Most good chief executives or entrepreneurs only make three or four key decisions every year. Running your business’s day-to-day operations and managing your team can take much of your time, so there are usually only a few that stand out — the game-changing decisions that can make or sometimes break a business.
Looking back over my career, which now spans more than four decades, there were many occasions when I got it right and a few when I did not. A few guiding principles helped; these are the things I would have liked to have known when I was just starting out.
1. Trust your instincts
There have been many occasions when I have led our team into markets that industry experts told us to avoid because the competition was too fierce or the cost of entry too high.
This was the case when we launched our airlines, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Blue (rebranded Virgin Australia), in 1984 and 2000. My fellow directors were nervous about our chances of survival, given the strengths of our competitors — namely their market share and fleet sizes and experienced personnel. But I felt that our competitors had become complacent; that passengers wanted something different. With the right energy, focus and flair, we could make our mark.
2. Focus on your customers, not your critics
Over the years, our critics fretted about Virgin’s expansion into airlines, financial services and mobile phone services. What did our company know about these industries and how would we manage the complex issues?
I rarely paid attention (which also drew criticism from some analysts). My answer was always to focus on the customer experience, ensuring that we offered the best service, most innovative products and
This worked especially well in mobile services, where most companies still require customers to sign contracts that are difficult and expensive to exit. We revolutionised the market by offering a pre-paid model, exactly what a number of younger and newer users wanted. Our businesses grew quickly in the UK, Australia, Canada, France, South Africa, the US, and more recently in India, expanding our customer base and brand far and wide.
3. Always support your team
Day-to-day management has never been my forté, and my early decision to step back from operations gave me the freedom to focus on our main challenges and opportunities.
This meant that I had to learn to trust the management teams, and to support them when they saw an opportunity. When Matthew Bucknall and Frank Reed came to us in 1999 with the concept of a family friendly health club, we decided to invest. Very quickly, they impressed all of us with their innovative approach to customer
service and team building.
Soon after we opened the first few clubs, Nelson Mandela called me, asking if Virgin could rescue a chain of South African gyms. That seemed a stretch, because we had only a handful of locations in Britain, but Bucknall and Reed were confident, and such was our trust in them and their team that we signed onto the deal. And they were right: Virgin Active South Africa is one of the key drivers of that business’s growth.
4. Know when to say goodbye
It can be very difficult to know when to sell, since as a founder and entrepreneur you become very attached to your business and your team. Look into whether selling will be good for the overall health of your company, or if you need objectivity, ask trusted advisers to do this. But brace yourself — the answer might be yes.
We have sold a number of Virgin companies over the years. Probably the most notable occasion was in 1992, when we sold Virgin Records to EMI and used the cash to expand Virgin Atlantic and other companies in the group. It was a very emotional day for me — at one point, I broke down in tears. Looking back, it’s clear that we sold at the right time and the decision made sense for Virgin as a whole. That secured our group’s future and gave us a war chest for investing in new businesses.
Selling is difficult, and you will be tempted to hold on too long. This is one of the biggest mistakes an entrepreneur or chief executive can make.
I held onto Virgin Megastores for too long. Despite the warnings of my management team, I could not bring myself to sell the business until a few years ago. By that time, DVD sales had collapsed and the whole industry had been revolutionised by Apple’s iTunes store. You can’t get them all right!
Finally, when you are facing a difficult choice or must make an important decision on behalf of your company, keep in mind that the answer might not always be yes or no — sometimes there are other options. Your job is to lead your team in the search for the best solutions, which are not always the easiest ones. n
Richard Branson is best known for his Virgin Group of over 360 companies, including Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Money. He is the author of several books, including Screw It, Let’s Do It: Lessons in Life and Business Stripped Bare.
What A Grade 1 Sticker Business Taught Me About Business
It’s the very fundamentals that are frequently overlooked amid ambition and “blue sky thinking” – yet, these remain the most crucial element of any business.
