When I was writing my first autobiography, Losing My Virginity, I originally thought of calling it Talking Ahead of Myself. This was because one of my most enduring (and hopefully endearing!) habits is talking about plans that are yet to come to fruition. Whenever I come up with an exciting new idea or hear a thrilling new proposal, I want to tell the world about it straight away.
Far from being a problem, talking ahead of yourself can actually be very useful. By setting yourself future goals that many people deem unrealistic, you actually bring them closer to reality. As I am fortunate enough to have talented teams working on these ideas, talking about them publicly sometimes gives them an extra incentive to reach their goals even faster. It can also bring to the table potential investors and in the case of international expansion - local partners.
I find it hard to stop my brain from churning through all the possibilities facing me at any given time. If you are the same, harness this restless energy into positive action. Give your team real encouragement to break down barriers and achieve what others perceive as impossible. As the great actress Audrey Hepburn said: “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says 'I'm possible'!”
We have found a lot of the best examples of this come from the most unlikely of sources - April Fool’s. We have really embraced the annual tradition of elaborate pranks at Virgin. If your company doesn’t join the fun they are missing out. April Fool’s showcase the human side of businesses, highlight the spirit of innovation and - most importantly - put a smile on people’s faces. In the past we have convinced people we bought Pluto, launched Virgin Volcanic to explore the world’s most active volcanoes and even flew a UFO over London.
One of my favourites was the time we introduced new Virgin Atlantic glass-bottom planes to fly over Scotland. The concept caught the world’s imagination and there was overwhelming support to make it happen. So we immediately set to work trying to turn it from fiction to fact. While glass-bottom planes don’t look practical due to the luggage below, installing giant windows in the roof of the plane for stargazing at night and beautiful vistas in the day does look plausible. Since we will be taking people to see the Earth from space with Virgin Galactic, who is to say something similar couldn’t be done on planes as lighter glass technology develops? We discussed the possibilities for the future with manufacturers and will keep you posted! Regardless, it is an excellent example of taking a seemingly unreachable dream and trying to make it real.
What’s more, these daring attempts to create something new remind people of a company’s adventurous spirit and commitment to disrupting stale industries. When we partnered with Google to launch Virgle – a business dedicated to creating a human settlement on Mars – some sceptics guessed it was an April Fool. However others including some news agencies wanted to broadcast the news and many in the Las Vegas audience where we unveiled it were queuing up to join the first flight. A few years later when we announced Virgin Galactic lots of people thought that was a prank too. On the contrary, we are on the way to making commercial space flights a reality.
Another of our April Fool’s indirectly led to the invention of iTunes. Following the headline “Branson’s bombshell: The End of the Industry”, I played a joke on the music industry by claiming we had introduced a supercomputer called Music Box. It would let people download any song in the world, wherever they were. Record label bosses pleaded for us not to kill their businesses by releasing the Music Box – then I revealed it was an April Fool. The joke was on us though: Steve Jobs told me that he saw the story and then a few years later created iTunes, which revolutionised the music industry (and brought Virgin Megastores to its knees in the process!)
Take inspiration wherever you find it – from rival ideas, fiction, April Fool’s and childhood ambitions as well as more practical sources – and connect it with your business’s everyday aims. It doesn’t have to be a game-changing, revolutionary idea; it could be for smaller gains. For your business, the apparently unattainable goal could be launching a new product, or improving margins, or expanding your workforce. If you start planning ahead for when you do have the exciting new line, the growing profits and the new staff, you’ll be better prepared for success.
Sometimes the most far-fetched schemes are the most plausible. Often sensible plans go out of the window. You have to be ready for anything. If you talk ahead of yourself, your team will be ready for it too. Who would have thought the company who brought you the Sex Pistols would go on to run a bank? Or the guy who borrowed a second-hand plane to would one day fly the public to space? You’ve got to have a dream before you can go about making it come true. Martin Luther King Jr didn’t inspire change by saying “I have a nightmare”.