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Richard Charles Nicholas Branson’s success story almost has a cinematic heft to it. For one, it is not a single story, but a tapestry of several. This British business magnate is an investor, an author, a committed philanthropist, and he lives his life with a rockstar flamboyance that somehow, largely, never gets murky. In fact, his life has an inspirational quality and a feel-good innocence you will only find in a Disney film and every seed that was sown by his imagination, by circumstances, and perhaps even genetics, came to fruition at some point.
On this edition of Digging Deeper with Moneycontrol, we will outline the many lessons his life and work have thrown up for startup aspirants.
Start with what you have
Richard Branson has never been afraid to start something new. It is easy to see why he is unafraid of failure. He is known to believe that the secret to bouncing back is not to be unafraid of failures, but to use them as motivational and learning tools. He said once that there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes as long as you don’t make the same ones over and over again. The point, though, is to begin – unafraid of consequences, unmindful of failure, and unencumbered by ego to start all over again.
His mother, Eve Branson, a perpetual poster girl of new initiatives could have been his earliest role model. She was once in show business and then became known for her many unconventional achievements, one of which was to get into a male-only glider pilot training program by pretending to be a man and then to be one of the first flight attendants to fly over the Andes. She also built a successful venture by building and selling wooden tissue boxes and wastepaper bins. No prizes for guessing where her son got his love for adventures and passion for businesses. And yes, also the courage to start something new, to say nothing of the desire to fly, literally and figuratively.
Sample this: in 1966, when he was just a dyslexic 16-year-old on the verge of crashing out of school, he was told by his headmaster, one Robert Drayson, that he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire. Branson decided to be the latter and started Student, a magazine about teen culture.
The first issue of Student appeared in January 1968, and a year later, Branson’s net worth was estimated at £50,000. Branson also advertised popular records in Student, and the magazine struck a chord. The one thing, he did know how to do well was to sell and so he did. He sold advertising space. Even then he dreamt big. He wanted this little start-up to one day have the cult following of say a, Rolling Stone. Those people skills that he is known for now, he put to good use even back then – he landed interviews with the likes of Mick Jagger and R. D. Laing!
He would then go on to start a mail-order record business, open a music shop on London’s famous Oxford Street, and then in 1972, to launch with Nik Powell what is now stuff of legend: Virgin Records.
During the 1980s, came the airline Virgin Atlantic and the expansion of Virgin Records music label. In 2004, he audaciously founded spaceflight corporation Virgin Galactic, based at Mojave Air and Space Port, noted for the SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane designed for space tourism.
Through all this, Branson consistently used the tenet he built his life on – start with what you have.
Success need never be one-dimensional
What Branson was teaching himself (and in the process us) through the decades was that life was neither this nor that. It could be anything you wanted it to be. If there is one thing Branson is not known for, it is procrastination or dithering, the great illness of the millennial. What he is known for though is making the most of every flash of inspiration and examining where it will lead him.
The impulse to start a magazine, for instance, took him on a journey that resulted in a sprawling conglomerate called Virgin which is, in a way, a microcosm of Branson’s teeming, bustling, ever restless inner universe. A universe that encompasses music, publishing, package holiday industries, telecom ventures, healthcare, space and air travel. In space parlance, it may well be a multiverse.
Why was his business, perhaps controversially, called Virgin? Well, because it denotes how untutored he was in his entrepreneurial approach. Clearly, that greenness didn’t much matter – his net worth was pegged at £5 million by 1979, and a year later, Virgin Records went international.
Everything he started had a way of touching lives. A residential recording studio, The Manor Studio, for instance, gave space and time to fledgling artists, including multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield, whose debut album Tubular Bells was the first release for Virgin Records and became a chartbuster. Names like Rolling Stones, Peter Gabriel, XTC, Japan, UB40, Steve Winwood and Paula Abdul, helped make Virgin, the world’s largest independent record label. In 1992 though, to keep his airline company afloat, Branson had to sell the Virgin label to EMI for £500 million, a decision that was, in his own words, “tough.” In an intimate retelling of the incident, Branson admitted that after telling his staff that he had sold the company, he went back home to his house in London. “I, literally, I did have tears streaming down my face.”
It is okay to side hustle but love your dream enough to persist with it
As a corollary to the previous point we made, Branson has often advised young entrepreneurs to, for want of a better analogy, not keep their eggs in one basket.
His advice is to not quit your day job, and not to risk everything for one thing because a safety net gives you more confidence. In his book, to quit a day job outright is an unaffordable and unrealistic luxury. He often points out that all of Virgin businesses started while he was working on something else. The Virgin conglomerate sprouted from the Student magazine. But nothing sprouts without attention and passion, and his mantra is that passion is the key to juggling work and business. He wrote once, “If do what you love and love what you do, you’re more likely to be successful.” It’s an oldie but a goodie – find something you like doing, and monetize it.
