Richard Branson's 5 Fashion Startup Secrets They Don't Teach You in Business School


Editor's Note: Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.

Q: I am 16 and studying entrepreneurial management in the Philippines. Do you recommend that my friends and I start a business now (we are looking at fashion)? Compared to our classmates, we are not the best students, but we want to try and will not give up easily. You don’t learn everything in business school, and we want to discover and have fun while studying.

I reached out to you because I bought your book “Like a Virgin: Secrets They Won’t Teach You at Business School” -- I’m on page 58.

Thank you very much for getting to page 58 of the book. I hope you made it all the way through!

The right time for you to get started is right now. I was your age when I launched my first business, Student magazine. By that time I was old enough to think for myself, and young enough not to be daunted by a career that involves risk.

You seem to have found your passion, so you’re already a step ahead. Admittedly, it’s difficult to make an impact in the fashion industry: I learned this firsthand, having launched ventures like Virgin Brides, Virgin Clothing and Virginware, all of which failed. Fortunately, I had some success when Virgin helped to launch a modeling startup called Storm Model Management. One of the first models the founder, Sarah Doukas, signed up was Kate Moss, and the rest is history.

Start your research by writing down all of your ideas, whether they’re serious or trivial. Don’t second-guess yourself, even if the idea is a moonshot. Then look over your list: Are any of the items in an area that’s ripe for disruption? Have you spotted a gap in a sector? Customers are always searching for a better alternative, so look closely at ideas that would be of practical use, yet stand out from competitors’ offerings.

You reached out to me, so I know you’ve got the confidence to get in contact with the founders of businesses you admire -- especially local ones. Ask questions, particularly about what’s going on in fashion in the Philippines: While fashion is an international phenomenon, the Philippines is likely where you are going to be making the majority of your sales for the first few years.

Once you’ve settled on an idea, you need to test it. The “Mum Test” is a method I’ve always relied on: Try telling a loved one about your idea -- your mother, if possible -- and ask for her honest thoughts on your plan. This person doesn’t have to be business-savvy, she just has to have your best interests at heart. If she gets excited, you could be onto a winner.

Next make samples of your product or service, and start showing them to potential customers. Pay attention to their feedback and respond -- remember, innovation is the name of the game in fashion.

It may well be that you and your friends are not great students, but you can make up for that with your can-do attitude and drive to succeed. I wasn’t the best student either, and left school at 16 to start my career. It’s a path lots of business leaders have taken, but then many other successful entrepreneurs have university degrees.

In the meantime, don’t let your age or inexperience hold you back. Keep your eyes open. Talk to people and ask questions. Write down your ideas when they come to you. When you’re evaluating them, look for gaps in the market and make sure that your offering is something that people actually need. And don’t forget to dream big.

If you follow these steps you’ll have many adventures and a lot of fun. I’ll look for your designs on the red carpet!

Richard Branson is the founder of Virgin Group, which consists of more than 400 companies around the world including Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America and Virgin Mobile. He is the author of six books including his latest, Like a Virgin: Secrets They Won't Teach You at Business School (Portfolio Trade, 2012).

Questions from readers will be answered by Richard Branson in future columns. Please include your name and country when you send your question to