Business Stripped Bare

By: Richard Branson



You may recognise him as the owner of some of the world's most successful companies or as the larger-than-life celebrity, who always goes above and beyond at product launches for his new ventures or service offerings. Maybe you know him as the gung-ho adventurer who is always pushing to go further than anyone else (remember the hot air balloon challenge?). Whatever you know of him, you know likely know of Sir Richard Branson. 

It's  a commonly shared view that Richard Branson is a lucky man because it seems as though everything he touches turns to gold. While his companies Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Media and Virgin America have been tremendously successful, these and other successes have come on the back of some hard work, major challenges and sometimes David and Goliath encounters.

Today we will explore some of the common themes and practices behind the Virgin companies through what Branson refers to as his "Business Stripped Bare."

Lesson 1: Teamwork

Richard Branson immediately sets out to dispel the idea that he is Virgin. He strongly asserts the success of his Virgin Empire is not all his making, but that of a team of equally determined and spirited people.

“Good people have always been at the heart of the Virgin business,” says Branson. This is largely due to the fact that Virgin has tried to keep their businesses small, and their management teams tight-knit. Small, compact companies are, generally, better run.

Virgin has therefore focussed on pulling together teams of entrepreneurially minded individuals, providing them with a place to work that stimulates innovation and creativity. In an ideal business environment, people should be aware of each others roles and challenges. Cubicle layouts are horrible for the type of collaboration that is necessary. When people aren’t forced to talk, niggling problems fester and no one runs that extra mile for you (or feels compelled to). Equally so, if your people aren’t talking to each other, how will great ideas ever be shared?

As Albert Einstein once said: ‘"What a person does on his own, without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of others, is even in the best cases rather paltry and monotonous."

Also important is the size of the company. Putting aside Virgin’s transportation businesses, which by its very nature needs to be organisationally large, Branson suggests keeping company structures dynamic.

In earlier days to maintain the entrepreneurial spirit of his early companies, when the employee headcount reached around 100, he would ask to see the deputy managing director, the deputy sales manager and the deputy marketing director. Branson would then say to them, ‘You are now the managing director, the sales manager and the marketing director of a new company.’ Then he’d split the company in two.

When either of those companies got to a hundred people, he would once again ask to see the deputies and split the company again. By doing so, he’d keep the group fresh, increase commitment, get access to new ideas and innovation, and build trust and loyalty all through this single act. 

And, as Branson points out, “There is nothing more demoralising than to work your pants off, only for strangers to be promoted to the senior positions you aspire to. At Virgin, we keep business in the family wherever we can, and we promote from within.”

Lesson 2: Play

Branson is famous for being gregarious and suggests we should try to be the same. This is not to say you should dress up in a bridal gown or dangle from a helicopter over the Sydney harbour. A manager should basically be a considerate person who is equally interested in the switchboard operator, the person who cleans the lavatories, and fellow managers. After all, we only live once, and most of our time is spent at work, so it’s vital that we feel good about what we do.

Throwing yourself into a job you enjoy is one of life’s greatest pleasures – but it’s one that some leaders of industry seem determined to stamp out at all costs. Branson also makes it a rule when in a city, to stay, if possible, where his cabin crew hang out. Would you do the same?

Inspire your people to think like entrepreneurs, and whatever you do, treat them like adults. The hardest taskmaster of all is a person’s own conscience, so the more responsibility you give people, the better they will work for you. The more you free your people to think for themselves, the more they can help you. You don’t have to do it all on your own.

Lesson 3: Have an Intrinsic Brand

Business School 101 states businesses should stick with what they know. Of the top companies in the world, most do. Energy, automobiles, finance and technology are all focused on one market. Most businesses concentrate on one thing for the best of reasons: because their founders and leaders care about one thing, above all others, and want to devote their lives to that one thing. They’re not limited in their thinking. They’re focused.

Branson agrees. You should focus on what you know. You should also focus on what gets you up in the morning and for most people, that means you should focus on one core business. Yet despite its involvement in a mish-mash of different industries: Aviation, Health, Technology, Leisure – Space Travel – Virgin too, is focussed.

Its oddness comes from what it focuses on. Virgin focusses on giving customers a Virgin experience, and they make sure the Virgin experience is a substantial and consistent one, despite what sector they are targeting. When you consider the range of product and service offerings Virgin has across the various sectors, the one common factor unique to all of them is great customer service. 

A brand should reflect what you CAN do. Too many companies want their brands to reflect some idealised or perfected image of themselves. As a consequence, their brands acquire no texture, no character and no public trust. You have to deliver, faultlessly and for all time, whatever your brand promises. Get the brand right from the start, by being honest with yourself about what it is you’re offering. A brand will eventually date you, so as Virgin has, think of intelligently evolving it rather than tritely updating the logo or website for example. 

Lesson 4: Protect the Downside

Remember Virgin Cola? Branson thought a new entrant into the soft drinks market was viable since the Virgin brand was popular. In his mind, Virgin Cola would be a hit - so how could they lose?

