For the past several evenings, I’ve been curling up with Richard Branson’s latest book, Like a Virgin. This collection of blog posts and interviews is subtitled Secrets They Won’t Teach You at Business School.

As you might guess, it’s full of stories, philosophies and insights that are often surprising and provocative.

I’ve been fascinated by this renegade entrepreneur for years who’s always done things with a unique flair. For instance, what other enterprise made up of 400 companies has no gigantic world headquarters?

In many ways, Virign’s success has come about by thinking big, but acting small. This morning, I posted a quote from Branson on Facebook and it got a bunch of Likes from my friends.

He said, “I have spent my career staying away from offices and have only ever worked from three places: houseboat, home and hammock.” I find that endearing.

Happily for us, Branson has always been willing to share his experiences and insights. He’s not alone, of course.

There are all sorts of wise entrepreneurial elders who generously share what they’ve learned. Doesn’t it makes sense to become a voluntary student of those who’ve made the journey ahead of us?

Another favorite of mine is Mel Ziegler who says, “I would not think of starting a business unless I was its first customer.”

Ziegler knows a thing or two about being the first customer. He started out as a journalist, but grew increasingly frustrated by his inability to have creative control over his life.

He and his wife Patricia  started their first business because Mel loved to wear bush jackets and khakis, but he couldn’t easily find any. “The closest you could get to something authentic was in the surplus world, particularly British Army Surplus in those days,” says Ziegler. “It was magnificent. We saw the surplus and were kind of excited by it. We just played with it.”

That business was the original Banana Republic, which began life as a mail order company. They didn’t just sell clothes at Banana Republic; they sold clothes in which you were certain to have an adventure.

Patricia drew the catalog and Mel wrote it. “We just created it more as a theatrical experience than a retail experience,” say Ziegler.”Neither of us had retail experience. Neither of us had business experience.”

I still have a couple of those wonderful Banana Republic catalogs which were unique and fun to read.

After they sold that business, a chance encounter on an airplane got the Zieglers involved with starting Republic of Tea. “The only way I know how to create a company is for myself,” he says. “ I don’t really know how to do it any other way. I mean, I created Banana Republic and Republic of Tea for myself. I’m doing this for myself.”

That may sound simple, but it’s quite revolutionary.

The old paradigm (still much in vogue) has entrepreneurs studying demographics and putting together focus groups, hoping to infiltrate the consumer mind.

The artistic entrepreneur does it differently.

The creative entrepreneur knows that it’s possible to start a revolution by taking an old idea and changing the way it’s been done. That’s precisely how Virgin has built itself into a global operation.

Whether you aspire to build a huge business or are thrilled to remain a small operator, when it comes right down to it, being an entrepreneur is nothing more than spending your days sharing what you love with other people.

“The thing I remember best about successful people I’ve met all through the years,” said Mr. Rogers, “is their obvious delight in what they’re doing and it seems to have very little to do with worldly success. They just love what they’re doing and they love it in front of others.”

Although it didn’t arrive until the end of October, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs was the top selling book of 2011. It’s continued to grace bestseller lists this year, too.

This is notable for several reasons, but caught my attention because biographies of entrepreneurs don’t usually attract such huge readership. What a shame.

Many such true stories are every bit as intriguing as fictional tales. More importantly, they can provide inspiration and trigger ideas for others wishing to succeed in the Joyfully Jobless world.

As Caroline Myss reminds us, “We evolve at the rate of the tribe we’re plugged into.” Knowing the stories of others who have carved their own path can be enormously helpful to our own evolution.

Some of my favorite business biographies aren’t even close to being bestsellers, but they’re certainly worth investigating. While many of the subjects/authors are now well-known, there was a time when they were known only to their families.

If you’ve missed any of these true stories, track them down and see what you can learn.

Losing My Virginity is Sir Richard Branson’s autobiography of his early years in business. He’s written several other books sharing his philosophy and recent enterprises, but this charmer offers us a glimpse of the early days of the self-described adventure capitalist.

