Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group of 400 companies (including Virgin Airlines and Virgin Mobile), gave advice about entrepreneurship, startups and keeping morale up at the keynote speech at the BAI Retail Delivery Show in Washington, D.C., today.
The best way to learn is by doing. "It makes sense for people to go to university as insurance against whatever you're doing in life failing," he said. But "a true entrepreneur would learn more by just getting out into the jungle." When he teaches someone to sail, he'll head out to sea, then jump into the water, leaving the student sailing the boat. "The best way of learning anything is just to get out and do it."
Make sure your quality is higher than your rivals. When he first started Virgin Airlines, "I thought, let's create an airline that's a joy to fly, not a chore to fly, which most airlines are," Branson recalled. "We set about making sure that every single little thing was right — great staff, great uniforms, comfortable seats, lovely food, getting every detail right on that plane. When British Airways went for our jugular, passengers remained loyal to us."
Create joy in the workplace. "If you can create a company that people genuinely love working for — when they go to the pub in the evening and they're talking to their friends and they say I work for such-and-such a brand and other people tell them they're lucky — that's the key," he said.
Be persistent. Branson shared a story of crossing the Pacific in a hot-air balloon and losing a fuel tank in the middle of a storm. "Our chances of survival were almost nonexistent," he said. "As an entrepreneur, I'll never, ever give up. So we flew right into the eye of the jet stream and we had to stay awake for three days, we missed Los Angeles, our destination, by 3,000 miles and ended up in the Arctic. But we did survive."
The underdog is often in a position of strength. "Being David against Goliath is a lot more fun than being a Goliath and having a David come after you," Branson said. "If you make people smile, if you don't take yourself too seriously, it can be annoying for your competitors but it works, if you've got the product to back it up. In the end you're only as good as your product and your customer service."
You can make banking fun. At Virgin Money, the bank formerly called Northern Rock that Virgin bought when it failed early in the financial crisis, "we keep the serious side of banking serious, but when people come into our branches, we make sure the experience is pleasant and fun," he said. The company provides comfortable armchairs and customers are offered coffee and tea. "We make it look like an upper class lounge at an airport rather than a typical bank."
Embrace new technology. "You always have to accept that new technology will compete with you," he said. "You've got to think about how you're going to compete with the new technology. I've invested in a company called Square, which is one of those companies that will revolutionalize the way money is dealt with. It's important that banks realize that with this new technology coming, they need to get in there and embrace it themselves, otherwise there may no particular need for them. We've all got to be inventive with these technologies and work with them rather than letting them overtake us."
Good leaders love people. "If we can get the right person in running a company or a division who genuinely cares about people, looks for the best in people, and praises instead of criticizes, then we can build a company where people already enjoy working," Branson said. "If you have someone who is jumping down people's throats and always criticizing them, you can see the morale at a company going down the tubes."