Virgin’s Richard Branson: Small businesses face uncertain times

4 May 2017

Richard Branson launching the Voom pitch tour. Image: Virgin Media

Richard Branson has warned of the bureaucracy and barriers that may hurt small business owners in the wake of Brexit.

If Richard Branson has one bit of advice for start-ups considering taking part in the Virgin Media Voom pitch tour, it’s to keep their pitches short.

“There’s the old rule of the elevator pitch – if you can do it in an elevator! I have been on bike rides recently where people would ride up beside me and pitch, whatever it takes. My advice: short and simple is best.”

‘I think small businesses do need to make sure that government realises the importance of us being able to trade within Europe. And it is important that we get that message across to those people who are doing the negotiations’

The Virgin founder and CEO was speaking at the launch of the Voom pitch tour that will, over the next six months, visit Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Dublin, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle and Winchester.

The national competition – with prizes worth €1.2m – will return in March 2018.

The tour hits Dublin on 31 May at TechConnect Live 2017 in the RDS, Dublin.

Each regional stop has a prize worth €5,000 and Branson may be on hand to dispense valuable advice on launching and scaling start-ups.

The making of the Virgin mega brand

Branson has long been an entrepreneurial icon in the UK. Dyslexic, he struggled in school, and was told by his headmaster on his final day that he would either go to prison or end up a millionaire. Luckily for Branson, and thousands of entrepreneurs that wanted to emulate him, he took the latter route.

Professing a desire to be an entrepreneur at the age of 14, Branson began with a magazine called Student. Interviewing famous artists such as Mick Jagger, the magazine business pivoted into a record company trading under the name Virgin, which took on the high-street retailers.

The business rocketed and Virgin Records went on to sign the Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones, UB40, Mike Oldfield, Steve Winwood, Culture Club and Paula Abdul.

He also established a chain of stores called Virgin Megastores.

Branson pivoted into the airline business with Virgin Atlantic and sold his record business to EMI for £500m in 1992.

One of the richest people in the UK, with a net worth estimated at more than £3bn, Branson is known for his adventurous exploits, including circumnavigating the world in a hot air balloon.

He also has a deep interest in space travel and set up Virgin Galactic, the space tourism business behind SpaceShipOne, co-funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and designed by space engineer Burt Rutan.

In 2006, Branson sold his Virgin Mobile company to NTL, which was subsequently acquired by Liberty Global plc in 2013, and then rebranded as Virgin Media.

Branson holds a 10pc stake in Virgin Media, which has operations in Ireland and the UK.

Branson’s pickle: Brexit will hurt small UK and Irish businesses

Virgin’s Richard Branson: Small businesses face uncertain times

Richard Branson. Image: Virgin Media

Earlier this week, Branson launched the Voom pitch tour. He also revealed that all connections on the Virgin Media fibre network in the UK will be upgraded to 380Mbps.

“Sadly, small businesses are facing into uncertainty and frankly, there are many things that business owners have to worry about, but broadband speeds should not be one of them,” Branson said before the launch.

2016 was the first year that Voom invited Irish entrepreneurs to join battle with their UK counterparts, with the final few pitching to a panel that included Branson.

The original thousands of entries were whittled down to 160, and 10pc were Irish ventures.

The overall winner in 2016 was Bio-Bean in the ‘Grow’ section of Voom, with MacRebur taking the ‘Start-up’ gong. Irish start-up FoodCloud’s charge to the final of Voom ended with a wonderful second place, securing the company €25,000, a Virgin Media Business broadband package, mentoring and brand support.

Speaking with, Branson said that while broadband is amazing, it will not be enough by itself to pave the future for start-ups and small businesses.

The uncertainty that he refers to is Brexit, and he fears the impact it will have on small firms that need to trade in Europe and beyond.

This sense of foreboding felt by companies in the UK was echoed by MacRebur’s Toby McCartney, who said that firms are working hard to win business in the next two years before the borders go up.

Branson said: “I think small businesses are likely to suffer more than big businesses because of Brexit.

“That’s because big businesses have overseas earnings and dollars and, as the pound goes down, they can cushion themselves.

“I think small businesses do need to make sure that government realises the importance of us being able to trade within Europe. And it is important that we get that message across to those people who are doing the negotiations.

“That’s the most important thing: that the market is not precluded and that it doesn’t become cumbersome, bureaucratic and expensive as it did before the European Union was formed.

“That is the biggest thing, if we can get rid of that thing hanging around our necks.”

Ultimately, like most entrepreneurs, Branson taps into an inner reserve of optimism. “I think small businesses will continue to flourish as they had been doing for a long time.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years