Ben and Jerry’s Double-Dip by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield shows us what it means to create a values-led business. Read this while enjoying a bowl of Cherry Garcia or Creme Brulee.

Hershey by Michael D’Antonio is the surprisingly inspiring tale of Milton S. Hershey who not only became synonymous with chocolate bars, but was one of the country’s first social entrepreneurs. This visionary was decades ahead of his time.

The Gospel According to Coco Chanel by Karen Karbo brings us the philosophy of another visionary whose humble beginnings bore no resemblance to the influential woman she became. Chanel was opinionated and not shy about speaking her mind on living life on your own terms.

In Pursuit of the Common Good by Paul Newman and A.E. Hotchner is one of the funniest stories on the list. It’s a marvel that Newman’s Own ever managed to succeed.

Body and Soul by Anita Roddick is subtitled Profits With Principles. This book recounts the early days of The Body Shop. Equally worth tracking down is her later book, Business as Unusual. You may need to do some detective work to find either title. It’s worth it.

Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS shoes, urges us to use our businesses to make a positive difference in the world.

Make the Impossible Possible by Bill Strickland is a book I reread every year. It’s the incredible story of the author’s journey to create Manchester Bidwell, a jobs training center and community arts program near Pittsburgh. Every city should be so blessed.

Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus shares the story of the birth of micro-lending, which helped poor women in Bangladesh become successful businessowners.

While you may be able to locate some of these books through your public library, I believe they deserve a permanent home in your library. Every one of these stories is worth revisiting from time to time.

You’ll find several of these titles on Barbara’s Book List, along with several others that I haven’t included here. Out of print titles may be available through my new favorite used book source, Thriftbooks.


All startups should be thinking, “What frustrates me and how can I make it better?” It might be a small thing or it might be a big thing, but that’s the best way for them to think. If they think like that, they’re likely to build a very successful business.~ Richard Branson

Starting a Business is Step One, of course, but after that the assignment switches to  Making it Better. Not only does Step Two last longer, it becomes an on-going challenge—and source of creative fun.

Here are some idea starters for days when you feel stumped.

° Every day ask yourself these questions and listen for the answers. Those deceptively simple questions are:

What can I make today?

How can I make it better? (It being anything that is right in front of you.)

How can I amaze myself today?

° Goals aren’t enough. As valuable as formal goal setting is to the process of building a business, it’s not the only tool for growing.  A manifesto, a motto and a mantra (or two) will add power to your goal achievements.

A manifesto is your personal statement of why you do what you do. Avoid corporate gobbledygook  in writing yours.

A motto and a mantra are similar, but not quite identical. One definition of a motto says, “A maxim  adopted as a guide to one’s conduct.”

A mantra, on the other hand, is also a short statement, but may be one that begins with “I am” and includes a reminder of the kind of person you are working to become.

All three of these word tools can strengthen focus and, even, simplify decision-making.

° Put the odds in your favor. According to the National Business Incubation Association, 80-90% of businesses are still operating after 5 years where the founder has received entrepreneurial training and continues with a network group, as compared to a 10% success rate for those who do not receive training.

Be a voluntary student as often as possible.

° Get fussy about your customers and clients. When we’re a new little business, teetering towards success, it may be prudent to take on any and all comers. (Our early customers can be fine teachers, by the way.)

As your business matures, your notion about who you can best serve—and who can be the most joyful for you to work with—may become clearer.

A written statement about your ideal customer can help you weed out the ones who are going to waste your time, be difficult or simply inappropriate.

Having clarity about the folks you want to work with will help you find shortcuts to connecting with them.

° Amuse yourself with another list. As I was browsing through a journal of mine, I came across a list titled Things I Will (Probably) Never Do. Some of the items included wear a baseball cap, eat oysters, play the bagpipe and head a huge corporation.

