Like many people who grew up in the ’60s, venturing into space was always one of my dreams—one that I would never have thought possible. But at Virgin we’re getting very close.
On Sept. 25 Virgin Galactic hosted a customer gathering at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Arizona. During the buildup to the days when we can launch our first commercial trips into space—we expect to launch our first space tourism flights next year—these get-togethers provide people who have already purchased tickets with a behind-the-scenes glimpse of our operations. This turned out to be the biggest-ever gathering of our future astronauts—about 300 people.
Strong desert winds grounded our spaceships that day, so we weren’t able to see them in action, but the presentations were fascinating. It had been a year since I’d been on the factory floor, so I enjoyed the videos and explanations of rocket tests, the flight simulator and a tour of the factory. They made clear to me in a very concrete way that our collective dream of entering space is now in the countdown phase.
How did we get to this stage, and what lessons about entrepreneurship can we draw from such experiences? At such moments the things that really make a business different and special come to the fore. As I walked around the hangers, I was struck by the passion and shared vision that unite everyone at Virgin Galactic: the pilots, the engineers and the customer-relations team are all working hard and loving their work. Their cohesiveness and sense of purpose would be a tremendous asset to any organization. What it comes down to is the company’s mission. And Virgin Galactic does have an advantage here: working to advance space travel is undeniably cool.
However, it’s not that aspect of the company that excites our team the most, but knowing that we have the opportunity to change lives for the better. Space tourism is just one aspect of our enterprise; we have been simultaneously developing a launch technology that has the potential to handle up to 100 satellites per day. Such quick and easy access to space is likely to transform our society, heralding the development of everything from space-based solar power stations to asteroid mining.
It also means that Virgin Galactic’s mission won’t be completed when our first space tourism flights blast off. Our dreams are constantly evolving: we are considering projects that include building hotels on the moon and creating the next generation of aircraft. (Space planes would be much faster because they’d complete part of their flights in space, where factors like winds and air friction are not an issue.)
While not all companies can have a mission as out of this world as Virgin Galactic’s, your business’s mission should excite and inspire your employees. Recently I was asked during a question-and-answer session how the Virgin Group makes sure that new employees adopt our vision and goals when they join our companies. The truth is that, if you have to do this, then you’re fighting a losing battle. You shouldn’t hire talented people and then try to mould them to suit your business: they should understand what you’re trying to achieve and how you plan to get there, right from their first day.
This is where startups have an advantage over big, established firms: just be clear about what you stand for and what you hope to achieve, and spread the word. If your mission stands out, you are more likely to be able to hire people who understand and share your goal; to find managers and executives who are good leaders and understanding employers; to together agree on a core set of company values that strike a chord with everyone on your team.
When you are deciding on your company’s mission, it is better to be vague about the final destination, remembering that the journey is the point, and your goals will change and grow. The road may be long and will test you at times, but it will bring your staff together and attract customers along the way.
Entrepreneurship is an adventure—one you shouldn’t miss.
Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group of companies.