This post is part of a series in which LinkedIn Influencers share how they turned setbacks into success. Read all their stories here.
If you are running a successful company, one of the most terrifying things you can ask your business partners is: “What do you think about starting an airline?” When your successful company features The Sex Pistols, The Rolling Stones and Culture Club, the idea of going into aviation sounds even more shocking.
To be a real entrepreneur you always have to be looking forward. The moment you rest on your laurels is the moment your competition overtakes you. Out of frustration at poor service and cancelled flights, I ended up chartering the first Virgin flight. It was only natural that out of that frustration – and subsequent fun and excitement! – I began seriously considering the idea of a whole airline.
However, to my colleagues at Virgin Records who lived and breathed music 24 hours a day, aviation was completely alien. While I was no expert, I could see how having an airline would expand the brand, create jobs and provide new adventure and opportunities. Nevertheless, when I told my partner Simon “I’ve got a proposal here,” it should have been no surprise when he called me mad. “For God’s sake!” he shouted. “You’re crazy. Come off it.” Still, entrepreneurs have to take calculated risks. After protecting the downside by keeping the two companies separate, and agreeing a deal with Boeing, whereby we could hand the plane back after 12 months if the airline wasn’t working out, we started Virgin Atlantic.
I’ve often joked about the best way to become a millionaire – start out as a billionaire and launch an airline! While moving from the music industry with Virgin Records to aviation with Virgin Atlantic was a huge career curveball for me personally, it was an even bigger jump for the rest of Virgin, not to mention my friends and family. We went from taking on rival labels in the charts and in the clubs to challenging global airlines in the air – and eventually in the courts!
Despite being independent companies, Records and Atlantic were intrinsically linked (a model that has worked well across the Virgin Group ever since). However, when British Airways’ Dirty Tricks campaign put a huge strain on the future of Virgin Atlantic, we had to make the decision to sell Virgin Records in order to give the airline the financial muscle to compete. It was the right decision, but an incredibly tough curveball moment. I found myself running down Ladbroke Grove in London with tears streaming down my face and a $1 billion cheque in my pocket.
Companies are simply groups of people working together to make a difference – so by selling a company it feels like you are losing a part of your family. It certainly felt like that for me, and for all of the Virgin Records team. However, decades on, Virgin Atlantic has been joined by Virgin America and Virgin Australia (not to mention Virgin Galactic) in the skies, and Virgin Records celebrated its 40th anniversary last year with a new generation of disruptive artists flying up the charts, from Emeli Sandé to Bastille.
If we hadn’t embraced change, we would have become stagnant – and you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.
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