I have never had a truly professional job. I’ve never been on the other side of the interview process, and I’ve (thankfully!) never had a boss. From a very young age – long before I knew what the word meant – I was an entrepreneur.
My introduction to the working world came from my mother, who was always using her limitless imagination to come up with new business ideas. She managed the whole process herself, from developing the ideas, to crafting the products, to making deals with distributors and selling goods herself. One of her more successful ventures was building and selling wooden tissue boxes and wastepaper bins in national stores.
She was resolute, and taught me if an item didn’t sell, you try something else. I was always helping around the house and picked up a lot of useful tips without ever realising it at the time. I made plenty of mistakes and was able to learn from them rather than spend time fretting over every little error. There was never enough time for that, it was always on to the next adventure!
When I was 11, I decided it was time to start my own small business. With my best friend Nik Powell as my partner, we set about breeding budgerigars. We saw a gap in the market to sell budgies as they were very popular with kids in school at the time. However, they kept multiplying quicker than we could sell them, and the school holidays were coming to an end…
We went back off to boarding school and left my parents to look after all the birds. We lived in the countryside, and I think the rats got to some of them. As for the rest? My mum opened the cages and set them free! Next I tried selling Christmas trees, buying lots of small ones and hoping to make a fortune when they grew. Sadly, the rabbits ate those!
While we were discussing this we were also making a documentary about my passion for animal conservation. I guess the budgerigars weren’t a good start! But perhaps they ignited my passion for animals, which has stayed with me all of my life. Now we breed endangered lemurs on Necker Island, and Virgin Unite support animal conservation schemes from sharks to rhinos, rays to elephants.
Despite the setbacks with budgies and Christmas trees, my appetite for the life of an entrepreneur wasn’t sated. Thankfully our next venture — Student Magazine — went a lot better, and from that sprang Virgin Records. Forty years on, the Virgin Group has more than 100 companies and approximately 60,000 employees in over 50 countries. But if it wasn’t for those first few failures, the future successes would never have happened.
One thing to remember is to be flexible. I was whatever was necessary when I wrote to people. Editor to some. Circulation manager to others. Advertising manager to others!