Thursday, March 06, 2008

Branson's Next Big Bet

Having an idea is one thing. Having a successful business is another. With more than 200 startups under your belt, what advice would you give entrepreneurs on making an idea stick?

I made and learned from lots of mistakes. In the end, the key is willpower. It's just really hard work to make sure you can keep paying the bills. But I do think one can have too much respect for bank managers.

When we entered the airline business, the very first plane Boeing (Charts) sent over to us ran into a bunch of birds and lost an engine. Because it hadn't been delivered yet, the insurance didn't cover that, so we were $1.5 million down before we flew our first flight, which took the whole Virgin Group beyond its overdraft facility.

Two days later, as I returned from the inaugural flight, our bank manager was sitting on my doorstep and telling me that he's going to foreclose on the whole business if we don't get the money in by Monday - and that was a Friday.

So I had to scurry around like mad over the weekend to try to get enough money to cover what I owed, which I just managed to do. For most people, bank managers are a bit like doctors - they never leave them because they have too much respect for them.

By daring to be disrespectful, we went from having a $5 million overdraft facility to having a $40 million overdraft facility with a different bank by the end of that week. Where one bank was willing to ruin us based on the assets we had, another bank was willing to give us more credit.

There is a very, very thin dividing line between survival and failure. You've just got to fight and fight and fight and fight to survive.

What was the first business idea you came up with?

I set up this magazine called Student when I was 16, and I didn't do it to make money - I did it because I wanted to edit a magazine. There wasn't a national magazine run by students, for students. I didn't like the way I was being taught at school. I didn't like what was going on in the world, and I wanted to put it right.

Of course, a lot of businesses want to reach students, so I funded the magazine by selling advertising. I sold something like $8,000 worth of advertising for the first edition, and that was in 1966. I printed up 50,000 copies, and I didn't even have to charge for them on the newsstand because my costs were already covered.

So I became a publisher by mistake - well, not quite by mistake, because I wanted to be an editor but I had to make sure the magazine would survive. The point is this: Most businesses fail, so if you're going to succeed, it has to be about more than making money.

Are you saying entrepreneurs should go into business without the bottom line in mind?

Ideally, since 80 percent of your life is spent working, you should start your business around something that is a passion of yours. If you're into kite-surfing and you want to become an entrepreneur, do it with kite-surfing.

Look, if you can indulge in your passion, life will be far more interesting than if you're just working. You'll work harder at it, and you'll know more about it. But first you must go out and educate yourself on whatever it is that you've decided to do - know more about kite-surfing than anyone else. That's where the work comes in. But if you're doing things you're passionate about, that will come naturally.


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