Richard Branson: why it's OK to ask for help

Being an entrepreneur isn’t easy. You have to make sacrifices, take risks and learn on the job, meaning that any offers of help should be gratefully accepted. It may be tempting to go it alone, but as Richard Branson points out, a bit of outside perspective can make all the difference.

“When you hit a rough spot or encounter a problem you don't know how to solve, it can be difficult to figure out where to find information and who to ask for help, and you can get into trouble. This was the essence of a problem I ran into in 1969, when at the age of 19 I started a mail-order record business. I did not ask my family, friends or mentors for advice on how to carry out a business plan. I thought I knew it all - until I stupidly decided to take a shortcut and smuggle records through customs to avoid paying taxes,” explained the Virgin Group Founder in a recent entrepreneur.com blog.

“I was caught by British customs officials and spent a night in jail, not knowing what the outcome would be. (Luckily, customs agreed not to press charges as long as I paid back three times the tax that had not been paid.) We all make silly mistakes from time to time, but the bottom line is that entrepreneurs should seek input from the start. You will need advice on how to improve your business, beginning on the first day, and throughout the rest of your career.”

The problem that many entrepreneurs face is getting too involved in their work, which means running the risk of losing sight of the target they first set out to achieve. Or perhaps things could go the other way, with tunnel vision setting in. It’s important that you’re able to take a step back and look at what the competition is doing, assess how your product or service is developing and take stock.

If your business is in its early stages then this can be hard to do internally, making a bit of outside assistance all the more important. Something which Virgin clearly benefited from during its early days of trading: “When your prospective business is still in the planning stages, it can be difficult to understand how best to differentiate your product or service from the competition. At this stage, it may be that all you need to do is look around: the best ideas in other fields for products and services can help you improve your own.”

“My team and I bounced back from our bad experience and learned a lot from launching a chain of record stores (Virgin Records) and from our music label (Virgin Music) that carried over to most other Virgin businesses. By the time we launched our airline, Virgin Atlantic, we knew that customers considered our products and services to be entertaining and fun, and that this would keep them coming back.”

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