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9 April 2015

Richard Branson: What Success Means To Me

By Adam Patel

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Richard Branson

Richard Branson has long been one of my greatest role models. It isn’t that I necessarily want to be just like him, but his achievements speak for themselves and I think he has the right idea about life and how to live.

In a world where the word ‘success’ is thrown around so often and we have the likes of Tony Robbins supposedly teaching us how to be ‘successful’, few of us question what the word success actually means and indeed whether there is one definition that suits everybody.

The following is an extract from his book, Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur, in which Branson gives his perhaps surprisingly down to earth opinion of what success means to him.

My favourite parts are highlighted in blue.

Branson…

There are many paths that you can take in this life, and choosing the correct path is supremely important. And as if that weren’t pressure enough, it’s no good choosing not to choose, because that approach to life absolutely guarantees failure.

I don’t think there is enough attention and help given to young people in life to set them in the right direction. All young people deserve wise counsel. They need someone who can show them a future. They need to be able to work out what they can do with their lives, how they can enjoy their lives, how they can pay for it and how they can take responsibility for their actions.

I think it’s a shame that we teach children everything about the world, but we don’t teach them how to take part in the world, how to realise an idea, how to measure the consequences of their actions, how to take a knock, or how to share their success. What kind of world have we built, that people can use the phrase “it’s just business” without challenge or contradiction?

Entrepreneurship is business’s beating heart. Entrepreneurship isn’t about capital; it’s about ideas. A great deal of entrepreneurship can be taught, and we desperately need to teach it, as we confront the huge global challenges of the twenty-first century.

Entrepreneurship is also about excellence – not excellence measured in awards, or other people’s approval, but the sort one achieves for oneself, by exploring what the world has to offer. I wrote to someone recently who, like me, is dyslexic. I said that it is important to look for one’s strength – to try to excel at what you’re good at.

What you’re bad at actually doesn’t interest people, and it certainly shouldn’t interest you. However accomplished you become in life, the things you are bad at will always outnumber the things you’re good at. So don’t let your limits knock your self-confidence. Put them to one side and push yourself towards your strengths.

This, I think, is sound advice for the young. For those of you who’ve left youth behind, my advice would be: reread the paragraph above, adding exclamation marks after every sentence.

Because, in business, you always have a choice, and you always have an obligation to choose. With the right attitude, business will keep your mind eternally young, because business is always changing, changes always bring opportunities, and you can never hide from the changes that are round the corner.

In entrepreneurial business, a conservative mindset will hamstring you, defensiveness will weaken you and a failure to face facts will kill you. Entrepreneurial business favours the open mind. It favours people whose optimism drives them to prepare for many possible futures, pretty much purely for the joy of doing so. It favours people with a humane and engaging view of the world; people who can imagine themselves into the skin of their customers, their work and the people who are affected by their operations. Business favours people who, when they see a problem or an injustice, try to do something about it. It favours pragmatists over perfectionists, adventurers over fantasists.

Done well and in the right spirit, business will also bring you success – whatever that is.

Indeed, how do you measure who’s truly successful? My list of the world’s most successful people includes Sir Freddie Laker – hardly an obvious choice, to go by the headlines, the rich lists and all the other paraphernalia of business celebrity. So let’s strip this particular business bare once and for all: when we talk about success, what are we really talking about?

Are we talking about money? As a measure of success money’s a crude one at best. People are always inquisitive about how wealthy other people are. It’s a fascinating subject and one that produces endless reams of copy and discussion. But the reality is that wealth is like a running stream of water. During the seasons the flow of money is a torrent and you’re inundated with cash. The next moment, you’ve put money in to develop a business and your cash flow dries up overnight leaving a barren riverbed.

So even the more well-researched rich lists have to take a bit of a potshot when arriving at their figures. There have been times I was almost bankrupt, and I was very glad to see my name in the Sunday Times Rich List, because I thought it would assuage the bank manager. (The figures were often wildly off the mark both ways – but I wasn’t complaining.) In the last few years things have gone well for the Virgin Group. In 2008, it had a reach of nearly £12 billion.

