Great Ideas: Richard Branson's best business advice

Written by Kim Shiffman

The British founder of the Virgin brand — think music, air travel, mobile phones and maybe even space travel — spoke to a group of Toronto businesspeople in September. PROFIT recorded his best nuggets of wisdom.

Richard Branson on diversifying your business: “Conventional wisdom says to specialize in one area and don’t stray, and that the best businesses stick to their core. If you look at the Top 20 brands in the world, it’s true — Coke, Nike, Microsoft. But personally, I think rules are made to be broken.”

On charitable giving: “If you’re a successful entrepreneur, wealth comes with it. A responsibility comes with that wealth.”

On how small businesses can win against big competitors: “Big businesses will always try to crush small upstarts. To beat big businesses, use the strengths of being small. Big corporations are impersonal; staff are often not treated well. At a small company, you can make sure your staff are proud of working for you and then they’ll work hard to be successful. And small companies are more nimble. At Virgin Airways, if we want to upgrade the seats on our planes, it would take nine months; it would take British Airways seven years.”

On his wild publicity stunts [including skydiving, jumping off buildings and crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon]: “I realized early in life that to put Virgin on the map, I did not have ad budgets, so I’d have to use myself. It helped portray Virgin as a company that’s adventurous. There’s no difference between being an adventurer and being an entrepreneur. [In both cases] you’re always pushing limits and protecting the downsides. Living for the moment just makes sense.”

On doing business ethically: “Your reputation can be ruined overnight, so do deals where you can sleep at night.”

On dealing with employee mistakes: “A good company runs as if it is a family. If your son messes up, you don’t kick him out of the house.”

On how to retain staff: “People like to be entertained, they like to have fun. People who run companies have to realize that when it comes to your employees, this is their life. You have to make it enjoyable.”

On who inspires him: “The person I admire most in the world is Nelson Mandela, and his wife. They are remarkable people. We are working with them to set up an organization called The Elders” [for which Branson will recruit 12 non-politicians and fund them to examine and help solve issues that politicians don’t like to touch, such as global warming and AIDS in South Africa].

On how to get ideas for new products: “Always have a notebook in your pocket. People at parties and events can have great ideas, and you won’t remember them the next day.”

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