When Richard Branson was a teenager in the 1960s, he wasn’t familiar with the term “entrepreneur.” He did, however, possess the entrepreneurial drive and spirit that he still exhibits today, at age 66.
“I think an entrepreneur is somebody who creates something that creates that makes a positive difference to other people’s lives,” the Virgin Group founder said in a keynote at the National Retail Federation’s annual Big Show on Monday.
To that end, Branson founded a record store, then an airline, and today, he oversees a multinational conglomerate. Throughout his career, he has led more than 400 companies. People often ask Branson how he built his empire, and he’s quick to assure them that he’s had his fair share of failures in pursuit of so many successes. (A Virgin bridal subsidiary, he notes, didn’t take off -- and the Virgin name likely didn’t help its case.)
“Every new venture we go into, we try to make sure that it’s going to enhance the brand and not damage the brand,” Branson said during Monday’s talk, titled “Undying Brand Engagement in an Age of Continuous Disruption and Reinvention.”
This guiding principle could apply to any entrepreneur looking to explore a new product, market or technology, for example. But Branson encourages business leaders to envision opportunities for growth and change outside of their purview.
“When we saw the writing was on the wall for music retailing, we decided, ‘We don’t have to stay a retailer just because we are a retailer,’” Branson said. He and his team started looking at what products had been selling well in Virgin Megastores. Cell phones were gaining popularity, so in the early 2000s, Virgin launched a mobile division.
Today, many brick-and-mortar retailers are struggling to stay relevant in an ecommerce world. “I think people who own retail stores should not think of themselves as forever being retailers. They need to be entrepreneurial and they need to spin off businesses off the back of their retail,” Branson said. “I think there sort of almost needs to be a perpetual revolution going on within a company, because if you don’t have that happening, somebody out there is going to do it to you.”
More than just thinking about their bottom lines, retailers and business owners generally are beginning to understand how crucial it is for their companies to shift their priorities toward human needs. This means not only encouraging their employees to look out for themselves, their families and their communities, but also taking on a larger challenge. This mentality, he notes, is increasingly becoming the responsibility of the private sector.
“If we can get every single company in the word to adopt a problem and use their entrepreneurial skills to try to overcome a problem -- or two -- most of the problems in the world will be solved,” Branson said, noting that he has seen many humanitarian crises improve throughout his lifetime and is optimistic about the future. “I think there is a danger that if we don’t do things like this and we just leave it up to governments and we leave it up to the social sector, that the world won’t get fixed.”
Half a century into his career, Branson said he spends the majority of his time starting nonprofits, rather than for-profit Virgin offshoots. But he maintains his lifelong mission of helping others through new ventures, as well as his lifelong habit of finding and seizing opportunities.“Every day something happens which makes me think, ‘We could do that better,’” Branson said. “My name is Dr. Yes, and I have a team of people who try to hold me back.”