Know thyself (and know thy business)
Published: May 31, 2013
Q: What are the key personal characteristics that go hand-in-hand with business success?
— Titto Mbuvi
A: All sorts of people find success as entrepreneurs, in every profession and area of life. What many have in common is that they’re ready to try and fail while they are figuring out which of their ideas will work, and so perseverance and courage are an entrepreneur’s best assets, as I’ve mentioned in previous columns. A characteristic that I’d like to add to that list is self-awareness, because it can speed up that learning process and help you along the way.
Like most other companies, we at the Virgin Group have experienced a number of failures along with our successes – it is so easy to get things wrong. After you’ve launched one or more businesses that take off and start growing, it’s tempting to think that you know what you’re doing. Then, after you’ve started up another new venture, seemingly along the same model, you find to your astonishment that it’s about to fold.
This is what happened when we launched Virgin Cola in 1994. We started out with so much ambition, and we had a real impact: Our new business shook Coca-Cola to the core. We heard later that every meeting the top executives had for nine months was dominated by the words ''Virgin Cola.''
But as time went on, we realized that we’d failed to adhere to our own rules. Virgin specializes in shaking up industries where consumers are getting a raw deal, but there was no great dissatisfaction with Coca-Cola, Pepsi or the other soft drink brands at the time. Why would customers want to switch to Virgin Cola? After all, we weren’t offering them anything that was radically different or much better value, and so the business was a financial failure.
With Virgin Cola, we were so intent on repeating our model that led to previous successes that we didn’t notice the problems with our idea. But we always learn from our failures, which makes us better at being self-aware – as has answering all the questions over the years about Virgin’s going into new industries.
I’ve found that knowing your business and yourself can also help you to know when to follow your instincts, so you can find the courage to move ahead and ignore the advice of naysayers. When we launched Virgin Atlantic in 1984, many people doubted us, assuming that we wouldn’t know how to run an airline since we had no experience in the industry – at that time we were known for our music label, Virgin Records. We hired experienced aviation experts for help with logistics, but as we’d suspected, our lack of experience in the business turned out to be an asset.
My team followed me despite these very logical criticisms, not just because it was obvious that the industry needed change, but because we knew our strengths: We knew how to entertain people, and how to find out what amused them. This wasn’t anything the other airlines were doing, and so we were able to offer something new: a fun, entertaining experience at 35,000 feet.
Self-awareness can also help you to persevere as you carry out your plan. When we launched our passenger rail service, Virgin Trains, in 1997, we were new to an industry again, but we had a bold vision: Our high-speed tilting trains would be fitted with comfortable new airline-style seats and we would offer great services like good food and Wi-Fi.
It took years to build and bring in the new trains and prepare the rail system for the new technologies, and so we had to use old train cars and the outdated system for a long time. But we knew who we were and how we wanted our new rail business to work, and that helped our people to weather the criticism along the way. With the new trains and refurbished tracks, we have been able to double the number of passengers we carry, from 14 million to 31 million per year, and speed up journey times.
How are the people on your team, with their particular skills and talents, shaping your company and making it different from others? What’s special about your product or service? How is your company helping your community and environment? If you’re an entrepreneur or business leader and don’t have the answers to these questions at the ready, it’s time to meet with your team outside the office. Throw a barbecue or dinner, and start up a conversation about what you have done so far and what you want to do.
While the answers will change over time, talking about this now will help all of you to get a sense of where you’re going and what you’ve built so far, helping to prepare you for the next bumps you encounter. And what could be better than having dinner and drinks with your team, reflecting on all you’ve accomplished and what comes next?
• Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He has recently published two books: ''Screw Business as Usual’' and ''Like a Virgin.'' He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. To learn more about the Virgin Group: www.virgin.com.