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When Alexis Dormandy was hired by Virgin Group at age 24, he got to work directly with Sir Richard Branson himself.By age 26, he was running Virgin Cola, had launched Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active, and was overseeing all of Virgin’s new businesses at 28.
“I would describe the experience as, if you learn a lot by making mistakes, then I probably learned quite a lot!” says Dormandy, who secured a board seat by age 29. “But it was an incredible opportunity. I absolutely loved it, without reservation.”
Dormandy also served as Chief Marketing Officer of Orange, the British mobile network company; as European Chairman of RED, Bono’s charity for AIDS; and as a Seedcamp mentor and an investor in a variety of European technology and consumer businesses.
Now Dormandy is the founder of a startup called LoveThis, a social recommendation curation platform.
We asked Dormandy what it was like to work for Branson, and he shared with us the best lessons he learned.
Set ridiculously high expectations.
Dormandy says Branson’s expectations for himself, his company, and his employees were very high, and that this is the way to go.
“You’ve got to set them ridiculously high,” he says, “Especially when it comes to deadlines. If you aim for 12 weeks you might pull off 20; if you aim for 30 weeks it might take you a year. It makes people think very rationally about how long it’ll take to complete a big project, and plan for it.”
Those expectations remain true for the kinds of projects you tackle. Dormandy says Branson loved being told a project he was planning was impossible.
“There’s nothing more likely to get him interested in doing something than to be told it couldn’t be done. If you were to meet with someone who said, ‘Oh, that can’t be done,’ you’d probably say, ‘OK, I won’t do it then,'” says Dormandy. “Richard would say that you wouldn’t succeed in business then. If your nature is such that if somebody says it can’t be done, and you say, ‘Excellent. If I can find a way of doing that, then we’ll make lots of money,’ then you will succeed in an entrepreneurial environment.”
Trust your employees.
Dormandy says that Branson ran his business on trust — trust in the people that he hired to do their jobs, and do them well.
“I don’t think there was a single decision I made that Richard ever second-guessed me on,” Dormandy says. New hires were given small projects to start with, and if done properly were given increasingly larger projects, and with them, an increasing level of creative autonomy. That level of trust may have contributed to Virgin’s success. Studies show that companies that have a high level of trust in their employees outperform companies with lower levels of trust.
“It seems almost totally unrealistic,” Dormandy notes, “And then six years later you end up doing about five jobs all at the same time, but you want their trust, and they do trust you.”
Your product must be the best on the market.
“You’ve got to have the best product in the market to even be admitted to it,” says Dormandy. And to Branson, he tells us, the product was everything.
“I think many large businesses think the products are just one thing, one thing of many, whereas at Virgin the product is everything.” It made all the difference in terms of the company’s success.
Reputation is everything.
Branson knew that when you’re running a company, the reputation of your brand is of the utmost importance, but so is your personal reputation.
“When you’re 20 and you’ve got a career, you’ve got to behave the right way and in the long term you will succeed,” says Dormandy. “But what happens is, things you did 10 years ago come back to either haunt you or help you. A decade ago if you were behaving a certain way, you never know when things are going to come out, but they do come out. So it’s worth behaving in a way you won’t regret in the long run.”
You need to have a stellar attitude.
One of the things Dormandy noticed while working for Virgin was that the company had an “incredibly good attitude about things,” especially about the way the customer should be treated.
“The customer is focused on with a level of detail you wouldn’t believe,” Dormandy says. “[Richard] cared about the customer experience. And if he does, then everybody else does.”
The corporate attitude was also second to none, Dormandy says. People were engaged in their jobs, and excited to be working for Virgin. He says they “breathe the culture,” in that they are “trying to do something that nobody else has done, and helping people; it’s about the attitude of everyone there, and so you feel you’re sort of on this mission for the future, to produce something, which is very motivating.”
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