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Richard Branson on the Myth of the Lone-Wolf Entrepreneur

Why mentors -- and resilience -- are critical to success as a small business owner.
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People tend to think of entrepreneurs as lone heroes, but this isn’t how it works in real life. Many live up to their reputation as risk-takers and some remain outsiders, but despite this outlier status, entrepreneurs need support to be successful. In fact, we’re a lot like Formula 1 race-car drivers: The person in the cockpit gets all the glory since fans tend to forget about the pit crew and the behind-the-scenes effort it takes to keep the driver on the track. Business is no different; an entrepreneur does not succeed alone.

This difference is more important than many people realize. Small business owners are crucial for a thriving country -- they are the engines that power economies, create jobs, fuel growth and, ultimately, transform communities. So it’s vital that governments, investors and educators find ways to harness this energy. It also means that encouraging entrepreneurs to start again when a business fails is fundamental to a healthy economy.

For example, after a setback an entrepreneur may need a mentor to remind him that his outlook is everything. My parents taught me from a young age the importance of maintaining a positive attitude and taking responsibility for my actions. These invaluable building blocks shaped my career.

In some ways, my mother was my first mentor. As a child, I was always impatient to try new challenges at home, on the sports field, even at school. When things did not go right (and often they did not), she would always tell me not to look back in regret, but move on and try the next thing. This skill is crucial to success in business. Starting a business can be a tough and lonely experience -- many start-ups fail early on -- but an entrepreneur cannot look at a setback as a bad experience; it’s just part of the learning curve.

To help change the world, we need to nurture young people interested in business to develop this entrepreneurial spirit. Universities and colleges can teach some skills, but most budding entrepreneurs would be better off relying on an informal network of coaches and mentors who have the experience and expertise to guide them. I rely on an amazing team of advisors, managers and fellow entrepreneurs to help me run the Virgin Group.

This was one of the reasons we decided to establish the Branson School of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg, South Africa. Not so much a school as an incubator of business talent, it’s a place for enthusiastic young people with great ideas to learn practical business skills, while learning from successful entrepreneurs from around the world.

This year’s class emphasized creating jobs in disadvantaged communities in South Africa, and consisted mostly of entrepreneurs hoping to take their businesses to the next level. One business nurtured by the school is Gaming Zone, based in Soweto, near Johannesburg. Founded by Musa Maphongwane and Amos Mtsolongo, Gaming Zone has repurposed seven shipping containers to create a safe and affordable place for customers to play the latest video games. Musa and Amos plan to expand to 40 stores, and provide free weekly classes in computer skills.

It’s an example of how a business can expand commercially, while making a big impact on the surrounding community -- and one that the new generation of South African entrepreneurs can emulate.

I believe if we are going to conquer global challenges such as hunger, poverty and climate change, there must be more cooperation, collaboration and shared learning among entrepreneurs. This is why I spend a lot of my time meeting entrepreneurs around the world, looking for great business ideas to foster. It’s not just about funding a lot of start-ups; I hope to help aspiring entrepreneurs to find that funding themselves.

In business, there is no substitute for experience. So if you’re an entrepreneur, get on with it. If you've achieved success in business, think about giving back to the community by mentoring some promising entrepreneurs. Who knows? They just might be the next Musa and Amos.