and implement decisions quickly -- usually before our competitors in the market have held their fifth meeting on the same issue.

Though I believe in taking risks, I also firmly believe in “protecting the downside.” This means working out in advance all the things that could go wrong and making sure you have all those eventualities covered. We have come close to failure many times. Most entrepreneurs skirt close to it. I nearly failed when Virgin was in its infancy, I nearly failed in the early 1980s, and, of course, I have nearly died more than once trying to achieve world records for boating or ballooning. But through a combination of luck and planning, both Virgin and I are still here.

5. Do you have any regrets?
There are always things in life that you might regret, and there are probably a lot of business decisions I regret -- but I try not to dwell on them. I move on to more positive things.

One missed opportunity does rankle still. That was the chance to run the United Kingdom’s national lottery. Our proposal was to run a not-for-profit game, with much of the money going to good causes, but we were just beaten by the eventual winner.

We have moved on and set up Virgin Unite, our foundation, to act as the catalyst to helping others and galvanizing our companies into action. It has been crucial in helping us establish The Elders and The Carbon War Room, initiatives aimed at solving conflict and helping to combat climate change.

And finally, I am often asked: Are you a man of habits?

I guess being a serial entrepreneur is a pretty big habit.