Sir Richard Branson has been an entrepreneur nearly his entire life, founding the now-famous Virgin Group in 1972 at the age of 22. Since then, the company has expanded to encompass more than 400 companies and has made Branson himself a multibillionaire. In his latest book, “The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership” the businessman takes readers through everything from his hiring process to how entrepreneurs can plan their next move.
We recently sat down with Branson(in the back of his limo, you should know)to get his advice for young workers.
What’s the most important thing for recent college grads and other 20-somethings to keep in mind as they start out in their careers?
Well, I think you only live once and it’s important to spend your life doing something you enjoy and really interests you and that you’ll be really pleased spending your life doing. So if you have a great idea for a business, if you feel you have an idea that can fill a gap and help make people’s lives better: try it and make a go of it.
If you’re not entrepreneurially-minded, then just try to go into a profession where you feel you will get some satisfaction in doing it. Don’t do a profession because you think you’re going to make a lot of money in it and it’s going to be horribly dull.
I think a lot of young people are told things like, “You need to do this, this, and this or you need this degree before you can start a business.” How do you know when the time is right? You were very young when you started Virgin.
I think if you want to run a business, I’m not sure that it’s necessary to spend too many years studying. I think it’s better if you get on and do it and learn while doing it. The only thing to take into account there is if your business isn’t successful. You may have slightly more difficulty getting a job if you’ve forsaken your education. But if you have five or six years building in business rather than studying to build a business, you’re five or six years ahead of everyone else. I think you have an advantage and then you’re not saddled with loads of debt. If you want to become an entrepreneur, I’d say it’s worth taking the risk.
What are your tips for somebody who has a great idea, but isn’t sure how to sell someone on it.
Well I think that the important thing is to simplify what you’re saying and if you can’t explain what your idea is in two or three sentences and excite people by it, I suspect it’s not a good idea. And that applies to most things you’re trying to sell to somebody. Keep it simple and clear-cut. And if you find that everybody blanks over then maybe your idea is not a good one, but having said that, if you passionately think you have a good idea don’t let, most people would say why an idea is not good. It’s very rare people will say an idea is great. And because most people are not entrepreneurially minded, they think people who want to become entrepreneurs, as slightly zany. So in the end if you really believe in what you want to do you just have to get on and do it.
Once you start building your team, how do you know who to hire and who to trust?
Well, if it’s your first business, I suspect you’ll have some life-long friends, and it’s always good to have friends around you when building a business. I had two or three friends join me in the early days and it was delightful. Then you just have to get out and interview people and see if they are as passionate about what you do as you do. You want people who passionately believe in what you want to do, and surround yourself with those kinds of people.
You’ve said a couple times that you don’t read business books. So, it’s funny that you wrote one.
Yeah I haven’t read business books; I’ve glanced at one or two. I think there’s too many lists. So, what I’ve tried to do is write a book that’s more readable and it tells stories. People can learn from reading those stories.
What do you think is the biggest mistake young entrepreneurs are making?
I think a lot of young entrepreneurs are not good delegators; they try to do everything themselves. They can drown in the minutia, and what they need to do is get people to deal with the nitty-gritty, free themselves up and think of the bigger picture. So they need to fight early on to learn the art of delegation.
Entrepreneurs sometimes tend to be micromanagers, how do they let that go? How can they trust somebody and say ‘OK, you do this and I’ll leave you alone’?
If they trust people, not everything will be done exactly how they would do it, but some things will be done better. And some things won’t be done quite as well. But there’s also the thinking time [your employees] would’ve freed up, and if they don’t do something right you can correct it later. If you’re good at finding good people they shouldn’t let you down often.
It seems like for lot of young people in corporate careers, part of the reason they don’t always like it is because they aren’t allowed to show their personality at work. And you’ve obviously always showed your personality at work and everything you do. Why do you feel corporations are so stifling of creativity and personality?
It’s strange because working for companies should be a fun, pleasant experience and so often, as you say, it is a stifling, boring experience. And people are made to dress in formal clothes- ties and suits. They work out of unpleasant environments and that constitutes their life. Most of their life is spent at work. It is sad and it often comes down to bad leadership sadly and a lack of realization that if they were good leaders they would make sure that people enjoyed their jobs, how offices are laid out and how they are treated.
And if you had to describe your personality in one or two words what would you say?
I don’t take no for an answer. I like to enjoy what I do. I like to create things I’m proud of. I like to surround myself with great people. And I give those people a lot of freedom to create great things.
Follow Lakshmi Gandhi on Twitter @LakshmiGandhi.