At the time of the pitch, Brett Godfrey was the CFO of Virgin Express, a regional airline that served cities in Europe. Godfrey was living in England and had decided to move his family back to Australia. Before he left, Godfrey was on the phone with Branson and asked if he had a minute to pitch an idea. He meant 60 seconds, literally.
"Hold on, I've got the idea on the back of some beer mat," Godfrey said. Branson heard papers ruffling in the background. Godfrey found the pitch. He had written it on the back of a coaster where he had placed a pint of beer.
Godrey pitched the idea of a low-cost airline in Australia. As the son of a Quantas employee, he knew the Australian aviation market. He had sat down with an airline expert over a beer and together they hatched the idea.
Branson was hooked and asked for a more detailed plan, which Godfrey delivered. The numbers added up, Godfrey's vision was clear, and Branson gave him the green light. In that moment, Virgin Blue was born and launched with $10 million and just two jets. Today, renamed Virgin Australia Airlines, it's the second largest airline in Australia.
The lesson Branson takes away from the experience and the tip he offers entrepreneurs is this:
"The best ideas don't always need to have detailed financial projections and complicated business proposals behind them. Sometimes they come fully formed on the back of a beer mat... If it can't fit onto the back of an envelope, it's probably a bad idea. Keep it short, sharp and picture-perfect."
Branson should know a good pitch. In his book, he says he has listened to 25,000 pitches. The advice reminds me of a tip I once heard from one of Google's early investors at Sequoia Capital. He said, "If an entrepreneur cannot explain his idea in ten words or less, I'm not interested and I'm not investing. Period." Clearly, Branson agrees.
Investors want to see the big picture before an entrepreneur dives into the details of a business idea. Just as every story needs a headline and every book needs a title, a good storyteller will start with the one big idea before expanding on the details.
In a business pitch or presentation, the headline is the one sentence that's going to grab your listener's attention and put the narrative into context. It's the one thing your listener needs to know. The one big idea--reinforced by three or four simple, short messages--should be able to fit on an envelope, a beer coaster, or an airline napkin.
Simple is hard work. If an entrepreneur can distill the essence of an idea onto something as small as a coaster (or in ten words) it shows investors that they have a clear vision for the big picture.