When Richard Branson left school to start a magazine, the director predicted he would become a millionaire or land in jail.
More than fifty years later, the billionaire founder of the Virgin group has just released a Master class where he offers stories and lessons on how he exceeded everyone’s expectations.
I interviewed Branson on several occasions and on one occasion accompanied him from airport to airport as he met with Virgin employees. After watching all 13 episodes of Branson’s MasterClass, I heard several themes that I saw Branson demonstrate in person.
1. Take notes – always.
In MasterClass, Branson makes frequent reference to the notebooks that never seem to leave him. He’s been taking notes since he started Student Magazine as a teenager, doing most of the interviews himself.
Taking copious notes turned out to be a habit he never gave up. “It’s the most important thing I’ve done — almost without exception — to stay organized and push myself in the right direction,” Branson said.
When I spent a day with Branson, he carried a notebook whenever he spoke to pilots or ground crews. He methodically noted down the smallest details – little things that would make a big difference in the customer’s experience.
You might prefer an iPad or smartphone to take notes, but use something. Ideas are fleeting. Capture them when you can.
2. Find a better way.
Most successful startups are born out of frustration, Branson says.
Forty years ago, Branson saw an opportunity to improve the “disastrous” experience in the airline industry. So when his flight from Puerto Rico to the British Virgin Islands was canceled because there weren’t enough passengers, Branson found a small blackboard and wrote, “Virgin Airlines, $39 one way to BVI.” Branson chartered a plane to their destination.
Everything about building Virgin Atlantic started with the question, “Is there a better way?” The answers led to the first seat-back entertainment systems, standing bars, and better power.
Don’t try to “start a business”. Find a problem to solve and start a business to turn the problem into an opportunity.
3. Stand out and have fun.
It took Branson four years to register the name “Virgin”. Authorities thought it was too controversial at the time. Branson cheekily maintained that he chose the name because he was new to the recording business.
“You have to take risks and stand out from the crowd if you’re building a business,” Branson said. “As long as you don’t hurt anyone and do it in a fun way.”
Branson would later become known for his adventurous stunts to launch new products, such as hanging on a bungee cord 100ft under a helicopter to launch Virgin Mobile in Australia.
You don’t need to come up with bigger stunts to make a splash. The main thing is to have fun. According to Branson, “If you’re going to start a business, don’t take yourself too seriously,”
4. Hire people who are good with people.
In 2005, Spanx founder Sara Blakely was one of sixteen entrepreneurs competing on Branson’s show, The rebel billionaire. For the first test, Branson dressed up as an aging and clumsy taxi driver to pick up the contestants from the airport.
While others laughed at him, Blakely treated the driver with respect and even helped with the bags. Branson let some candidates go that day because they failed the first test to be nice to everyone they met. Blakely stayed in the game and became a billionaire seven years later.
Branson suggests that you should conduct job interviews in a coffee shop to test a person’s character. Find people who get along well with others.
5. Empower teams.
Encourage people to have bold ideas without fear of losing their jobs if they fail, Branson says. “Congratulate them for trying.”
I know Branson leads by example because I’ve seen him. I’ve seen Branson repeatedly praise cabin crew for taking ownership of the customer experience and going “beyond” their job descriptions. If you give people a say in how they do their jobs, they will thrive and your business will benefit.
Branson attributes his success to these five habits, habits that apply to anyone who dreams of starting something new.