Why Richard Branson And His Community Beats ‘Cut-Throat’ Business

I’m not gonna lie: my ‘serious, successful businessman’ gene responds well to serious validation. Does yours? Would you feel validated if you met mega-successful entrepreneur Richard Branson? Maybe so!

I guessed as such about myself… and then it happened.

In the 2010s, our leisure sector company had immediate and stratospheric lift-off: killer forecasts, vertical financials, staff hire, company expansion. It was bigger, better, stronger every day as we slogged our guts out aiming for the moon. The 90-hour working weeks, however, meant I was either deep inside the work or firmly switched off and ready to party.

I took the party business seriously. Professionalism was paramount. I wanted to prove we weren’t just chancers. I was invested in the veneer and in appearing classy. We were based in the UK seaside party city of Brighton but my heart was forever in London’s elite business quarter of Canary Wharf.

Fast Track 100 Awards

And then we got the call: we’d made it onto the Fast Track 100 league table. This annual British business awards, helmed by The Sunday Times and supported by Sir Richard Branson, was a benchmark of success. I remember how proud I felt; it ticked the box in my head labelled ‘business upper-crust’. It was great to be recognised. All the hard work had paid off.

Fast-forward to the inevitable awards networking event at Branson’s gaff in Oxford. I was ready to hobnob with the stars of UK enterprise – though with my nose firmly in the air. My attitude was: “This is all very nice but I need to get back to work.” If I’m honest, I was chippy and determined to prove myself. If, as I said, I was ‘on the job’, it was all very serious. If I was representing my brand in a non-work context, I’d get hammered and show off. Either way I definitely avoided warm, authentic connection.

The ‘In Crowd’ That Made Me Feel Welcome

So what unfolded that day was completely unexpected. Instead of kissing backsides or getting trashed, it was all meaningful chat and heartfelt camaraderie. This was the heart of ‘professional business’, with people whose companies effortlessly turned over tens or twenties of millions – yet they, like me, were also struggling with the everyday difficulties associated with fast growth: staff, funding, service delivery and more. They were just like me! I found the ease of connection an eye-opener.

At one point, the owner of Appliances Online gave a talk. AO was massive that year and I was prepared to be intimidated by a business meteor but here was a down-to-earth, 40-something Yorkshire bloke talking sense in a really engaging way. My small, shy, ‘business is for everybody’ philosophy was given voice. I felt validated, less alone, less chippy and oddly, more grounded.

Did I get to meet Sir Richard Branson? Sure. We shook hands in a ‘Royal Variety Show meets a wedding line’ way. He talked about enterprise and business with a fostering, fraternal vibe that reflected the day: warm, relaxed, heartfelt.

It hit me that I didn’t need to be either a cartoon version of a high-flyer or a larger-than-life party animal. I could relax. What was more important was to meet other small-business directors and vibe off them. To embrace personalities and people. Business is people, and we – the business owners – are people, too.

Who are your people?