School of hard knocks

Q: I understand that
you chose not to continue school after age 16, but created your own path to
success. Do you think getting a university diploma is necessary to become a
successful person? I am a university student and sometimes I wonder whether I
would do better without it. What are your thoughts?

I believe I have some
great and even innovative ideas for new businesses, but face the difficulty of
turning an idea into something real. What advice would you give me to overcome
this step? Felipe Herriges, Brazil

A: Education is a
wonderful thing. I am fortunate that at this stage of my career, I have the
opportunity to learn about many new subjects, ranging from the impact of
climate change to the possibility of colonizing Mars.

But when I was young,
school wasn’t easy. I was not a great student, partly because of my dyslexia
(which was not diagnosed until later) and partly because of my restless nature.
I found it hard to concentrate in class and spent much of my time in school
dreaming up and setting up new businesses.

By the time I was 16
I was ready to leave school, but my father, Edward Branson, was reluctant to
approve my decision. One weekend he came to visit my boarding school and tried
to persuade me to continue my studies. He hoped I’d become a lawyer like him. I
reluctantly agreed; he drove home to explain “our” decision to my mother, Eve.

She was not happy!
She told him to make the long drive back immediately, to reassure me that it
was OK to leave. He did, and I left school that summer. I never once looked
back, first setting up Student magazine and, a few years later, the Virgin
record stores. My father sometimes jokes that the second return trip was the
“best drive of his life.”

However, my story is
a very personal one; my strategy will not work for everyone. A diploma can be
very useful, since it shows that you have gained the skills and other building
blocks required to start your career.

But obtaining a
diploma is only a first step, and in no way guarantees success. You’ll need to
a great work ethic and determination to make it – both in business and life.
You also need your fair share of good luck.

I would advise
tackling your studies with a positive attitude – try to enjoy your time at
university. Try a few new things while you are there, and maybe even start a
business, if this is where your interests lie.

In Johannesburg, we
have set up the Branson School of Entrepreneurship to help foster budding
entrepreneurs and their fledgling companies. Most of our students are young men
and women, determined to study hard and build their businesses. One of the most
important things we impart to them is the importance of enjoying your work.

Most entrepreneurs’
first ventures fail – I know, because mine did – but the lessons you learn from
failure are invaluable and will help you with your next attempts. You have to
be very determined and accept that the early stages of launching any business
are mostly about just surviving.

Turning an idea into
reality is a key step that all entrepreneurs have to master. Try to see your
ideas through your customers’ eyes – it’ll help you determine which ideas have
a chance of succeeding.

The high-speed
service offered by Virgin Trains’ West Coast line in the U.K. is a classic
example.

When we were bidding
for our franchise in 1996, we saw that rail passengers were fed up with our
future competitors, since their trains were slow, crowded and uncomfortable.
They wanted faster trains, airline-style seats, entertainment services and good
food. We designed our train service to fit this bill and introduced modern
trains – recently with wireless internet access.

Good luck, Felipe! If
you complete your education, throw everything into your studies and remember,
whether you’re working for a company or setting up your own business, to work
hard, persevere and smile, you will be on the road to success.

 

Richard Branson is
the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin
America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at     www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You
can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. To learn more about
the Virgin Group: www.virgin.com.