Is there anything Richard Branson doesn’t do? A high school drop-out at 16, he’s started companies, seen the world, and had more adventures than anyone could dream of in a lifetime. He’s a creative personality and a brilliant businessman… an energetic, charitable man who has built a brand recognizable around the world. And he’s worth nearly 5 billion dollars. So how did Branson get to where he is today?
Let’s start at the beginning…1950 in Surrey, England. Branson was born the eldest son of Edward and Eve Branson, a lawyer and flight attendant. Though she was a flight attendant, Eve Branson didn’t sit idly by on her days off. She built wooden trash cans and tissue boxes, selling them for extra money for the family. Watching his mother’s success built Branson’s admiration for entrepreneurs, and gave him an option for when school just wasn’t working out. She was always supportive of him, and was even known to tell people he would one day be Prime Minister of England.
His mother was also an influence on Branson’s active mind and lifestyle that have become so much a part of his international brand today…she didn’t let her children watch TV, instead pushing her son and two daughters outside to entertain themselves and “make themselves useful.”
Though clearly brilliant, Branson was not a successful student. He has dyslexia, and growing up school was difficult for him. But dyslexia did not stop him, and now, he credits it as a key part of the formula of his success.
“If you have a learning disability, you become a very good delegator. Because you know what your weaknesses are and you know what your strengths are, and you make sure that you find great people to step in and deal with your weaknesses.”
He moved through several schools as a child, eventually just giving up on institutionalized learning at the age of 16. But he did not give up on achieving.
When he dropped out of school, he already knew that being an entrepreneur was the right life for him. He started out with an idea, and with an ultimate goal far beyond just earning money.
“From my very first day as an entrepreneur, I’ve felt the only mission worth pursuing in business is to make people’s lives better.”
His first venture as a teenage businessman was publishing a magazine called “Student.” At only sixteen years old, with no input or work from anyone but students, Branson was able to secure $8,000 in advertising for the magazine’s first issue. This was 1966, and $8,00 was a lot of money. So much, in fact, that Branson didn’t even have to sell the first issue. Instead, he gave away 50,000 copies, building the brand name and a potentially loyal customer base for future issues. It was the first demonstration of a brilliant business mind with an utterly impressive talent for marketing.
“Student” continued in its original form for three years, but in 1969 Branson felt the urge to make it bigger, to take it in a new direction. Advertisements for records were a large part of the magazine’s revenue, so Branson took records and the magazine, put them together, and saw a gap in the market for record sales – mail order sales.
His mail order business was christened with the name we all now recognize … “Virgin.” But it wasn’t Branson who came up with that name, it was one of his first employees. Though they were successful, the name was perfect for the company as all of the young people involved were new to business. It stuck, and has now come to represent much more than mail order music.
Though the mail order business was popular, it wasn’t making enough money to stay afloat, and Branson needed cash. He decided the best way to do that was to avoid giving the government their entire share of the taxes he actually owed. He came up with a scheme through which he avoided reporting all the records that were sold in the UK, falsifying the numbers of those that were exported.
It sounded good, and it brought in cash, but it was discovered.
Branson ended up in jail, and ended up having to pay over $60,000 in fines. This obstacle and a short time in jail didn’t slow him, or his business ambitions down, though.
Even with the tax fraud scandal, it was only less than two years after starting the mail order record business that Branson was able to take yet another leap. In 1971, he opened an actual brick and mortar store to sell records. Then, it was only another year before he bought himself a home, and was able to build a recording studio inside of it. Now that he had a studio, the next logical step was to start a record label. So he looked around, and ended up signing an artist he thought would be okay, but likely not to have overwhelming success as no one else would take him. The name of the newly created label that this newcomer artist signed on to? Virgin Records, of course.
The label had success almost immediately, with its first artist, Mike Oldfield, staying on the charts with the album “Tubular Bells” for nearly five years. To put this in perspective…the record was on the charts for as long as it took Branson to go from selling records by mail to having his own record label.
The success of Oldfield and Branson under the upstart Virgin label didn’t go unnoticed – far from it. Huge names like the Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones, Culture Club, Janet Jackson and Genesis were later signed to the label.
Throughout the 1970s, while Branson was in his 20s, he focused on his ever-growing music business. But by 1984, he was again itching to try something new. So he took what seems like a large jump across industries … he invested in a new airline business.
Before launching the full-fledged airline service, Branson had realized the potential for doing so when his own flight to the British Virgin Islands was cancelled. Being wealthy, he didn’t have to wait around an airport for the next flight at the whim of the airlines…he could charter his own plane. So he did, but he didn’t keep the large plane to himself. Instead, he charged the others who were supposed to be on his original flight to the British Virgin Islands a small fee, and they all flew together on the chartered plane down to the island.
