Q: My brother used to work at the Virgin Group’s Ulusaba resort near Kruger National Park in South Africa, where he prepared food for you on several occasions when you visited. I persuaded him to leave his day job and work on growing a pastry business - it’s called Cake Tapastry.
I have tried to give him advice and the support he needs to move the business forward, but his motivation appears low. What advice would you give to someone who has great potential but does not have the confidence to grow a business into something significant?
- Bilal Hoosen
A: Bilal, please pass on my best regards to your brother, because I’ve had some amazing meals at Ulusaba. The kitchen there is a fantastic place for chefs to hone their skills, and I’m sure he has the talent to make his pastry business a success.
Leaving steady employment is not easy for many people. While some born entrepreneurs are ready and willing to dive into business opportunities, other people are more reserved and need a push. This doesn’t mean that they will not make great entrepreneurs - success is certainly not reserved for one specific personality type.
At Virgin StartUp, one of our nonprofits based in Britain, we deliver low-interest loans to entrepreneurs and help them to partner with business mentors. Since we launched the company just under a year ago, we’ve realized that one of the problems is that a lot of talented people think that entrepreneurship is simply out of their reach, which is a great shame. Part of what we and the mentors do is show those who are in the first stages of starting on this career that running their own business isn’t some unachievable dream, but actually a very realistic possibility.
Perhaps, Bilal, you could find someone who has experience in the food industry to take some time to talk things through with your brother - it’s likely that they will have already worked through exactly the same doubts and fears that he is currently experiencing. If you don’t have contacts in your brother’s industry, there may be a local support network he can join.
Another common reason that people hang back is because they think that becoming an entrepreneur means committing all your savings to an idea on blind faith. But often you can start small and build up to something bigger. Your brother could consider reaching out to new customers by selling his cakes and desserts at a food market, or by approaching a few small bakeries to see if they’d like to stock some of his products on a limited basis. Feedback from any customers or those from within the food industry would be very valuable as he contemplates his next steps.
Sometimes such encouragement from those first customers can help an entrepreneur to take the leap. Richard Reed, the co-founder of Innocent Drinks, one of the most popular drinks companies in Britain, tells the story of how he and two of his friends used to have steady jobs - they wore suits and were paid good wages. Then, one weekend back in 1999, the trio went to a music festival to sell a batch of smoothies they had made. They put up a big sign asking people if they should give up their jobs to make smoothies full time. Underneath the sign were two bins, one marked “Yes” and one marked “No.” Richard asked the customers to vote with their empty cups; by the end of the weekend the Yes bin was full to the brim. As a result, the friends all handed in their resignations on Monday morning and got to work on building up their businesses. That weekend was the springboard that helped to launch what is now a well-established, multimillion-dollar company.
For your brother, local food festivals and markets wouldn’t just be a great place for him to test his products - they’re full of fascinating people swapping stories and tips. There is a lot of excitement among the public and investors about the food industry, and it’s currently brimming with innovative new startups. Attending these sorts of events and meeting people who are also trying to whet their customers’ appetites should help get him in the right frame of mind.
And finally, Bilal, have you thought about starting up a business? If you have ideas, don’t just encourage others to follow through - go ahead and take the plunge yourself!
Mr Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group. Email: RichardBranson@nytimes.com.