“Screw it, just do it”: Why Richard Branson’s motto works for start-ups today

Britain's most beloved entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson talks innovation, start-up confidence, and staying fearless at times of uncertainty ahead of Voom Tour 2017.

While two in five British entrepreneurs think they may have the next big world-changing idea, 70 per cent admit to being crippled by the fear of failure.

This according to research from Virgin Media Business, the unit behind the annual Richard Branson-backed Voom start-up pitch event. While Branson’s undulating career as the jet-setting entrepreneur and philanthropist has seen its lows as well as its highs, the fact that seven in ten entrepreneurs, equivalent to over 13.8 million people, face ‘business diffidence’ may be a cause for concern.

For Branson, his long-standing motto, ‘screw it, just do it’ is the only way to break through these barriers.

“There are lots of people who have the same ideas, but unless they’re a determined team, they’re not going to get anywhere,” he said at the launch of Voom this year.

“We’re in a time of uncertainty,” he added, “which is why small businesses need all the help they can get. Small businesses are going to be what generates the big ideas. The future of Great Britain, and the future of the world will be based on small business.”

Half of the entrepreneurs who are still waiting in the sidelines, hesitating to start up cite a lack of funding as their main obstacle, according to the research. 37 per cent say its a confidence issue.

Branson believes that these businesses need a push that can only come from going to them. This year, Voom is more than a start-up pitch event. Over the next six months, a big red Virgin Media Business bus is set to tour the UK, including ten Voom Pitch competition stops (Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Dublin, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle, and Winchester). The tour aims to rally entrepreneurs from each of these cities to pitch their ideas for the chance to win £50,000 and to receive business advice from Branson and other experts.

“The Voom Bus is going on tour to seek out brilliant British entrepreneurs and to help them break down the business barriers in their way. We’re bringing the Voom Tour into communities and challenging people to put aside their fears and pitch their business ideas as we travel across the UK,” Branson added.

Ultimately, these start-ups will need to toughen up to pitch to seasoned entrepreneurs like Branson, which is why he believes the secret to a solid pitch is brevity.

“Keep it short. I’m famously dyslexic, so for me, it’s all about keeping it short and simple,” he said. “At Virgin, if we make an advertisement, the team goes, ‘if Richard can understand it, we know it’s going to work. ‘It’s the concept of the elevator pitch. Can you get it across it in an elevator?”

Voom Pitch gives finalists longer than the time it would take for the average elevator ride. It’s a platform for small businesses with big ideas to pitch their ideas to entrepreneurial experts for advice, a portion of £1 million in prize money, and a whole slew of marketing support. The regional event for the UK is part of the larger VOOM Tour, which was announced as a new addition to the whole start-up support programme.

For last year’s winner, Scottish start-up MacRebur, the marketing opportunities following their win was the best part of the Voom 2016 experience. “When we entered Voom, we only had one product. Now we have three. We went from a simple idea, but at the time we had a barrage of people saying it won’t work. Voom gave us the ability to say ‘actually it can be done’,” MacRebur founder and CEO, Toby MacCartney, said.

MacRebur catapulted into the mainstream after winning Voom 2016, with access to branding through international billboard and public advertising giant, JC Decaux, as a first for a socially and environmentally conscious start-up. MacRebur gives plastics that can’t be recycled a second life as road mix for filling potholes and increasing the longevity of the world’s battered highways.

“We’re not interrupting the recycling process. We only use plastics that can’t be recycled. Unfortunately for the world, there’s plenty of that available,” he added.

Last year, MacRebur took home £50,000 after winning the regional pitch competition. Since then, the company went from just have a solid proof of concept to a fully-fledged business. The marketing machine propelled them into London’s major train stations and public spaces, and their media tour has seen MacCartney interviewed across publications.

“I wonder what MacRebur would be without Voom. I wouldn’t be sitting here, for one. It’s an essential for anyone who calls themselves an entrepreneur,” MacCartney added.

See also: VOOM 2016 winners see value in waste

A common theme among many of the regional winners of the pitch event has often been social impact. Mexican start-up, Aliada, won the Impact Award last year. The housekeeping booking service based in Mexico City offers a new, socially responsible model for one of cleaning services in the on-demand economy. Founder and CEO Rodolfo Corcuera built the business with Mexico’s vulnerable domestic workers in mind, who often work long hours and struggle to find jobs that don’t require a four-hour commute. These workers also often are underpaid and there aren’t many support systems in place for their wellbeing. With Aliada, which means ‘allied’ in Spanish, these women can now decide where in the city they want to work and when, putting the power back in their hands, like how most other on-demand services function.

Branson was drawn to the business for its immediate impact on human lives. “Innovation generates social impact. It’s only natural. In Mexico, these women would be traveling 100 miles a day for work, for very little pay. Now they can choose where they want to work, and can do four or five jobs in the same time. They’re getting paid more, and they’re able to be close to home. This is an example of how a small business can make such a big difference in people’s lives,” Branson said.

“I get the credit when things go well and I suppose I do get the knocks when things don’t,” he added. “This is why I love these competitions.”

With Brexit uncertainty rocking the business world, Branson’s ‘screw it, just do it’ motto has never rung more true. “Small businesses need to make sure the government realises the importance of us being able to trade within Europe,” he said, glossing over the Brexit question. “The government should make sure trading doesn’t become cumbersome or bureaucratic as it was before the EU. That’s the key.”

For MacRebur’s MacCartney, the realities of Brexit still have about two years to kick in, which is why the start-up has been on overdrive to build relationships with Europe now. “We’ve been desperately getting into Europe before Brexit happens using partners in the UK that are also based in Europe to help us get there. Our approach is to look beyond the politics for the opportunities still there. The entrepreneurial mindset should be switched on to spot these opportunities, not the challenges,” MacCartney said.

As an IP-heavy business, MacRebur’s strategy is to build a moat around the business, says MacCartney. “We call it (building a moat around our business) because we’ve got the patents and paperwork, and the greatest protection we have is to keep our mix a total secret. But no matter how strong this moat may be, someone will inevitably find a way to copy us, so I say great! Let more people do what we do. It’ll help tackle the world’s mounting plastics problem. And for is, it’s more about getting to market first.”

Branson believes that the entrepreneurial mindset is what will keep businesses ticking despite market volatility, geopolitical uncertainty, and even good old fashioned idea-stealing. Yet another reason why his motto holds water today. “Screw it, just do it.”

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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