Sir Richard Branson is one of the most creative and innovative entrepreneurs alive today—perhaps even in history. Founder and chairman of the Virgin Group, he is the fourth richest citizen in the UK according to the Forbes 2012 list of billionaires. Branson’s first business venture was a magazine called Student which he founded in 1966 at the age of sixteen. In 1970, he set up a mail-order record business and in 1972, he opened a chain of record stores that became known as Virgin Megastores. Branson’s Virgin brand grew rapidly as he set up Virgin Atlantic and expanded the Virgin Records music label.
The B Team
During one of my recent visits to Necker Island, I was able to do a short interview with Sir Richard Branson about The B Team, a global non-profit he founded with a group of partners who work together to deliver a “plan B” for businesses, a new way of doing business that prioritizes people and the planet alongside profit. Richard’s Plan B concept aims to bring businesses together in a united effort to achieve greater social responsibility and a better, more sustainable world. I asked him how small entrepreneurs can be part of The B Team.—I.M.
What is The B Team?
A number of us decided that we can’t leave it up to the politicians and social workers to sort out the problems of the world. If we could get every single business person in the world, every single entrepreneur, to play their part, we could get on top of most of the world’s problems. So we formed Plan B, and we’ve gotten together some wonderful people to do this, like Unilever, Arianna Huffington, and Professor Muhammad Yunus. We have a whole group of great people and the idea is that we’ll try to work together to get our own house in order. Instead of just talking about the bottom line, we also make sure all our companies care about the planet, care about our people, and we try to help other companies do the same.
Dr. Ivan Misner interviews Sir Richard Branson on Necker Island.
A caretaker feeds hungry lemurs on Necker Island.
Plan B is about people, the planet, and then profit. Is that right?
Yes, I think in the past Plan A just hasn’t worked. It has been about the next three months profits and that’s it, at least for many companies—not all of them. Some have got it right. If small companies can adopt national issues, and bigger companies can adopt international issues and help politicians and social workers to get on top of them, the world would just be a much better place for all of us to live in.
Most of the people who follow my material are small entrepreneurs or sales people for large companies. What can they do relating to Plan B?
I think the immediate thing they can try to do is to encourage their own companies to join us in trying to be more encompassing, more caring about what they’re doing for the environment. I think if they can do that, it’s a great start. [...] We’ve just got in the background there some wonderful lemurs on the island that we’re trying to protect. They are extremely rare. We get them being very territorial occasionally.
Not to get off subject, but lemurs don’t really breed in captivity, right? Tell us how you’ve been able to counter that.
Yeah, in zoos they don’t breed because they get fat and they don’t have much play sex. Here we’ve given them lots of space and they’re breeding beautifully on the island. One day we hope to re-release them to Madagascar where they are from.
If you connect this to your B Team concept, it’s really about saving the planet.
Yeah, I think it’s a good example of perhaps a company trying to protect a species. I mean at Virgin we obviously must get our own house in order first if we’re going to ask others to get their house in order. So we’ve set up quite a lot of not-for-profit organizations to try to tackle some of the problems in the world.
Thank you, Richard, I appreciate you doing this interview with me!
The Butterfly Effect
My journey to Necker Island is a dramatic example of what I call the “Butterfly Effect of Networking.” The butterfly effect is the theory that a small action in one place can have a ripple effect that creates a dramatic action in another place. Applied to networking, it is about how a seemingly minor connection or conversation with one person may, after many ripples across the network, end in a dramatic connection later in the process. Visiting Richard Branson on his island, I am living that concept to its fullest.
It started several years ago when I received a phone call from a woman I did not know but who has since become a good friend. Her name is Kim George. Kim asked me if I would be willing to help with the creation of an online networking and social capital community. It took some work to put this together, but at the time I had no idea what type of ripple effect this request would have on my life. I did it because it fit my values and the direction I wanted to take my company in. With that, the ripple began.
This relationship turned into a strategic alliance, which turned into a speaking engagement, which allowed me to meet Jack Canfield (coauthor of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series), which led to an invitation from Jack to participate in an international organization called the Transformational Leadership Council, which led to meeting a woman by the name of Nancy Salzman, owner of NXIVM Training. Getting to know Nancy led to an invitation for my wife and I to spend five days on the breathtakingly beautiful Necker Island where we have been meeting with financial wizards, movie producers, and successful business leaders, including Sir Richard Branson.
The ripples that take place in the networking process may not be clear when the pebble drops into the water and the ripple begins. What is certain is that there is a ripple. If you follow that ripple and make the most of the contacts you meet at each stage of the journey, it can lead you to making connections and creating relationships that may surprise you when you look back to where the journey started.
Ivan Misner enjoys a game of chess with Richard Branson
while cruising the BVI.
