EVA Reviews Richard Branson’s “Business Stripped Bare”

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Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur

Richard Branson, as you might guess, is on my list of people who I would love to interview for EVA Interviews: The Business of the new Space Age™. I haven’t yet asked him to be my guest as I have a few glitches in the process of conducting these interviews that I need to work out. Until then, I thought you might be interested in a taste of what such an interview might be like with a review of his latest book Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur.

People have asked me “Why are you asking about books in these interviews, EVA?” There are many reasons (including the fact that I wanted to enhance and build on what Ken Murphy has accomplished with Ken’s Lunar Library here on Out of the Cradle) but primarily it is because of the insights, information and ideas that books and their authors give us. We connect to their stories, share in their experiences and often in their emotions. They can prompt us to take action and give us ideas as to which actions may be most effective, and which to avoid. They entertain as well as inform us. They help us to understand events and the people involved in those events. We can become intimately involved with the thoughts, feelings and motivations of people we will likely never have the opportunity to meet. I’m always curious as to which books have stimulated people, inspired them and helped with their success. Asking my guests about influential books focuses and narrows down the many excellent choices available. I hope you find their answers to be of interest.

On a small scale and on a very specific topic – Space; The Business of Space – my goal at EVA Interviews: The Business of the new Space Age™ is to tell the stories of some of the enterprising individuals and companies who are actively involved in making Space profitable. I strongly believe that once it is lucrative for humanity to visit, live, survive and thrive beyond Earth, it will happen. And the spin-offs of that economic activity will provide tremendous benefits to Earth.

Business Stripped Bare is primarily about Business (and the Virgin Group of companies) with some discussion of Space (and Virgin Galactic). Like Richard Branson’s previous books Losing My Virginity and Screw It, Let’s Do It, this is easy to read, enjoyable, informative and down to Earth. Some have called his books too simplistic. While meant as a criticism, I think it is a backhanded compliment as often inattention to the simple details, to common sense in business, and/or excessive focus on complexity are what cause businesses to fail. Business, as Richard Branson points out in the introduction, is not necessarily about all the things we’ve been taught to think of it as – bottom-line, profit, trade, commerce, formality, winning, etc. It is first about what concerns any or each of us. What concerns you is your business and as such, he wrote the book to appeal to everyone, not just business people.  An interesting perspective!

When asked why he had gone into business in a 2007 interview, Richard Branson was very surprised by the question and responded that he’d never been interested in being “in business”, but rather had been “interested in creating things”. Most of the successful entrepreneurs I know, like Branson, started their businesses for one of four reasons: To solve a problem; to fill a need they saw as unmet; to offer a better product or service than currently exists; or to create something new. Making money is very important but is often seen as the logical result of value creation as opposed to the raison d’être. That is the impression I have had of Richard Branson as well, and this book confirms it.

He starts the book by creating a unique analogy (at least one I’ve not heard before), comparing a business to a painting: starting; making initial decisions; how those decisions must relate to one another; becoming committed and invested in the endeavor; swallowing your fear; focusing on and working out the details; determining if it is good or bad; deciding whether to keep it or sell it; and finally learning so that the next one is even better!

Richard Branson breaks the book into 7 categories and chapters:

o            People (subtle or deliberate, I love how he puts people first in a book on business)

o            Brand

o            Delivery

o            Learning from Mistakes and Setbacks

o            Innovation (where most of the Space-related thoughts and comments can be found)

o            Entrepreneurs and Leadership and

o            Social Responsibility.

Here are a few highlights and a fraction of content from each chapter that caught my attention and some of my thoughts.

People: Find Good People – Set Them Free. Finding great people is much more about looking for attitude, enthusiasm and talent than it is about looking for skills. Jobs can always be learned. He prefers the “Small is Beautiful” organizational size though he can’t always achieve it, especially in the airline industry. Smaller businesses foster greater innovation and idea generation, faster communication and a friendlier working environment. I’ve rarely heard anyone discuss optimal organizational size in this manner before. One Hundred. Is it the magic number?

Brand: Flying the Flag. Virgin is one of the most recognized and respected brands on the planet, and it aims to be that in Space too! It is known more for the experiences it offers customers than for its varied products or services. Fun, humour, publicity and treating their people well – customers and employees alike – characterizes the Virgin Brand. After many great stories and adventures in this chapter, Richard Branson talks about organizational structures, corporate governance and how the bonding power of the Virgin Brand ties all their diverse businesses together within a venture capital (VC) model. While I’ve heard Will Whitehorn (President of Virgin Galactic) discuss some of Virgin’s investment activities, I hadn’t thought of Virgin as having that strong a VC–like business structure. New information to me, this has interesting possibilities for Space entrepreneurs.

