The following is extracted from the KSEI 2015-16 Issue 13.
‘Dream big’, is what people are often told. Looking back at your early days as an entrepreneur, what has helped you shape your vision of the future the most?
I believe you should dream big and set yourself seemingly impossible challenges. You will then have to catch up with them. Mentors have always helped me shape my vision of the future and I’ve always been lucky to have them in my personal and business life. My mum has been a mentor throughout my life as well as Sir Freddie Laker who gave me invaluable advice and guidance as we set up Virgin Atlantic. If you ask any successful businessperson, they will always have had a great mentor at some point along the road. If you want success then it takes hard work, hard work and more hard work. But it also takes a little help along the way.
In recent years there has been a significant growth in student start-ups at King’s College London. How do you see young entrepreneurs that are still in full-time education and what advice would you have for them so that they could use this particular position to their advantage?
I left school at 15 to start Student magazine but when I was in my 40s, I considered taking a couple of years off to go back to studying. My wife talked me out of it earning a degree takes a lot of time, and I simply wouldn’t be able to study and continue my work at Virgin. Many people assume that young entrepreneurs must choose between continuing their education and starting a business. In reality, these two choices can co-exist but there are three changes I would make to the system in order to produce more entrepreneurs.
Encouraging students to start-up
Universities should be encouraging students to start businesses linked to their studies. Especially in business programmes, professors should be encouraged to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in the classroom. Universities should offer guidance to students who have launched businesses, helping them toward success – budding entrepreneurs shouldn’t be forced to go it alone.
One way to help student entrepreneurs is to make some degree programmes shorter, some three-year programmes could easily be completed within two years. This would decrease students’ debt and put them in a better position to start their own businesses.
Instil the importance of networking in students
College is an environment in which you’re always learning, and while many subjects you’re exposed to won’t be directly relevant to your business, you will learn to think critically. The learning environment also provides students with many opportunities to meet new people and share ideas. This is a huge benefit the number of companies and lifetime friendships that are formed in college is endless.
Now this is the lightning round: all you need to do is give the first answer that comes to mind!
Cats or dogs? Dogs
What picks you up when you feel low? Apart from spending time with my family, I’m most happy when I am kite surfing — give me a kite and a board and some wind and waves, and you won’t wipe the smile off my face.
Winter or Summer? I’m lucky to live on Necker Island where it’s summer all year round!
What is your favourite film? Breaking the Taboo, a film produced by my son Sam and Sundog Pictures. It ensures that the topic of global drug policy will continue to be thought and talked about.
What is your top tip for business success? You’ve got to take risks if you’re going to succeed. I would much rather ask for forgiveness than permission.
What three things couldn’t you live without? Family time, my notepad and kite surfing.
When first-time young entrepreneurs enter a new business field, how can they best use their lack of experience as an asset rather than a liability?
Virgin’s history shows that a lack of experience does not have to be a liability it can be an asset. It is something you should play up when you discuss your ideas with prospective investors, partners and employees, rather than directing the conversation toward your other strengths. From the first days of my career as an entrepreneur, I have always used my own and my team’s lack of experience to our advantage. In fact, at our first venture, Student magazine, we used our newcomer status to secure great interviews and generate publicity people were excited about our new project and wanted to get involved. Our inexperience fed our restless enthusiasm for trying new things, which became part of our core mission. No matter which industry you are planning to enter, you will almost certainly find that the same holds true for you.
Have you ever dealt with fear when it comes to making wrong decisions or even potentially losing the company you have created?
There will always be some very challenging moments when an entrepreneur starts a business. At times you are afraid everything you have worked to build will vanish. It is during these days that entrepreneurs should use this fear as fuel to push them forward and try to resolve whatever problem is facing the business. When harnessed positively, fear can be the energy that spurs you forward and keeps you on the road to success. Virgin certainly has faced many through the years and it is during these difficult days where the passion you have for a business really helps you stick with it and make it a success. Whenever we have faced a challenge at Virgin, we have always put our heads together to come up with a strategy that will allow the business to overcome a setback or challenge. Remember failure is a hurdle, not a dead end.
What piece of advice could you give young entrepreneurs when it comes to successfully marketing their proposition?
There’s no guarantee that spending a huge amount of money on marketing will slingshot your business forward. When we launched Virgin Atlantic we didn’t have the budget to take on British Airways’ marketing campaigns. One piece of advice Sir Freddie Laker gave me was ‘You’ll never have the advertising power to outsell British Airways. You are going to have to get out there and use yourself. Make a fool of yourself. Otherwise you won’t survive.’ And I’ve been making a fool of myself ever since! I took his advice and I’ve been thinking up fun ways to stand out from the crowd and draw the media’s attention to our company ever since, from breaking world records to pulling pranks.
The King’s Student Entrepreneurship Institute has effectively brought together all the different student enterprise organisations at King’s, created a structure to engaging, empowering and investing in start-ups through incubating space, workshops, events, mentoring, and much more. How important do you think it is for universities to dedicate services and time to support student entrepreneurs?
It’s fantastic that King’s has created a dynamic environment for entrepreneurs to prosper. I think it’s essential for universities to dedicate time and support to foster the Virgins of the future. I also believe that governments should provide the finance and energy to foster a new generation of entrepreneurs and open markets for them to compete in. One of the best policies has been the introduction of the Start-Up Loans scheme. It was originally aimed at university-aged students and in just three years the Start-Up Loan Company has expanded to take on Entrepreneur all ages, and has lent more than £140 million to 27,000 businesses across the UK. Virgin StartUp is our not-for-profit organisation, which gives budding entrepreneurs the funding, information and support they need to get their business ideas off the ground. It has helped hundreds of businesses get early financing and Virgin StartUp also focuses on supporting the next round of financing through further loan schemes, crowd funding sources or traditional angel investment and private equity.
Virgin StartUp is a not-for-profit organisation which gives budding entrepreneurs the funding, information and support they need to get their business ideas off the ground. Find out more at virginstartup.org.