During one of my visits, Richard told me another interesting story about his early days with Virgin Records. He was twenty years old and publishing a student magazine. He then wanted to give students a better deal on records and started a new business he initially named Slipped Disc. But when one of the people working with him suggested that they were all complete “virgins” in business, Richard decided on the spot to call the new business Virgin Records.
Once he had the name in place, he submitted a trademark application to the UK trademark office for the name “Virgin Records.” However, he immediately encountered a problem; the trademark office denied the filing stating that the term “virgin” was “rude!”
Richard shared with me that he continually tried for nearly four years to get a trademark on his company approved, because without that, the brand was in danger of being copied. Finally, out of frustration, he looked in the dictionary for all possible definitions of the word “virgin” and discovered a meaning that might assist him in his plight to gain a trademark. He contacted the trademark office yet again and explained to them that one of the definition of term “virgin” was “pure.” The frustrated bureaucrats had no choice but to relent and Richard Branson finally received the trademark on his iconic company, the Virgin Group.
Putting People First
One of the many intriguing things about Richard Branson is his uncanny ability to connect with people. In one evening, he can go from talking to Jimmy Carter, to taking a phone call from Lady Gaga, to chatting with a maid complimenting her on her work.
On one of my first visits to the BVI, Richard offered some of us a tour of his new island, Mosquito Island. As we walked around, we got to this one area where two guys were knocking down a three-story house with a sledge hammer. As we approached the site, Richard turned to us and said, “Do you mind? I need to talk to these guys. I’ll be right back.”
As he walked over to them, I was thinking, “Here’s a billionaire talking to what must be the equivalent of minimum wage workers on this island.” I was intrigued so I got a little closer because I wanted to overhear what they might be talking about. Apparently Richard knew one of them, who must have been the foreman. After shaking his hand, Richard turned to the other guy whom he had never met before. He shook his hand and said, “The work you’re doing here is really important. I know it’s incredibly difficult, but we need to knock this house down before we can start to bring in any equipment. As we bring in equipment we’re going to dredge out the bay, so that we can bring in heavier equipment and do additional work so we can eventually start building. But it all starts with knocking this house down. I can’t do anything else on this island until we do this. I know it’s hard work, but it’s key to everything else we do.”
When I went back there, everything Richard described to that construction worker was taking place. Buildings were in construction. I couldn’t even tell where that house they were demolishing had been. This is one of several stories illustrating how Richard feels comfortable talking to anyone, including all the people in his organization, and it’s one of the reasons his employees love him—even when he is not in the room.—Ivan Misner
On Social Entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship isn’t about selling things; it’s about finding innovative ways to improve people’s lives. Until recently, most people in business focused on products and services that would appeal to consumers, and this resulted in the creation of many great companies and a lot of jobs. But attitudes are changing. A new generation of entrepreneurs is using approaches from the commercial world and employing technology to tackle social and environmental problems, areas that used to be the exclusive territory of government agencies and charitable organizations.
The British Cabinet Office says there are 70,000 social enterprises helping people, communities, and the environment in this country alone. These businesses and organizations contributed more than 54.9 billion pounds to the economy in 2012 and they employ almost a million people, yet we have only scratched the surface.
No matter what the structure of the company—whether it is for-profit, nonprofit or a creative melding of the two—entrepreneurial solutions are offering engagement, jobs, and hope in areas where we had none. The example set by Econet Wireless, which is led by Strive Masiyiwa, is one of my favorites. A couple of years ago, Econet, a telecom company based in South Africa, started to develop and distribute solar charging stations in the region, providing power for cell phones, lights, and other devices. These stations are helping to transform the lives of people living in rural areas where the supply of electricity is erratic.
Business and government must encourage established entrepreneurs and young talent to focus on problem areas like health, education, climate change, and social care. How can we speed up this process and make even more of an impact? There seem to be three key obstacles facing entrepreneurs who want to get social enterprises off the ground.
1. Funding: Where’s the money?
Entrepreneurs often struggle to raise seed money for such ventures, as it is far tougher to get funding for social enterprises than commercial counterparts, despite the fact that the financial returns can be just as big. If a startup team is proposing to launch a social enterprise with the potential to radically change the UK’s 87 billion pounds social care sector, they deserve a serious listen from people who can provide substantial funding, not just a little grant money.
2. Networking: It’s who you know…
It’s tough for the leaders of a social enterprise to know who to speak to within tech businesses and vice versa, so it’s important for government and business to create links between technology entrepreneurs and those leading social change. It simply makes financial sense to encourage collaboration between those skilled in tech and those working in the social sector, since it will spark new ideas—everything from online giving platforms to education analytics—and result in the creation of jobs.
3. Mentoring: Advice from those who’ve been there.
Every startup team needs a mentor: someone to help team members to understand and overcome those tricky early situations and, later, to coach them through the process of expansion. Using business skills to grow a social enterprise is a fairly new idea, and so the teams that found such startups need help solving problems and getting the job done.
