It's ok to fail as long as you learn

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Many entrepreneurs ask me how to be successful in business. There is no one-solution-fits-all answer but I have tried to give some guidance on how I made a success (and occasionally a mess) of things in my new autobiography Finding My Virginity. Here's an exclusive excerpt: 

How do you go about becoming a millionaire? I’m often asked this question and ever since I founded Virgin Atlantic in 1984 my answer has been the same: ‘Start as a billionaire and launch a new airline.’

The first fifteen years of Virgin Atlantic had been a topsy-turvy tale of excitement, innovation and survival. We had taken the might of British Airways head on and, unlike the airlines that came before us, lived to tell the tale. In fact, we won one of the largest libel cases in British history after BA’s Dirty Tricks campaign tried to put us out of business. It was a campaign that most people within the industry knew by another name altogether: Operation Barbara. Why was it called that? Because Barbara Cartland had written a lot of novels about virgins getting screwed.

As we emerged from this most challenging of periods, I had clear skies for the first time in a while, exploring new horizons for the Virgin brand. Many experts will tell you it tends to take a year to get a business off the ground, from the initial idea through planning, market research, development and launch. Personally, I’ve always disregarded this rule. As far as I’m concerned, anyone following it should pull their finger out. 

When I was a wide-eyed teenager our mail order record company was set up in a couple of days, and even more complex businesses like Virgin Atlantic went from idea to lift-off in a matter of weeks. Generally, we like to work fast: try ideas, see if they stick, and, if they don’t, quickly move onto the next one.

I work best when my mind is able to jump from one topic to the next in quick succession. It keeps things lively, and it’s amazing how often good ideas for one company come out of another completely unrelated business. As I took a step back from the day-to-day running of Virgin Atlantic, I was able to concentrate on what was next for Virgin. As it turns out, there was more than even I had ever imagined.

The turn of the century was to prove unprecedentedly productive, even by our standards. After my first wave as a records impresario and second as an airline founder, the third wave of my career as a global entrepreneur was about to begin in earnest. Some of the companies, namely Virgin Blue (now Australia),, Virgin Wines and Virgin Mobile Australia have gone on to become big success stories. We had already launched the likes of Virgin Clothing, Virgin Brides, Virgin Cola, Virgin Vodka and Virgin Vie cosmetics by this point, all of which would disappear in the next few years. But failures didn’t put me off at all. They had all been fun to get stuck into, and we’d learned a lot of important lessons.

Some businesses quickly turned into far less successful operations. Virgin Cars, our automobile company, was effective for a few years but overnight became unworkable. Our business model of purchasing cars, mostly from the Netherlands and Belgium, and importing them to sell into the UK was destroyed by a combination of restrictive practices by the big carmakers and changing currency values. V.Shop, small record stores we launched after rebranding Our Price, never got off the ground, while there were similar stories for Virgin Student, Virgin Energy and Virgin Travelstore. The bubble was still going strong, but we hadn’t quite got the hang of it. Because our core businesses remained solid, the brand wasn’t derailed by these smaller failures. I was also able to spend even more time with my young family and enjoy life a little more. I didn’t feel I had so much to prove, and was getting more comfortable in my own skin. If the odd business didn’t work out, I was confident there would be another on the way.

We were beginning to see which core areas we could expand the brand into, but it was still taking time for me to understand how flexible the Virgin brand was, the areas it could bend successfully, and the areas it would break. The sweet spot was always where we could differentiate from the competition, in service and in product, and where there was a real appetite for change. We were still a long way from creating the more structured strategy we have today, but it was one hell of a ride finding out what worked.

You can order Finding My Virginity now. 



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