When I was a kid, my father believed that instead of getting pocket money, my brothers and I should learn how to make money. Stickers were the school craze when I was in Grade 1, and we wanted a collection for ourselves, so Dad said if we wanted to buy the stickers, we needed to make the money. So, logically, we started a sticker trading business. Dad gave us the start-up money and took us through the basics of business.
We had a cash float for purchases, and learnt about cost price, mark-up and selling price – very basic accounting. We kept recycling that money, making extra and using it to buy more stickers. Then we worked out that if we increased the mark-up, we’d make a bigger profit – so why not make the mark-up as big as possible? The obvious happened. Our prices were too high, and we lost customers.
Valuable business lesson learnt, we came back down to a mark-up that other kids were willing to pay for.
More lessons to learn
Then people came to us and asked if they could take a sticker today and pay us tomorrow. We saw no reason not to trust them. Guess what? They didn’t pay us back. We had bad debt on our hands. When we sold out of stickers, we had cash-flow issues and couldn’t buy more stock. Dad was there to help us out, though, so we received another capital injection to get back off the ground. And this time, if we did extend credit, we loaded it for the privilege of “buy now, pay later” – another lesson learnt.
We ran a proper ledger for the business, tracking our inventory, sales and profit. Even if our “bank” account was a piggy bank, we had a clear record of what was going on. When I look back on it, none of what I learnt was irrelevant.
Today, I run a leading financial services company with billions of rand running through our bank accounts. Even though the finances of the business are run on a much larger scale, the principles of business – those basic principles that we learnt trading stickers – still power our company. And when I see entrepreneurial ventures failing, or when friends come to me for advice because their business is struggling, it’s almost always because they haven’t got these basics right.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt is that if you don’t fully understand how the money is being made, walk away. Whether you are dealing with stickers or financial services, the business principles should be straightforward: money coming in, money going out, and profitability.
Every day, I look at an Excel statement of my company’s forty bank accounts. Every day, I look at the cashflow, and unusual big-ticket items get a note so I know what’s going on. It’s just like that Grade 1 business, only on a bigger scale.
Once the other kids saw the success of our sticker business, they started to want to get in on the action, so they came to market with their own competing products. At first, we were able to innovate as the competition squeezed our margins and started to impact on our profits. Eventually, the whole situation got completely out of hand and the school banned sticker trading for profit.
While I didn’t become a sticker magnate, the lessons I learnt in Grade 1 remain central to every business I am involved with – get the basics right.
How To Handle A Director Who Always Says No
Diverse opinions on a board is a good thing — but is it boosting your business, or hindering growth and decisions?
Do you have that director on your board who always says ‘no’? Regardless of what the issue is, regardless of the context, who raises it or whether or not it is indeed a good idea, their response is either a simple ‘no’ or an elongated perspective on why they disagree? It can even feel at times that they are actively working against the company and against the board. Although they obviously do not see it that way.
Experienced directors will have multiple war stories related to this subject. Aspiring directors should be aware of how to approach these situations when they arise and how to avoid becoming the subject of such stories.
Develop a culture of trust, candour and professionalism
A board’s conduct must be characterised by trust, respect, candour, professionalism, accountability, diligence and commitment. It is the board’s collective responsibility to build this culture and to engage with one another in a productive and effective way.
Dissent should be welcomed when it is constructive and engaging. The idea of being the ‘devil’s advocate’ for the sake of it however, is not the best way to approach this. Dissent should be based on a real belief that the issue has not been fully debated or creates a real challenge for the company going forward.
If you have a director who genuinely believes a different path is right for the company, hear them out and engage in the discussion. In my experience, this often opens up an issue or changes a detail that when taken as part of the whole, improves the decision-making outcome for the board and the company.
Related: Contributing In The Boardroom
Remove the politics from the boardroom
At the heart of this issue is often politics. Politics between directors, who are also shareholders or executives. Politics between the ‘new guard’ and the ‘old.’ Regardless of the genesis, politics really do not have a place in the boardroom and directors who engage in it should be called out by the chairman or another senior director.
