At times dreams do come true for entrepreneurs

Monday May 6 2013

Apple founder Steve Jobs took inspiration from Richard Branson’s April Fools’ Day prank to launch iTunes, which later brought Virgin’s Megastores, a music retail outlet, to its knees. Photo/FILE

Apple founder Steve Jobs took inspiration from Richard Branson’s April Fools’ Day prank to launch iTunes, which later brought Virgin’s Megastores, a music retail outlet, to its knees. Photo/FILE  

Q: What daily activities do you find inspiring and motivating? — Linda, Malmo, Sweden

A: On Monday, I went out to the Mojave Desert to watch Virgin Galactic, our space tourism company, complete its first rocket-powered flight — it was a truly awesome sight. I treasure such moments, when my team and I find ways to make the impossible possible, inspiring ourselves and others to attempt even greater feats.

I do not seek out motivation and inspiration, yet these qualities are essential to my work. I tend to have a lot of energy, so I often find it hard to stop myself from thinking about and talking about all the possibilities facing our businesses.

When I was writing my autobiography, Losing My Virginity, I thought about calling it Talking Ahead of Myself because whenever I come up with an exciting new idea or hear about a thrilling new proposal, I want to tell the world right away.

That is partly because I find telling others about our ideas to be motivating: Even if some people think we are being unrealistic, the first step in making an idea a reality is often just sharing it.

My talking publicly about our plans has sometimes sparked interest from potential investors and, in the case of international expansion, local partners, which gives our talented teams at Virgin extra incentive to forge ahead.

A lot of our best ideas for making the impossible possible and the impetus to pursue them have come from an unlikely source: our April Fools’ Day jokes. Long ago, we embraced the annual tradition of playing elaborate pranks on our competitors, the media, and the public.

In the past, we announced that we bought Pluto, we said that we were launching a company called Virgin Volcanic to explore the world’s most active volcanoes, and in 1989 we even flew a UFO over London (it was actually a hot-air balloon built to look like a saucer).

This year we announced that Virgin Atlantic was introducing new glass-bottomed planes that would fly between London and Aberdeen, Scotland.

The concept captured people’s imaginations and many urged us to make it happen, so we set to work.

Our team found that while building glass-bottomed planes probably would not be practical since luggage is usually stored below, installing giant windows in the roofs of our planes for stargazing at night and so that passengers can view the beautiful vistas during the day may someday be possible, when someone develops a lighter type of glass.

We have found that there is real value in inspiring our customers since it reminds them of our adventurous spirit and our commitment to disrupting stale industries. Because we are known to play pranks, sometimes people do not believe us when we are serious.

In 2004, when we announced our plans to create Virgin Galactic, lots of people thought we were joking.

But then in 2008, when we sent out an announcement about a new partnership with Google to launch Virgle, a business dedicated to creating a human settlement on Mars, some people, including some news agencies, took us at our word. Many in the Las Vegas audience, where we unveiled the joke, wanted to sign up.

If your company gets into the spirit of April Fools’ Day, be careful about playing pranks on your competitors — you may inspire them instead.

In 1986, I played an April Fools’ joke on the music industry, claiming that we had introduced a supercomputer called Music Box that would let people download any song, anywhere.

Record label bosses from around the world called us up and pleaded with us not to kill their businesses.

The joke was on us, though: Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder, told me that the story helped to inspire iTunes, the online music store that revolutionised the music industry — and brought our music retail business, Virgin Megastores, to its knees.

If you are an entrepreneur looking for a revolutionary idea, you will probably need to take inspiration from wherever you can find it, including rivals’ products and services, and even your own childhood dreams.

Or perhaps you need to inspire your team to reach for more ordinary goals like improving your business’s profit margin or introducing a new product that is still at the prototype stage. The point is to get the discussion started: If you talk ahead, your team will understand your vision for the company.

When you encounter naysayers, just keep forging ahead. After all, who would have thought that the company that brought you the Sex Pistols would go on to run a bank? Or that the guy who needed to borrow a secondhand plane to launch an airline would one day help to create the space tourism industry?

Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group of companies. Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Send them to [email protected]