Money Matters

Unleash your inner entrepreneur

By Richard Branson
Mon, 11, 17


Q: I lead a module on innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship at Northumbria University in England. Next semester, I’m asking my students to start their own ventures. To inspire them to unleash their entrepreneurial drive, I’ve been discussing your life and work. In a recent lecture I talked about how you started out with Student magazine and how that led to other business opportunities.

I was wondering if you’d be willing to support our group in some way, whether by joining a discussion via Skype, sponsoring a prize of some kind or whatever else you think might help transform these 18-year-olds into successful entrepreneurs.

— Tracey Wilson


A: I’d be delighted to offer some tips for your students. In fact, there are many different strategies young entrepreneurs can use to give themselves a better shot at success. Here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned after 50 years in business:


1. Don’t be ashamed of your age.

Never let your youth stop you from getting out there and starting a business. You may feel like people won’t take you seriously, but as a young person, you have unique and valuable skills.

For example, you can look at the world with fresh eyes and know instinctively what’s cool. Abilities like that certainly came in handy when I started Student magazine as a teenager.


2. Do something you love.

You’ll never have a typical 9-to-5 schedule as an entrepreneur. Since so much of your life will be taken up with work, I can’t stress enough how important it is that you choose something you’re truly passionate about. Ask yourself: What talents do I have? Is there a particular industry I’m obsessed with? Or a particular cause I’m committed to?

Don’t start a business just because you think it will turn a profit. If you’re not in love with the idea, you won’t move mountains to make it happen.


3. Focus on your immediate surroundings.

This is often the best way to find gaps in the market that you can exploit. Which services do you and your friends use that could be dramatically improved? Is there a new business that would boost your neighbourhood or your city?

Once you’ve firmly established yourself locally, you can expand into bigger markets. Remember, Virgin Records started with a single shop on Oxford Street in London.


4. See challenges as opportunities.

Conquering a tough challenge tests your mettle and forces you to innovate — and you might even change the world, and yourself, in the process. If you fall short, don’t see your failure as a dead end, but rather as a chance to try something new, and possibly even grander.

I learned one of my most valuable lessons when I failed to persuade a major publishing house to buy out Student magazine. The publisher wanted to focus on details like distribution, while I had a bigger vision for a whole host of new student-focused enterprises, from travel companies to banks. My failure spurred me on to build the business of my dreams. Fast-forward 50 years and Virgin has become more than I ever could have imagined.


5. Ignore the naysayers.

When I started out as an entrepreneur, I lost count of the people who told me I wouldn’t succeed, and I’m glad I didn’t listen to them. But while it’s important not to let negativity get you down, it’s also important to recognise good advice when your hear it.

The best people to talk to are those with a long history in your field — or your parents. You might not want to admit it, but in my experience they’re right a lot of the time!


6. Lean on your values.

Knowing your values can help you shape your business. Virgin’s mantra is “changing business for good” and it has helped guide us when exploring new opportunities. From Virgin Atlantic to Virgin Money, our team has always launched businesses out of a genuine desire to disrupt the status quo and improve customers’ lives.


7. Play to your strengths.

Focus your energy on the areas of the enterprise that best suit your abilities. When I started Student magazine, I tried my hand at every part of the business. You name it, I did it: writing, editing, advertising, marketing, accounting. I soon realised that I just wasn’t right for some roles, namely those that involved working with numbers.


8. Think big.

No matter what you do, keep growing. After our first record store was a success, we looked for ways to open more. While it can be tempting to blow all your initial profit having a good time, if you want your business to last you need to plough that money back into growth opportunities.

9. Set goals.

As you establish your business during that first hectic year, you’ll have enough on your hands simply trying to keep your head above water. But as time passes, keep setting new goals for yourself. Set small targets each day, then each week and each month. Write them down and tick them off. You will be amazed at how satisfying this is.


10. Take notes.

Keep detailed notes of every conversation and meeting you have. I carry a notebook everywhere, and am an avid note taker and list-maker. Writing things down keeps me focused and productive — and discourages procrastination.

Being an entrepreneur is an amazing journey of self-discovery; you’ll likely learn as much about yourself as you do about your industry. Start your own company, and you can choose your own future.

Tracey, my advice to your business students is simple: Grab the opportunity with both hands and run with it.


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© 2017 Richard Branson
(Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)