I love bumping into people and finding out who they are and what they’re working on. You never know who you’re going to meet. Such encounters can be valuable: If you think about how your most important relationships began—with business partners, your spouse, with friends and mentors—the stories will almost all involve chance meetings. My curiosity about others and ability to connect with people have helped me to succeed—after all, if people don’t know who you are, they are not going to do business with you.
Many people think an entrepreneur is someone who operates alone, overcoming challenges and bringing his idea to market through sheer force of personality. This is completely inaccurate. Few entrepreneurs—scratch that: almost no one—ever achieved anything worthwhile without help. To be successful in business, you need to connect and collaborate and delegate.
Finding ways to meet with people in the real world and build business relationships is becoming ever more important in the digital age. While in some industries it’s possible for employees to limit their communications to e-mail and, if they wish, avoid interacting with colleagues (and their managers), that’s not possible for entrepreneurs, since relationships built on trust are vital to doing business.
This is why I make a point of attending the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, whenever I can. The event is ridiculed in some quarters for its sheer scale—according to the Economist, 2,622 people gathered in that small town in January, including 46 presidents and prime ministers, representatives of firms with a total value of $12 trillion on the stock market, and many celebrities and journalists. However, the very action of bringing these powerful people together makes Davos useful, even vital.
Some of the events I attended at this year’s forum included discussions of: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights; the role of business in philanthropy; conservation and climate change; and tech investments of all sorts, from health to space travel. Equally useful were the random chats with acquaintances in restaurants and hotels. I spoke with actor Matt Damon about clean water initiatives (he is a co-founder of Water.org, a non-profit that helps to bring water to impoverished communities), angel investor and “father of the iPod” Tony Fadell about how to grow startups, and with the Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates about overpopulation. Other such meetings at Davos will help to shape the future direction of many companies and organizations.
Steve Jobs, the entrepreneur I most admire, is remembered as a talented maverick and a loner, but that’s simply wrong. The Apple co-founder turned his personal vision into reality with the help of trusted, talented teams. How did he and his people come up with their ideas and solve the technological and design problems they encountered as they worked on Apple products? By spending time together. As Steve said to his biographer Walter Isaacson: “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”
This is part of the reason why communities of entrepreneurs can turn into creative hubs. Look at Silicon Valley in California, BoxPark in London and other areas where like-minded people have banded together. Technology allows us to connect at the click of a button, but companies will still pay premiums to be near their competitors and others working in the same industry. When you are thinking about launching a startup, you should always look at whether setting up in one of your industry’s creative hubs would be a good choice.
If you are a business leader or entrepreneur and your team is primarily working from home or locations other than the office, keep watch to make sure that they are collaborating—your employees should not be just a list of e-mail addresses or instant-messaging contacts. If you need to jump-start your team, events like hack days, conferences and outrageous parties can help people get to know each other and find creative solutions to problems.
The businesses that make up the Virgin Group operate in a variety of sectors, and we’ve been able to turn our unusual structure into an asset partly by encouraging employees to become intrapreneurs. When somebody in one business has an idea that would work at another, I always encourage them to give it a try. Lots of our employees have transformed their own careers and started new companies within our group in the process.
To achieve your goals, you need to be on the lookout for the opportunity to make connections wherever you go. Welcome chance encounters and opportunities to dream up outlandish plans. The person with the skill set you need to get your new business idea off the ground may be sitting at the next table in the cafe. Go over and say hello.
Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer and founder of the Virgin Group and companies