Bringing up your baby
Published: Jun 28, 2013
Entrepreneurs sometimes look at me like I’m crazy when I talk about work-life balance and the importance of maintaining a rich personal life. But taking time away from the office isn’t just a luxury – it can be hard work. If you think running a business is tough, try bringing up a baby. Raising children is one of the few things that is more rewarding than building a business, and for many people, including myself, the skills carry over from one to the other.
Whether you’re starting a business or having a baby, you have to do a huge amount of planning before the big day arrives – and no matter how much you prepare, something unexpected will happen. When my wife, Joan, was pregnant with our daughter Holly, I went to a work-related party thinking that all would be fine. I came home blazing drunk and fell into bed. The next thing I knew, Joan was shaking and slapping me. She’d gone into labor six weeks early, and we needed to get her to the hospital. Once I gathered my wits and realized what the situation was, I was extremely awake and ready to go, right away!
That was just the first moment in what has been more than 30 years of surprises, which have included everything from the usual childhood tumbles and mishaps to the happy day two years ago when Holly told me that she was getting married. These moments as a parent taught me to be ready to adapt to change – to think on my feet and stay level-headed, no matter what. Just recently I was helping our team at Virgin Active launch a new free tennis initiative, and a ride on the London Eye, the city’s landmark Ferris wheel, was a centerpiece of the festivities. Just as we were about to climb aboard, it broke down. Rather than calling off the launch, we quickly set up a mini-tennis court nearby and were soon having fun and getting our message across.
You’re also likely to pick up some time management skills in either situation. Joan and I were incredibly busy after Holly’s birth, and not just with baby raising: Virgin Records was expanding, and I was going through one of the most intense periods of my career. At the time we were living on our houseboat in Little Venice, a neighborhood in London, and my office was set up onboard – specifically, in a small room next to the bedroom, with a desk crammed between the bilge pump and the stairs. Joan and Holly remained wrapped up warm in the bedroom for most of the winter, and I went back and forth between the two rooms.
When time is tight, you have to be ready to pick up new skills on the fly. Just as you won’t really know how to change a nappy until you’ve bundled up your little one all fresh and dry, when you have a small team and big ambitions for your business, you need to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Back when Virgin was starting up, my job titles ranged from founder and chief marketer to treasurer and receptionist.
This brings me to another common trait that busy entrepreneurs and new parents share: sleep deprivation. I spoke with many promising Peruvian entrepreneurs when I was in Lima recently. One woman told me that she was worrying so much about getting her new business off the ground that she was struggling to sleep. Overtired, she was forgetting to complete tasks and had found herself ignoring her fiancé because she was too busy writing Post-it note reminders and attaching them to her bedstead.
After commiserating about lack of sleep (I’d only had a few hours myself), I mentioned the importance of delegation. You have to show trust in your team, right from the start. I am always closely involved at first, then once a Virgin business is up and running, I keep tabs on everything from a distance, allowing the company’s CEO to do his job and build his team. All the CEOs at Virgin make their own decisions, learn from their errors and celebrate their businesses’ successes. I offer advice and support, but try to avoid stifling them through micromanagement.
I learned how to let go partly by helping Holly and my son, Sam, to grow up - I had to give them the freedom to make mistakes and learn lessons for themselves, so that they would find their own paths in life. These days they’re thriving. Holly went off to school to study medicine for many long years before joining us to do sterling work with Virgin Unite, our nonprofit foundation (and I love having her around). Meanwhile, Sam has built his own production company, Sundog Pictures, where he is creating remarkable films that tackle important social issues. Joan and I couldn’t be prouder of them.
As a parent or an entrepreneur, you can never guess what will happen next, which is all part of the fun. In the classic comedy ''Bringing Up Baby,'' Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant get into all sorts of adventures while raising a leopard named Baby. When someone asks Grant: ''What have you done?'' He replies: ''Just name anything and I’ve done it.''
Whether you’re starting a business or bringing up children (or leopards), anything you think can possibly happen, probably will, and many things you think are impossible will happen too. Welcome it all as a pleasure and privilege - even changing nappies!
• 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.