There’s No Such Thing as a Perfect Business

(Great article by Richard Branson! Remember, there are no perfect leaders, either!)

Companies don’t just appear fully-formed and perfect. They are built over time. But how fast? And, well, how?

I’ve been enjoying listening to the Masters of Scale podcast series, in which LinkedIn co-founder, Reid Hoffman has been taking a look at how well-known entrepreneurs have taken their companies from zero to a hundred in inspirational fashion.

In his latest episode, featuring a conversation with Mark Zuckerberg, Reid makes the case for embarrassing yourself in business. I’m no stranger to embarrassment – I’ve dressed in drag, been pushed into pools, and fumbled my words with the world watching. But that’s not the type of embarrassment Reid is referring to.

He explains: “If you’re not embarrassed by your first product release, you’ve released it too late. Why? Because your assumptions about what your users want are never exactly right. You need to test a real product, with real customers as soon as possible – basically the moment you have a bare-bones version. It’s the fastest way to build something users can’t resist.”

As a young teenager, Mark built a messaging system for his father’s dental surgery, so that his team could share data across the practice. Mark claims that the software was a predecessor to many of his social platform ideas, but AOL came along and everybody started to use instant messenger. This taught him a great lesson: the importance of speed to market; and he henceforth adopted the motto “move fast and break things.”

I’ve always lived by the philosophy that if somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it. I’m an incurable optimist, who certainly shares Mark’s carefree sprit in most aspects of my life. However, when it comes to business, my approach is different.

The optimist in me always wants to grab the bull by the horns, but having built a number of businesses in industries where safety comes first, I have learned the importance of always delivering the best quality product possible.

I am by no means a perfectionist like Steve Jobs – but I feel I strike a balance between Steve and Mark. There’s no such thing as perfect, nor is there such a thing as the ‘right’ way to do things. But, at Virgin the quality of our product and services matters most.

Unlike Mark and Reid – who’ve built two of the world’s most game-changing digital platforms – we aren’t in the business of slapping together programmes on the fly. There is no margin for error in commercial space travel, air travel, train travel or banking; so we will never compromise safety for speed.

We test and trial. We’re constantly changing and advancing our experience and looking for ways to improve our product offering. As Reid explains: “The way for most entrepreneurs to create a great product is through a tight feedback loop, with real customers using a real product.”

We’re always looking for ways to shake things up and do things differently. And we’re most certainly not scared of failure. Every entrepreneur and entrepreneurial business knows that failure is the best learning tool. No one gets it right all the time, and the story of every entrepreneur tells a tale of second, third or even fourth chances. But when your business physically interacts with people in a way that can have a profound impact on their life, than quality beats pace, every time.

As Warren Buffett says: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”