Building a successful business is hard, and no one has ever done it the same way twice. Each entrepreneur must puzzle through their own series of tough tradeoffs and competing priorities. There's lots of advice out there to guide you, but no one can tell you exactly how to make your business successful.
There are, however, a handful of ways to pretty much guarantee you're going to fail. Get these things wrong, and no amount of cleverness or hard work can save you. And if anyone out there has nailed getting the basics right, it's Sir Richard Branson.
The serial entrepreneur has succeeded big in everything from banking to space tourism, and on his blog recently he shared his five-part formula for entrepreneurial success, no matter what type of business you're building.
1. Make something useful.
This seems obvious, but Branson's not the only one warning would-be entrepreneurs that their most likely mistake is making something no one actually needs. Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, for instance, advises against sitting around brainstorming startup ideas for the sake of making it big. The result, he says, is usually "sitcom startup ideas."
"Imagine one of the characters on a TV show was starting a startup. The writers would have to invent something for it to do. But coming up with good startup ideas is hard. It's not something you can do for the asking. So, unless they got amazingly lucky, the writers would come up with an idea that sounded plausible, but was actually bad," he has written.
Have "I want to build a startup" as your starting point, and you'll probably end up doing the same. Branson tries to steer would-be entrepreneurs around the same pitfall by suggesting they focus on impact, not success.
"Above all else, you should not go into business purely for financial reasons. Running a company involves long hours and hard decisions; if you don't have a better reason than money to keep going, your business will more than likely fail, as many new businesses do."
"So, it's important to create something of use that is going to benefit society as a whole. If you do something you truly care about, you will be in a much better position to find customers, connect with them, and keep them coming back."
2. Have a dead simple message.
Marketing strategy can get complicated, but Branson insists that, at its core, your brand's pitch must be dead simple.
"Customers don't just shop for a brand and its products, but also identify with its core values. Ask yourself, why did I start my business? Be honest -- this will help you establish an authentic value and voice. Then break your message into something simple," he writes.
For instance, Virgin stands for "great customer service, good value, and innovative alternatives to our competitors' offerings," he explains.
3. Market yourself.
Know your message? Great, now you have to get out there and trumpet it to the world. This isn't Field of Dreams. If you build it, they will not come. Not without adequate marketing, at least. That doesn't necessarily mean spending a fortune, but it does require a willingness to put yourself out there for the world to see (and potentially laugh at).
"My mentor, Sir Freddie Laker, a man who had started a company to challenge British Airways on their home turf, gave me some invaluable advice when I was starting up Virgin Atlantic," Branson recalls. "Knowing that we couldn't match the more established airlines in terms of marketing budget, he encouraged me to drive the publicity myself: 'Use yourself. Make a fool of yourself. Otherwise you won't survive.' I took his advice, and I've been thinking up fun ways to stand out from the crowd and draw the media's attention to our company ever since."
Hot-air balloon flights and cross-dressing might not be your thing, and that's fine. You don't have to be as outlandish in courting publicity as Branson, but you do have to be willing to put yourself out there in a brave, authentic way.
4. Embrace social media.
Making a spectacle of yourself might be as old as the first market barker who out-shouted her neighbor to sell more vegetables, but these days this sort of hustle is best done through more high-tech means.
"Social media is not only more cost-efficient than advertising, but it also offers great opportunities for innovative engagement with your customers," Branson claims. Only if you do social right, however.
"In my experience, selling a product through social media doesn't always work -- it's better to simply communicate with your customers in an authentic way and have fun. As you build an online profile that people can identify with and trust, you'll find that they will soon become customers," he instructs.
5. Enjoy what you do.
Liking your work is, of course, important for happiness. But Branson and science agree that you're also far more likely to succeed professionally if you enjoy your time at the office every day. "If you genuinely love and believe in what you do, others will take notice and share your enthusiasm," he believes.
Which is why he also states that, "If you find your interest flagging, it's time to make a change -- switch from operations to management, move on, expand into new territories, anything that interests you. To find success, you need to be fully committed or your work will show it," a sentiment with which many other icons agree.
Want more details on Branson's five-point recipe for success? Then check out his complete post.