It’s a lot more fun being David rather than Goliath, says Virgin Group’s Richard Branson
Flamboyant British entrepreneur Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group of companies, has jumped off building roofs, launched his mobile service naked and attempted to go around the world on hot-air balloons. The innovative public relations ace says in his new book that it’s crucial in the job not to take yourself too seriously. Besides running his companies, with interests in travel, telecom, media, entertainment, health and wellness, among others, the 67-year-old grandfather has also written a number of books, including his latest autobiography, Finding My Virginity (Penguin Random House). Edited excerpts from a telephonic interview:
Was it always the plan to write a second book, a sequel (to Losing My Virginity)?
If I live a long life, I will write a third one day. I think everybody should write a book, for your grandchildren, for future generations. You don’t have to be famous (to write a book). We all lead extraordinary lives and it’s lovely to share your life with your family. I would love it if I could read the book of my great-great-grandfather who happened to be married to an Indian lady but he never wrote a book. Obviously, I have been lucky enough to live a full life. My first book was read by some millions of people and I keep getting people coming up to me and saying “because I read the book I started a business or it changed my life”. I have written this book because the last 20 years have been exciting and it’s a good read. It’s got its ups and downs. Hopefully, people will learn something from it.
What do you hope to achieve with the book?
I feel it’s to inspire young people, make them realize anything is possible. I started (this business) with £200 to create what we have 90,000 people working for today. Just to show that you can start a business with nothing.
Do you keep a personal diary that helps you remember incidents and conversations from the past?
I write everything down. That helps bring a book alive. I can’t understand people having meetings and not writing things down. I encourage anyone working for a Virgin company or anyone who reads my book to have notebooks. That way they would be much more efficient.
Do you have a favourite story from the book?
I would not call it a favourite but obviously when we had the space accident (SpaceShipTwo at Mojave in 2014). I had kept notes and emails during those difficult days, on how the press reacted and the staff reacted. The chapter having to deal with an accident—it’s an important lesson to learn. If I hadn’t kept my notes, it would have been difficult.
There’s a part about my son (Sam)—he was 4-5 when I got married. The day after, a friend of ours said he was getting married and my son said, “You can’t get married, you don’t have any children yet.”
Another time I was passing a school and this young girl of about 9 comes up to me and says, “You know something? You look just like that Richard Branson bloke. Can I make a suggestion: You should sign up at a lookalike agency.”
You have drawn a connection between entrepreneurship and storytelling. Like they are integral to each other.
Storytelling is important, like with Virgin Hyperloop One, which is a new business we are working on where we are going to be transporting people at 700 miles an hour in a tunnel. If I am explaining that to somebody... like instead of people going to the airport, having to go to one area, all the bag selection and all the horrors of being in an airport, you get into a pod 300 miles away and (are) whisked straight to a particular plane at the airport. The story brings it alive and suddenly people can see the vision. Storytelling is a part of being an entrepreneur and inspiring people. I like to keep everything simple and clear. If somebody is pitching an idea to me, I want that to be told in 2-3 minutes, a short story.
The sense one gets from reading the book is that your life is always action-packed. Is that by design or coincidence?
You could argue with both. If I say yes (it’s by design), it would get me into trouble. Life is one long learning process. I throw myself into a whole lot of things: last week I was in an Elders’ (an independent group of global leaders) meeting in London, in the Middle East, in New York, I am going to Tuscany to start building our cruise ship company, I am going to be in Botswana, looking at game reserves, South Africa…life is full, exciting.
When you talk about rivalries and threats in the book, is the intention to highlight the dirtier side of business?
It’s just to try and tell a true story. When you write a book, it should not hurt individuals, if you can avoid it. The story about T-Mobile was certainly showing the nastier side of business. In my previous book, the story about British Airways and the way they behaved... The press does not often come to the defence of the small companies, because it’s easier. They know big companies will be around, therefore they have to be nice to them.
It’s a lot more fun being David rather than Goliath. Building companies from scratch, taking on big conglomerates, that’s how we have been and I have enjoyed (it). We try not to get ourselves into a comfortable Goliath position—if we feel we are getting too comfortable, we often identify the companies and divide them into two or four. Small is beautiful when it comes to running companies.
In the book, you say that you work fast with ideas and if they don’t stick, you quickly move on to the next. Is that a statement against persistence or for experimentation?
Too many companies are frightened of trying things. Sometimes you can’t be sure if something will be successful until you try it. The only way to know is to give it a go. We give a lot of things a go and if something doesn’t work out, we move on to something else. That’s a good rule.
There is a thin line between taking a risk and making a mistake, isn’t it?
There is a thin dividing line between success and failure, particularly when you start businesses without financial backing. Trying to stay on the right side of that dividing line isn’t easy. That separates someone who is a good entrepreneur and someone who doesn’t have good luck. I am trying to stay on the right side of it.
How important is social media for building a business?
It’s important not just for building a business, but for the social side. We have 40 million followers on social media. I am lucky enough to be No. 1 on Linkedin. Every day, we can reach 40 million people around the world, which is more than most newspapers. I find it wonderfully important. I don’t use my social media to promote my businesses but obviously, indirectly, the fact that so many people read Richard Branson’s social media page means the businesses get promoted.
Considering one of the issues you care about is climate change, how is the politics around this going to play out in the future?
Fortunately, most sensible people around the world are believers, including most governors in America. Fortunately, China and India are on board and the economics are good. I think we will make it work. It will be tougher, when you have got the president of America with his head in the sand.
You seem to live your life and do your work with nonchalance. Does your method of functioning make more friends or enemies?
I am a big believer, as I said in the book, in not falling out with anybody. Life’s too short to do that and if you do, make every effort to patch it up. If that happens with somebody, I would normally phone them up, invite them for lunch, have a hug and that’s something which is an important part of life. There are few people I have fallen out with and if I do, I make sure to make up.
How do you find the time to do so much?
I am good delegator. I have a great team of people. I look after my body: I make sure I play tennis every morning, go kite surfing on the island. Too many people let themselves go. I am great believer in finding ways of keeping fit.