Dating back to his days as the teenage publisher of Student magazine, Sir Richard Branson has always done things a little differently in the business world. Whether it was his London record shops that invited customers to lounge around and listen to music or his upstart transatlantic airline that poked a stick in the eyes of its bigger competitors, he's made a point of putting an unconventional spin on otherwise conventional industries -- and turned Virgin into one of the world's most recognizable brands along the way.
But despite its near-ubiquity overseas, many U.S. consumers only began experiencing the Virgin way within the past few years, with the 2007 launch of Virgin America. Named "Best Domestic Airline" four years running by both Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure, the carrier has earned a loyal following by putting small spins on air travel -- purple ambient light and black leather seats in its cabins, Wi-Fi and power outlets, touchscreen entertainment systems that also allow passengers to order refreshments without waiting for the dreaded drink cart and a staff that seems to share a bit of its boss's irreverent streak. (Editor's note: I once boarded a Virgin America flight to Los Angeles carrying a skateboard, to which a flight attendant said, "That's going to make the beverage service a lot of fun.")
Like a growing number of consumer brands, Virgin America has found a way to turn customers into fans -- with nearly 322,000 Twitter followers and counting, its tally eclipses that of Delta, the world's largest carrier. But the subtle differences in the Virgin travel experience are actually part of a very concerted effort by a scrappy airline that, while growing, is still nimble enough to outstep its legacy competition. And in that, lessons for almost any fast-growing company.
We recently sat down with Branson, a member of the HuffPost Small Business Board of Directors, and CEO David Cush during one of Virgin America's signature launch parties in Philadelphia, and asked them to share some tips with entrepreneurs reaching for the sky.
1. Stay young.
"Little Virgin America is nearly five years old," Branson says. "She is toddling well, managing to stand up on two feet now. We’ve won every single beauty contest that a four-year-old can win. I think word-of-mouth is really what’s managed to keep it going so well. As long as we keep the spirit of the staff, keep the quality going, it works. But we never want to get too big, because I think the bigger an airline business generally gets brings all the other problems that the big carriers have had to live and deal with. We dearly want to avoid all that."
2. Buy a Moleskine.
"Little things matter," Branson says. "What makes for a great restaurant is the owner being there, often cooking in that restaurant and getting every single detail right. And that’s where a privately owned restaurant, where the chef is always there, stands apart from a chain of restaurants. So the challenge for a small airline like Virgin as we get bigger is to run it like a small restaurant. Every single time I’m on a flight, every time David Cush is on a flight, every single time all our people are on a flight, we have our notebooks in our back pockets. We get out there and talk to the staff, we talk to the passengers and we’re taking notes and making sure that no little detail is left unturned."
3. Hire people you would want to hang out with.
"We place a great deal of importance on getting the right people in the door," Cush says. "Certainly, each job has technical requirements that must be met but, beyond that, we look for people that have the right personality and share the Virgin ideal. Personality wise, it's pretty simple -- we look for friendly, outgoing, creative people who have a positive outlook on life. Call them the 'glass-half-full crowd.' When we speak of the Virgin ideal, it is really around creating a fun, comfortable environment for our guests and our teammates alike, and providing a great product at a reasonable price. Through various types of psychometric testing, panel interviews and other methods of evaluation, we believe we do a good job of recruiting and selection."
4. And then hang out with them.
"We then have a unique orientation session, which we call 'Red Carpet,' that is focused on creating a common understanding of our company’s mission and our culture," Cush says. "It's two days of presentations from our executive leadership, team-building exercises, such as a scavenger hunt through the streets of San Francisco, and our 'Red Carpet' social that gives our new teammates a chance to relax, mingle and have a drink with people already in the company."
5. Treat your employees like grownups -- and fellow entrepreneurs.
"We ask our people to use their creativity and imagination to create a great experience for our guests and solve problems on the spot," Cush says. "That could be something as simple as a smile or a kind word, comping a drink, meal or movie or contacting our ground staff to resolve an issue while the plane is still in the air. We are very much an 'ask for forgiveness rather than permission' type of culture and rarely does anyone really need to ask for forgiveness. We’re a small airline so we don’t manage to the numbers and the averages the way the legacy carriers do -- we want every one of our guests to walk away happy."
6. Don't let growth get in the way of success.
"This issue occupies more of our time than any other," Cush says. "Building an enthusiastic, fun culture is easy when you are new and you have a constant influx of new hires and their energy. The question is, how do you keep it fresh, fun and energetic five, 10 or 20 years down the road? Once again, a big part is having the right people and the somewhat self-perpetuating positive culture that positive people create. We also make sure that senior leadership is visible and accessible and that all teammates have a voice in how we manage the company should they choose to get involved in that manner.
"The big structural effort we have is an annual ritual that we call 'Refresh.' We bring in all teammates in small groups, generally 80-100 per session, with a cross section of the entire company -- pilots, inflight, mechanics, airport workers, management -- for two days. We spend those two days reviewing where the company is, where we are going, reconnecting with our goal to create an airline that people love, and go through lots of creative exercises centered on team building and guest focus. It is a massive effort that consumes the company for close to four months, but it is the most important thing that we do each year."
The 'Greenman' sports fanatic from the FX television show "Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia" greets passengers as they board the inaugural Virgin America flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia on April 4, 2012.
Model Amber Rose celebrates aboard Virgin America's inaugural flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia.
Actor Seth Green waves to fellow passengers on Virgin America's inaugural flight to Philadelphia.
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson (center) is joined by Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter (left) and Congressman Chaka Fattah after arrival of Virgin America's inaugural flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia.
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson (right) poses at Philadelphia International Airport with actor Glenn Howerton and the 'Greenman" sports fanatic from the FX television show "Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia."
Virgin America in-flight teammates, along with the 'Greenman' sports fanatic from the FX television show "Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia," welcome passengers from the airline's inaugural flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia.
Model Amber Rose arrives at Philadelphia International Airport.
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson celebrates Virgin America's inaugural flight to Philadelphia with Virgin America president and CEO David Cush (right rear) Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter (left) and Congressman Chaka Fattah (second from left).
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson waves to guests on the tarmac at Philadelphia International Airport with the 'Greenman' sports fanatic from the FX television show "Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia."
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson celebrates with actor Terrence Howard at the Virgin America launch after party at the Hotel Palomar in downtown Philadelphia.
Actor Terrence Howard and model Amber Rose pose on the red carpet at the Hotel Palomar in Philadelphia.
Terrence Howard and Amber Rose pose on the red carpet with Virgin America in-flight teammates at Philadelphia's Hotel Palomar.
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson (center), actor Terrence Howard (left) and filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan chat at the Philadelphia launch party for Virgin America.