Delivery: Special Delivery. “We thrive on ideas but our day-to-day business is about delivery”, “It’s the attention to detail that really defines great business delivery”, “Delivery is not just hard work. It’s endless” and “Protect the Downside” are some of the timeless quotes from this chapter. While much of the focus is on how Virgin has handled challenges and endless change in their businesses, Richard intermixes it with simple, practical advice such as keeping a notebook, jotting down everything that needs doing, ideas and the occasional philosophical musings. Part of protecting the downside involves having numerous smaller companies. This also increases their creativity and ease of action and decreases bureaucracy.

Learning from Mistakes and Setbacks: Damage Report. Often our image of the wealthy or famous is that they don’t make mistakes, or admit to them, or learn from them. Richard dispels that image here. He candidly admits how he has screwed-up in the past and shares some of the lessons he has learned so we, as readers, might avoid similar errors or misjudgments. “Never do anything that means you can’t sleep at night”, “It’s always worth getting the contract right in the first place” and the seemingly contradictory but effective: “Protect your reputation, Don’t be afraid to make mistakes”.

Innovation: A Driver for Business. Starting with April Fools’ jokes he’s pulled, Richard talks about companies that he finds innovative. Encouraging employees to generate and develop new ideas, making changes and continual improvements, being responsive and flexible are techniques and strategies he discusses. Asking some of the most elementary questions has led Virgin to effective innovation and increased customer satisfaction.

Starting on page 225, he switches gears and talks about the bigger picture and the power of research and development. This is also where Space enters the book in a major way. Most people interested in Space know some of these stories but I doubt all of them. I was surprised to learn that Gorbachev himself had offered Richard an opportunity to become a cosmonaut! “The secret to success in any sector is watchfulness, usually over a period of many years” and “Virgin’s sudden emergence as a leader in cutting-edge technologies was decades in the making”. He goes on to describe other pioneering areas of interest to Virgin, particularly green fuels. The importance of innovation and R&D rarely gets attention in most business books. An excellent chapter! It left me wanting more!  

Entrepreneurs and Leadership: Holding on and Letting go. Leaders differ. Some are more effective as managers, others (like Richard) as entrepreneurs. “You need to honestly gauge your strengths and weaknesses as a leader … and how you inspire and motivate others to cooperate willingly to get the job done” and “Good managers are worth their weight in gold”. In addition to leadership experiences and lessons learned within Virgin, Richard talks about leaders who have meant the most to him – notably Nelson Mandela and Freddie Laker. Thinking about Mandela, the role of elders in the leadership of a village and social responsibility led Branson and Peter Gabriel to create the Elders. Another suggestion, and one of my favourite pieces of his advice, is writing into every business plan “This company will have lots and lots of parties and social get-togethers”. Galvanize those teams!

Social Responsibility: Just Business describes Virgin’s “adventures in the territory where business and making the world a bit of a better place, meet”. Starting with the Student Advisory Centre (on sexual health) that he opened when he was 18, Richard tells of Bill and Melinda Gates’ inspirational influence on him, Virgin’s work with AIDS/HIV in Africa, climate change and creating small war rooms to tackle big issues. “Think realistically and creatively about what you can achieve”, “Scale doesn’t matter – people do!” and “Just make a difference where you can”.

Without retelling the excellent, informative and entertaining stories, indeed the adventures of Richard Branson and of Virgin contained within, I hope this review will give you a glimpse of the flavour of Business Stripped Bare. His great sense of humour, curiosity and ability to poke fun at himself shine through. This book is well worth reading if you are interested in Space, creativity, innovation, environmental and social responsibility and especially if you are interested in Business. Probably worth reading several times if you are starting a business for the first time! It also has an excellent index, something I always appreciate and often find missing. And it still left me with enough questions that I’d eventually like to ask Richard Branson in an interview!    😉

Remember – “There is no reverse gear on this thing!”

Enjoy!

EVA

P.S. Richard, if you read this review, thank you for your unwitting encouragement on p267 and how it relates here!  I look forward to our interview! 😉

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are those of the author and may not reflect those of Out of the Cradle or BMO Nesbitt Burns.  Copyright belongs to Eva-Jane Lark, please email her at evainterviews (at) gmail (dot) com for permission to use these reviews or interviews.

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