Skip to main content
leadership lab

Founder, The Virgin Group.

I woke up early on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands and was greeted by a beautiful, windy day. Immediately, I wanted to get out on to the waves and go kite-surfing.

But over in the U.K., my son Sam and daughter-in-law Bellie were eagerly waiting for the birth of their second child. Rather than pacing the floor worrying, I knew I would be better off out in the ocean. But, halfway around the island, a boat rushed up to me and I raced back to land. I grabbed my phone and called Sam from the beach, and was soon in tears as I learned I was the proud grand-dude to a fourth grandchild: Bluey Rafe Richard Branson. The first gorgeous photo of Bluey arrived via WhatsApp moments later.

I share this story not just because I love talking about my wonderful grandchildren, but because of the parallels with my son’s birth. When my wife Joan went into labour with Sam in the mid-1980s, I was halfway around the world on a ballooning adventure. The first photo I saw of my son was on the front page of Britain’s The Sun newspaper! If we had mobile phones then, my inbox would have been overflowing with messages and photos. This is a particularly personal example of how mobile innovation has changed the way we live, the way we interact and the way we work.

The mobile phone has changed my life more than any other innovation.

In the sixties, I started my life as an entrepreneur standing in a red phone box outside of my school, calling advertisers to support Student magazine. In 1985, I tried my first mobile phone; it weighed five pounds and was attached by a cord to a massive battery inside a big leather briefcase. Five decades later and we have Virgin Mobile companies around the world, including Virgin Mobile Canada. When the business started, flip phones were all the rage and all they were used for was calls and texts. Now, there is more cutting-edge technology in your pocket than in the biggest supercomputers of a decade ago.

The internet has changed the world, but it is phones that have brought the web into our everyday lives. Now entrepreneurs have access to global markets at the swipe of a screen, wherever we are. As somebody who likes to move around a lot, this is invaluable. I have never had an office and hate being tied to a desk. I conduct as many meetings as possible while walking and talking, and mobiles make this possible.

I now have an instant office in my phone. I can self-publish, I can do sums, I can share ideas with creatives and results with accountants. We can do anything we can think of – and lots of things we haven’t dreamed of yet – with our phones. I have a friend who calls his mobile “my alternate brain,” because he uses it so often to organize calendars, to google facts, to order goods or get directions.

What’s more, I used to just ask the people I knew what they thought of my ideas, which was the most valuable customer researcher I could get. While that is still extremely useful, the advent of social media now allows entrepreneurs to canvass opinion and gain feedback at every step of the business-development journey – from the original idea through to the launch strategy. Plus, you can get visual feedback on your mobile, rather than waiting for people to fill in a lifeless form and tick some boxes.

In recent years, I have seen the rise of a new wave of entrepreneurs who have created valuable businesses on the back of mobile technology, and disrupted their respective markets to great effect. Ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft, video-doorbell Ring and communications service WhatsApp – to name a few – have all become billion-dollar businesses in the past few years on the back of mobile technology. I expect many more to spring up over the next decade, powered by their direct connection to their customers, and the ability to cross markets and borders.

This month, Virgin Mobile Canada is launching a Pitch To Rich competition to inspire entrepreneurship and innovation in mobility. We have run competitions in the U.K., the United States and Mexico to find young inspiring entrepreneurs. Our last competition in the U.K. allowed us to unearth some really strong businesses with a couple trends emerging.

The first was the power of mobile-related businesses to solve historic problems in more traditional industries, with Vibe Tickets being a great example of this. The mobile app gives music fans an easy and ethical way to resell unwanted concert tickets, while tackling the age-old problem of ticket scalpers exploiting music lovers.

The second trend of note was innovation with purpose, with possibly the best proponent of this being MacReuber. The plastic-road company uses the millions of tonnes of waste plastic that sits in landfill sites to make roads that are stronger, cheaper and longer-lasting than current alternatives.

I’m sure Canadians will embrace the challenge of submitting a short elevator pitch for their mobile-related businesses. I’m expecting great ideas from young entrepreneurs who look at the world with fresh eyes and think about technology intuitively, and I can’t wait to sit down and chat with the competition winner.

When I think about what makes a great and innovative business idea, I ask myself four simple questions: Is it easy to understand? Is there a consumer need being fulfilled? Can the idea easily be brought to market? And, most importantly, will it make people’s lives better?

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.