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Sir Richard Branson on lessons on success from major failures

'Instinct based on experience' critical in making quick decisions, the global entrepreneur said in his address to the IT community.

Success founded on failures was a key message Virgin Group CEO Sir Richard Branson delivered recently to a gathering of ICT professionals.

If you have an idea that will make a difference in people’s lives, and know by instinct this is needed, do it, he said at Unleashed.

“We launched a lot of businesses against the advice of experts,” says Branson at the conference in Sydney, drawing on what he calls “instinct based on experience. ”

“At the end of the year, get the accountants to add up the figure and see whether your instinct is right or wrong.”

“A lot of individuals spend too much flapping about not making decisions,” he says. “Sometimes you have to screw it, do it, have a go.”

“It is a lot more fun to say yes than say no – we achieve a lot more by taking that attitude,” says Branson.

At the same time, he was also frank about having gotten it wrong, at least twice. One was the launch of Virgin Cola. “Trying to take Coca Cola into number two position – that was a big mistake.”

The second was staying “too long at the music shops, ” referring to the Virgin Megastores they built around the globe. Then again, Steve Jobs came out with Apple devices for downloading music, instead of letting people go to the music stores. “We lost a lot of money not biting the bullet early on,” he explains.

Branson says his “most worthwhile” endeavour was setting up The Elders, a group of leaders including Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, to go into conflict regions and try to seek solutions to global humanitarian concerns.

“They have had some considerable success. That is the one we set up that we are most proud of,” he adds. “Virgin is setting up organisations like that for tackling some of the bigger issues in the world.”

He also cited Virgin Unite, a not for profit organisation tackling global problems by using their staff’s entrepreneurial skills for conflict resolution, including global warming.

A business that gives him the “most satisfaction” was the venture that will allow space travel. He says Virgin Galactic is now the only brand in the world to offer to bring people into space.

“It is tremendously exciting,” says Branson, but at the same time concedes, “Building rockets is rocket science and it was far too tougher than we thought.”

He ended his presentation stressing he would not have done anything differently as an entrepreneur.

“I had such fun failing, as well as succeeding. I said ‘yes’ too many times, I actually don’t regret it.”

Fear factor

“You can’t let fear stop you,” says Richard Earl, founder and managing director of Talent International, which organised the event.

“Choices that involve risk reap the greatest rewards,” states Earl, a software developer who founded the IT and T recruitment company in 1995. Talent International now has offices in Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and Europe.

His advice to budding entrepreneurs is this: “Don’t be scared, don’t let fear get in the way of a good idea, whether in professional or private life.”

When you have a clear plan, exceptional people and a strong sense of purpose, he states, “Almost anything is possible.”

“Define your vision, invest in ideas, hire smart people, and don’t be shy to take risks,” he adds. “The alternative could be very unpleasant.”

Chris Riley, general manager for ANZ for Talent International, takes the analogy of success and failure to sports.

“Successful sports people anywhere in the world have always had setbacks,” says Riley, who played for the New Zealand All Whites football team. “You take that analogy from sports, where [if] you don’t succeed then try again, and that is important.”

In a global environment, there are ups and downs and constant change.

“The nature of the global economy (is that) the only thing certain is there will be change and to be prepared for it. And that means people have to be so driven and bounce back if they don’t get the job or project they’re looking for.”

Steve Sargent, president and chief executive of GE in Australia and New Zealand picks the same theme on the need to respond to a changing environment.

“Every industry is in transition,” he says, with changes in the regulatory environment, in technology, and the shift of economic power from the developed West to the developing East.

Yet, he observes, CEOs are taking perfectly rational actions for a world that no longer exists.

“You have to drive innovation paddle harder.”

GE for instance, used to have one global strategy. Today, Sargent says the company has 160 strategies for 160 countries.

Customers expect more localisation today, he notes.

At the same time, enterprises have to seize opportunities from technology.

He cites the development of the industrial internet, referring to digital technology embedded in machines, which can lead to productivity improvement.

“We are on the cusp of amazing growth from technology if we go out and embrace it,” Sargent emphasises.

Soldiers of fortune

The half-day conference tackled the plight of a growing sector in information technology – IT contractors.

Richard Earl of Talent International says in many cases the economy means corporates want staff hired on contract basis, and keep a core collection of key people.

This situation creates a degree of separation for IT professionals. “We have a massive workforce who are increasingly disconnected and remote,” he says.

He adds that some contractors prefer to work this way, being “soldiers of fortune”.

Earl, nonetheless, explains that there is also a much larger group of “reluctant contractors” who have to work as one to get the work.

Riley, for his part, says IT contracting “is a reality” as businesses around the world seek a flexible force.

“IT is quite key to many organisations and the role the contractor fulfills is quite significant,” he says. Some sectors, on the other hand, are dependent on contractors to fill a void.

Riley notes the key advice they give to these professionals is to “be flexible, be fluid”.

“The unique thing about the IT community is they are forever upskilling themselves and self development is important for them,” says Riley. “Our advice is to continue to stand on the edge of innovation, on the edge of technology.

‘They have a natural desire for knowledge anyway and to learn and to keep abreast of trends and what is happening around the corner, and they have inquisitive minds as well.”

These are important, he says, when you are looking for jobs, and looking to move around the world.

The author attended Unleash in Sydney as a guest of Talent International.

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