I realize that there are some dangers in such a list, but they’re minor. While it’s also true that we sometimes surprise and delight ourselves by doing things we’d previously thought were out of reach, this kind of list is designed as an exercise in fun.

Certainly, you can also outgrow your notions about things you’d never do, just as you can outgrow things that you’ve always done.

° Test drive new ideas. Most of us would not dream of spending thousands of dollars for a car that we hadn’t taken for a spin. Our ideas deserve a test drive of their own.

However, the criteria should not be based solely on market response.I learned that lesson in the early days of building my seminar business when I had the willing cooperation of Open U, a fledgling adult ed program, to try out any and all ideas that I had.

Sometimes I discovered that a subject that seemed promising on paper wasn’t all that much fun in the classroom. Sometimes an idea I thought was a small one, turned into a surprising success.

Find your own way of creating a laboratory for running experiments on your ideas. (Just thinking about the pros and cons is not a reliable testing ground.)

° Upgrade when possible. Critics scold Apple for their frequent revisions of popular products. Of course, their most avid fans will repurchase, but this isn’t just a clever marketing ploy.

It’s evidence of an on-going obsession with improvement.

Evolution is your friend, after all, and even the core offerings of your business can be im-proved in both large and small ways. Pay attention when such opportunities reveal themselves.

I can honestly say that I have never gone into any business purely to make money. If that is the sole motive, you are better off not doing it. A business has to be involving, it has to be fun, and it has to exercise creative instincts.  ~ Richard Branson

When you decide to follow the path of self-employment, old notions that you can only make a living working for someone else may not be the only thought you need to leave behind. Your idea of what it takes to be an entrepreneur may be as outdated as the typewriter, too.

Listen in on a conventional business conversation and the first thing you’ll notice is how often sports are used as a metaphor. You’ll hear things like, “That’s just par for the course. You gotta step up to the plate. We need more team players around here.”

Business as a competitive game reflects another outdated image.

Much of the information about starting a business reflects a limited concept, too. When the idea of starting my own business took root in my mind, I began doing research.

What I discovered was the assumption that everyone wanted to grow a massive enterprise. Did I really want a building with my name in six-foot high gold letters? Employees? Pension plans? None of that appealed to me.

The idea of working for myself wouldn’t go away and I decided there must be another way of doing things—a way that’s high on satisfaction and simplicity. Happily, Dr. Schumacher came along and affirmed my hunches.

The philosophy of small scale enterprise gained global attention in the seventies when economist E.F. Schumacher wrote his visionary book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Schumacher mainly caught the attention of the counterculture, since conventional business was still focused on a Bigger is Better mentality.

Yet his ideas made sense to those concerned about global issues, as well as those who suspected that one of the functions of business was to help people actualize their potential.

He argued that those benefits could only come from small scale enterprises that care about people and the planet. It’s an idea that suddenly seems ripe and ready to replace the old model.

Meet the 21st Century Entrepreneur

The signs are everywhere that a new kind of businessperson is emerging. The venerable Wall Street Journal even named an editor to cover Lifestyle Entrepreneurs, as they call them. These are people who start businesses for reasons other than amassing a fortune and building a large organization.

These visionaries don’t resemble athletes at all. In fact, they look more like gardeners.

Paul Hawken, a successful entrepreneur and writer, goes so far as to suggest that every business student should study biology since the lessons learned in the plant world directly apply to successful businesses.

Penelope Hobhouse, a real hands-on gardener and prolific writer, shared her life rules for garden design and the parallels to good business design are obvious. (I’ve added a couple of comments in parenthesis.)

1. Never go anywhere without a notebook. Be a perpetual student.

2. Find a mentor—one or many.

3. Do your homework.

4. Trust your own experience. Keep notes of what works and what doesn’t.

5. Don’t get hung up on plants (or products or services). A garden is bigger than all that.

6. Never think you’ll get it right the first time. If a plant isn’t happy, don’t hesitate to dig it up and move it to a better spot.

