Anna Horan
Culture Journalist

Anna Horan is writer and editor based in Melbourne. She has written for Broadsheet, The Big Issue and Junkee Media, and is the former editor of TheVine.

Anna Horan
Culture Journalist

Anna Horan is writer and editor based in Melbourne. She has written for Broadsheet, The Big Issue and Junkee Media, and is the former editor of TheVine.

Richard Branson is a business visionary and market leader. He’s also made a lot of mistakes. Here are five lessons business owners can learn.

Being one of the biggest names in business, it's easy to forget Richard Branson was once a small business owner himself. From founding a student magazine as a teenager with only a few hundred dollars to spearheading an empire stretching into airlines, space exploration, telecommunications, hotel chains, gyms and more.

Over that time, he's gone bankrupt more than once, missed out on opportunities and taken risks that didn't pay off. He’s also led the Virgin Group to employ more than 50,000 people in over 50 countries and rake in a global branded revenue of $US24 billion.

And Branson doesn’t keep the cards to his success too close to his chest. He has spoken about his triumphs and challenges numerous times. Here are five lessons gleaned from Branson that small business owners can draw upon.

a passenger plane flies overhead against a blue sky

1. “If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your business”

In an interview on workplace wellness, Branson stresses the importance of trusting in your staff and investing in their wellbeing, emphasising that businesses are doing themselves a favour when they do this.

“Too many companies are too keen to put multitudes of rules and regulations on their staff,” he’s said.

“Not only does this stifle flexibility, it suggests a lack of confidence in your team to do their jobs as efficiently and effectively as possible. Give your people freedom to be independent, and your business will reap the rewards. I truly believe that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your business."

Virgin made headlines in recent years by introducing more flexible hours, unlimited vacation time, and maternity leave after Branson realised the ‘9 to 5’ mentality had dated.

While small businesses mightn’t be able to be as generous in this way, to Branson it's really about appreciating employees' "work-life balance and giv[ing] them the flexibility to work around their personal lives.”

Remembering birthdays and celebrating success goes a long way too.

2. Quiet contemplation is just as important as data in making decisions

Data has become a buzz word in business, but writing for LinkedIn’s Pulse influencer platform, Branson laments the overreliance of some businesses on data to make decisions. While he thinks facts and figures “are extremely useful”, for him “data analysis shouldn’t drive every decision”.

“One vital component of decision-making that is often overlooked is quiet contemplation,” he says.

 “After looking at all the stats, speaking to all the experts and analysing all of the angles, then take some time to yourself to think things through clearly. Take a walk, find a shady spot, or simply sit and think for a while. Don’t delay unnecessarily — but don’t rush either. Get that balance right, and you are far more likely to make the right call.”

While it hasn’t always worked out for Branson (he once took too long making a decision and missed out on buying the rights to Trivial Pursuit), “for every missed opening, there have been several averted disasters.”

3. Get smaller before you get bigger

As Virgin has grown, it's split itself into smaller pieces by Branson. For example, Virgin Atlantic gained a sibling, rather than a descendant, in Virgin America, and Virgin Records was made up of a number of independent labels rather than operating as one large business.

He believes “small is beautiful in business” and credits still being around decades after their larger competitors have folded to this approach. 

4. Social media is your best way to interact with customers

Running a small business means you can find yourself spread across many tasks that demand your attention, and social media may not seem as important as updating your budget before the close of business.

But Branson believes you have to have a social media presence these days, especially because it’s the easiest way to “listen to your customers and act on what you hear” in real-time.

Writing on Virgin.com, Branson says: "Once you get started, you'll soon learn that by embracing social media you can keep in touch with and inform your customers to a greater degree than ever before, and through that exchange, broaden your understanding of your business's horizons. So tweet hello and then publish a post introducing yourself and your company because it's time to get the conversation started."

5. Delegate to someone better at the day-to-day tasks than you

Branson’s empire has extended into almost every industry that comes to mind, from space travel to hotels to telecommunications. While Branson was the visionary for most of these ventures, he doesn't claim to be the person in each business driving success.

He believes delegation to the right people is the best way to get things done and show leadership. Quoted on Virgin.com, Branson believes “there was simply no better way to get things done well - and this became the blueprint for the structure that has served the Virgin Group ever since.”

Particularly when it comes to running a business, it’s tempting to want to do much of the work yourself, but you may not be the best person for the job and it’s important to recognise that. Delegation is only the first step, though, in ensuring employees succeed; trusting those you’ve put in charge of tasks is the second.

“If you delegate, you’ve got to be very careful not to second guess people,” says Branson. “You’ve got to accept… let them make mistakes without jumping down on top of them all the time. Some things they’ll do better than you, some things they won’t do quite as well as you. Giving people the freedom to make those mistakes is important.”

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