If you ever have some free time, look up the French definition of “entrepreneuer”: “one who undertakes or manages a theatrical production.” For the neophyte, Richard Branson is the quintessential entrepreneur. From his numerous ventures to his world-record challenging off-time, the man simply embodies the term, with his personality and ever-present grin preceding his grand announcement of Virgin’s ever-expanding markets into the most integral (or seemingly outlandish) parts of our lives. If you’ve ever flown a plane on Virgin Australia, you’ll notice the attention to detail—it’s simply a distinctive characteristic in every facet of his ventures. Other businesses miss his unique touch of possibilities and personality permeating throughout his approach.
Luckily for us, Sir Richard has always been gracious with his time and advice for fellow entrepreners. Let’s examine his life and see if we can derive some of the contagious mojo that make the Virgin name equate with “success”.
Growing up in London, Richard Branson’s early days of schooling proved difficult for him. His academic performance faltered because of his dyslexia, with his headmaster declaring on the last day of school that Branson would end up in prison or as a millionaire.
However, Richard’s disability actually worked as a positive influence to shape his entrepreneurial pursuits. In interviews (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-innovations/richard-branson-and-the-dyslexia-advantage/2012/11/07/67a05b2a-2906-11e2-bab2-eda299503684_story.html), he states how dyslexia increased his delegation abilities; the obvious handicap demanded he surround himself with helpful people to provide skills he lacked, making him more accustomed to developing a team. He considered traditional education to be stifling for his life, so he left academia at fifteen, launching his magazine simply titled Student.
From Student to Virgin
While we normally associate Branson’s work with success, his first magazine never made back the money invested in it, despite having extensive interviews with famous luminaries, among them musician Mick Jagger, author Alice Walker, and existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. How did he solve this problem?
It wasn’t until he changed his focus to selling discount mail-order records through advertisements in Student that he hit upon his first successful venture. What’s interesting for entrepreneurs is that despite his initial failure, he persevered by tweaking his approach—it wasn’t the magazine itself, but the ability to reach people that was valuable. Spurned on by his discovery of a new market, he rented a shop above a shoe store, dubbing his venture Virgin, as everyone involved was inexperienced in business. It certainly helped to have a provocative namesake, too!
The record store was a success in a very short amount of time. However, one of Richard’s schemes backfired when he was discovered circumventing British taxes. His punishment was his agreement to pay all unpaid tax and a fine, forcing him to turn to his mother to remortgage her home to bail him out. There’s no shortcuts to success, so Branson resolved to root out his formerly-loose business style and focus on having his finances in legitimate order.
The Virgin record store was still earning enough money for Branson to pursue other ventures, the most notable being his record label, Virgin Records in 1972. Purchasing an estate in Oxfordshire, he outfitted it with a recording studio, dubbing it The Manor Studio. Leasing the studio out to musicians, Virgin Records’ first release, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, was an instant best-seller. Virgin’s following releases were also wildly successful, whether it was recruiting the provocative Sex Pistols, the forward-thinking musicians of Faust and Can, or world music of Peter Gabriel.
What’s fascinating to realise is that there’s a linear track record of Richard Branson’s entrepreneurial pursuits—he is able to consistently expand his businesses by looking for new avenues to engage. His focus seems to fixate on fresh approaches. As entrepreneurs, Richard demonstrates a valuable lesson of finding your fascination and fearlessly approaching it:
“My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them … from the perspective of wanting to live life to the full, I felt that I had to attempt it.”
Another great example of this in Branson’s life is his foray into starting his own Virgin airline. The story itself is inspiring: trying to fly to the British Virgin Islands (coincidence?) from Puerto Rico, Richard’s flight is cancelled by the lack of passengers to warrant a flight. Never one to back down from a challenge, Branson wrote “Virgin Airlines” at the top of the blackboard, charging $39 to each of the passengers that had been similarly bumped off the flight. He filled up his first plane, recognizing an opportunity to provide better service and accommodations to customers. Thus, Virgin Atlanctic was born.
Listing all of Richard Branson’s business achievements to date can be a bit mind-boggling. There’s over 400! What is fascinating about Branson is his focus on the future technologies. Just like Virgin’s airlines, the next logical step would be space, right? Enter Virgin Galatic. Seems crazy? Well, it’s probably just crazy enough to succeed! And what about robotics? Turns out he’s invested money in the company 3D Robotics, hopping on the newest drone technology.
What we can take away from Sir Richard Branson is his willingness to embrace the unknown boldly and achieving the unachievable. Take his life to heart and implement Branson’s approach to your business—and life. You just might get what you dream of!