After winning a competition, I had the chance to fly down to South Africa and spend three days with my idol, Richard Branson.
It all started in 2011, when Branson released a book “Screw Business as Usual,” where he argued that for-profit businesses should play a role in addressing today’s social and environmental challenges. To celebrate the release, he asked startups from around the world to submit their business model and explain how it will change the world for the better.
Over 500 companies submitted their application, and my own company Raise5 was selected as the winner. We help people sell their skills and talents in exchange for donations to their favorite non-profit.
On returning from South Africa, I put my thoughts down on paper. Here are five things I learned from the world class entrepreneur and founder of The Virgin Group:
Embrace adventure — go where others don’t
The thing that’s immediately obvious about Richard is his love for adventure. Whether it’s in the business world, or in the jungle, Richard simply loves to go where others normally don’t. During one of our safari trips, he picked up a giant millipede and giggled as it crawled all over his head (see above). I realized on the trip that while many people are attracted to the glory of being a successful entrepreneur, Richard really cherishes the process of getting there, and that seems to make all the difference.
Don’t be afraid to question conventional wisdom
During one of our dinners together at Ulusaba, Richard shared his perspectives on the world, including the issues of conventional corporate culture and the failing war on drugs. We even spent some time speaking about the issues facing my birth country of Iran. Richard’s attitude was all about bringing power to the people. He is pretty much the same in person as he is on television. I would describe him as a gentle rebel. He’s kind, humble and down to earth, and yet he still loves to shake things up and openly challenge the world.
Trust and Delegate
During our trip, Richard mentioned that the job of a leader is to focus on the big picture, and delegate work to the appropriate members in his team. During the 3 days with him in Ulusaba, you would rarely see him checking his email, and making calls. Clearly, the Virgin Group is in good hands, and it’s also clear from Richard’s relaxed demeanor during the trip that he genuinely trusts the people on his executive team. He explicitly mentioned to me that a leader should be able to remove himself from the organization, and everything won’t fall apart.
Challenge yourself and redefine failure
At one point, Richard spoke about the 600 or so companies that the Virgin Group has launched over the years, and 100 of them are still active today. While some people saw this as 500 failures, for Richard, it was an ongoing challenge to improve the rate of success. He said, “You won’t know what will work ahead of time, you just have to know that as long as you keep challenging yourself, you’ll be at your best.”
Work can be fun
We should always celebrate the little things in life, and all the milestones in our businesses. At lunch, Richard read to us this email from his Virgin Galactic team on their successes in testing one of the rockets. The email was very emotionally charged and heartfelt. While reading it, you could tell that Richard was savoring the moment. Don’t just experience fun and joy after 5pm or on vacation. Love what you do!
He is an outspoken critic of standard business practice with the belief that in addition to profitability, social responsibility must be weaved into the fabric of every business.