Virgin’s Richard Branson reveals the highs and lows of an entrepreneur’s life

12 Jan 2018

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson at Virgin Media’s offices in Dublin. Image: Julien Behal

From soaring success in business to missed opportunities, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson speaks candidly about his life as an entrepreneur.

On his way to the Pendulum Summit in Dublin, where he later squared off against MMA fighter Conor McGregor, Richard Branson earlier this week spoke with Voom entrepreneurs and Virgin Media staff in Dublin.

It was a heady week for Virgin in Ireland with the news that TV3 is to rebrand as Virgin Media Television in the autumn and that the company has reached a milestone of 50,000 mobile customers in Ireland.

Virgin Media’s UK and Ireland Voom start-up competition – with prizes worth €1.2m – will return in March 2018.

‘The best companies are companies where the managing director of the company has as much respect for the lady who is cleaning the loos as they would a fellow director, and who knows the name of that person and treats them with decency’

One of the richest people in the UK, with a net worth estimated at more than £3bn, Branson is known for his adventurous exploits, including circumnavigating the world in a hot air balloon.

Branson has long been an entrepreneurial icon in the UK. Dyslexic, he struggled in school, and was told by his headmaster on his final day that he would either go to prison or end up a millionaire. Luckily for Branson, and thousands of entrepreneurs that wanted to emulate him, he took the latter route.

Professing a desire to be an entrepreneur at the age of 14, Branson began with a magazine called Student. Interviewing famous artists such as Mick Jagger, the magazine business pivoted into a record company trading under the name Virgin, which took on the high-street retailers.

The business rocketed and Virgin Records went on to sign the Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones, UB40, Mike Oldfield, Steve Winwood, Culture Club and Paula Abdul.

He also established a chain of stores called Virgin Megastores.

Branson pivoted into the airline business with Virgin Atlantic and sold his record business to EMI for £500m in 1992.

Today, Branson is a figurehead for Virgin Media’s telecoms business in Ireland and the UK, which is owned by Liberty Global. He holds a 10pc stake in the business.

He also has a deep interest in space travel and set up Virgin Galactic, the space tourism business behind SpaceShipOne, co-funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and designed by space engineer Burt Rutan.

He is also chair of Virgin Hyperloop One, a venture that plans to allow trains to fly down near-vacuum tubes at supersonic speeds.

Rock and roll

Relaxed and jovial, Branson recalled the days in Ireland in the 1980s when the Virgin Megastore controversially flouted Irish laws at the time and sold condoms over the counter.

He said that these days, his personal attention is still on solving real-world problems. In particular, he supports not-for-profit firms that are solving problems ranging from climate change to drug issues in disadvantaged communities.

“On the business front, we’ve got some exciting new projects. We’re building beautiful cruise ships that will be the kind of cruise ships that everybody in this room would have a lot of fun going on and we’ll be launching those in a few years; we have lovely hotels we are setting up in cities around the world, Virgin Hotels, and we’ve got ones we are soon to announce for London.

“We have got Virgin Hyperloop, which is going to be a train service that can travel faster than the speed of a plane; a train that floats on a magnetic field that can carry freight and people. This year will be the year of Virgin Galactic and we should soon be putting this spaceship to bed. We are doing some very, very final tests and we will be in space, so some very exciting things happening.

“A lot of these companies like Virgin Galactic will be great brand ambassadors for Virgin Media.”

Focusing on his best tips for success in leadership, Branson said it all comes down to how you treat people.

“Just treat people like human beings and not treat anyone in your business any different than how you’d treat your children or your brothers and sisters at home. People make mistakes, people make good things and you don’t throw your children or your brothers and sisters out of the house – you deal with mistakes.

“And so, I think it is just treating people with decency. The best companies are companies where the managing director of the company has as much respect for the lady who is cleaning the loos as they would a fellow director, and who knows the name of that person and treats them with decency.”

A brush with Dire Straits

An unexpected surprise for the crowd was Branson speaking candidly on one of his biggest missed opportunities in a very full career.

“When we had a record company, I took a band to dinner to celebrate the fact that we were signing with them the next morning. And it was a little Greek restaurant in Paddington. And it had a tradition that, at the end of the meal, they would bring a saucer over with a saucer on top, and we’d take the saucer off and there would be a spliff there and we’d all have a couple of puffs and go our merry way.

“And this particular band smoked it and, the next morning, they never turned up for the signing.

“The band was Dire Straits, and getting them stoned cost us … oh, I don’t know … maybe a billion dollars?

“I’m lucky enough to have had a lot of ups and a few little blips like that, but more ups than downs. The fortunate thing about my life is that it has been condoms, drugs, and rock and roll, and aeroplanes as well.”

Upon hearing about the difficulties encountered by one of the entrants in the Voom competition – an edtech start-up focused on dyslexia – in terms of getting officials at the Department of Education to engage, Branson offered to write a letter.

“I’m dyslexic and know how difficult it is, and I thought the government would welcome anyone who comes in with ways of helping people who are dyslexic and, if I could write a letter or influence whoever it is, happy to do so.

“There is no question that an idea like that should not be taken very seriously. The good thing about dyslexia is that people who may have quit school at 15 because they were dyslexic and were written off, actually realise we will concentrate on the things we are good at, and we are very good delegators for the things we are not good at. And, because we know our limitations, being a good delegator is important whether you are dyslexic or not.”

Great leaders have attention to detail

When asked for business advice, Branson said it is critical to always carry a notebook or take notes on a smartphone.

He recalled how a senior manager at one of his resorts blanched when Branson took him to task for not doing what he said he would.

“I think, if you don’t write things down, you might remember some things or you might not and, if you are running a company, you need to have a notebook in your back pocket or a smartphone and make sure you keep every idea and then follow through.

“The reason Virgin Atlantic survived for 35 years is that when myself or my chief executive are on board, we will meet staff and passengers and write things down, and it’s these little things that make for a perfect airline over an average airline. If the staff have new red shoes and they are rubbing off their sole and they have pain in their foot, it is important to address it straight away rather than leaving it to fester. If you deal with things fast, you can tick that box and move on.”

He gave the example of macrobiotic food. “If it doesn’t turn up on a plane, it’s a real pain for the cabin crew member to have to tell someone that their macrobiotic dish that they ordered is not there – you have to make sure that never happens ever again.

“If you get all these little details right, the cabin crew are smiling and can make sure they deliver the best quality of service.

“There are a lot of people who run companies who think it is slightly below them to have to bother to bring out a notebook and take things down during meetings; that that’s what secretaries do – but everybody should be doing it and improve what they do,” Branson concluded.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years