Q: What role did passion play in your choice of which businesses and opportunities to pursue? — Luke Gorski
Virgin has started hundreds of businesses, so I have a lot of interests! Your question gets at how I find the drive to start new entrepreneurial ventures after more than 40 years in business. After all, the job is never done for an entrepreneur. There are the daily challenges of keeping the new business going; the big picture projects that must take priority; and the need to innovate and improve constantly, changing your offerings as the market shifts.
Part of the answer lies in some lifestyle choices — I recharge by getting plenty of exercise and by spending as much time with friends and family as I can. But overall, what keeps me going is my sense of mission, and the strange thing is, mine is an impossible one.
This wasn’t my plan when I started out, though I was always driven by the desire to change things for the better. That was what motivated my friends and me to launch our first business, Student magazine, in the 1960s: We wanted to give young people a voice on issues such as the Vietnam War. That spirit of hopefulness and commitment to concrete change continued through every business we launched afterward, and it’s still true for our newer businesses like Virgin Galactic, which is gearing up to become the first company to offer commercial space flights.
Over time, as we learned more about business and entrepreneurship, our mission began to come into focus; we wanted to create a better world, where businesses are driven by a strong sense of purpose that balances their needs with those of people and the planet. Once we had articulated that vision (lots of businesses struggle with this exercise) we were able to break it down into the common goal that all Virgin businesses rally behind: to use our entrepreneurial spirit and resources to disrupt and reinvent every sector we’re in, transforming the way everyone does business along the way.
This mission makes us innovative in ways we could never have anticipated. When we started Virgin Atlantic in 1984, most of our competitors offered awful service, so we won their customers away by providing truly amazing customer service, along with innovations like in-seat entertainment systems that gave passengers control and choices. Thirty years later, many of the improvements Virgin introduced have been adopted by others, while we continue to look for new ways to delight our customers.
One of the challenges the airline industry faces is its voracious appetite for fossil fuels and its resulting carbon footprint. Many airlines now offer their passengers the chance to purchase some form of carbon offset, but that doesn’t really tackle the issue of fuel efficiency. We decided to go even further and look into the fuel itself. Would it be possible to develop a commercially viable jet fuel made from renewable sources? In partnership with the biotechnology firm LanzaTech, we’ve made enormous progress toward this goal — renewable fuels now have the potential to revolutionize the industry in a few years’ time. Our sense of purpose has helped to unite the teams working on the different aspects of this problem.
There are plenty of stories like this one across the Virgin Group. The point is that as an entrepreneur, your journey is never over, and your mission should be broad enough to encompass other industries and sectors, if that’s what’s required to bring about change. No matter if you make butter or ball bearings, you can still make a difference, as long as you have a great idea and a vision your team believes in.
When you’re planning out your first entrepreneurial venture, you may not be able to perfectly define your mission or vision. You can clarify matters quickly by designing your offering according to your values — if you want to sell butter, for example, you’ll have to tackle issues like animal welfare and sustainable farming. As your business plan takes shape and you pursue the innovations that your values require, your sense of mission may emerge. Those goals will help you to instill the right kind of organizational culture – to make sure your team never sees its journey as complete, and quickly moves on to the next challenge.
As your business expands, you’ll find that however successful a quarter has been, you can always do better next time. Rather than being discouraged, view this as an opportunity – another chance to make a lasting, positive contribution to the world.