Stuart and I have just had the extraordinary privilege of spending the past few days on Necker Island, the home of Richard Branson. We were part of a group of 25 entrepreneurs from all over the world who gathered for an event called Changemakers, whose purpose was to share the way each of us was creating change that mattered and had the potential to have global impact.
We’d just landed in New York on our way to Necker (Necker is about as far from Australia as it is possible to get) when the news broke of the Virgin Galactic tragedy. After our initial shock and sadness for the families of the brave test pilots and the committed team working on the project, we also realised there would now be little likelihood of Richard being present on the island and participating in any of the sessions as planned. We were overwhelmed to hear on Saturday afternoon that he would be returning from the Mojave desert for a day to meet with our group on the Sunday, and were incredibly moved that he was honouring the commitment made to the organisers even in the most difficult of circumstances.
On Sunday morning we headed to The Temple House, a structure specially built on Necker for the first meeting of The Elders, which was surreal in its own right, then Richard entered in shorts and a t-shirt to sit down for a chat and Q&A session. It was clearly obvious that he had been profoundly impacted by the tragedy on a personal level, and it coloured many of the conversations that morning.
Richard believes the entire point of being an entrepreneur is to be a changemaker, and told us none of us would be doing what we did if we didn’t think it was going to have an impact. That impact may be large or small, but we are all convinced that it will make a positive contribution to the world and that is what drives us.
Poignantly he spoke about crisis moments in business, and that one of the things that helps most in times of crisis is a great team and a positive attitude. If you’ve built a wonderful team and culture, it allows you to celebrate the good times and lean on each other in the difficult ones.
He talked about how his businesses had been born, generally out of frustration with an existing product or service and the need to offer an alternate. He clarified that by saying just offering an alternate is not enough, to successfully create a challenger brand you have to be better than the established leader and deliver time and time again on that brand promise. Without that quality and consistency the market won’t shift and the challenge won’t be effective. To illustrate, he told the story of Virgin Atlantic and how it came to be.
American Airlines cancelled a flight to BVI when he was trying to get home to Necker Island due to lack of passengers, so he hired a plane and sold seats to the other passengers who had been bumped along with him. On the flight the idea for a disruptor airline was born. The next day he rang Boeing and bought a second hand plane, and that was the start of Virgin Atlantic.
Richard spoke of the need for entrepreneurs to delegate as quickly as their business can sustain it. By 21, he was appointing CEOs into companies he created so he could move onto the next thing. As well as allowing him the freedom to think and create new businesses, it also allowed him great engagement as a father because he had time to spend with his family. He reiterated the importance of thinking time for entrepreneurs, and making sure you don’t get bogged down in day-to-day issues.
I’d been asked by a retail pharmacy colleague to get Richard’s thoughts on the space, and when I asked the question he said he hadn’t really considered the market, but with his trademark cheeky grin added that if he did have a great idea for the space, he wouldn’t be talking to me about it, he’d be getting in there and running with it himself!
He was really interested in Google Glass, and had tried out an early unit ‘when Larry was over’ (Larry Page owns a neighboring island). He wanted to know my thoughts on where the future of Glass lay, as a consumer or enterprise device. While I personally love using Glass as a consumer I really believe that enterprise utilisation is where its real value will be unlocked, so we had a quick chat around that.
The session concluded when Richard had to go and speak to the head of the crash investigation team, reiterating how incredibly fortunate we were that he had made time to speak and meet with us while in the middle of leading his team through this crisis.
We all left the room filled with an even greater sense of admiration for a man we already all held in extraordinarily high regard. We knew this trip was the opportunity of a lifetime, but to have glimpsed an insight into how one of the most renowned business leaders globally manages and leads through a time of crisis was something we never could have anticipated.
There were way more extraordinary moments in this trip than could ever be contained in one blog post, so watch this space for more takeouts and plenty of photos in days to come.