Think global, but try to start local

Tuesday February 17 2015

By Richard Branson

Q: I live in Jamaica, and I have had to drop out of a doctoral programme in business administration from the University of Phoenix. The value of our currency has depreciated significantly lately, and I am just not able to afford the tuition. I have done some research and concluded that the best way to survive in this sort of economy is to find a way to hedge my earnings against the American dollar. To do this, I have developed a drink that can be sold internationally. But while I have applied for loans for the startup, none have been approved. What should I do so that I can start living my dream of becoming an entrepreneur? Also, do you have any other business ideas that would help me to earn money and continue my education? - Marlon Farquharson, Kingston, Jamaica

A: Marlon, your question involves many important issues, yet the key element is the importance of motivation. I am sorry to hear that you were forced to leave your studies, but I admire your sense of ingenuity in trying to create a product that you can sell. That said, creating a business just to raise money quickly isn’t a strategy that works for many people who attempt it.
Your drink idea sounds like a good start, but you can’t bank on its becoming an instant international sales success. Launching your brand overseas will be hugely expensive, and finding distributors and retailers that are willing to take on an unknown brand will be extremely difficult. This is likely why you haven’t been able to raise funds through loans just yet.
Since money is short, it may be better to focus all your energy on building up your product in Jamaica and then in the Caribbean as a whole. If you can create a strong local brand that resonates with the vibrancy and energy of your home island, you will have a better chance of attracting partners or investors who want to back your expansion.
Think about your product, and try to pinpoint what makes it different from all the other drinks out there. Write these qualities down and decide how you might promote the drink to potential customers. Is it 100 per cent natural? Locally sourced? Is it a homemade family recipe, or is it based on something that is synonymous with Jamaica?
Also consider the wider purpose behind your product, and consider how it can make a positive difference in the world. One idea would be for you to put your profits toward helping students with their tuition fees. Initially the money could go to sorting your own education out, and then the rest could help subsidise those who can’t afford it. Thinking about expanding the business in the future, this could apply to all products sold on campuses.
Your story reminds me of the three young men who founded Innocent Drinks, a smoothie and juice company in the UK. They all still had other jobs on the day they used their own cash to set up a stand fortheir product at a music festival.
They placed two bins at their stand - one marked “Yes” and the other marked “No” - and asked customers to taste the drinks and then recommend whether the trio should give up their jobs and set up a business by placing their empty cups in the appropriate bin. That weekend they got a resounding “Yes.” A few years later, their business was bought by Coca-Cola, proving that you can start small and local, then become a big success.
Your email also suggests that you found the online courses you were taking through the University of Phoenix to be valuable. While it may be a good program, you should remember that it is not the only one out there, and that you might also benefit from looking at free online courses or tools. There is also a lot of material on the Internet these days aimed at helping first-time entrepreneurs with things like planning, marketing and public relations.
Next, I would look in Jamaica for help. Our foundation, Virgin Unite, has created a Centre for Entrepreneurship in Montego Bay, and while that course may not be right for you, the team may be able to share some information or contacts with you. Several young Jamaicans who have attended sessions there have since created locally branded products that are selling on other nearby islands.
Mr Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group. Email: RichardBranson@nytimes.com.

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