During a recent radio interview on the BBC, the host asked me what advice I would give to young people who want to start their own businesses. In the 46 years since I launched Student magazine, the world has certainly changed. The uncertain economic outlook and the relentless pace of technological advances make replicating Virgin’s success much more challenging for today’s young entrepreneur.
At Student magazine, we expressed our opposition to the Vietnam War and the Cold War; these days, governments now face the more nebulous threat of terrorism and instability in the Middle East and Africa. Back then, American and European markets were generally stable; today, the economic power of Western nations is being challenged by the fast-growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, and growth opportunities and new markets can be found around the world.
There is also marketers’ new ability to bypass traditional channels — TV, radio and newspapers — and build a strong following online for their companies via Twitter, Google+, Facebook and new applications such as Path and Klout. This means that most startups are able to launch with smaller marketing budgets, and that entrepreneurs can break into new markets fast. It also means that successful companies must defend their positions, because their products can go out of fashion just as quickly as they caught on.
But during the radio interview I found myself arguing that while the world may be changing quickly, the steps to building a good business have not. The five simple guidelines we followed when we started the magazine and then Virgin Music remain as valid and useful as they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
1. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. You must love what you do.
2. Be innovative: Create something different that will stand out.
3. Your employees are your best asset. Happy employees make for happy customers.
4. Lead by listening: Get feedback from your staff and customers on a regular basis.
5. Be visible: Market the company and its offers by putting yourself or a senior person in front of the cameras.
Virgin Media founded its Pioneers program to promote aspiring business people and help them to network. One of our best known pioneers is Jamal Edwards, the founder of SB.TV, an online music and lifestyle channel, whose company and business model remind me of Virgin’s in our early days.
When Edwards started out, his company was just himself and his camera; he started posting videos of rap performances for his online followers. He was doing what he loved, and soon he developed a cult following for his passionate, innovative and authentic early videos of musical events.
Once he had established a brand and a following, Edwards and his team extended SB.TV’s reach into more areas, including music and lifestyle, merchandise, clothing and even a record label. Traditional brands like Puma and Nando’s (the fast-food chain) started calling, wanting to discuss deals and endorsements.
Edwards has also made his own luck by spotting talent. In 2010 a struggling singer-songwriter sent a video to SB.TV that was accepted and placed on the company’s YouTube channel. The views kept racking up, and eventually the rapper Example offered the unsigned young singer a chance to tour with him. This was none other than Ed Sheeran, whose career was effectively launched by SB.TV.
Edwards remains very busy and very visible, promoting SB.TV and himself wherever he can — on his website, in partnership with Google Chrome and in the media, he tells the story of his company and their dreams and successes, getting the message out. And he knows that good business depends on backing your people and being a good listener. Despite his early successes, he remains down to earth, always willing to listen and constantly trying new ventures.
If you have the right idea and execute properly, your startup’s launch date does not matter. While the business environment has changed, the basic rules remain the same. Rather than getting nostalgic about how things used to be, embrace the new opportunities and challenges available to you now.