Richard Conway: What I learned in the company of Richard Branson

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Richard Conway, founder and CEO of Pure SEO has recently returned from a working holiday on Richard Branson's Necker Island.

Richard Conway spent a few days on Sir Richard Branson's Caribbean island with a group of tech entrepreneurs.
Richard Conway spent a few days on Sir Richard Branson's Caribbean island with a group of tech entrepreneurs.

The northern summer isn't the worst time for a trip to the Caribbean, and I recently had the opportunity to take a rare kind of working holiday: a few days spent with Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, and a small posse of other international tech entrepreneurs on Branson's private Necker Island.

Located in the heart of the British Virgin Islands, and right next to an island owned by Google co-founder Larry Page, the 74-acre Necker Island has become known as a place for creativity, inspiration and relaxation. Sir Richard spoke about the ideas formed and deals during conversations at the bar in the newly rebuilt great house. (The original burnt down in a fire while Sir Richard's mother, actress Kate Winslet and others were staying there).

There are some brilliant minds out there, and though my fellow guests aren't household names like our host they are every bit as intelligent, free-thinking and adventurous, and I'd be surprised if many of them don't become just as accomplished in their own field as our host is in his.

My fellow visitors included a woman who appeared on Secret Millionaire and is now a dragon on Dragons' Den Ireland, along with several well-regarded North American technology entrepreneurs and UK digital agency owners.

What resonated with me:

Risk may be overrated. Sir Richard was asked whether he would do all the same again, if he could have a do-over. His answer was that he might not take as many big risks - a surprising remark from one of the most noted business founders of our era.

Company culture is supremely important. Sir Richard and the other entrepreneurs were in full agreement about this. Several of the guests own tech companies in Silicon Valley and have to directly compete for staff with the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter. To win the best people they have to offer something different. One very successful Texan entrepreneur whose business competes with Oracle and SAP has adopted a Mexican-style 'familia' culture in which they treat their clients like family; it is company policy to give clients a hug. They also have a nightclub and a gym for staff.

Being generous pays off in spades. A couple of the American entrepreneurs give their staff as much holiday time as they want (not the norm in the US, where millions of workers are given no annual leave at all). The employees have targets and KPIs but this policy means all staff are invested in the business doing well (and therefore giving bonuses and other rewards) and in fact take less leave than they might otherwise.

Physical fitness is important. Sir Richard plays tennis all the time, kite surfs and more. A lot of the entrepreneurs cited keeping healthy as playing a huge part in their success.

Space is still the new frontier. Sir Richard is likely to go up in Virgin Galactic this year. In the future, he told us, it will be possible to fly Virgin Galactic from New Zealand to Necker Island in about an hour (my time in the air was 45 hours 24 minutes and total one-way travel time with stops was 34 hours). The cost will be around four times that of a current first-class ticket.

Public speaking can be hard for anyone. I asked Sir Richard if he is comfortable speaking in front of crowds, and he said no, he much prefers Q&As. When he does have to address large audiences he manages his discomfort by imagining he is in his living room talking to his friends.

Maintain a work/life balance no matter what. Our time on Necker was all about relaxing and having a go. We sailed, had tennis and yoga lessons, zip-lined . . . all on the island.

The main resolutions emerging from my visit:

• We're on the right track with our focus on culture, so we'll continue to foster this and only hire the best. In the long run that will be a big contributor to potential success.

• Value and treat your staff with the utmost respect; they choose to work for you.

• It's important for business owners to have a working holiday. It's all too easy to be bogged down in the day-to-day operation of the business, and this experience enabled me to take a step back and look at the business from the outside. It helped that I was surrounded by people willing to share their highs, lows and lessons.

• You don't need to go to the Caribbean to be able to examine the business from a fresh perspective. Simply take time out away from email and all distraction to think about things. As a result of the trip I am making some fundamental changes in my business that deep down I knew were necessary - the trip helped me to acknowledge them directly.

Richard Conway is the founder of PureSEO a search engine optimisation, AdWords and social media marketing services company.

- NZ Herald

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