Google and Virgin

I caught the tail-end of an interview with Sir Richard Branson last night on TV, and was struck by how thinking outside the conventional box has become the norm these days.

Virgin's success seems to hinge on the fact that it's willing to boldly go - to try new things and offer great service, to develop brand customers who like your product so much that they'll spread the word for you. Virgin Money is just the latest in a wide range of business involvement that South Africa has seen. They're undercutting what more conventional and traditional banks are offering in terms of fees and service, making life easier for customers. I have this mental image of a bunch of staid old men in suits (the established banks) sitting up in outrage at the doings of the wild kid (Virgin and Branson), and then hastily meeting to see how they will deal with this threat to the way their business is run. You see, the banks here have been ruling with an iron fist in a way. We're charged for everything, and more, with no say in the matter. If they're going to keep their customers, they're going to have to take a long hard look at how they do business.

But banking isn't the only area in which Virgin is stepping up and shaking their fists up the noses of convention. They've infiltrated gyms, aircraft, cellphones... A very diverse business indeed! And they're getting into new things all the time. Not in a plodding forward in a single line way, but with fun, energy, enthusiasm, and a willingness to take chances. Of course, it helps to have a crazy billionaire at the helm.

Which brings me to Google. What started out as a mere search engine now has its fingers in more and more goodies. Rather cool goodies. The words "world domination" may have been thrown around a bit, but they are slowly and steadily winning more and more customers to their side. Make it free, make it fun, make it useful (make people wonder how they lived without it...), and whatever new gadget you bring out, folk will be happy to try it - and tweak it. Take Google Earth for instance - as soon as it was released, Google Earth Hacks sprung up, with the users making it their own. They initiated "wars", added 3D buildings, layers, paths. Bit of a cult following, in a way. Which is probably the best thing a business can have.

All this to say - business is changing. Everywhere you look, models, ideas and strategies are being turned on their heads. What worked for years no longer does. Boundaries are pushed into unknown territory, ideas come out into the open and take flight, and the guys at the top in their suits are getting nervous.

Which, in my opinion, is a very good thing.