By Mike Southon
FT Columnist

Sometimes, it is better not to have too much notice of a potentially tricky assignment. I discovered this while attending an event at Sir Richard Branson’s house. I arrived, only to be asked if I would mind running a question-and-answer session with the man himself in 15 minutes’ time.

Fortunately, I was not totally unprepared. I had read his latest book Business Stripped Bare, which was written at the height of the banking crisis.

In the book, he advocates “small, healthy private banks” — citing the example of the Medicis in the 15th century. They devolved responsibility to their local managers, but ringfenced the risks so that one business failure could not bring down the whole system. This is the model followed by the Virgin Group today.

Since Sir Richard has been interviewed many times, I only needed to establish that I understood my role — which was to allow him to shine — and then facilitate his interaction with the invited audience.

My final preparation was focused on understanding the audience: why they were there, and what they wanted to know. Primarily, the event was for aspiring entrepreneurs using the Virgin Media Pioneers online network and resources — including some who had won a competition by submitting interesting video questions.

Matt Lovett asked Sir Richard what was his biggest fear when setting up a business and how he overcame it. Lesley Macintosh asked about self-funding. Jessica Anuna wanted to know how he got people to buy into Branson as a brand. Jamal Edwards wanted guidance on how to turn his own, already very popular, SBTV youth channel into a successful fashion business.

There were also delegates from The New Entrepreneurs Foundation, set up to create year-long internships for 25 of the UK’s most entrepreneurially-minded young adults — including Ushma Soneji, who asked about the difference between a business and a social enterprise.

In the course of the session, Sir Richard explained that he was dyslexic, and therefore had the essential entrepreneurs’ trait of seeing things in a different way. He was not afraid of taking risks, but they were always managed carefully. Self-funding was essential, especially when more conservative businesspeople did not share his vision.
He clearly had great fun being the face of the Virgin brand — explaining that his picture always generated a large number of column inches, which is a much cheaper alternative to advertising. But he emphasised that it is vital to hire the right team, and all businesses should have a social, as well as a business purpose.

Sir Richard often deferred to other people, from senior managers of Virgin Group companies to students from the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg who had been helped out of poverty. They all spoke with authority and passion about the challenges they faced.

Later, I asked Sir Richard to speak at a major event I am helping organise next March. He said he would be delighted, diary permitting. After he left, his consigliere politely reset my expectations to a more realistic level, explaining that Sir Richard gets many such requests on a daily basis, and even if he does agree, he might not be able to attend at the last minute.

I realised that in order to increase the chances of his attendance, I need to show that my event will meet his core values. Not only must it make business sense to The Virgin Group for him to be there, but the event should also be creative and have a distinct social purpose. Most importantly, it must be fun!

Virgin Media Pioneers can be found at

Originally published in The Financial Times: Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon- Co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur & Business Speaker-

Mike is one of the world’s top business speakers, a Fellow of The Professional Speakers Association. Mike is a Visiting Fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at London South Bank University. He has made frequent appearances on television and radio, has a monthly sales column in Real Business magazine and is a regular commentator in the Financial Times.

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