This week we had the opportunity for an exclusive interview with Sir Richard Branson, the UK’s superstar entrepreneur, Virgin Group founder, multi billionaire, Island owner, philanthropist and adventurer. This man needs no further introduction. You probably already read one of his best-selling books, but even if not, you’ve definitely heard about some of his latest ventures like Hyperloop One and Virgin Galactic.
In the interview below, we talked with Richard about entrepreneurship, Brexit, startups and his plans for the future. Enjoy!
Let’s start off with your favourite phrase “screw it, let’s do it”. As someone who started his entrepreneurial journey pretty early in his life – do you think the drive for entrepreneurship is something people are either born with or not, or is it something that can be taught?
Everyone is born an entrepreneur, and everyone has the potential to be an entrepreneur. It’s just that not everybody gets the opportunity. I believe that entrepreneurship has a positive impact on our lives if done well and it has the power to change business for good. Over the years at the Virgin Group we have found ways to support this and create lasting impact.
Our own not-for-profit company Virgin StartUp has helped to secure funding of £33 million for over 2500 entrepreneurs across England and Scotland, whilst providing expert guidance on everything from Crowdfunding to ‘doing business with big business’. Other examples include Virgin Media Business which runs a competition to identify the UK’s best entrepreneurs through their VOOM competition.
I’ve always been passionate about supporting entrepreneurs; they are the lifeblood of innovation and challengers of perceptions. I’m proud of the work we do at Virgin companies around the world to help make sure the entrepreneur community continues to thrive.
To become a successful entrepreneur, you have to embrace the likelihood of failure. You’re very well known for your successes, but can you please also mention a few examples where you heavily screwed up in your entrepreneurial journey? What did you learn from those failures?
It’s ok to fail, as long as you learn. You’ll often find failure is the first step to success. It’s important to pick yourself up, retrace your steps, look at what went wrong, and learn from your mistakes.
One example I remember well is when we launched Virgin Cola. It’s fair to say we made headlines with our launch, driving a tank through New York’s streets before smashing through a wall of Coca-Cola cans. We wanted to smash our way past the competition. However, it turned out we hadn’t thought things through, declaring war on Coke was madness.
Virgin had become renowned as being a disruptor brand, entering new markets and shaking up the norm. But we’d forgotten one thing; we only do business where we can offer consumers something brilliantly different. Replicating what we’d done with the music industry and airlines was going to be difficult in the soft drinks sector.
People were already getting a product they liked, at a price they were happy to pay – Virgin Cola just wasn’t different enough. Although the business ultimately failed, it was a great learning experience.
We were seen as the small start-up taking on the big companies. Virgin won over a lot of the American public as the plucky underdog. This would later indirectly benefit Virgin Atlantic when it launched in America.
We learned a lot from the experience, and if you can do the same you should be able to avoid making the same mistakes next time. This is the key to bouncing back, and ultimately the secret to success.
In order to help more people becoming entrepreneurs, you founded Virgin StartUp in 2013. How is it going there and what is this not-for-profit arm of the Virgin offering to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Virgin StartUp will celebrate its 5th birthday this October and I couldn’t be prouder of everything the team has done to help entrepreneurs across the UK. Not only have we provided over £30 million in funding to over 2500 entrepreneurs through expert mentors and innovative accelerator programmes.
Crowdboost, for example, has helped seven companies raise a total of £3.3 million through crowdfunding; Platform-X identified a number of technology startups who could help improve our rail industry and our programme. ConstrucTech is helping improve the construction industry by identifying startups which can improve efficiencies.
The Virgin StartUp Loans, which are partly funded by the European Regional Development Fund, are helping entrepreneurs in the UK to launch and grow their business. What is the impact you’re seeing so far from the StartUp Loans initiative?
For me it doesn’t just end at the funding, yes that’s important, but we need to offer entrepreneurs so much more than a traditional bank can. We fund, but we also mentor and provide business advice. Your mentor can often be the key to your success as an entrepreneur.
When we were launching Virgin Atlantic for example I had the wonderful guidance of Freddie Laker. Freddie helped shape our vision for high quality service at competitive prices and was the first to bring to my attention just how fierce the battle would be with other airlines.
We’re seeing a new generation of entrepreneurs being inspired by Virgin StartUp and research has shown every £1 invested into startup businesses is worth £3 to the UK economy. I believe there are a number of similar programmes across Europe and the world. I would urge them to take a leaf out of Virgin StartUp’s book and move away from being purely focussed on funding to support all areas of the startup economy.
Speaking about the UK, Europe and the future: What are your thoughts on the Brexit and its potential impact on the UK’s economy, society and the country’s startup ecosystem?
The current funding for start-up support has been guaranteed until 2020 and these guarantees are rapidly approaching the end of their life. It’s going to be vital that post Brexit the Government develops a programme which continues to drive seed funding and build on the success of the startup loans scheme, 60,000 businesses have now received funding. I’ve always made it clear that I think Brexit is complete madness for the UK and very sad for Europe. There will be no winners out of it and the British people will be the poorer for it.
What is your main driver that motivates you to keep taking on new business ventures, and to grow the companies you’re already involved in? And: Did your motives change over the years?
My main driver is the same today as it was when I launched my first company five decades ago: to make a positive difference in people’s lives and change business for good. I believe that companies should have a purpose at their core, no matter what industry they’re in.
When coming up with or analysing a new business idea, what generally are your work processes to evaluate its potential and to get a new idea off the ground?
It’s really important to do your research, avoid making decisions in isolation and do everything you can to protect your downside. If you have the luxury, give it time – doing more rather than less homework on a project is seldom a bad thing.
With Hyperloop One, Virgin Galactic, and so many other cool projects. Which innovative Virgin project are you currently most excited about and how do you think it will impact our lives in 10 years from now?
There are so many exciting businesses making huge leaps of progress across the Virgin Group right now that it’s hard to pick. Going into space has been a dream for me since I watched the moon landing, and Virgin Galactic is getting closer and closer to space.
Virgin Orbit will be launching small satellites into space which has a huge potential to change people’s lives for the better by improving access to data around the world. Seeing Virgin Hyperloop’s test track brought home how it really will make journey’s fast and effortless and has the potential to eliminate the barriers of distance and time.
You love personal challenges and “doing things for the first time”. Which personal challenge in the near future are you looking forward to the most and why?
Going into space. I’m making sure I’m fit and ready. I could never have imagined that when I started Virgin we would one day be going into space. I still pinch myself when I think about how far we’ve come.