Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : January 29th 2015 Contents JANUARY 2015 • WEEK FIVE www.guardian.co.tt BUSINESS GUARDIAN
COMMENTARY | BG13
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I've tried many different routes on my life's
journey, including attending university and
joining the armed forces. However, all of my
plans seem to fall through.
As a student, I scored high on
entrepreneurship tests, so I've decided to
start my own business and try to break some
trends, but I'm struggling to get started.
Can you offer any tips from your own
experience on how to find inspiration and
come up with an original idea?
- MATTHEW HOWMAN
At Virgin, our biggest success-
es have seldom come from
inventing new products or
services; they ve come from
stepping into existing indus-
tries and breathing new life
into goods or products. For example, we cer-
tainly didn t invent commercial aviation when
we started our airline, Virgin Atlantic, nor did
we invent rail service or banking with Virgin
Trains and Virgin Money. Instead, what we
did in each instance was to take a hypercritical
look at the shoddy services that existing
providers were offering, then systematically
set about raising the bar.
And it worked.
My point here, Matthew, is that you don t
necessarily have to come up with an "original"
idea on your own. As the great author Mark
Twain once wrote: "All ideas are second-hand,
consciously or unconsciously drawn from a
million outside sources."
With that in mind, your quest to break estab-
lished trends should begin by drawing upon
outside sources in order to identify an existing
product or service that can benefit from being
refined, revitalised, repackaged or delivered in
a novel manner.
Let me illustrate what I mean: I ve always
been intrigued how the best comedy writers---
like Larry David, the brilliant creator of the
TV show Seinfeld---get their best material by
simply listening to other people s conversations
about life s everyday foibles and frustrations,
and by experiencing those problems themselves.
Those writers can t lock themselves away and
wait for inspiration to strike. The same goes
You have to be in the thick of things: listening,
watching and touching everything around you.
A breakthrough will happen when you come
across something that just doesn t look right,
doesn t work right, doesn t smell right or just
doesn t taste quite right. Indeed, finding a
product or service that needs disrupting really
comes down to using all five of your senses.
Come up with a way to make it better than
the original, and you ll be on the right track.
As I have often related, my inspiration for
getting into commercial aviation---an industry
about which I knew absolutely nothing---came
entirely from my dissatisfaction as a passenger.
Years ago, having to fly across the Atlantic fre-
quently on business for Virgin Records, I would
travel on that other (unnamed) British airline,
where even the so-called "economy" tickets
were ridiculously expensive and the service
was consistently awful.
On one of those trips, a light bulb lit up
above my head.
So, as is my custom, I started taking copious
notes on the every flight. I thought that our
team at Virgin could surely do a better job.
What if we could turn awful service into awe-
some service? What if we fed passengers real
food and provided them with decent in-flight
As I have written before, when we finally
assembled my notes into a plan of action and
launched Virgin Atlantic in 1984, the most
talked-about innovation was the most obvious
one: We had hired cabin crews who were actu-
ally happy, pleasant and caring with our pas-
sengers! It was hardly the stuff of genius, but
it was, nevertheless, a game changer.
The same can be said for our Virgin Records
stores (back in the days when people bought
music in shops!). It was true that you could
buy music in plenty of other locations, but
what you couldn t get was spirited, knowl-
edgeable staff making excellent recommenda-
tions in a unique, enjoyable atmosphere. Over
the years our customers may have changed
from hippies to punks to new romantics, but
our focus on amazing service was constant.
This line of thinking worked at Virgin Records,
at Virgin Atlantic, and the same formula of
people-driven service delivery has since become
a differentiator for Virgin s trains, banks, tele-
coms, hotels, health clubs and scores of other
Remember that even in our digitally focused
world, perhaps more than ever, people still
make a difference. Whatever kind of business
you look at, whether it s a multinational con-
glomerate or the local corner shop, great cus-
tomer service is the name of the game.
In your case, Matthew, I recommend that
you start looking at the vendors you use every
day in a more objective light. Consider any of
their failings as an opportunity for you to do
better. Listen intently to your friends when
they express frustrations like, "It s really impos-
sible to find good XYZ around here," and see
if you can maybe fill in the blanks.
You never know where that inspiration might
come from, but I assure you that it s out there.
Just put your senses to work.
@2015 Richard Branson. Distributed by
the New York Times Syndicate
Inspiration. It's out there
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