Eleven Startup Tips From Richard Branson

Article first published as Eleven Business Tips From Richard Branson on Technorati.

Note: This is an installment in the Iconic Advice series. Other installments include: Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs.

Last weekend, a friend gave me and my family a wonderful ride in his plane. Departing from Edwards AFB, we flew over the Mojave Air and Spaceport, home of the world’s largest private manufacturer of spacecraft, The Spaceship Company (TSC).

TSC is building spacecraft for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space fleet. Richard Branson Despite the fact that the specific date of Virgin Galactic’s maiden voyage remains unscheduled, over 450 citizen astronauts have put down a deposit of at least $20,000 on the $200,000 per-person fare.

In October of 2011, the company announced a $4.5 million deal with NASA to use Virgin Galactic spacecraft to conduct experiments, filling the void left by the retirement of America’s shuttle program.

It is undoubtedly impressive that Richard Branson has motivated a government organization and hundreds of intelligent, affluent people to commit millions of dollars to secure a service that does not yet exist. Even more striking is that this super-salesman is a self-taught, high school dropout.

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Richard’s Startup Tips

1) Give Your Customers (And The Media) What They Want

“With the casino and the beds, our passengers will have at least two ways to get lucky on one of our flights.” [Tweet this quote]

Richard often utilizes humor when speaking with the media, as he knows that a humorous sound bite is more likely to be published and more readily remembered. As discussed in Thrill The Messenger, slightly off-color, unconventional quotes will help ensure that your startup’s voice is heard.

2) Heart Over Head

“I never get the accountants in before I start up a business. It's done on gut feeling...” [Tweet this quote]

Utilize quantitative analysis to guide and inform your decisions but do not allow the numbers to dilute your passion. Screw It Let's Do It After listening to a particularly sobering financial analysis, Richard often replied, “Screw it, let's do it.” He used this term so often that it eventually became the title of his 2005 book on business advice.


Richard understands that assumptions and financial forecasts provide a limited view of an initiative’s range of potential results. He also knows that once a proposal is launched, real-world data will allow him and his team to make unanticipated, incremental changes which will positively influence the project’s ultimate outcome. Such insights are impossible to ascertain by standing on the sidelines, analyzing data.

3) Fun Matters, A Lot

“Right now I'm just delighted to be alive and to have had a nice long bath.” [Tweet this quote]

Take time to enjoy your accomplishments and relish the small joys of life. After his third failed attempt to travel around the globe non-stop in a balloon, Richard told the media, “I think the most important thing is that in the last seven days we've just had the greatest adventure of our lifetimes.” This was despite his public humiliation and the fact that he lost a $300,000 bet. 

Every journey, even one that ends in failure, is an opportunity to learn. If you are having fun along the way, the journey is adequate reward unto itself. According to Richard,“Some 80% of your life is spent working. You want to have fun at home; why shouldn’t you have fun at work?” If your current adVenture is not fun, it is time for you to pursue another business.

4) Keep Your Trousers On

“Fortunately we're not a public company - we're a private group of companies, and I can do what I want.” [Tweet this quote]

As noted in Startups Should Avoid Dropping Trou, being private allows companies to withhold confidential information from their competitors. In addition, private companies are not pressured to sacrifice their long-term strategic goals in order to achieve short-term quarterly results. Relish your private status and do not hesitate to tell a Big Dumb Company (BDC) “No,” when they make an unreasonable request.

5) Change The Rules To Match Your Skills

“…I've had great fun turning quite a lot of different industries on their head and making sure those industries will never be the same again…”

Startups are not bound by the past. This lack of institutional history frees startups to view the world in unconventional ways. Embrace this freedom at your adVenture and avoid trying to beat BDC’s at their own game.

For instance, imagine how ineffective a well-honed, successful basketball team would be if they were thrust onto a rugby field with no knowledge of the game’s strategy or rules. Even if the basketball players were intelligent, skilled athletes, it is unlikely they would become accomplished rugby players before the match was over.

In the world of startups, the Golden Rule is NOT, “Those who have the gold, make the rules.” Instead, the entrepreneurial Golden Rule is, “Those who make the rules, get the gold.” As such, you will have far more success toppling BDC’s if you create a new game with an entirely new set of rules and force BDC’s to compete on your terms.

