Monday, March 18, 2013

Small tips pair well with big dreams

Sir Richard Branson.

Sir Richard Branson. 

When launching a startup, you will find yourself continually tweaking things about your product or service, and that is understandable.

Everything — from the way billing is handled to how your staff greets customers — is essential to achieving your business goals. It is during this stage that small suggestions from a mentor on what seem like minor points can have a huge impact.

I was reminded of this recently while spending time with the young founders of five exciting new businesses who had received funding through a British government programme providing loans to startups: Thousand Yard Films, Choclateas, AIM Dance Group, The Scented Jam Jar Company, and Baggers Originals.

Virgin Money is involved in administering these loans, and so I got to know these new firms rather well. I could see that they are on the right track and have a lot of potential, but like all startups, they are still fine-tuning their offerings, so I decided to offer some tips.

Aim Dance Group

This dance school’s main selling point is how teachers cater to all ages, styles, and levels of ability. Their biggest obstacle is gaining recognition — there are lots of dance schools, so brand is everything.

My advice: Dance teachers at Aim need to be daring. They should try a bit of guerrilla marketing — run flash mobs at major events, then use social media to spread the buzz this creates.

At worst, they might get arrested, and if the plan works, then the public will become aware of its brand in a fun and inspiring way. In either case, they will certainly get their names known.

Baggers Original Ltd

I met Jessica McLean, one of the four women leading this company, which sells rain gear and beach wear for children.

The twist is that they come in beautiful, ingenious little bundles that can easily be tucked away in a purse or bag, and then pulled out at the first sign of rain or the moment you arrive at the beach.

The fashion business is tough to crack, so the Baggers team needs to focus on their company’s key demographic.

There are several influential websites and blogs catering to mothers and fathers who would be very interested in Baggers’ products; Baggers should concentrate on making good contacts within these communities, through which they can build a network of brand advocates.

With a bit of luck, the public could soon become Baggers’ most important marketers.

Choclateas

The delightful twins Stella and Jodi Kean have created a range of chocolate and sweet teas. The jury is out on whether the public has a taste for tea with cocoa in it, but I certainly liked the rhubarb tea.

The Keans should not be afraid to use themselves in their marketing — or to make fools of themselves, even if this means having a Boston-style tea party to draw attention to their brand (without casting their tea overboard, of course). In terms of marketing, a front-page story is worth a lot more than a full-page ad.

The Scented Jam Jar Company

Entrepreneur Dean Francis produces candles made from natural ingredients. I especially liked a candle that crackled and smelled like a log fire. In the Caribbean, where I live, we rarely need a fire, so I really enjoyed the re-creation.

His candles are made in an environmentally friendly way, and with recycled packaging. He should use that fact to differentiate his product — companies that do not just make money but do good are the ones that thrive.

If he can start making a profit while looking after his employees and the planet, then his business stands a good chance of succeeding.

Thousand Yard Films

Sam Driver and Luke Statter have started a film production company that specialises in developing short films for the Internet, particularly ones promoting a brand or individual. They could be onto a clever thing.

If someone has a good story to tell, a few minutes is more than enough time to get the message across, especially on the Web.

My advice is for the filmmakers to simply focus on producing great content — good stories will find their audiences, and clients will keep coming back for more.

If at first glance the specific advice offered here does not appear to apply to your startup or growing business, keep in mind that there are lessons to be learned from all types of business that can be used to solve problems.

Lots of our Virgin companies in seemingly unconnected industries learn from each other’s experiences and examples, and then make changes to their own businesses.

What lessons have you learned from apparently unrelated businesses and applied to your own career?

Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group of companies. Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Send them to RichardBranson@nytimes.com.

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