What Richard Branson can teach doctors

Part-maverick, part-unconventional, part-smart business owner Sir Richard Branson has business lessons to share in spades. Since I recently read his third autobiographical book Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur, I wanted to pass on some of what I learned from the book.

Without knowing exactly why, I have long admired his acumen and chutzpah. His story has provided me insights into why I’ve been so drawn to his adventures in business and his larger-than-life personality.

For those of you who don’t know much about him, Branson is the product of a somewhat privileged middle-class upbringing (he descends from a line of barristers and judges) and an English public school (what we in the US call a private school). A self-proclaimed poor student with dyslexia, he failed to complete any college degree, but opted instead to start a business, first as a magazine publisher and then as a mail-order record company owner. He went on to found Virgin Records, and this single venture expanded over the decades to become the Virgin Group, a conglomerate of businesses focused on travel (planes, trains, space travel), entertainment and lifestyle (including humanitarian ventures like fighting HIV, AIDS and climate change).

I came away with many business lessons.  Here are a few.

Branson’s business philosophy is crystallized in these words, when asked why he went into business:

I’ve never been interested in being ‘in business’. I’ve been interested in creating things … Business is creative. It’s like painting. You start with a blank canvas. You can paint anything – anything – right there, is your first problem. For every good painting you might turn out, there are a zillion bad paintings just aching to drip off your brush. Scared? You should be. You start. You pick a color. The next color you pick has to work with the first color … People who succeed in business have swallowed their fear and have set out to create something special, something to make a difference to people’s lives …

Lesson: To thrive in business, it really helps to be passionate about creating something worthwhile. As a relative newcomer to entrepreneurship, I have maintained for years now that being an entrepreneur is a radical act of creativity, and it makes an every day “practice” so much more fun once you think of it as an entrepreneurial venture.

His fiercely independent path to success, in the face of rampant naysayers and critics, is both inspirational and hard to imagine duplicating. His gut instincts have won out many times over the analytics and pompous prognostications of others. He’s a master as staying on course with his vision and sense of purpose and ignoring the conventional wisdom.

I’m not good at theory. Almost everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned by doing.

Lesson: While you may draw insight and inspiration from someone else’s success story, you must rely on knowledge about your own marketplace, along with your inner talents and skills, to forge your own path.

Branson has been driven by the desire to innovate, partly I suspect because it’s in his genetic make-up and partly because he has been an astute observer of his own ecosystem’s evolution.

The best, most solid way out of a crisis in a changing market is through experimentation and adaptation.

Lesson: Healthcare is in crisis and the market is changing. It’s vital that we, as providers in an unstable setting, experiment and adapt. New business models? New levels of customer service? New joint ventures, relationships, partnerships?

His two greatest secrets of business success, in my opinion?

1. His relentless focus on the Virgin brand, along with his absolute clarity about what the brand stands for.
2. His dogged insistence on placing the people who work for him first.  Wouldn’t that be nice, in healthcare?

Philippa Kennealy is a family physician and certified physician development coach who blogs at The Entrepreneurial MD.


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