My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs thinking of starting their own business is: start small but always think big.
Entrepreneurship in its truest form is about identifying a gap in the market and creating a product of use to fill that hole and make people’s lives better. Often the best way to find this gap is to look around you – are there services that could be improved or a product that could make something easier?
The Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 league table ranks Britain’s 100 private companies with the fastest growing sales over their latest three years. But it does more than that: it checks the country’s entrepreneurial pulse and highlights the best and brightest talents emerging from the UK.
This year’s list is a great showcase of entrepreneurial spirit and the drive to change business for good. Companies also more than tripled their combined workforce to 20,400 over the three years, with 15,000 jobs being added over that period. Their sales also grew by an average of 65 per cent a year over three years, from a total of £857m in 2013/14 to £3.9bn in 2016/17.
Technology also has allowed companies to think bigger than just selling to their local community and puts the world at their fingertips. More than half of the companies on the list have expanded internationally to drive growth and expand.
When I started Virgin Records we became a hit in many surprising international places and I was always thinking about how we could expand do business differently in other locations, from the US to Japan, Germany to Australia. Fast-forward five decades and Virgin is now a global brand.
In order to succeed in many different regions and across cultures, we have to vary the business model and mould it to fit. For example Virgin Active has many different health clubs around the world, but they vary in sutble ways in Johannesburg compared to London. The products that work for Virgin Money customers in Australia are going to be different to the ones customers want in South Africa. Even starting three airlines – Virgin Atlantic, Australia and America – required different touches depending on where they were based and flying to.
There is never a one-size-fits-all answer to business and being flexible and adaptable is a key skill needed for success. The restaurant Five Guys has taken the eighth spot on the Fast Track league table following its expansion from an American restaurant chain into an international business opening 80 sites in just four years – truly impressive growth. It has also expanded into France and Spain, helping sales hit £90.4m.
Another impressive business to make the list – for the record sixth year in a row – is Brewdog, Scotland’s largest independent brewery. The founder started it out of his passion for beer, his hobby became a business when he got encouragement from a renowned beer writer, and soon his business reached a £1bn valuation. Passion and loving what you do is such an important ingredient. It’s a great example of a business that has grown globally but retained a social focus – it has opened nearly 50 bars as far afield as Brazil and Japan, and it exports craft beer to more than 60 countries. But even though it’s growing, it’s still a business that is giving back - in August, it announced plans to give away 20 per cent of profits each year to charity and its employees.
Times are constantly changing and in order to stay competitive, Fast Track 100 companies have used technology and digital media content to keep their customers engaged. I’ve always been one to put myself out there in order to drive awareness for Virgin and with the rise of social media it has never been easier. Many of the companies on the list are using social media and artificial intelligence to improve the shopping experience for their customers and to raise their profile.
Missguided has personalised its shopping experience for customers by creating a mobile app which lets customers share products across social media (and has a huge 3.7m social fans who are actively engaged). The company also used artificial intelligence to improve the experience for the customer and is blurring the line between physical and digital with its two stores.
Entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of the economy that drive innovation, create jobs and push humanity forward. The achievements of the companies on the list are just staggering and it’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur - opportunities are getting bigger as the world is getting smaller.