How can small businesses compete in today’s global landscape?
First and foremost a successful business must have a sound knowledge of its market and understand how its product or service will be different, stand out and improve people’s lives. If you ensure it responds to a real need in the market place then your business can punch well above its weight.
I am a great believer that you need this passion and energy to create a truly successful business. When I started Student magazine, it was aimed at giving young people a voice on key issues such as the Vietnam War. We ended up selling advertising to make the money to publish it and pretty soon it became a business. Remember many new businesses do not make it and running a business will be a tough experience, involving long hours and many hard decisions – it helps to have that passion to keep you going.
Lastly, learn to delegate early and bring in strong managers to help you grow the business and give you time to focus on key issues. I learnt this as a young businessman and it has enabled me to diversify Virgin into many different areas and withstand many of the problems that can engulf a developing business.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started?
My parents always taught me never to look back in regret but to move on to the next thing. When something doesn’t go exactly to plan, money is tight or a business is struggling – see it as a challenge. Look outside the box to try and find a solution, you’ll be surprised how many great opportunities and possibilities arise when things look bad. You have just got to open your mind and not be afraid of sticking your neck out! Remember that a setback is never bad, it should be a learning experience.
Is starting a business during a recession ever advisable?
It depends on what the circumstances are. For a startup business that has sufficient funding and a really great idea, there is no bad time to start. Funding is harder to come by at the moment, particularly with banks less willing to lend to small businesses, but tough times can provide great opportunities: big companies are preoccupied with their own problems, premises are cheaper and there is more talent on the market to hire. I have worked through a couple of recessions – in the ’70s and late ’80s – and in each case I learnt that there are business opportunities in all the gloom and doom.
What are you top sales tips?
• Make sure you know what your customer wants. Be focused on delivering an extremely high standard of product and service. Keep listening to them and react fast when things go awry.
• Employ staff who believe in what they are selling and who would buy the product themselves. That knowledge and passion helps to sell your business far better than any advertising campaign.
• Don’t be afraid of taking risks. Come up with loads of ideas and encourage your team to do the same – it doesn’t matter if some do not work – the very process of challenging the status quo will help you hone your product and improve your sales.
How do you motivate your sales teams?
At Virgin we try to encourage people to think for themselves and not behave like automatons. I always say your employees are your number one asset and the way you treat your employees will impact the way they treat your customers.
One thing I learned early on was to make sure a business did not feel too big and ensure your management feel in control. At our record company when it got to 100 people, I would often split it in two and create two managing directors to give them a sense of ownership. This keeps things fresh.
In business know how to be a good leader and always try to bring out the best in people. It’s very simple: listen to them, trust in them, believe in them, respect them and let them have a go! They are the ones who will become the backbone of the business and will want it to succeed.
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