Posted by: Martin | January 2, 2012

The Maverick in Me

Richard Branson

Other holiday reading I’ve been doing is Richard Branson’s autobiography “Losing my Virginity”.   I had lots of “yes exactly!!” moments while reading it, and a few “ok, he is crazy” moments, but overall it’s a very inspiring entrepreneurship tale with lots of things that resonated with me in Bransons way of conducting business and outlook on life.   Just makes me wish I had started my business venture much earlier.

Things I liked:

  • The emphasis on curiosity, adventure and having fun in business (and in life).  When working on my business, it really doesn’t feel like work at all – I enjoy it too much.  I think it was the same for Branson from the very start, just that he has done it full time his whole life, and for me it’s (so far) just a side-activity to my day-job.
    As for curiosity, here’s an excerpt from the Sense of Wonder post:

One of the things that I find exciting about West Africa and the Ivory Coast – is that it’s so different from everything one can experience living in Europe (or most of the rest of the world). It kind of naturally spurs a curiosity to figure out how the place works. Setting up a business is turning out to be a pretty good way of channeling that curiosity and exploring how things work. And it should work the other way too, that  curiosity – if it can be kept up – should be good for the business (and far from only for the business).

  • Keeping things relatively informal with minimal bureaucracy and hierarchy. When things get too big Branson says he takes the deputy managers and promotes them to be in charge of a new company.  This way the Virgin group has 415 companies, and I have well… 3 very small ones: Real Estate, Taxis and Chicken Farm which are managed entirely independently.  Doing business in Africa has its issues, but one advantage is that the tax code, rules and regulations are kept relatively simple, making it easier to keep things informal and reducing bureaucracy.
  • The screw it, let’s do it – attitude.
  • “Maverickness”, not taking much notice of conventional wisdom and the way things are supposed to be done.

From the book:

Fun

First and foremost, any business proposal has to sound fun. If there is a market that is just served by two giant corporations, it appears to me there’s room for some healthy competition. As well as having fun, I love stirring the pot. I love giving big companies a run for their money – especially if they’re offering expensive poor-quality products.

“The maverick in me was also quietly amused that the guy who brought you The Sex Pistols could sort out your pension, too.”  – Branson, upon setting up Virgin Money

Love this quote.  Setting up a chicken farm in the Ivory Coast is quite a maverick thing to do for a full time employed engineer from Sweden I guess, but as maverickness goes, I see the bar has been raised.

Informal and restless

Virgin Money may appear to have been an incongruous departure for Virgin, the rock’n’roll company: it was a lateral leap in the same way as it had been from records to an airline.  But it was still all about service, value for money and offering a simple product.  The vision I have for Virgin does not run along the orthodox lines of building up a company with a vast  head office and a pyramid of command from a central board of directors. I am not saying that such a structure is wrong – far from it. It makes for formidable companies from Coca-Cola to Pearson to Microsoft. It is just that my mind doesn’t work like that. I am too informal and restless, and I like to move on.

Curiosity and Adventure

I have always lived my life thriving on opportunity and adventure. Some of the best ideas come out of the blue, and you have to keep an open mind to see their virtue. Just as an American lawyer called me to set up an airline in 1984, a Swedish ballooning fanatic asked me to fly over the Atlantic with him in 1987. The proposals come thick and fast and I have no idea what the next will be. I do, however, know that, if I listen carefully enough, the good ideas somehow all fit into the framework that Virgin has become. By nature I am curious about life, and this extends to my business. That curiosity has led me down many unexpected paths and introduced me to many extraordinary people. Virgin is a collection of such people and its success rests on them.

Embrace Change

If there’s a good business plan, limited downside, good people and a good product, we’ll go for it. In some ways it all boils down to convention. As you may have noticed, I do not set much store by such so-called wisdom. Conventionally, you concentrate on what you are doing and never stray beyond fairly narrow boundaries when running a company. Not only do I find that restrictive, but I also think that it’s dangerous. If you only run record shops and refuse to embrace change, when something new like the Internet or MP3 is launched you will lose your sales to the person who makes use of the new medium.

When we established as a mail-order record company, and thus dependent on the post, out of the blue came a six-month postal strike. If we hadn’t reinvented ourselves, we would have gone bust. There was no choice. Within days of the strike we had opened our first Virgin Records shop. It may have been up a dark, narrow flight of stairs above a shoe shop and have consisted merely of some shelves, a shabby sofa and a till, but in its own small way it taught us all we know about retailing. I can draw a straight line from that tiny shop to the Virgin Megastores in London, Paris and New York. It’s just a matter of scale, but first you have to believe you can make it happen.

No retiring

At this point [after selling Virgin Records and having £500 million in the bank] I could of course have retired and concentrated my energies on learning how to paint watercolours or how to beat my mum at golf. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, in my nature to do so. People asked me, “Why don’t you have some fun now?” but they were missing the point. As far as I was concerned, this was fun. Fun is the core of the way I like to do business and it has been key to everything I’ve done from the outset. More than any other element, fun is the secret of Virgin’s success.

You have to be out there

Even though I’m often asked to define my “business philosophy”, I generally won’t do so, because I don’t believe it can be taught as it was a recipe. There aren’t ingredients and techniques that will guarantee success. Parameters exist that, if followed, will ensure a business can continue, but you cannot clearly define our business success and then bottle it as you would a perfume. It’s not that simple: to be successful, you have to be out there, you have to hit the ground running; and, if you have a good team around you and more than your fair share of luck, you might make something happen. But you certainly can’t guarantee it just by following someone else’s formula.

Business is a fluid, changing substance, and, as far as I’m concerned, the group will never stand still.


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