I love bumping into people and finding out who they are and what they’re working on. You never know who you’re going to meet. Such encounters can be valuable: If you think about how your most important relationships began - with business partners, your spouse, with friends and mentors - the stories will almost all involve chance meetings. My curiosity about others and ability to connect with people have helped me to succeed - after all, if people don’t know who you are, they are not going to do business with you.
Many people think that an entrepreneur is someone who operates alone, overcoming challenges and bringing his idea to market through sheer force of personality. This is completely inaccurate. Few entrepreneurs - scratch that: almost no one - ever achieved anything worthwhile without help. To be successful in business, you need to connect and collaborate and delegate.
Finding ways to meet with people in the real world and build business relationships is becoming ever more important in the digital age. While in some industries it’s possible for employees to limit their communications to email and, if they wish, avoid interacting with colleagues (and their managers), that’s not possible for entrepreneurs, since relationships built on trust are vital to doing business.
This is why I make a point of attending the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, whenever I can. The event is ridiculed in some quarters for its sheer scale - according to The Economist, 2,622 people gathered in that small town in January, including 46 presidents and prime ministers, representatives of firms with a total value of $12 trillion on the stock market, and many celebrities and journalists. However, the very action of bringing these powerful people together makes Davos useful, even vital.
Some of the events I attended at this year’s forum included discussions of: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights; the role of business in philanthropy; conservation and climate change; and tech investments of all sorts, from health to space travel. Equally useful were the random chats with acquaintances in restaurants and hotels. I spoke with the actor Matt Damon about clean water initiatives (he is a co-founder of Water.org, a non-profit that helps to bring water to impoverished communities), the angel investor and “father of the iPod” Tony Fadell about how to grow start-ups, and with the Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates about overpopulation. Other such meetings at Davos will help to shape the future direction of many companies and organisations.
Steve Jobs, the entrepreneur I most admire, is remembered as a talented maverick and a loner, but that’s simply wrong. The Apple co-founder turned his personal vision into reality with the help of trusted, talented teams. How did he and his people come up with their ideas and solve the technological and design problems they encountered as they worked on Apple products? By spending time together. As Steve said to his biographer Walter Isaacson: “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings and from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”
Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson.