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Falling Flat -- and Riding High

When the legendary Sir Richard Branson zipped through New York City's Times Square last week on a strange contraption called a StairCycle, it wasn't just another wacky antic to advertise his ever-expanding Virgin empire or promote his reality-TV show.

Instead, the adventure-seeking British billionaire -- whose privately owned Virgin Group boasts more than 200 companies, including Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Virgin Mobile, and Virgin Gallactic -- was helping a budding American entrepreneur break into the big time.

As judge of Yahoo! (YHOO) Search Marketing's national Think Big contest, Branson assisted in sifting through nearly 8,000 small-business entries before proclaiming Craig Ridenhour and his StairCycle Innovations the contest winner at a Times Square press conference June 23.

Ridenhour, a cardiovascular ultrasound specialist, was awarded 10 million free ad impressions across the Yahoo network and his very own Yahoo Search Marketing advisory team to help him design his online global advertising campaign.

Having Branson take a spin on the StairCycle -- a scooter/stair-climber/bicycle of sorts that Ridenhour spent more than seven years developing -- was simply icing on an already sugary cake. BusinessWeek Online contributor Michelle Dammon Loyalka caught up with Branson and Ridenhour at the event, where she heard takes on entrepreneurship from two very different entrepreneurs. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: Why did you decide to judge this contest?

Branson: Two reasons. First, we have a charitable foundation, called Virgin Unite, and we're trying to make quite a big difference in the world, attacking a lot of different problems, like malaria, HIV, etc. We want volunteers from all over the world to help out, so we wanted to get people to our Internet site, and Yahoo was good enough to say they would give our charitable foundation some free advertising.

Second, I started off with a hundred dollars and a small idea, and that company is now $20 billion. I love to see the ideas of new people, and maybe help them get going. Yahoo agreed that they would give a lot of [advertising] spots to whoever won this prize, and I realized that that was going to be one hell of a leg up for somebody.

Q: What separated StairCycle Innovations from the rest of the pack?

Branson: My weight goes up and down like a yo-yo, so the whole idea of just being able to ride to work, avoid the gym, and get fit appealed to me. And when we checked the technical prowess of this machine and realized just how well built it was, we thought we should go for it. And then, only subsequently, did we find out what his surname was [Ridenhour], and that absolutely clinched it.

Q: What do you think has been the key to your success?

Ridenhour: It's a unique idea. It's like a scooter and a stair-climber and a bike. It allows people to get outside in a unique fashion, and I hope that it pulls kids off the couch and gets them active. Here in America, we're really tackling an obesity problem from lack of exercise. And a lot of us don't have time to go to one of Sir Richard Branson's 200 gyms.

Branson: So now you're aiming to put them out of business!

Q: How do you think things have changed in the world of entrepreneurship since your early days as a small-business owner?

Branson: I think entrepreneurship is much more accepted today than it used to be. In Britain, if you go back to when I began, if you said to your parents you were thinking of starting a business, they would most likely frown and think you should become a doctor or a dentist or get a proper job.

Now, I think people are beginning to realize that successful entrepreneurs are the people that build the hospitals, build the roads, hold the charities, and so on. So, [people see that] there is a purpose in entrepreneurs. I think it's more accepted.

Q: Are the challenges different?

Branson: Fundamentally, I would say if you're starting out today, vs. 35 years ago, you've got all the same difficulties and barriers to cross. Most entrepreneurs go bankrupt, something like 85%. It's very tough. It's very hard work. You have to have some luck, but you really have to know how to market your product.

Q: You've spent more than 25 years in the medical profession. Why did you decide to try your hand at launching your own business?

Ridenhour: After talking with my patients and family and friends and watching the obesity problem grow, I just had an inspiration one time while I was at the gym, standing in line to get on the stair-climber: that I didn't want to stand in line anymore. But I really liked that exercise. So I just put everything together and came up with a new idea to get us outside.

Q: What advice would you give to an entrepreneur just starting out now?

Ridenhour: Never, ever give up. If you've got a great idea, just keep working on it hard. Enter great contests that are out there from people like Sir Richard Branson and Yahoo Search Marketing. They made it possible for me to take this to the next level.

Q: And you?

Branson: When I decided to go into the airline business, people said I was absolutely off my head, and I was given lists of every airline that had gone bankrupt before me, then told that I wouldn't last two years and so on. Everybody will tell you why your idea is not a good idea and why you shouldn't do it and why you're wasting your time. It may be a bad idea, but you're not going to actually find out unless you give it a go.

And if you fall flat on your face -- and like I said earlier, nearly 90% of the people who do set up a business do fall flat on their face -- pick yourself up and start again. And if you fall flat on your face again, pick yourself up, and start again. You'll learn all the time and, in the end, the chances are, I think, that you'll be successful. But you can only learn the arts of entrepreneurship by getting out there and doing it yourself.

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