Well, Virgin lost and they lost by ignoring the gaping hole in this otherwise rather solid-sounding proposition: As a cola manufacturer, Virgin wasn't the people’s champion.

Virgin Pulse is another example of a business venture that went south. Virgin Pulse was an early entrant into the digital music player market and competitor to the Apple's iPod. Unfortunately, Virgin lost out big time when Apple introduced the cheaper and smaller iPod Nano, slamming the door on anyone else trying to build significant market share beneath them. The Virgin Pulse bombed and Virgin had to write off $20 million.

The key observations from these failures and others however, is Virgin’s resilience and ability to learn from its mistakes. What also helped is that they had a diverse offering and other part of the business that could support mis-adventures.  

So, what’s the most critical factor in any business decision? Basically, it’s this...If the venture crashes, will it bring the whole house tumbling down like a pack of cards or can your business sustain the downside?

Failure usually occurs when leaders avoid the reality of business. Never imagine you are immune from big events. Make your small decisions in light of the bigger picture, and you are at least pointing your craft in the right direction to ride out any storm. ‘Protecting the downside’ is one of the very few business tenets adhered to at Virgin.

Lesson 5: Prioritise the Delivery of Change

So, the hat maker says to his son: ’Don’t worry, lad. People will always need hats.’ What he means is: ‘I will always need hats.’ Hats are his life, and he is proud of what he does. Is his attitude a healthy one? Of course it is. However, no business lasts forever and being true to your life’s work carries with it the risk you may lose your future.

Virgin’s success primarily comes down to the consistent way it’s delivered on its brand proposition. Closing the business of Virgin Music, the original Virgin company, the demise of its retail business and the examples of failed ventures above were discomforting to the company. However, because the central proposition of the Virgin brand is about customer experience, Virgin has overall found it less painful than most to innovate products or services to satisfy changing consumer demands.

Change and coming to grips with an unfamiliar infrastructure is simply a question of workload and of mastering detail. A basic understanding of the business, gleaned by immersing yourself in every little detail for months or even weeks, is often enough to get you started.

Remember however, it's not only you that will be affected. The welcome changes you’re bringing in may well look like threats – and almost certainly will be threats – to existing interests. These interests may look rather paltry to you, but could be a matter of life and death to others.

Remember to communicate and pay attention to detail. You wouldn’t believe how far you can get, just by remembering and practising those two rules. Oh and more thing, befriending your enemy is a good rule for business – and life. How close are you to your competitors? One day – because of the change that’s going on – they could be your best ally.

Lesson 6: Innovate and Innovate Again

Every change ushers in unforeseen consequences both welcome and unwelcome.

Branson states:

“It always tickles me when a spokesperson comes on the television to explain, with an earnest frown, that an ailing company is ‘a victim of its own success’ – as though it had undergone some sort of business equivalent of alien abduction. Success one day does not give you a free lunch every day thereafter. Obviously, you can’t plan for the unexpected. All you can really do is never let your guard down. It's not just hard work: it’s endless.”

Continuous innovation is the key and much easier for smaller companies. For sole proprietors and very small companies, the distinction between innovation and day-to-day delivery is barely noticeable and unimportant. It’s just all business. Creative, responsive and flexible business comes easier to you when you have an operation.

For larger organisations, the separation of day-to-day business from the energy that created the company does cause problems. Suddenly, innovating is seen as something extra, something special, and something separate from the activities the company normally engages in.

Virgin’s management style is unique, and designed to both empower employees and avoid a culture of fear. Innovation can occur when the most elementary questions are asked and employees are given the resources and power to achieve the answers. Innovation must also be appropriate for your business. It must fulfil a need and give you an edge over your competitors.

Innovation, however, must align to the underpinning brand. For example, Virgin Galactic sees Virgin turn innovation into space travel for the masses. What the Virgin brand will do – unlike any others in the commercial space market – is establish in the public's mind what space tourism is for them: a service industry that’s going to be a lot of fun, while being as safe as people can make it.

The brand will also help to give the team global credibility as they build out the business to include environmental science work in space, satellite payload launching and astronaut training.

The secret to innovation and success in any new sector is watchfulness, usually over a period of many years. So, if there’s one thing you take away let it be this: Virgin’s sudden emergence as a leader in cutting-edge industries was decades in the making.

Lesson 7: Notebooks are for Notes

Throughout his business life, Branson has always carried one item in his pocket - A Notebook.

Here's why: 

“I’d advise every owner of a company to keep a notebook and jot down the things that need doing. If you’re listening to staff or customers, then write down the main points. If you’re visiting a factory or touring a new site or partying with your staff, use the notebook. When you’re busy with a lot going on around you, if you don’t write things down, I doubt you’ll be able to remember one out of twenty items the next day.”


There’s a lot to be learned from a man who has captured the businesses world’s attention like none-other, except for perhaps Steve Jobs. And as we compare these two business icons, one thing is clear, there are many ways to find success.

With that said, know this...A passion for creating things the marketplace will love, is always good business.