Lessons for entrepreneurs from Virgin America’s secret sauce and CEO David Cush

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Every major corporation has a beginning; an inception phase that lays down their DNA as a company. Great companies are able to hold onto an aspect of this phase — a dynamic culture, an entrepreneurial drive, a truly unique offering — even as they grow and change with the world around them.

From the outside, it looks like these businesses must have a ‘secret sauce’ — an elusive feature or product that’s somehow the secret to their success. But in reality, there are a variety of factors that come together in support of an unyielding commitment to quality.

Take a look at Virgin America, which quickly became a darling of the airline industry after its launch in 2007. Since then, it has earned heaps of accolades, including being named “Best Domestic Airline” in both Travel and Leisure’s World’s Best Awards and Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards. Most recently, Virgin America consistently ranked in the top tier in the Wall Street Journal’s 2015 Airline Scorecard.

Here, we look at some of Virgin America’s most popular successes and what valuable lessons budding entrepreneurs can learn from this airline industry giant:

Give them something to talk about
Virgin America is masterful when it comes to surprising and delighting customers: Purple lights, leather seats, in-flight amenities, and of course, those famous safety videos that took something routine (and largely ignored) and made it downright captivating. The lesson? The little things are actually the big things — especially with customer service. If you’re starting a new business, don’t ignore the seemingly little details. They’re a huge opportunity to stand out from your competitors.

Hiring the right people is 90% of the battle
Virgin America is known for its people-centric approach based on the belief that employees — the people who actually deal with customers face-to-face on a daily basis — are the key to the company’s success. In an interview with Forbes, CEO David Cush noted that “finding the right people is 90% of the battle.” He added that Virgin America is extremely selective in its hiring, seeking out people who are “positive, friendly, and see life as ‘glass half-full’.” Remember: No matter the size, your business is only as good as who it hires.

Don’t sacrifice quality as you grow — your customers will notice
When Virgin America first burst onto the scene, it seemed like a breath of fresh air in the airline industry. Naysayers said it wouldn’t last — that the cost pressures would catch up with Virgin America, and they’d have to relent on quality. After nearly nine years and a successful IPO, the company still consistently ranks among the top American airlines for quality of service and operations. It’s a valuable reminder for entrepreneurs that growing into a big business doesn’t have to mean offering an inferior product.

Aim high — don’t just shoot for the lowest common denominator 
Part of what makes Virgin America stand out is that it doesn’t just try to slightly improve on what other airlines are doing. The company is constantly experimenting with new ideas that are changing the way consumers think about air travel. They’ve redefined the safety video, the concept of in-flight entertainment, and even what an airplane cabin should look like. For entrepreneurs, it’s a powerful lesson: Don’t settle for mediocrity just because it’s “good enough” and don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo.

Interested in getting a behind-the-scenes look at how Virgin America operates? David Cush, CEO of Virgin America, will be stopping by the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center on Wednesday, January 27th for an in-depth conversation with Nasdaq Vice Chairman Bruce Aust as part of our Founders’ Leadership Series.

If you’d like to attend this invite-only event, please email hello@thecenter.nasdaq.org with the following information: Name, email, title, organization, and why you’d like to attend. We look forward to seeing you @theCenter.

The Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center is a San Francisco-based non-profit that provides aspiring and current entrepreneurs with access to quality resources, including mentors, training, and networking.



January 20, 2016