When entering a new market, Richard has consistently changed the rules of the game in order to put his incumbent competitors at a disadvantage. According to Richard, “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”

6) Teach Your Children Well

“My mother was determined to make us independent. When I was four years old, she stopped the car a few miles from our house and made me find my own way home across the fields. I got hopelessly lost.” [Tweet this quote]

Similar to Tony Hsieh’s parents, Richard’s mom reinforced a self-sufficiency in her son that has been critical to his success. Richard dropped out of school at the age of 16 to begin publishing a magazine targeted to young people, called Student. Richard built upon the fact that record companies were Student’s biggest advertisers to subsequently launch a record store. He then built his initial store into an international chain which ultimately led to the creation of a highly successful record label.

Richard no doubt felt lost at various times during his entrepreneurial journey. Fortunately, his mom instilled in him a tenacity and sense of purpose that successfully guided him “across the fields.”     

7) Your Most Valuable Asset Is Fragile

“Most ‘necessary evils’ are far more evil than necessary.”  [Tweet this quote]

As noted in Time Wounds All Heels, a reputation as an honest and trustworthy business person is a serial entrepreneur’s most powerful asset. Per Richard, “All you have in life is your reputation: you may be very rich, but if you lose your good name, then you'll never be happy.” Protect your reputation by always doing what you should do, rather than what you could do.

8 ) Speed Matters

“A good idea for a new business tends not to occur in isolation, and often the window of opportunity is very small. So speed is of the essence.” [Tweet this quote]

As noted in Going Against The Grain, in nature it is often the smaller, faster predator who eats the larger, slower prey. The same phenomenon occurs in business.

Startups have few advantages. However, one is agility: the ability to quickly evaluate the results of their actions and revise their approach to reflect market realities. Maintain a high velocity at your startup while you nip away the fins of your BDC competitors.

9) Be A Bro

“Respect is how to treat everyone, not just those you want to impress.” [Tweet this quote]

In The Bro Factor, I emphasize the importance of treating everyone as important, irrespective of whether or not the person is in a position to assist you. As Guy Kawasaki notes in The Art Of The Start, he often observes how people treat his employees as a window into that person’s soul. If someone is rude to Guy’s receptionist yet gracious to Guy, it is a fairly clear indication that the person is a douche.

Heed Richard’s advice: “Having a personality of caring about people is important. You can’t be a good leader unless you generally like people. That is how you bring out the best in them.” Empathy is difficult to fake. If you do not have the ability to connect with your employees, customers or other stakeholders on an emotional level, be sure that at least one member of your core team possesses this vital characteristic. 

10) Yes

 “Life is a helluva lot more fun if you say yes rather than no.”
[Tweet this quote]

I was a serviceable CFO at several of my startups. In this role, it often seemed that my primary responsibility was to say, “No” to my compatriots’ seemingly endless requests for resources. However, in my dual role as the head of sales and business development, I devised mutually advantageous outcomes with customers and partners which culminated in a collective “Yes” from all the involved parties. I can attest first-hand that working toward a “Yes” is far more gratifying than routinely saying “No.”

11) Brands Matter

“Good brands reflect the histories of the time and the group of people that made them. They cannot be copied. They cannot be recycled.”  [Tweet this quote]

The name Virgin was suggested by one of Richard’s initial employees at his record store. It was intended to celebrate their status as business novices. They recognized that their status as outsiders was actually an advantage, rather than a handicap.  As Richard later said, “What does the name Virgin mean? We are a company that likes to take on the giants. In too many businesses, these giants have had things their own way. We are going to have fun competing with them.”Thus, the Virgin brand has come to represent a maverick company that strives to deliver maximum value to its customers by pursuing creative and disruptive business models.

Virgin executives describe the company as a “branded venture capital company.” Richard has created nearly 300 separate Virgin companies which employ over 20,000 people. Despite the fact that these companies encompass wildly divergent industries, they all share the competitive advantage of a unique umbrella brand that is impossible to replicate. In addition, although the aggregate Virgin organization is large, most of the individual companies are relatively small and agile.

Virgin Galactic is entering the commercial space industry as Goliath, rather than Richard’s traditional role as the giant killer. If Virgin is to succeed in this uncharacteristic role of the established incumbent, Richard will need to keep his eye out for the next 16-year old dropout who is determined to turn the commercial space industry “on its head.”

Note: This is an installment in the Iconic Advice series. Other installments include: Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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