In local government I have heard stories of councillors who always vote ‘no,’ so that whenever something goes wrong, they can say “I told you so,” and show the public why they should be re-elected. But that is indeed politics. The boardroom is a very different space. It is private and discussions should be confidential.
Board rotation, a simple solution
While the removal of an errant director should never just be left to resolve itself, there is a simple solution that can support the easy removal of the most difficult directors. The challenge is that it requires forward planning prior to the appointment of any new director.
Directors should only ever be appointed for a predefined term, with automatic rotation at the end of that term. This does not stop you from reappointing a director for a further period. It is, however, always easier to ask someone to consider a further term than it is to tell them that their time has come and they should resign from the board.
Having a predefined term for a director essentially ensures an automatic resignation period. A simple rotation policy for directors is not just good governance, it is a practical step you can take to provide a way out of a sticky relationship.
Ultimately the board as a whole must address issues that detract from the board fulfilling its function as and when they arise. A rotation policy might provide an effective backstop. A high-performance board is one that will tackle the issue head-on.
Read next: How Diversity Drives Board Performance
The Power Pose: Using Body Language To Lead
Use the way you move and stand and interact with others to become a better entrepreneur and leader.
In 2012, the power pose became a global sensation. A Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy hit a staggering 46 million views and became the second most popular Ted Talk in history. The premise was simple – hold a powerful pose and it will not only affect the way you behave but it will even change your body chemistry. Since the talk, the power pose has met with heavy criticism and been labelled as nothing more than pseudoscience. Fortunately for believers, they were proven right. Amy Cuddy released further research this year and it fundamentally proves that this bold stance works exactly how she said it did back in 2012.
The power pose isn’t something that you’d adopt in a meeting or around the office but the science behind it shows how important it is to pay attention to your body language as it can fundamentally change how you are perceived.
Notice how you are noticed
People spend a lot of time reading one another’s body language and the way a person stands or holds their hands or moves can influence how others see them. It’s very natural to judge someone else’s posture, but what about the way they are judging yours? Few people look at how their body language is affecting the way people engage with them.
So, what are you supposed to do?
Fake it until you make it
Want to know how can you adapt to become a better leader? You can fake it.
The power pose isn’t the only way to change your mood. Research has shown that whether you laugh naturally or put on a smile and make yourself laugh, your body still releases the same levels of serotonin.
Whether you are really laughing or just pretending to laugh doesn’t matter – they both have the same impact on your demeanour.
Change how others see you
Think about the pose that every athlete adopts when they win a race or achieve something that’s been physically taxing. They hold their hands outstretched in the air. Even blind athletes hold the same pose. It’s big, it’s bold and it’s a physical manifestation of success.
Now consider the defensive pose. The tight hunched shoulders or inward curve of the spine. These poses immediately make a person look nervous, afraid and lacking in confidence. Like the porcupine curling in on itself for protection.
The same ideas apply to daily business life. While the power pose and the athlete pose are not necessarily a team activity, ensuring that you hold your body upright and with confidence means that you’re conveying an attitude of strength. You come across as confident and capable and positive. You are ready to take on anything and overcome the odds.
By contrast, if you are hunched and withdrawn, you come across as nervous and lacking in confidence and these are not the qualities you want associated with you as an entrepreneur and a leader.
Body language for entrepreneurs
- Shake hands like a hero. The way you shake hands with someone is very significant in terms of establishing equality. Be even, be firm but don’t pull people towards you or turn their hands under your own. This makes them feel like you are trying to establish dominance.
- Create an atmosphere of openness. Maintain eye contact, say hello to people with warmth while holding a strong posture. A warm and open greeting is essential to establishing trust.
- Do the power pose for two minutes before any meeting or interview. This will get those chemicals stirring and make you feel confident and in charge.
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