Sir Richard Branson and Sir Brian Souter were in conversation talking about successful businesses and they made an obvious but often overlooked point about entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are usually often fanatical beyond words about their idea, they are creative, people centred with a host of other amazing qualities but… and there is a but!

The mechanics – it may not be sexy but wow is it important!

Entrepreneurs may live and sleep their businesses but the one thing that often turns them off completely is the mechanics of how behind the scenes their business actually delivers its amazing products or services. Really successful businesses therefore need the blend of the gifts of the entrepreneur and the gifts of those whose passion is in the mechanics, such as the ‘under the bonnet stuff’ of financial discipline, cash flow, processes and systems, KPIs, good governance etc. As Brian Souter said about his partnership in Virgin Trains with Richard Branson, “Richard does the marketing and sexy stuff and I clean the loos!”

Having the right partner

The moral for those of us who are entrepreneurs is to have a business partner but one with complementary gifts and skills. Many go into business with friends or family but getting that right is key. Above all else though the relationship with them must be one of absolute trust. Without trust, the relationship will not stand the ebbs and flows, joys and disaster of business.

Looking globally

As much as the UK is a centre of the global community, we Brits can ourselves sometimes be a little parochial and not pick up on global trends. It is said that travel broadens the mind and that is so true. A number of great businesses in the UK have started up here after Brits have gone abroad and seen great ideas overseas and wondered why they are not happening in the UK and so started a business here. Such as Jimmy Cregan who founded Jimmy’s Iced Coffee over here after being in Australia which had brilliant iced coffee.

Here at SME Strategies, we are delighted to have a link with Anthony Taylor of SME Strategy in Vancouver, Canada. I have learnt much from Anthony about strategic alignment and a Canadian approach and hope a little of our insights here might have made it across the pond!

Following our frustrations

It is said that we should follow our passions and Richard Branson’s foray into air travel began with a dinner engagement in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) to which he was much looking forward. He was travelling from Puerto Rico to the BVI on a scheduled American Airlines flight which was cancelled at the last minute. So disappointed was he about missing out on his evening dinner that he chartered a plane at the airport (a bit risky financially he admits for a 28 year old!) and then went back to the queue of beleaguered passengers and wrote on a blackboard “$29 for a single ticket to the BVI.” He filled the plane. When he arrived at the BVI, a passenger said to him “Richard, sharpen up your cabin service and you could enter the airline business.” The next day he rang Boeing and asked if they had any second hand 747s for sale!

The gift of failure – even jail!

The big confident beasts of entrepreneurship such as Branson can so easily dazzle the more humble mortal creatures who run our SME economy. But the titans will often tell us that their greatness (if that is the right word) comes from their mistakes and failure. Branson himself as a twenty year old entrepreneur selling cheap records (but at a loss) found a scam to evade VAT (and thus make a profit!) for which he was caught (HMRC being brighter than he thought!) and briefly jailed. Paying back the VAT was a colossal task but it taught Branson to manage cash like never before. A discipline that has never left him.

Making our own luck

The old adage about greatness could be translated into ‘Some are born lucky, some achieve luck and some have luck thrust upon them!’ In business we have the opportunity to make our own luck, by teaming up with the right people to complement our skills, having confidence but moderated with humility, picking up on ideas from overseas, following our passions/frustrations and learning from our mistakes. Good luck!


The conversation between Richard Branson, Brian Souter and Jimmy Cregan is on you tube at