Combining your employees’ volunteer work with sport and exercise is great for business and the community, boosting relationships, health, and morale all round.
First, it’s important that everyone in your business be involved, including the leadership team—no one should be so busy that they can’t take part. Everyone needs to be able to take breaks for fun and exercise, and your company needs to have a healthy, engaged, and creative workforce if you’re going to get ahead of your competition. Make sure that your employees have options to choose from: Some will want to join a corporate team to compete in a race or challenge, others will want to help organize events, and others may simply want to help raise money.
While some of your competitors may dismiss your efforts as a distraction, such cooperation outside the office will be a key builder of your company’s culture, creating a real competitive advantage for years to come—we at Virgin have found this to be the case. We sponsor a number of large sporting events in Britain, such as the London Marathon, the Cyclone ride and the London Triathlon. All of these events increase the awareness of the Virgin brand in one form or another, but importantly, they raise money for charity and connect our companies to local markets and communities.
More than that, volunteer work can stimulate enterprising ideas, some of which may be applicable to your business someday. One of our partners in Australia is the mobile and broadband group Optus, and its team, led by the CEO, Kevin Russell, just completed this year’s Tour de Cure, riding more than 1,500 kilometers in Australia from Adelaide to Canberra through the Snowy Mountains. The Tour de Cure is a cycling charity that raises money for all types of cancer research, awareness, and prevention. The event has raised millions of dollars over the past seven years, which is quite extraordinary considering its beginnings: two guys chatting in a Sydney coffee shop.
What makes this charity ride really special is the grass-roots nature of the community involvement along the ride. The riders didn’t just speed through the towns; on the recent tour, the Tour de Cure team visited schools along the route, spreading the message to kids about making healthy choices early in life, as one-third of cancer cases have been found to be preventable. What better way to reach out to the community and learn about its concerns and challenges?
So volunteer! If you are an entrepreneur running a startup or small business, now is the time to get started, when you’re forging ties with the community and building a corporate culture that focuses on how your business impacts the planet. Whether you organize your own small event or work on something that’s already happening in your community, such efforts will signal to everyone that you are building a company and a commitment for the long term.
On Parenting and Work-Life Balance
Raising a child is the most wonderful experience you can have, and also the most important responsibility. Over three decades of fatherhood I have tried to put everything toward being a good dad—I value this over and above any professional success.
When my two children, Holly and Sam, were growing up, my wife Joan focused her time mostly on raising the kids. I worked from home, at first from our houseboat, which we moored on a canal in London’s Little Venice neighborhood, and now from my hammock on Necker Island in the Caribbean. I also took my family along on work trips whenever possible, so I was often on the spot to deal with minor mishaps. We shared many joyous moments.
If you share in your kids’ lives and give them a chance to take part in yours, you will have a much better relationship with them, and you will waste far less energy worrying about what they are doing. One of the great things I learned from my children was that I was a better parent when I was also their friend. When they needed guidance or discipline, I’d recall my own youthful misadventures and explain how I resolved those problems and what I learned from them. I carried over that sort of sharing, understanding, and energy to my work life, and I believe that it made me a better manager.
If you are struggling to juggle your home life with your career commitments, both can suffer. Part of the solution may be to treat time with your family as a priority. When you’re facing an avalanche of appointments, book time to spend with your family—put it in your work diary. You will also need to prepare your colleagues for those times when an emergency will come up at home and you’ll need to drop everything to deal with it, because this is almost certain to happen.
But rather than thinking of these two aspects of your life as antagonistic, why not combine them? As I’ve often said, I don’t divide work and play: it’s all living.
If you run a business, consider investing in technology that will allow you to work flexible hours and from anywhere—your investment will pay dividends in the long run. If you work from home, make sure not to become a slave to technology. Manage your phone, don’t let it manage you. I get through emails, check social media, and answer calls in batches, switching on the necessary devices to deal with those things that need my attention and then switching them off again to focus on other matters.
Just as you’ll help your kids with their homework, you may find that they can take part in yours. Discussing your work with them can be a good way to spend time together and can help you see problems from a new perspective. Some of my best ideas came from conversations with Holly and Sam.
However you decide to resolve your situation, I think you’ll find that your colleagues will be much more understanding of your needs than you might expect.
(Adapted from Richard Branson’s blog on Entrepreneur.com)
What I mean by “Screwing Business as Usual”
Second, screwing business as usual means building people and planet into the core of business activities so that our operations work to create more and better jobs, conserve and restore natural resources, and help to make people healthier and happier, while also creating strong financial returns.
I’ve long said that there is no contradiction between social and environmental aims and commercial ones. In fact, they are mutually reinforcing, and the future profitability of business depends on integrating social and environmental values into the core of our business strategies. So screwing business as usual fundamentally recognizes that doing good is good for business.