Richard Branson on open source, Twitter and entrepreneurship: The Memeburn interview

Virgin founder Richard Branson recently slipped into South Africa to check up on some of the success stories at the Branson School of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg. caught up with the world-famous entrepreneur to find out his views on open source, Twitter, and how to make it as an entrepreneur in this day and age…

Memeburn: In the Internet age, where it should be getting cheaper and easier to start businesses, is it now more than ever an entrepreneurs’ world, or is that just a myth?

Richard Branson: I don’t think it’s a myth. Obviously the current financial climate has most certainly made it more challenging to start a new business, but every cloud has a sliver lining! Tough times can provide great opportunities in the right markets and the growth of the Internet and digital technology over the past 25 years has made it more accessible for us all to embrace our entrepreneurial spirit.

MB: You’ve had business successes that people can only dream of, but if you had to look back and had the power to do one thing differently, what would that be?

RB: Honestly, I would not change a thing! Of course I’ve made many mistakes in business, but I would make the same mistakes all over again – learning from them has made me the person I am today.

MB: In your experience — since you started out — how has the “entrepreneur” changed? What new qualities do entrepreneurs need to have in these times?

RB: I think the basics of being an entrepreneur are still very much the same as when I started Virgin 40 years ago. Entrepreneurs should be open-minded, prepared to listen, and also expect to experience rejection and set backs. It helps to know your limitations and surround yourself with people who have skills you may lack. Also, a vital part of being entrepreneurial is being decisive and being prepared to take risks – don’t be afraid follow your gut. Forty years on, and this is still working for me!

MB: As an entrepreneur in the Internet space, is it ok to look at a service-oriented company, or should you be focusing on a company that builds its own intellectual property (IP)?

RB: I’d need to know a little more about what you are proposing, however in general, creating a service-based company is potentially lower-risk (dependant on the service) and may offer a quicker route to market, especially if you can outsource some of those services.

I’d need to understand what you mean by ‘building your own IP’? Generally speaking, this is a higher-risk option as it may mean increased development costs and potentially a slower route to market, in which time new entrants may have developed similar products/applications.

Cleopatra Simelane, who produces a lifestyle magazine targeted at young people between the ages of 15 and 25, shares a laugh with Branson at the Joburg-based Branson School of Entrepreneurship.

MB: What is your view on the open source movement (free software and web services).  Is it anti-business as Microsoft’s Bill Gates has suggested?

RB: No, it’s not anti-business – it’s actually very pro-business. It’s enabling. It allows more people direct access to the tools and resources they need to succeed, and also gives everyone a sense of ownership as a whole community. As opposed to one corporate body retaining strict ownership and distribution rights which is more crippling to people at the coal face, particularly in times when we all face budget and resource restrictions.

We need to be more forward-thinking and intelligent about how we achieve our business objectives in these times. We need to listen to what the community is saying, and work with them rather than against them. If you try and control and ring-fence everything so tightly, you’ll only encourage people to go off and illegally rip you off anyway.

MB: If you had an option to own a significant piece of Apple, Microsoft, Google or Facebook? Which would you choose and why?

RB: Can I pick all of them!? All four companies are very successful businesses, and they’ve invented and grown a whole new business sector in the past 20 years. Now that is impressive, and we wouldn’t be Virgin if we didn’t wish we had a piece of all of them!

MB: What social media tools do you use, and which is your favourite?

RB: I write my own blog and have a Twitter account, but by no means am I, or would I claim to be, a social media guru! I do recognise that things like Facebook are an essential part of many, many, people’s lives. The Internet plays a huge role in all our lives – how did we ever get information before the world wide web?! I constantly use the Internet as a way of keeping up to date with news stories while I am travelling.

MB: Of the Twitter users you follow, who are your favourites?

RB: Well, first I’d have to say as it is the best way to keep track of all the tweets from across the Virgin Group in one go!

I also make a conscious effort to follow The Elders as their work is close to my heart. The Elders are a group of eminent global leaders, convened by Nelson Mandela, to bring their experience and independence to address the great global challenges of our time.

During June I’m following GB Row – I’m secretly backing ‘Seagals’ (the girls) as they compete with the boys rowing team to win the first Virgin Trophy for rowing around the UK – somehow those girls are managing to tweet while rowing!

MB: What advice would you give a person itching to get out of a corporate setting and start their own venture, but are afraid to leave their comfort zone and take the plunge?

RB: Go for it! When starting a new venue it should be involving, fun, and it has to exercise your creative instincts. Try to look for opportunities where you can offer something fresher, and more valuable to the consumer. At Virgin we try to move into areas where the competition is complacent or areas where the customer has received a poor deal.

MB: Do you read any blogs on a regular basis? If so, which ones?

RB: Again, The Elders – I find them fascinating!

MB: Focus is often an entrepreneurs biggest challenge. You seem to have many focuses and have been very successful at them. How do you do it? What’s your philosophy here?

RB: I tend not to think of work as work, or business as business. I am passionate about any business or challenge I put the Virgin name to, this helps me to stay focused. I truly believe you have to love what you do and be the best in the market – simply by providing the consumer with the products they want.



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