Richard Branson is the world's consummate entrepreneur for good reason. Sure, he represents the pinnacle of self-made success and the accompanying joie de vivre that most entrepreneurs daydream about, yet he somehow stays surprisingly relatable. Despite his private island, balloon races across the globe and ongoing quest to explore outer space, he's also charming, disarming and unpretentious. Spend a little time with him, and you can still see flashes of the mischievous bloke who got his entrepreneurial start on a mattress in a friend's parents' basement.
In a sense, this dichotomy is on full display in his latest book, "Screw Business As Usual," which makes an impassioned case for businesses of all shapes and sizes to become "a force for good." Sure, it's easy to make that case when your empire's already built and you're worth billions, and Branson is the first to admit that. But he also speaks fondly and familiarly of his early days as a bootstrapping entrepreneur, whose first ventures included a magazine for students and a youth advisory center that still exists to this day. The takeaway is that simply changing one's thinking and approach to business is a change for the good -- and quite often, surprisingly good for the bottom line too. Branson is one of those rare 1 percenters whose message also resonates with the other 99, making the book especially timely.
In "Screw Business As Usual," Branson's fourth book, he draws on experiences in his own entrepreneurial career, as well its most recent chapter: His work with Virgin Unite, the Virgin Group's non-profit foundation (which will receive proceeds from "Screw Business As Usual"). He also explores new business theories and highlights case studies of companies he's come across that are doing some "screwing" of their own, including Method, the eco-friendly home products company co-founded by Eric Ryan, a member of the HuffPost Small Business Board of Directors. Jean Oelwang, the dynamic CEO of Virgin Unite, serves as Branson's co-conspirator both with the book and his work at the foundation.
To help kick off the book's U.S. launch, we recently brought together several members of our Board of Directors -- Branson, DANNIJO co-founders Danielle and Jodie Snyder and CakeLove founder Warren Brown, along with Oelwang -- for a unique conversation among entrepreneurs. The result? Some lively banter about entrepreneurial life, advice for businesses searching for small ways to give back and perhaps the birth of Virgin Cakes.
"It was so exciting to see this book and dig into it, because Jean and I were delayed at JFK a few months ago, on the way to the Branson Centre opening in Jamaica, and she had the manuscript tucked under her arm, guarding it with her life. I wanted to bring these guys along -- I think of them almost as my version of the Elders. I've assembled this great group, yourself included, of top-notch entrepreneurs who keep this conversation going in real time about different entrepreneurial issues. And today seemed like the perfect opportunity. I'm mostly here to serve as a facilitator, so to kick things off, tell us what people can expect from the book?"
"Businesspoeple and people who work for businesses already do a lot of good -- they create jobs, they shake up industries, they create things which make people's lives better and that is important. But I think there is too much focus just on the quarterly results, the net profit. I think what a lot of businesses don't realize is what a powerhouse they could be in society and they are part of society and what a difference they could really make in the world if they not only continue to build their businesses, but they also become a force for good generally in society and use their entrepreneurial skills to get out there and tackle some of the intractable problems of the world and run their businesses in an ethical way. So that, in a nutshell, is what we're trying to do. We're trying to motivate an army of people out there to do things slightly differently than they've done in the past."
"Your first book, 'Losing My Virginity,' reads almost like a novel, with the balloon adventures and everything else. It helps, but you don't have to be an entrepreneur to enjoy it. Years later, how do you think you've evolved as an entrepreneur, philanthropist and author -- and how is that reflected in 'Screw Business As Usual'? Who are you trying to reach now?"tyle="height:180px;">
"We're trying to reach anybody who works within any business around the world. That would be enough [laughs]. And of course all the profits go to charity, so I'm allowed to push it a bit! It's a quite broad spectrum of people because I think it's not just people who run businesses that can make a difference, it's everybody within a business that can make a difference. Obviously, it helps if the people who are actually running it are motivated that way as well. So, yeah, the book doesn't have maybe quite as many stories as 'Losing My Virginity,' but hopefully it's an enjoyable read in a slightly different way."
Danielle: "My sister and I founded our business on philanthropic principles. I had actually co-founded a non-profit prior to that, and we designed jewelry as part of a fundraiser -- and the success of that helped lead to DANNIJO. The struggle for us, as young entrepreneurs, especially during such trying times, is getting back to our philanthropic roots while still sustaining the business. What do you recommend for other small businesses that are short on resources, to help screw business as usual?"
Jean Oelwang: "One thing, just right off the top of my head, as we were talking about with Rod -- Bianca Bartley, one of the Branson Centre entrepreneurs who also designs jewelry, is here. The thing that you guys can give is your time and inspiration, show her what you're doing here, perhaps even help her with distribution through New York. So I think your time is just as important as any type of finance that you could put into it right now."
Danielle: "We've started importing beads from women's cooperatives there. I think what Jodie and I have tried to do is get back into philanthropic initiatives in sort of lighter ways. One being that we partnered with an incredible organization called Indego, which is essentially the liaison between companies in America or wherever and these women's cooperatives in Rwanda. So we have the women cooperatives now, paying them to make the DANNIJO pouches that the jewelry comes in. And each pouch has a little card featuring the actual artisan who made it."
Jodie: "I think it's been hard taking it from there. The fabrics on the pouches are so beautiful and that was such a good first step and we met these women recently at our showroom, but our jewelry is so complicated, it's hard getting to the next level. We've had a hard time thinking logistically how to make that happen."
