Valuable business lessons from a night at Richard Branson's house

A few weeks ago I was invited to Sir Richard Branson's house because Make It Cheaper is currently one of the UK's Fast Track 100 companies (at number 39 if you're interested). My fellow guests were all owners and directors of businesses on that list.

Among the people I encountered that day were guest speakers Richard Reed, Michael Acton Smith and Nick Robertson, who told the success stories of their respective companies Innocent Drinks, Mind Candy and ASOS. They have overcome all sorts of different challenges to get where they are today - but it struck me that they all referred (or at least alluded) to three major principles that any aspiring entrepreneur would be wise to consider.

The first of these is about mission and vision - and to get this right you need to probe away at what your business plans to do, what it stands for and how it's going to achieve its goals. It might seem like asking these questions repeatedly will result in some kind of existential crisis, but actually the effect is quite the opposite. A firm sense of mission and vision brings your business to life - it gives you a chance to cultivate a culture in which staff are fully engaged and working towards a common purpose. The way you position the company to your team will almost certainly affect the way you are perceived externally, as it's a flawed idea to market yourself as someone you're not - the savvy British public will be onto you in a flash.

The second thing to strive for, in simple terms, is something really good about your product or service - that one thing that makes it different from anything else out there. ASOS were the first online fashion store to offer free returns. At Make It Cheaper we have a no-quibbles savings guarantee. Spend time finding that unique quality - you can't rely solely on your own faith that you can do something better than your competitors. If you offer something that is genuinely good, you can save a packet on above-the-line advertising because your customers will advocate your company and effectively do your promotion for you.

The final piece of advice that stood out is to make sure you take the time to hire the right staff. Look at the example of online giants Google, who are notoriously rigorous about their recruitment process - there's even a book on the subject that's filled with mind-bending sample interview questions. You might not feel that you have to go to quite the same lengths as Google, but give the process the rigour it deserves. Surrounding yourself with the right people is a key ingredient to the success of any new business venture.

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