After five decades in business, I’m often asked if there is a shortcut to success. Unfortunately there isn’t — or if there is, I haven’t found it yet. Creating a successful and profitable business takes time, since you build your reputation as customers learn to trust and rely on you, one by one.
Also, there’s no guarantee that spending a huge amount of money on marketing will slingshot your business forward. If you spend your time looking for shortcuts, you will find one — right out of business.
While there are no set rules for succeeding in business, I have embraced some rough guidelines that can be very helpful:
1. Create a useful product or service
Above all else, you should not go into business purely for financial reasons. Running a company involves long hours and hard decisions; if you don’t have a better reason than money to keep going, your business will more than likely fail, as many new businesses do.
So it’s important to create something of use that is going to benefit society as a whole. If you do something you truly care about, you will be in a much better position to find customers, connect with them, and keep them coming back.
Once you have decided on the type of product or service that interests you, focus on how to do things differently from the competition: Do your research, find a gap or an area ripe for innovation, and position your business in a way that sets it apart.
2. Simplify your message
Customers don’t just shop for a brand and its products, but also identify with its core values. Ask yourself, why did I start my business? Be honest - this will help you establish an authentic value and voice. Then break your message into something simple.
At Virgin, we stand for great customer service, good value and innovative alternatives to our competitors’ offerings. Most importantly, we view business as a force for good. Knowing who we are and what we stand for ensures that we don’t waste time or money on messaging that doesn’t represent us or resonate with our customers.
3. Market yourself
Marketing is a powerful tool, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. My mentor, Sir Freddie Laker, a man who had started a company to challenge British Airways on their home turf, gave me some invaluable advice when I was starting up Virgin Atlantic. Knowing that we couldn’t match the more established airlines in terms of marketing budget, he encouraged me to drive the publicity myself: “Use yourself. Make a fool of yourself. Otherwise you won’t survive.”
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.
While I’ve always been interested in sports and physical challenges, that might not be the route for you. Find your tone, know your brand, do things your own way, and create waves. The free advertising will follow.
4. Embrace social media
Tools like Twitter and Facebook are wonderful ways to get your message out to a wide audience. Social media is not only more cost-efficient than advertising, but it also offers great opportunities for innovative engagement with your customers. Use it to your advantage.
Remember that there is a difference between selling and marketing. In my experience, selling a product through social media doesn’t always work - it’s better to simply communicate with your customers in an authentic way and have fun. As you build an online profile that people can identify with and trust, you’ll find that they will soon become customers.
The feedback you receive on social media can be invaluable, especially when your business is just starting out. Listen to your customers’ comments about your company’s offerings to gain an understanding of what you are doing right and wrong. You can also use this feedback to sharpen your social campaigns and measure the effectiveness of your calls to action.
5. Keep on enjoying what you do
If you genuinely love and believe in what you do, others will take notice and share your enthusiasm.
If you find your interest flagging, it’s time to make a change — switch from operations to management, move on, expand into new territories, anything that interests you. To find success, you need to be fully committed or your work will show it.
For more tips on starting a business, head over to Virgin StartUp.