His creative mind and business intuition saw an opportunity, and Branson was ready to seize it. Soon after his initial experimental charter flight to the British Virgin Island, he called up Boeing and asked what they had for sale. A 747 was available, and Branson bought it to start up his fleet of airplanes.
As he had with the mail order record business, Branson saw a need and a way he could run a business better than others were currently doing. So he did.
“We just made it that much more special than all the other airlines we were competing with,” he says of what he achieved with Virgin Atlantic Airways. Long before it was the norm, Virgin was offering such luxuries as individual tv screens to help people pass the time on flights.
Initially, Virgin operated only out of London’s Gatwick airport. But by 1991 it had grown to the point where it was given permission to fly out of Heathrow. British Airways was not pleased by this new threat to their previously largely unchallenged primacy, and they didn’t want to sit idly by while Virgin kept gobbling up market share.
In 1993, Virgin accused British Airways of a series of so-called “dirty tricks” that ranged from computer hacking to libel. Following the accusations, British Airways settled, and forked over nearly $4 million in legal fees and compensation. What did Branson do with the money he received in the settlement? He didn’t just put it in his account – instead he shared it with Virgin’s employees.
Though the settlement was a win for the company, it didn’t mean Virgin and Branson were completely successful and had nothing to worry about. On the contrary, Branson was forced to sell his music business to keep his entire empire going. EMI bought Virgin Records in 1992, and though it was a good business decision, it was a tough personal decision for Branson. The music business was Branson’s baby, his first venture, and the reason everything else he had built was possible. Over the years, he’s been very open about just how difficult that sale was for him:
“I mean, you build something from scratch, we had just signed Janet Jackson, we had just signed the Rolling Stones when we sold it, and I remember running down Ladbroke Grove, tears streaming down my face with the check for a billion dollars.”
Since the sale, Virgin Airlines has continued to grow, Branson added a cell phone sector to his business, and then, a space travel venture called Virgin Galactic. 500 people have bought tickets an as-of-yet unscheduled flight into space with Virgin Galactic.
Overall, he owns 200 companies linked to the Virgin brand, but business isn’t his only interest, nor his only talent.
Branson could just sit comfortably in his island resort home, but he prefers to explore all corners of the world, and to do so in ways far more interesting and far more perilous than in the comfort of a Virgin Airlines plane.
He’s flashier than your average billionaire, with no qualms about risking his life in the pursuit of adventure … adventure that also often serves double duty as a completely out of the box marketing strategy. He makes no distinction between his professional and personal endeavors, simply aiming to enjoy life and make a difference where he can.
“I don’t think of work as work and play as play. It’s all living.”
In 1985, Branson made international news when he tried to set a world record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic. He failed in spectacular fashion, as his boat capsized and he had to be rescued by a British military helicopter.
“Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again” is one of Branson’s life mottos, and try again he did.
In 1986, he attempted the Atlantic crossing again, but this time he succeed in spectacular fashion – he broke the world record for the crossing by two hours.
But breaking the record wasn’t enough for Branson. He needed more adventure, and he wanted to keep his name and Virgin’s name in the news. He’d done a water crossing – now he wanted to move into the air. Airplanes weren’t exciting enough, so he opted to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon. Then, crossing the Atlantic wasn’t enough, so he decided to cross the Pacific in a hot air balloon.
It wasn’t purely for the pursuit of adventure that he took on the hot air balloon challenges. He actually truly enjoyed travelling by hot air balloon.
“My favorite mode of transport is hot-air ballooning … It’s so graceful to be blown by the wind, to go where the wind takes you.”
The balloon Branson took on his first flight was a recordbreaker in and of itself. It was the size of a 21 story building, and was built to fly at a speed of 200 miles per hour – it was the largest and fastest balloon ever constructed.
Large and fast, the balloon wasn’t immune from danger. The flight’s path was from the state of Maine to Ireland, and when the balloon reached Ireland it didn’t detach as it was supposed to. Instead, Branson and his crew found themselves dipping into the freezing waters of the Atlantic. His crew jumped out of the balloon, but Branson was forced to stay put after the balloon rapidly lifted to 12,000 feet with him still in it. Terrified, but able to remain calm, Branson navigated the balloon back down towards the water, and jumped into the ocean when he was a few dozen feet above its surface.
The Pacific balloon trip wasn’t much calmer – they ran out of most of their fuel partway through and were dependent on the jet stream to push them forward.
