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Necker Island advice from Richard Branson put into practice by British businessman

Clothes2order MD Michael Conway was invited to travel to Richard Branson’s Necker Island for five days to soak up sun, sea, and valuable business advice from the Virgin founder himself.
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As the man in charge of Manchester-based company Clothes2order, a mentor on entrepreneurship at London Business School, and former UK chapter president of the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation, I am keen to impart new-found knowledge taken from infamous business guru Richard Branson since visiting Necker Island.

A year since making my trip, here’s how I’ve put Branson’s advice into practice – and how my business is reaping the benefit.

Life is a constant learning curve, and who better to learn from about successful entrepreneurship than Branson?

Last year I was privileged to be among a group of entrepreneurs invited to spend five days on his breathtaking Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, which proved to be a hugely-inspiring experience.

Initially, I was expecting limited access to him – perhaps a questions and answers workshop – but the reality was completely different. We did take part in a Q&A session with the Virgin founder – in his front room, where people such as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter had sat in the past.

But Branson was with us for much of our stay, and I learned a great deal from being in his presence. He shared with us some reflections on what makes him tick.

A key lesson was that entrepreneurs can be great at getting a business off the ground, but that they are not necessarily the right person to run it and drive it forward.

The skillset needed when employing three or four people is hugely different to that required when a company has 20 or 30 staff or even more, and the owner may not possess those qualities. The lesson for me was that business owners need to find someone who can run the company and let them get on with it, while they think about the future.

It has also encouraged me to think bigger for Clothes2order.com, with the mantra that if you believe it, you can achieve it.

Branson’s views on leadership also made their mark on me. His view is that the leader should “always be the first one in the swimming pool” – leading by example while also putting the fun into business.

I never equated fun with leadership, but I do now. It breaks down barriers and creates unity. Encouraging people to enjoy themselves at work is really important, and can have a huge and beneficial impact on a business.

Following my trip to Necker Island, we have made great strides at Clothes2order.com, and a lot of that progress is attributable to the lessons I learned from Branson.

We’re on track for another record year, with turnover forecast to be about £11m, up from £9.1m in 2015. We’ve doubled our production capacity and have increased our workforce from 70 to over 120 since I visited Necker Island.

We’re breaking all company records. In June, we achieved £1m in monthly sales for the first time in our history. In July, we reached five million personalised items and last week hit the six million mark. When you consider we only achieved one million in 2013, that is some milestone.

Over the past year or so, I’ve strengthened the senior team by recruiting great people from outside and by promoting from within. I’ve learned to let the management team get on with running the business, and this has enabled me to step back from a lot of day-to-day stuff and focus on our strategy.

Hiring great people from elsewhere and nurturing home-grown talent are absolutely fundamental to the future of the business, as is being completely clear about our objectives and goals. I’ve focused on giving the team the tools to succeed and then letting them get on with it.

Branson inspired me to make Clothes2order.com a better place to work and, since my visit, we have introduced an improved employee benefits package and have invested a considerable sum in leadership and management training for people at all levels. It’s paying off – we are recruiting and retaining great people and offering them tremendous opportunities to progress their careers with us.

We’ve also expanded our routes to market by introducing merchandise stores that enable clubs, online communities, charities, trade associations and designers to sell their own branded merchandise via our website.

The initiative has got off to a flying start, with more than 3,000 online merchandise stores created so far, selling t-shirts, hoodies, caps, bags, vests and sweatshirts.

In recent months Clothes2order.com has won several national awards for the approach we have taken. It’s great to receive external recognition for the work we’ve been doing.

I’ve been fortunate to meet some amazing business leaders during my career, but Branson stands out above the crowd and I’m hugely grateful for having had the opportunity to learn from him on Necker Island.

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