Why Richard Branson Says You Should Never See Yourself As 'Big Business'

It’s a challenge facing every business founder with an eye on global expansion; how to retain the entrepreneurial culture on which their business was built as it starts to grow.

As many have discovered, as their company expands, their startup culture gets diluted out, along with the vision and values that underpin their brand. So what can entrepreneurs do to preserve the culture and ethos of their startup as they scale up?

One brand that has achieved a global reach without ever losing sight of its unmistakable entrepreneurial heritage is Virgin. Surprisingly, in spite of having one of the most recognizable logos in the world, and spanning a number of different industries in countries all over the globe, founder Richard Branson says they don’t consider Virgin to be ‘big business.’

“We’ve always seen ourselves as the underdog, and we quite like it that way,” he says. “Every business we have was set up to disrupt a market with products or services that makes a real difference to people’s lives. Priding ourselves in being a challenger brand, we’ve always retained our entrepreneurial mindset – you could say we were one of the first business incubators; we incubated ourselves.

“Using capital raised by other parts of the brand, Virgin has turned around 400 ideas into startups, and then into fully-fledged businesses. When our companies have reached a stage where they are making an impact in their respective markets, we’ve always sought to stay true to our roots and spirit by working with small businesses and startups.”

Red’s True Barbecue, an American-style smokehouse restaurant chain, is a small business with a compelling evangelical-themed brand – ‘Let there be meat’ is its strapline; employees prefer to be called ‘believers’ – that is expanding rapidly. The first restaurant opened in Leeds in 2012, today there are eight, and the target is to open 20 within the next four years. As the business rolls out across the UK, its founders James Douglas and Scott Munro are determined not to lose their entrepreneurial principles, outlook, and spirit.

Douglas says: “I believe that you can have a big business and a startup mindset that allows you to stay nimble and agile, able to respond to change quickly when needed, and to retain your founding vision and values. When Scott and I started Reds, we had no restaurant experience whatsoever, and so were never going to be clouded by experience of how things have always been done. While the big business approach to decision-making is to consult a manual to see how things were done 10 years ago, many of the decisions we made were based on common sense, and still are today.

“Obviously, with business growth comes more responsibility, and more pressure, but we are sticking to our approach of having no preconceived ideas of how things should be done, learning every day, and taking each challenge as it comes. The business is growing quickly, but our startup mindset approach is working, and most importantly, helping us to maintain our vision of Red’s as the everyday family barbecue joint that people love to come to.”

Keeping teams small as the business grows is an effective way of retaining the entrepreneurial culture that is so vital to a brand. As Jeff Bezos once said: ‘don’t have a team you can’t feed on two pizzas, otherwise it’s too big.’ This still rings true, says Joe Griston, regional director, Europe at Freelancer.com, who has taken a tech company from 10 employees in one office, to 500 employees in seven offices globally, and kept the startup culture intact.

He says: “Our company comprises a number of product teams, each with no more than six or seven people. Each team acts as its own company and is responsible for all decisions, from P&L to user growth to design and functionality. Therefore the company operates as a number of smaller start-ups amongst the larger website.”

This helps to preserve the firm’s entrepreneurial spirit but also delivers other benefits. Reviews, for example, happen constantly, not just once a year, and should any issues occur they are immediately recognized and dealt with and not lost among the management issues of a larger team. “This, combined with hiring only the best staff, ensures we keep the entrepreneurial culture alive as we grow,” adds Griston.

For some companies, retaining an entrepreneurial culture is integral to the hiring and management processes, including London-based workplace rental start-up Hubble.

Head of PR and partnerships Varun Bhanot says: “We believe people will do their best work if they are at ease with their fellow colleagues and enjoying their surroundings. Hubble’s culture was born from a shared obsession with breakfast naan rolls at Dishoom in Shoreditch and craft beers at BrewDog around the corner. As a small team of early 20-somethings, we valued spending time with each other early on and set a precedent for enjoying quality artisanal foods, with the aim of ‘fast-tracking’ our colleagueships to friendships.”

Hubble’s recruitment process includes a somewhat unorthodox ‘beer test’ to see whether prospective candidates would fit the Hubble family mindset.

“After a formal interview, we would take them to the pub with a few team members and see whether they are the people we would enjoy a second drink with,” says Bhanot. “No matter how great their role-related knowledge might be, being easy to get along with and not taking themselves too seriously are things we’ve nurtured and made crucial to our family. Anything they bring beyond that will steer our future entrepreneurial culture and thereby shape it naturally, but it must happen within the culture of values we have defined first.”

During the startup stage, it naturally falls to the founder to be gatekeeper and guardian of the brand values and culture. But as the business grows they need to delegate to those with a shared commitment to maintaining the firm’s founding principles and ethos.

Branson adds: “In finding the best people for Virgin, we are guided by three principles: personality, passion and purpose. Book smarts and top grades are not what make Virgin tick. Hiring people with personalities, passion and purpose that fit with the Virgin way is what keeps our extraordinary culture alive and well.”

 

This article was written by Alison Coleman from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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