Startup advice at 36,000 ft with Richard Branson

We sent three lucky Virgin StartUp-funded businesses – Gas-Sense, Glow Away and Paria – on Virgin Atlantic’s first ever flight to Detroit. It wasn’t just to enjoy a party in the sky featuring the cast of Motown the musical, dancing in the aisles, cocktails and celebration (though all that happened too, of course). The entrepreneurs also got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sit down with Richard Branson, founder of Crowdfunder Rob Love, Tom Wood of Rapha and Julie Dean of the Cambridge Satchel Company – a chance to talk about their businesses, the challenges they face, and how to take their business forward once the plane touched down and they were back in reality. Here’s what they learnt.

PR over advertising

“Richard’s advice about the strategic importance of PR and how leveraging it can be far more effective (and much cheaper) than advertising was really interesting - the whole trip was something of a master class in it!” says George Edwards of Gas-Sense. “He gave me his thoughts on which angles of my business are most interesting and what features of the product would resonate best with audiences – it was very insightful to learn how my product appeared to an entrepreneur with so much experience.”

“Richard said PR was pivotal to my brand,” agrees Sam Morgan of Paria. “He advised that celebrity endorsements and guerrilla marketing would allow my brand to develop from an organic perspective, which is much better in the long-term.”

Similarly, Julie Deane was an advocate of organic reach over paying for advertising. “Shaped by her own experiences, launching a £13m bag company on a marketing budget smaller than the rivets in her satchels, Julie advised us against expenditure on advertising in the early stages of business,” says Charlotte. “She warned of its ineffectiveness and placed great value on the power of building your brand organically through brand advocacy instead.

“This all sounds very well, of course, but how do you get these brand ambassadors in the first place? It’s all about finding your niche. Finding one influential person who will shout from the rooftops (or Twitter-tops) and start a wave of momentum. And don’t expect this to happen overnight (although for her it sort of did) - be patient and know your brand, stick with it and eventually, when it grows organically, you’ll have something much more valuable and harder to replicate.”

Have the confidence to make mistakes

“The first thing Rob Love of Crowdfunder said to us when we sat down in the beautiful conference room at the David Whitney building was ‘Be confident.’ And that stuck with me,” shares Charlotte Cramer of Glow Away. “The power of a business founder having confidence in themselves and their ideas shouldn’t be underestimated. Later that day, when we were in the audience of a local business pitching event, it was evident that those who were inherently confident also earned confidence from the judging panel which translated into greater feedback, investment and applause.

“I think the trickiest thing about confidence is that you can’t fake it. It comes from within, a belief in yourself, your values and what you’ve created. It taught me that we shouldn’t ignore any issues we have with our product but face them head on and keep iterating until we have something that we are truly, madly, deeply confident in.”

“If you remain confident in your business, your decisions, your brand and your product and your business – this will always come through when you meet people,” advises Sam. “Show the passion! Your idea is awesome as are you for coming up with it, so make sure everyone knows it.

“Julie was instrumental in making me realise the importance of this. She said the passion and confidence in your product needs to shine through whenever you speak or communicate with anyone. People will respond to you, and your brand. People buy people, so you are the starting point for the success of your brand, and the entry point for people to convert into customers. Rob Love said you can see it in people’s eyes when they truly believe what they do, and he said he could see that in me - it was now the time for me to tell people this. And he suggested a crowdfunding campaign…”

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Stay consistent

“Tom Wood told us that his experience with both Jack Wills and Rapha had taught him the importance of making sure your brand is consistent internationally – so even when you are in the early stages, make sure it will work in a range of cultures,” shares George. “For example, made in GB is received well globally, and being fun or innovative are human traits, not national traits limited to one country.”

“I brief the team I had about the challenges I faced in working out where to start with my advertising campaign and PR, and exactly what to communicate,” says Sam. “Tom’s advice was to go back to my website and make my mission absolutely clear, and to make it stand out. From there I could work to communicate it in all my messaging, so there’s consistency in everything I do.”

A bad decision is better than no decision

“In launching a business there are often moments where, after running at full speed for so long, you’re suddenly stumped. You’re at a fork in the road and unless you make a decision, a big, bold decision, you’re not moving anywhere,” says Charlotte Cramer. “Tom emphasised the importance of taking that brave step forwards either way. Because ultimately, he explained, the wrong way is better than no way at all. This all harks back to the popular startup philosophy of ‘fail harder’ which illustrates the value in making a ‘bad’ decision: at least you’re learning from it and moving closer to your goal as a result.”

Use online channels to your advantage

“Julie has built a brand from her kitchen table and has amazing customer loyalty, so her insight into how to use online channels to gain and keep this loyalty was really valuable,” says George. “She emphasised the importance of getting your story across quickly on your website, as you don’t have long to grab someone’s attention, and the importance of visually engaging with bloggers etc. in your niche. But while it’s important to engage, she also advised against including too many links on your site. You want your readers with you, not anyone else – if they click on a link, you’ve lost them!”


Talk to everyone

“Richard, Julie, Rob and Tom are all great examples of how speaking to people, no matter the industry they are in, can drive your business forward,” advises Sam. “It’s amazing the help and support you can get from people in your network and through Virgin who can offer career and business-defining advice. Often the best possible advice and direction comes from the most unexpected of sources.

“I learned a great deal from seeing her natural style of networking, even with big-hitting characters such as the CEO of Virgin, and some of the investment angels. Being yourself yet still representing the brand is a vital thing to learn, and it was great to see it first-hand in action.”

Think about logistics

“Tom Wood shared a story about the time a whole batch of his products were ceased by Customs in the USA because of mother-of-pearl buttons!” says George. “It illustrated how when you’re dealing internationally and your brand goes beyond borders you really have to think about everything.”

“Tom emphasised the importance of staying focussed on your mission throughout,” says Sam. “He told us to remain aware of things that could both add positively to your business or derail you, and the importance of addressing these – don’t bury your head in the sand.”

Concentrate on what you’re good at

“Having had the opportunity to meet those who manage a number of the Virgin businesses, it was clear that Sir Richard is incredibly good at concentrating on his strengths and employing the best talent to fulfil the other roles,” says Charlotte. “He told us to become aware of what you’re good at - such as coming up with new ideas, if you’re an entrepreneur - and stressed the value of handing over the general management of the business to have the headspace to innovate.

“Of course a degree of groundwork needs to be done initially, but it felt worth bearing in mind that we should be on the lookout for someone with the skills to manage our business day-to-day better than we ever could; ultimately giving us the time to dream of the future without being tied down by the daily challenges.”

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