In 2014, Nasir Yammama, as postgraduate student of Creative Technology at Middlesex University, United Kingdom, emerged first place winner in the British Council’s Enterprise Challenge competition. Part of the reward were mentorship sessions with the renowned British entrepreneur and chairman of Virgin Group, Richard Branson. Here Mr. Yammama dazzles us with the lessons learned from the experience – Nigerian Diary


Imagination is entrepreneurship’s fuel, but notebooks are the vehicle

In the July of 2014, I met Richard Branson in a Shoreditch restaurant called Beach Blanket Babylon. I was one of the winners of the Enterprise Challenge, an apprentice-style competition backed by Virgin Atlantic and the British Council. We were ‘young entrepreneurs who Richard Branson believed were ‘stars in the making — rich in talent and ripe with innovation’. We’d have a masterclass with him and the whole place was set for it; from the media personnel to Virgin Atlantic and British Council executives. As you’d imagine, the busy restaurant was shut down for us.

I jumped to ask how Richard was able to build so many successful companies and the Virgin brand. I wanted to know the cheat sheet, and if there was one, an underlying principle, factor, or action. Surprisingly, Richard attributed most of the achievement to his relentless note-taking. He’d note down an idea no matter how simple or complex. He’d make a list of goals to achieve, and diligently cross them off. He had a notebook wherever he went.

“Some of Virgin’s most successful companies have been born from random moments — if we hadn’t opened our notebooks, they would never have happened.” He said.

In another instance, Richard said “I can’t tell you where I’d be if I hadn’t had a pen on hand to write down my ideas (or more importantly, other people’s) as soon as they came to me.”

However, the most important part of this lesson in note-taking is perhaps this timeless advice from Richard:

“.. don’t just take notes for the sake of taking notes, go through your ideas and turn them into actionable and measurable goals.”

Failure is an art; the great entrepreneur, a Picasso

On 1st November 2014, I watched Richard on TV at the Mojave Desert, observing the wreckage of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo which crashed, killing one pilot and severely injuring the other, casting huge doubts on Virgin’s space tourism program.

Questioned about the status of the mission after this fatal crash, Richard said “Yesterday we fell short, we’ll now comprehensively assess the results of the crash and are determined to learn from this and move forward.”

Richard constantly harps on the necessity of trying out new things and often failing in order to innovate. He has, in the course of the last 45 years faced numerous failures but has also been brazen in the face of setbacks.

“Making mistakes and experiencing setbacks is part of the DNA of every successful entrepreneur, and I am no exception.” He said.

Virgin Pulse and Virgin Digital were companies that failed in the same market where the iPod and iTunes flourished tremendously. There was once Virgin Brides, Virgin Megastores, Virgin Clothing, Virgin Cola and even Virgin Cars. These and many earlier failures have only strengthened Richard and prepared the Virgin Group for grander visions. One could almost say that Richard has mastered the art of failing to such extents that we don’t see the failures anymore because of the success that surrounds him.

Success is a mixture of hopeless optimism and extreme dedication

Later in the November of 2014, I attended the Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship in Braamfontein, Johannesburg South Africa to learn entrepreneurship the Virgin way. One of the first things that sticks to your head as a visitor in the centre is the motto: ‘Screw it, Let’s do it’.

Virgin has been a strong proponent of this mentality for over four decades; seizing opportunities and building over 400 businesses. All because Richard Branson is your ultimate YES Man. He famously said “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes — then learn how to do it later!”

Richard is perhaps one of the only entrepreneurs to have built hundreds of successful enterprises in their lifetime. According to Richard, when you’re focused on a dream, you strive to create opportunities or turn any opportunity into the right opportunity. “..We should use every opportunity that comes our way as a step towards achieving our dreams.” He said.

With these takeaways, I rebooted my entrepreneurial dream and for the most part of 2015 and 2016, worked towards turning ideas into actionable goals, and relentlessly pursuing opportunities that propelled me closer to my dream. This involved starting a company in Abuja, going to the MIT Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp in Boston and working with various partners in Europe and Africa to build solutions in Agriculture.

People are greater than ideas

2017 was a remarkable year for me. I not only made the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30 list but received the Queen Elizabeth Young Leaders Award. This is three years since the day I sat with Richard. You’d think he’s busy pioneering Interstellar tourism or disrupting a new market to remember me. Alas, Richard did not fail to tweet his congratulations to me. This moved me incredibly and inspired me to work even harder.

Going through the virgin timeline that day, I realised that Richard’s life is dotted with his passion for people. You’ll find a story of Richard walking in on a sleeping employee and trolling them with a picture, a post about him officiating virgin staff wedding, a piece about some very radical people oriented company policy in which staff could get unlimited leave, and of course Richard’s relentless commitment to his family. I realised how Richard’s leadership inspires confidence, love and trust in the people around him which unleashes their best. “If the person who works at your company is not appreciated, they are not going to do things with a smile” He affirms.

This lesson is perhaps my most valuable as an entrepreneur dealing with a fast growing company and customer base. Richard adds: “It should go without saying, if you look after your people, your customers and bottom line will be rewarded too.”

Fun is a responsibility, not a reward

The marketing team of Virgin Atlantic contacted me in the February of 2017 about becoming a Brand Ambassador for the airline. I accepted and was soon on a campaign centred on entrepreneurs which inspires them to get out there and achieve their dreams. This was exciting for me because Virgin Atlantic is famous for its marketing, which is often described as cheeky and fun in the rather painfully formal aviation industry.

A recurring idea in every single Virgin Atlantic campaign and indeed business is fun. “What’s the point of working hard and being successful, if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing?” Asks Richard.

Throughout the Virgin group, fun is seen as a responsibility and not a reward. A lot of this of-course stems from Richard’s adventurous, thrill seeking and mischief making nature. He famously crossed the Atlantic and later the Pacific in a hot air balloon. He’s an avid kite surfer and would, in his own words“always make the most of any opportunity to pull someone’s leg or have a laugh over something silly.”

I have learned that in having fun and making play, we become truly free. As such, I make sure that I deliberately cultivate a culture of fun and adventure in business and in life.

Nasir Yammama is the founder and CEO of Nigeria’s fast-growing Agri-Tech firm, Verdant. He tweets from @Yammama.