"I think the fact that you're just thinking that way -- if it works, great. If it doesn't work, you've tried it and you've then got to go on and do what's right for the business. Once you're stronger, then you can go back and maybe give a bit more time to this way of thinking. But I think right now, you've got to survive."tyle="height:180px;">
"I loved your first book -- you've been an inspiration for a long time. I've been in business since 2002, been through many different cycles, this is one of those down cycles and surviving is definitely the name of the game for me. We partner with a local group of kids, they make cookies and sell cookies to the street to passersby. That's a really good thing and I enjoy what we do, but it's hard to get people to give time, because I can't necessarily pay them to do that charitable work. One of the things I find difficult is how to juggle all that -- how to say no to some charities and yes to some."
"So you make cakes. I'll just throw out ideas. What if there was a clever way you could end up making cakes that didn't have sugar in them, you came up with something where people wouldn't know the difference, that didn't cost you much more? That, in itself, would be a massive breakthrough. Try honey, try lots of different things. They would become so popular. On Necker, I say to the chefs, 'Do all the puddings without sugar, do everything without sugar, don't tell anybody.' Nobody notices. I don't know what they're putting in them! Sugar is the biggest killer there is -- cancer loves sugar, diabetes loves sugar. So if there was a way, even alongside your current company, to start the healthy cake company, you could set up a trend. Everybody loves eating cakes, but if somebody could tell us we could eat them without feeling guilty, you'd sell a hell of a lot more. It would be good for your business. And you'd make a hell of a massive difference to people's lives."
"More generally, what would you say to these guys and companies of their size, about communicating that message to their staffs. How do you get people to do more with less during tough times? How do you rally the troops to screw business as usual?"tyle="height:180px;">
"If you're running into difficult times, rather than perhaps laying off people, sit everybody down and ask, 'Does anybody want to go on unpaid leave for a few months? Does anybody want to job share?'"tyle="height:180px;">
"And ours have been giving in that way. They have. It's been a long time since 2008 hit -- and it's going really well. The troops are rallied and they're very understanding."tyle="height:180px;">
"What's unique about your company?"tyle="height:180px;">
"That we make cakes from scratch. We blend a European-style buttercream with an American-style cake. So our things in general aren't as sweet as you find in most bakeries in America. Lots of fresh fruits, lots of really good chocolate. Cupcakes boomed in the United States a few years ago."tyle="height:180px;">
"Are you a chef by training?"tyle="height:180px;">
"I'm a lawyer who left to follow a dream, to open a bakery."tyle="height:180px;">
"Sorry I'm beating on about it, but can you make healthy cakes?"tyle="height:180px;">
"It's really difficult. Because if you use sugar substitutes, a lot of them are macro molecules that your body won't absorb, so you basically lose it. And it's not pleasant when that happens. There are some things that we've used. We have a lower-sugar item, but it's not sugar-free. We've tried baking with synthetic sugars and those just don't bake well."tyle="height:180px;">
"I would sort of treat it like commercial spaceship travel. In 1990, people said it would be impossible for it to happen. So you set yourself a target -- how can we come up with something that is radically different from any other cake company? Healthy is one idea. And if you can come up with it and need a good brand, let me know!"tyle="height:180px;">
Danielle: "For us, we get stressed out just thinking about production. We make 95 percent of our stuff in New York and we're trying to diversify. Warren, for you to invent a new cake is like starting from scratch and that requires a lot of resources time and energy -- and it sounds like you're in a place where you're just trying to get back and hit your stride. In an ideal world, to invent something new sounds amazing. But we're just trying to survive with what we know."tyle="height:180px;">
"Well, one of the questions I wanted to ask you, do you feel that for entrepreneurs in our position or even above it -- this is going to sound weird -- but is there a time they should stop trying to push and stop trying to grow the business? Have you ever had that kind of experience in the past?"tyle="height:180px;">
"I remember sitting down, when we had the record company, and we were saying, 'Shall we just live off the one or two of the successful artists we've got or do we carry on, reinvesting that money into building more successful artists?' And we decided, 'Screw it, let's just do it' and carried on trying to build more successful artists and take a bit of a risk. But it's a very valid debate. It could well be, especially during these tough times, necessary for your business to retrench, pay the bills. That may be right for this moment. And once there's an upturn and people are buying again, you can expand then."
"How do you deal with the stress of entrepreneurship?"tyle="height:180px;">
"Delegate. If I were you, with 50 or so employees, I would attempt to find somebody to put yourself out of the business, to run the business on a day-to-day basis -- somebody, if possible, at least as good as you, if not better than you, then free yourself up to think about the bigger-picture things. It will cost a bit more in the short term, but in the long term, you'll have a better family life, but more to the point, you'll be able to think about the bigger-picture things. Now, if you're not expanding at all, maybe right now wouldn't be the time to do it. But the moment you decide to start expanding again, find somebody else. The reason that Virgin has grown is I learned the art of delegation early on, found great people, and that frees me up to think about the next move we should make. If you cling onto everything, do everything yourself, obviously you won't have the time or energy to think about things. And you don't have to pay through the roof if you find a young, enthusiastic person to step into your shoes. There will be lots of great young people out there who will be hungry to prove a point to you."