7. Encourage self-seeding plants to seek their own place in the garden. (Find your own metaphor in that.)

8. Don’t forget that sunlight and shade are design elements. (Your business needs variety and contrast, too.)

9. Avoid fussiness. Above all, simplify.

10. Focus on the garden you really want.

Several months ago, there was a big Twitter event in Los Angeles that was live streamed. Since there were several speakers scheduled that I was eager to hear, I planned to check in throughout the day.

On the morning of the event, I woke up with a touch of flu so changed my plans and spent the day in bed with the Twitter conference streaming nearby on my laptop. The audience was enthusiastic and most of the speakers were too.

One of the speakers was a famous motivational speaker. I won’t name names, but I always think of him as a Too-Cool-For-the-Room kind of guy. The venue seemed a bit small for his broad performance which has been fine tuned in auditoriums with audiences in the thousands.

I don’t remember what the title of his talk was, but all of a sudden he bellowed, “Eighty percent of all businesses fail within the first two years.” Just in case his audience (full of self-employed folks) weren’t horrified enough, he repeated that shocking statement.

I sat up in bed. I may have hollered something back at him. I might have even called him a liar. (I was sick, remember?)

Where did he find that statistic? This was even crazier than most of the failure numbers that seem to be pulled from thin air.

Based largely on conventional, highly capitalized business failures, the statistics aren’t based on an accurate count that includes less conventional enterprises. Adding to the inaccuracy is the fact that if a business changes hands, the original owner may be lumped into the failed business category—even if the business was profitably sold.

What struck me as even more ridiculous in the claim that eighty percent of all businesses tanked  was something even more obvious: despite the closing of many businesses during the current recession, we’re not even close to that percentage. If we were, every mall and business park would be filled with rental trucks and moving vans.

That’s a sobering thought, but it’s not what’s happening.

Of course, we can listen to the statistics without questioning them and scare ourselves away from our dreams.

Or we can listen to successful entrepreneurs and see what they have to say.

People like Sir Richard Branson has a different take on things. “The world is a massively more hospitable place today for entrepreneurs than it was twenty or thirty years ago,” he says.

We also need to recognize that business in 2010 is transforming into something new. Consider this experience shared by the wonderful and visionary Paul Hawken:

When I started the natural food business in Boston, my business knowledge was scant. I did the best I could and began reading everything I could lay my hands on.

I subscribed to The Wall Street Journal. It confused me. I read the major business magazines. Their Fortune 500 world seemed irrelevant.

I sneaked into classes at the Harvard Business School. Their case studies were lunar in their usefulness to my enterprise.

The more I searched, the more confused I became. The more exposure I gained to the “official” world of business, the more I began to doubt that I was in business at all. I seemed to be doing something entirely different.

I get that same feeling today when I read most of the standard business literature.I believe that most people in new businesses, and some in not-so-new businesses, have the same problem. They don’t feel connected to the conventional wisdom…as if a small business is just a flake chipped off the larger corporate world.

Hawken and I have discovered the same thing: the Quiet Revolution that’s been growing for the past couple of decades is thriving in all sorts of ways, in all sorts of places.

And we’re going to continue growing—whether anyone is adding us to their statistics or not.

Inspiring people were turning up everywhere this week. The January/February issue of Ode magazine arrived with its cover story called 25 Intelligent Optimists Who Are Creating a Better Tomorrow Today. Most of the people profiled aren’t famous, but they’re sincerely making a difference. If you aren’t a subscriber, track this issue down.

Sir Richard Branson posted a video on his blog of a day in the life of Sir Richard. Fortunately, it was edited so it doesn’t take an entire day to view.

Since moving to Las Vegas and making frequent trips to California, I’ve become a huge fan of audiobooks. I’ve been listening to the audio version of The Millionaire Next Door which is a brilliant study that explodes many of the myths of the wealthy. The authors point out that even though less than 20% of all Americans are self-employed, a whopping two-thirds of all millionaires work for themselves. The values that showed up repeatedly in this group are thrift, discipline, economic achievement and financial independence. 

