Embracing obstacles

  • Columns
  • Monday, 12 Oct 2015

Photo: 123rf.com

All entrepreneurs will encounter obstacles and some kind of business failure along the way, but these should be embraced as they allow you to learn and come back smarter and stronger.

Q: What’s your personal point of view on adversity? How would your life be different if you had not been faced with obstacles in your business ventures? — Henry Hall, Henry Hall Photography

Learning to overcome obstacles is an important part of life — and entrepreneurship. Such experiences teach us how to rise above adversity and even benefit from it.

As the saying goes, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.”My approach has always been to treat obstacles as opportunities, then strive to meet the challenges ahead. Even failure itself presents an opportunity: It’s not a dead end — it’s just a hurdle to overcome.Nearly every entrepreneur endures a business failure somewhere along the line. I have failed so many times that I couldn’t list them all! But it’s because of those failures that I have enjoyed success.

Everybody, and especially every entrepreneur, should embrace failure with open arms. It is only through failure that we learn.

Your email mentioned that you are a photographer. I’m sure you have developed a keen eye — maybe you are skilled at spotting opportunities and focusing on what’s most important in any situation. This is one of the most useful skills you can have when trouble comes your way.

When confronted with an obstacle, I find that it’s best to deal with it by breaking it down into its smallest components. Then ask yourself: What can I do to positively affect each one?

There will be some things that you can’t change, of course.

You have to accept that nobody can always win every battle, and you have to learn from your mistakes and move on.

I was confronted with perhaps the biggest obstacle of my life when I was very young: I simply couldn’t follow lessons in school.

My teachers thought I was lazy, and it wasn’t until many years later that I was diagnosed with the learning disability, dyslexia. But rather than just give up, I stopped wasting time and energy trying to fit in and do things the “right” way (as dictated by my teachers) and began to try to solve my problems however I could.

Since I couldn’t learn much by reading, for example, I would talk over the lessons with my classmates instead. This constant need to adapt to my situation taught me to approach problems creatively in all areas of life.

After my friends and I launched Virgin, it wasn’t all smooth sailing, especially when we entered new industries. Learning on the job has been a defining characteristic of our team’s experience. From Virgin Records to Virgin Hotels, every day has brought a different challenge, which, once overcome, teaches us another useful lesson.

The airline industry was particularly tough to take on. When we started up Virgin Atlantic, we had only one plane. We were clearly the underdog, and met with obstacles at every turn as we tried to get our business up and running.

There were issues with the banks, logistical problems and big competitors who had a lot more money and were trying to run us into the ground. We were challenged beyond our limits, and it seemed like the business was doomed.But we persisted.

We learned to combat our competitors’ big budgets with smart and memorable marketing. We learned that rather than keeping silent, we needed to stay in the public eye and answer our critics when the company faced hardships. And we learned that if we stayed true to ourselves, our brand and our ideals, we would win our customers’ trust and their business.

It would have been easier for us to quit than it was to persevere — and in fact, since then, 16 of our 17 original competitors have gone out of business.

Had we not faced these obstacles at Virgin Atlantic and learned great lessons from them, then we wouldn’t have gone on to launch Virgin Australia and Virgin America, along with hundreds of other businesses in a number of different industries around the world.

There are few certainties in business, except that you will be faced with adversity and fail from time to time.

Every entrepreneur’s success story is a tale of constant adaptation, revision and change.Henry, just as in photography, this is all about perspective. When you come across a situation that’s unpleasant, difficult or challenging, you can decide to give up, re-adjust, or turn it to your advantage.

Obstacles and challenges are integral to an entrepreneur’s work — don’t let them dissuade you from getting the job done or prevent you from realising your dreams. — distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to RichardBranson@nytimes.com. Please include your name, country, email address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.

Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson is founder of the Virgin Group. He became an entrepreneur at 16 and made his first million at the age of 25.

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