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January 2009

A Global Entrepreneur Bares His (Business) Soul

Review by Barry Silverstein

Business Stripped Bare

By Richard Branson

Virgin Books © 2008, 342 pages, $26.95 (ISBN 978-1-905264-42-9)

Branson is refreshingly candid about his mistakes and his company’s setbacks.The story ofVirgin Mobile’s entry into the fierce cell phone market in the United States is compelling. Following an auspicious start in 2002 as a prepaid contract provider targeting the youth market, the company found itself in a fight for survival in 2005.

Whatever your opinion is of Sir Richard Branson, you’re not likely to accuse him of conventionalism. Branson’s intriguing story reads like a novel in which the protagonist is a swashbuckling, brazen, handsome entrepreneur who lives life on the edge –– and builds a multibillion-dollar global business empire to match.

In Business Stripped Bare:Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur, Branson offers up an unconventional busi- ness book –– one part autobiography, one part inside story and one part business advice –– blended into a work that sheds welcome light on the unlikely success of his empire,Virgin Group.

The company’s leader, Dan Schulman, came up with a plan to relaunch the business and turn it around in six months.The entire organization was overhauled in 2006. The handsets and the distribution network were revamped. New services built on emerging youth trends were added.Virgin Mobile USA’s customer base increased 20 percent and the company announced an IPO in October 2007. It sold more than 27 million shares at $15 per share. Even so, the stock was battered by a poor market. Five months after the offering,Virgin Mobile USA was down to $2 a share. Branson’s take on it:“For all its troubles –– or perhaps because of them –– I am incredibly proud ofVirgin Mobile USA.The compa- ny has had the guts to innovate its way out of trouble.”

‘The cautious do not live at all!’

When asked by newsman Bob Schieffer why he had gone into business, Branson recalls,“I suddenly realised I had never been interested in being ‘in business.’And, heaven help me, I said so, adding,‘I’ve been interested in creating things.’ ” In that context, it might be easier to understandVirgin Group as a conglomeration of seem- ingly unrelated businesses in which Branson takes an interest, rather than a company with a single strategic focus. In fact, Branson admits,“my driving force, I realise now, was finding new ways to give people a good time –– ide- ally, in places where they were least expecting it.”

Seven Key Success Areas

Branson has “strippedVirgin’s businesses bare” to reveal the common themes and ideas that he discusses in seven sections: people, brand, delivery, learning from mistakes and setbacks, innovation, entrepreneurs and leadership, and social responsibility.

Branson is convinced that risk-taking is essential, and that continuous innovation can help a business owner successfully navigate a changing market. Branson’s latest bold idea:“Why not just divert all the profits made by the Virgin Group from our carbon-creating businesses… and invest it in developing the cleaner technologies of the future?”

In his own handwriting on the back of the book is this Bransonism: “The brave may not live forever –– but the cautious do not live at all!” That’s a fair representation of the basic philosophy of this unconven- tional entrepreneur. The Buzz Notability: Readability: Takeaways: Innovation: Shelf Life:

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