And me? I’m rich. There – I said it. It’s quite an American thing to talk about wealth. In Britain we’re still sort of slightly embarrassed about it, and I think that’s a good thing. When I go to a party I see people, not bank statements, and I’d like to think that when people get chatting to me they feel the same. To be perfectly honest I hated the word ‘billionaire’ going into the title of that show I did for Fox. It was a great title, but it wasn’t my style at all. Money’s only interesting for what it lets you do. On paper, if I was to sell up my shareholdings in the companies tomorrow, I would have considerable wealth. But where would be the fun in that?

If money’s a poor guide to success in life, celebrity is worse. The media likes to personalise and simplify matters – and that’s understandable. It’s much easier to talk about Steve Jobs at Apple, Bill Gates at Microsoft or Richard Branson at Virgin, but that doesn’t really acknowledge that there’s a legion of senior people doing significant jobs and making major decisions every day. Everyone wants to make business ‘simple’ and that’s one of my constant goals, but in reality there are certain complexities about running a media company, a space-tourism business or an airline. And the financial implications of running  a global business across many jurisdictions require a substantial level of expert knowledge in accountancy, taxation and legal affairs, not forgetting the IT, marketing and HR functions too. I’ve never met a CEO who had all of those skills. Of course, the figurehead at the top does make significant strategic decisions but this is based on the work and capabilities of other people within the business. We al still have the same number of hours in the working week. In successful businesses, working hard is never confined to one or two people – you’ll usually find a strong work ethic runs right through the company.

If neither money nor celebrity really encapsulate what success is about, what about personal power? I’ve been asked what happens if Richard Branson’s own balloon bursts: isn’t the Virgin Group far too reliant on one individual? I have jokingly replied that during our spell running Virgin Records, we always found that when a major rock-music artist died the records sales went through the roof.

I have spent over thirty-five years building the Virgin brand, and if I do get run over tomorrow, I think it will live on without me, just as Google will live on without its founders, and Microsoft will live on without Bill Gates. For me, the major job has been done. A lot of people worked exceptionally hard in the early years to build the brand. With or without me, Virgin will be around for many years to come.

Is this power? In a sense, I suppose it is. But the idea that I somehow ‘control’ the brand is a bit sinister and silly. I gave birth to the brand. I’ve nurtured and I continue to nurture it. I brought it into being, and I champion it. Thinking about it is one of the things that gets me up in the morning. But you can’t really control ideas.

The other thing that gets me up in the morning is the idea of making a difference. It’s why I’ve never wanted to run a big company, and it’s why I get huge enjoyment out of creating and tending to lots of smaller ones. (I have to be careful of my terms here, because airlines are hardly small companies! But I hope by now that you know what I’m getting at.) Virgin, by remembering what it is to be a small entrepreneur, has made large amounts of positive difference in many diverse business areas.

I think that the more you’re actively and practically engaged, the more successful you will feel. Actually, that might even be my definition of success. Right now, I find myself doing more and more to help safeguard our future on this planet. Does that make me successful? It certainly makes me happy.

I hope you’ve found the thinking and the stories in this book useful. I think you can see that my definition of success in business has nothing to do with profits solely for their own sake. This is very important. Success for me is whether you have created something that you can be really proud of. Profits are necessary to invest in the next project – and pay the bills, repay investors and reward all the hard work – but that’s all. Nobody should be remembered for how much money they have made in life. Whether you die with a billion dollars in your bank account of $20 under your pillow is actually not that interesting. That’s not what you’ve achieved in life. What matters is whether you’ve created something special – and whether you’ve made a real difference to other people’s lives. Entrepreneurs, scientists and artists who died as paupers are often the heroes.

Successful people aren’t in possession of secrets known only to themselves. Don’t obsess over people who appear to you to be ‘winners’, but listen to the wisdom of people who’ve led enriching lives – people, for instance, who’ve found time for friends and family. Be generous in your interpretation of what success looks like. The best and most meaningful lives don’t always end happily. My friend Madiba spent twenty-seven years of his life in prison. If he had died there, would his life hold no lessons for us?

In business, as in life, all that matters is that you do something positive. Thanks for reading – and enjoy your life. You only get one.

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Business Laid Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur is available in soft back and on Kindle from Amazon. I strongly recommend it.


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