Born 1950, Richard Branson is the founder of many companies bearing the "Virgin" trademark including Virgin Atlantic Airlines, Virgin Cola, music production, retailing and other ventures including interests in a radio station, financial services, hotels and even cosmetics and blue jeans - over 200 companies in all.
Entrepreneurship at an early age
Branson began his entrepreneurial life growing Christmas trees as a youngster. Born to middle class parents in Surrey, England, Branson dropped out of school at 16 to start a youth-culture magazine called Student. The magazine attracted writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Alice Walker and James Baldwin.
At 21, Branson started Virgin Records and the music world has never been the same. Branson signed such names as The Rolling Stones, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, and Janet Jackson. He sold Virgin Music in 1991 for close to $1 billion.
Opportunity is a hallmark for Branson. He looks for markets where the large conglomerate corporations have gotten as he terms it "fat and cozy". As you might guess, Branson has made many waves all around the world. Virgin was embattled with British Airways for which Virgin Atlantic was paid approximately $1 million (which he distributed to employees). Branson rarely purchases companies believing that doing so often merits many layoffs and he does not find this option attractive. He prefers to build his own corporate culture and embody learning and fun into his aggressive plans.
Branson is a trustee of several charities one being the Healthcare Foundation. The Foundation is a leading healthcare charity responsible for a health education campaign relating to AIDS in 1987. He assisted in the initial funding of charity projects to help the organization raise over £27 million in 1989 alone through events such as Comic Relief.
Today, one of Branson's most notable ventures is his company Virgin Galactic. The company is aiming to take passengers into space for what Branson calls, "space tourism." The virgin Galactic company is rumored to be licensing the technology behind the so-called spaceship one which is being funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, as well as, Burt Rutan, an American engineer well-known for his aeronautical work. The Virgin Galactic company is expected to take its first flight in the near future.
"There have been some dramatic hiccups in my life. If you start a company from scratch, and you don't have any financial backing, the only thing that matters is survival. And you have close shaves".
"I could go and live on an island. The challenge of learning and trying to do some thing better than in the past is irresistible."
"The most critical thing with any new venture is we must deliver a tremendous value to the consumer so that it enhances all the ventures we've done before it"
"I love to learn things I know little about"
Key thoughts for entrepreneurs
Branson looks to provide tremendous value to the customer. It is almost as if he has no fear because of the simple philosophy that it can be done better. For instance, he believes that many record stores suffer because the shopping experience needs to be more enjoyable and the staff should enjoy what they do. Many of us see ways where service and products can be improved, but it is often the entrepreneur who takes the initiative to make it or do it better. And of course, he doesn't do it all himself. These enterprises are built with people. He has great respect for his employees.
Instinct is another key to diving into industries that you know little about. It's easy to say that a billionaire doesn't have to worry about failure but that is rarely true as money is not a singular motivator. While it's true Virgin Airlines has needed infusions of capital, businesses often go through lean times and require loans or additional financing. Branson was not born wealthy nor was it always easy in the beginning.
At a recent national conference for several hundred college students, the Let's Talk Business Network was fortunate to moderate one of the student group break-out sessions. On the spur of the moment, we decided to take a group of students for a walk to the Virgin offices in NYC to get a flavor of the company first hand. As it turns out, Branson was in town that day and one thing led to another and an invitation was made for him to join the conference. At about 4:45 Richard Branson strolled into the conference room and spoke before Wally Amos (founder of Famous Amos Cookies). Needless to say, it was an incredible conference!
Thoughts from Richard Branson (Fast Company Magazine August 2000)
I've never worked for anybody else,so my first real job was at a business that I started at boarding school when I was 16. At that time, the Vietnam War was going on and the Paris student uprising had just occurred. I felt that school was a place where grown-ups were just trying to keep us busy. I decided to start a magazine that would address some of those issues. I didn't even have a phone, so I used a public telephone at school to sell advertising for my magazine. Over a six-month period, I managed to raise about $6,000, which was enough to cover the cost of printing and paper, so I decided to leave school to start the magazine. Being a precocious, overly enthusiastic young boy, I managed to get a lot of big celebrities - James Baldwin, Vanessa Redgrave, Jean-Paul Sartre- to write or be interviewed for the magazine. We started Virgin Records as a mail-order company in the magazine. We sold records cheaper than full price, and we built credibility through the kind of products that we offered - Frank Zappa, say, rather than Andy Williams. When I was about 18, I decided that the music industry was easier than the magazine industry, so I dropped the magazine but kept Virgin Records going. Everything else has grown from there.
I started the magazine because I had a passion for what I was doing. That's also why I went into the airline business, even though everybody I talked to told me that there was no money to be made there. I felt that I could make a difference. That's the best reason to go into business because you feel strongly that you can change things.