Another audiobook that I recently enjoyed was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Good Business. One of my favorite quotes from this book comes from the late Anita Roddick who was asked what advice she’d give to a young person planning a business career. Here’s here answer:

Well first of all, I wouldn’t talk to them like that. I’d say, “Listen, don’t even talk about business—don’t be controlled by language. Don’t even say the word ‘business.’ Bury it. Talk about livelihood. Talk about a livelihood that you can create for yourself, an honorable livelihood that gives you freedom.” So what is the skill that you’ve got? Maybe you’ve got a skill and you can mold it into an interest that can create a livelihood…And don’t think big, because that’s the obsession with this bloody culture. It’s always got to be the biggest. Why don’t you just be the best or the most creative or the funniest or something?

Once the holidays have passed, it’s a perfect time to lay down a strong foundation—or strengthen the one you’ve got. To help you do just that, I’m planning to hold an Ideafest! in January and share fresh ideas and not-so-fresh reminders each and every day. In addition, four of my most popular teleclasses are making a return engagement including Goalsetting 101, How to be a Thrifty Entrepreneur Without Being a Cheapskate, A Beginner’s Guide to the Seminar Business and A Dozen Ways to Build Your Expert Status. If you register for 2 or more at the same time, I’ll give you a discount of $5/teleclass. You’ll also receive an audio download so you can relisten—or get the information even if you can’t make the live class.

Twitter is turning out to be my new hobby. Come on over and join me in the fun. 

I think entrepreneurship is our natural state—a big adult word that probably boils down to something much more obvious like playfulness. Drudgery and clock-watching are a terrible betrayal of that universal, inborn entrepreneurial spirit. ~ Richard Branson

The most passionate environmentalist I’ve ever known was Chris Utterback. To her, all offenses were equally serious whether it was defiling a public space with graffiti or chopping down a rain forest. She cared deeply for the earth and couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t feel the same sense of responsibility.

One day we were driving though the quiet Connecticut countryside where she lived and came across a pile of trash heaped on the roadside. She slammed on her brakes and we jumped out of the car, picked up the litter, bagged it and put it on the back of her station wagon. As we got back in, I sighed and said, “Planetkeeping is a full-time job.” Chris looked at me as if I’d said the most brilliant thing and without saying so, we both volunteered to be Planetkeepers. 

Planetkeeping isn’t just a full-time job; it’s a demanding one that requires vigilance and a willingness to do more than our share simply because it’s the moral choice. Planet-keeping is motivated by a sense of responsibility to nature and other people, whether we know them or not. It assumes that we’ll take care of whatever is ours to care for no matter how difficult or challenging that may be. Planetkeepers refuse to be influenced by the indifference or apathy of others.

As Marianne Williamson points out, folks who are part of the solution tend to be more optimistic about solving big problems than those who just fret. Here are a few idea starters for better Planetkeeping.

Master the 30-second commute. If you don’t already work at home, consider how much time and energy you could save if your office was only a few steps, rather than many miles, away from your living space.

Donate, don’t dump. Replacing your cellphone? Find a place that will recycle them or give it to a woman’s shelter. Cars and computers are two other items that can be recycled through community agencies. Start at Earth 911 to find out what’s happening in your part of the world.

Make your office or studio as green as possible. Go to which is a clearinghouse of information and resources. Another favorite of Planetkeepers is the sassy Ideal Bite site. They also send out a tip every day.

Vote for folks who are serious about taking care of the planet. And make a loud noise around those officials who are contributing to the problem—or who are profiting from bad policies.

Follow this example. Take a look at the way Virgin enterprises has involved both their employees and others interested in projects that make a difference.

There’s nothing unbusinesslike about sharing the benefits of your industry with happy, fulfilled people and a planet that is going to be there in all its glory for our children and grandchildren. ~ Richard Branson