Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Inspiration: it’s out there

The quest to break established trends should begin by drawing upon outside sources to identify an existing product that can benefit from being refined

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 successes have seldom come from inventing new products or services; they’ve come from stepping into existing industries and breathing new life into goods or products. For example, we certainly 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 established trends should begin by drawing upon outside sources in order to identify an existing product or service that can benefit from being refined, revitalized, 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 TV show Seinfeld—get their best material by simply listening to other people’s conversations about life’s every day 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 for entrepreneurs.

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 frequently 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 every flight. I thought that our team at Virgin could surely do a better job. What if we could turn awful service into awesome service? What if we fed passengers real food and provided them with decent in-flight entertainment?

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 actually happy, pleasant and caring with our passengers! 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 from other locations, but what you couldn’t get was spirited, knowledgeable staff making excellent recommendations 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, telecoms, hotels, health clubs and scores of other businesses.

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 conglomerate or the local corner shop, great customer 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 impossible 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.



Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at

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