“I was facing almost certain death …. We could have just slumped on the floor and accepted our fate or try to fly the balloon into the core of the jet stream and find the strongest winds you can find, stay awake for three days, and do everything you can to avoid what, on paper, looked like a sad ending.”
Branson and his crew chose to stay awake and do what they could – and they overcame their challenge. They didn’t break the records they wanted to, but they did live to tell the tale of their adventure. And that was all they could ask for at that point.
A man like Branson who devotes much of his life to the pursuit of pleasure and growing a business might seem to be full up on his time commitments. But for Branson, business and success is about much more than just amassing wealth – it’s about helping people.
“I never started out in business to make money – I wanted to create products that made a difference in people’s lives. The same is true today. In my opinion, there’s nothing quite like the gift of giving. When you see first-hand the impact it can have, it becomes the best feeling in the world.”
I never started out in business to make money – I wanted to create products that made a difference in people’s lives.
Branson has used not only his money, but his brand and his notoriety to influence world leaders. He and Peter Gabriel, of the Virgin Records band Genesis, talked to Nelson Mandela about their dream of having a group of world leaders formed to work on the pressing issues facing the people of the world. The result? The Elders – a group of some of the world’s most respected former leaders, including UN officials, President Jimmy Carter, and Desmond Tutu. Branson provides funding for the group and its initiatives, but it was his initial idea, his willingness to care and to take a leap in talking with one of the world’s most famous men about his idea that led to the group’s creation and its ability to influence world events.
Environmental issues are one of Branson’s passions. He’s committed hundreds of millions to fighting global warming, and even hosted a summit at his private island in 2009. Why this commitment to the Earth and preserving its beauty? Like his creative bent, Branson credits his childhood home and the amount of time he spent playing outside.
“I was fortunate to have been brought up in the countryside in a little cottage, and I suppose that the first 10 years of my life was spent in the countryside – biking, climbing trees, and in touch with nature. And I suppose that’s where my love of nature started.”
Overall, he’s worked with dozens of charities in his life, dedicating his time and money to the causes he cares about and that he believes matter most to his fellow humans. The United Nations has even recognized his efforts, giving him their Citizen of the World award in 2007.
Most recently, Branson has thrown his charitable energy towards helping the Caribbean islands rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma’s destruction during the fall of 2017. With his home on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, he has a personal interest in doing so, but has gone well beyond just rebuilding his own luxurious home. He spent time helping mobilize rescue efforts, and assisted with the distribution of water and supplies as well as helping people find shelter.
Clearly, Branson is not a man to stand idly by when there is a need or an opportunity.
In promoting the Virgin brand and promoting the causes he cares about, Branson has become a highly recognized personality and a frequent guest on news and other shows.
But he doesn’t always stick to the serious stuff. He’s made cameos in the Bond film Casino Royale, and cemented his place as a 90s icon when he guest starred on both Baywatch and Friends.
He was also featured in the iconic Apple Think Different ad alongside such luminaries as John Lennon, Gandhi, Einstein and Pablo Picasso. Richard Branson is not your typical uptight businessman. He’s a creative luminary who has impacted all corners of business and impacted many parts of the world.
And that’s what he aims to do, each day. He wants to put the things he’s passionate about to work for himself, and for the world.
“A passionate belief in your business and personal objectives can make all the difference between success and failure. If you aren’t proud of what you’re doing, why should anybody else be?”
Amid everything, Branson also found time to marry and have children. His first marriage was in the heyday of Virgin Records, when he wed Kristin Tomassi in 1972. That marriage lasted only seven years, and the couple divorced in 1979.
Branson had already met his second wife, Joan Templeman, by the time he and Tomassi divorced. And, as Branson admitted much later to Piers Morgan, he had a daughter with Templeman in 1979. Sadly, the child only lived for four days.
It wasn’t until ten years and two more children later that Branson and Templeman actually tied the knot.
Richard Branson could have continued to struggle through school, doing things he hated and that he didn’t care about. He could have fought his way through to becoming a lawyer like his dad, or settling into a middle-class office job in London or the surrounding areas. He could have stuck it out – but he listened to his instincts instead and went with his heart.
A dropout, he could have fallen to the bottom and struggled through life feeling sorry for himself for having a learning disability.
But his passion and his personality, along with his mother’s constant encouragement, propelled him forward. Richard Branson drew on his creativity, took risks, and never shied from a challenge. Every time he failed, he brushed himself off and tried again. He gives back to a world that has given him much, and he continues to succeed as a businessman and as an admired personality.
Branson once said “If you want to stand out from the crowd, give people a reason not to forget you.”
Richard Branson has certainly followed his own advice, and it’s helped him lead a successful and passionate life.