Broaden your skill set
Successful people have laser sharp focus but they also have varied interests, skill sets and the ability to juggle many passions. Branson is a hands-on entrepreneur and advises business aspirants to wear many hats and quickly learn how to do new tasks by themselves. These expanded skill sets come handy when you are delegating jobs, and leading by example. No wonder then that from a dyslexic teenager with an uncertain academic future, Branson went on to be knighted in 2000, and become Sir Richard Branson, for his staggeringly diverse achievements.
Learn to deal with criticism
Despite his visible goodwill, Branson is no stranger to criticism. Or indeed to mistakes.
In 1971, he was convicted and briefly jailed for tax evasion, having fraudulently obtained export documents for records to be sold on the domestic market in order to avoid paying Purchase Tax. He has admitted to have enjoyed a “tax exile,” and saved millions in taxes by ending his mainland British residency and living in the British Virgin Islands.
In 2016, many critics demanded that his knighthood be revoked. In an era, when inappropriate and gender insensitive behaviour is under scrutiny, he was in November 2017, accused by back up singer Antonia Jenae, of assault at Necker Island. Branson later issued a generic apology though his public image has been considerably compromised.
He has often been painted derisively in comic sketches and pop culture and though he has ignored such critiques mostly, he learns from his mistakes. Especially when it comes to business. He has said famously, “When people say bad things about you, prove them wrong.” And don’t give up. As he opined, “On every adventure I have been on — whether setting up a business, flying around the world in a balloon or racing across the ocean in a boat — there have been moments when the easy thing to do would be to give up.”
A business is only as good as its profitability and Branson recommends creating a cheap product of minimum viability that can be tested and garner feedback even from habitual critics. Learn about faultlines before you go big, weed out bugs, do market research about potential clients and even rivals and create something of real value.
He tells those who ask for business advice to not let naysayers with negative attitudes affect your enthusiasm for an idea. He once said, “The opinions of other people aren’t always correct, and while some criticism may be constructive, in some cases it’s merely destructive. Don’t let cynicism prevent you from pursuing your dream. Surround yourself with people who believe in you.”
Be adventurous, build a life, not just a business
The one mantra Branson has unerringly followed is to never wait for an opportunity and to go in the direction of his dreams. His advice to workaholics is to switch off computer screens once in a while and switch on life. Whether it is crossing the Atlantic or travelling in a hot-air balloon or rebuilding his island home twice when freak disasters destroyed it, he has learnt to strike a work, life balance that keeps him from being jaded and burning out. And that is why apart from creating a slew of billion-dollar companies across diverse sectors, Branson has authored books, built a philanthropic foundation, has learnt various adventure sports and just goes on to redefine his life everyday.
Build and nurture teams
Branson despite his flashy persona claims to be a team player and says that a work culture conducive to personal growth, innovation and a sense of security can create lasting professional bonds which in turn build solid businesses.
A sense of fun is key to keep people inspired at work. So is fostering a feeling that everyone is responsible for the well-being of everyone else. On the top of his list are people who look for the best in others, praise rather than criticise, and love what they do.
He likes to delegate and trust people to do their best once they have been trained to deliver. He understands excessive control cannot build teams and that leaders who want to do everything themselves, cannot grow in different directions either because they don’t have time to do so. If managers find people who can take on tasks they aren’t good at, it frees them up to plan other trajectories. Praise your team and motivate people, is his other tip.
Write it all down
Branson has been known to be an inspiring blogger and often gives out wisdom that has served him well. One of which is to write every idea that comes to him. He himself is a compulsive list-maker and likes to jot down not just the micro but the macro details of his business to stay abreast with ideas that can potentially spark off new businesses or create breakthroughs. In one blog post, he wrote, “Write down every single idea you have, no matter how big or small and then challenge yourself to follow through.” And never underestimate the power of an idea because in his opinion, if you aren’t proud of your ideas and don’t believe in your plans, why should anybody else?
Think beyond profit
One of Branson’s biggest achievements is to constantly offer a more reassuring, humanitarian world view. And to imagine entrepreneurship as a tool of global well-being.
In September 2018, Branson and a team travelled more than 2,000 km from Cagliari in Sardinia to the summit of Mont Blanc in a month-long challenge to raise more than £1m for his children Holly and Sam Branson’s charity Big Change, which supports the youth.
In February 2019, he organised an international benefit concert, Venezuela Aid Live, to bring worldwide attention to a country in crisis. Symbolically, the concert took place in Cúcuta, Colombia, on the Venezuelan border.
In the late 1990s, Branson and musician Peter Gabriel thought of the possibility of eradicating war, dealing with global warming and lasting global peace and discussed the idea with a core group of influencers and Nelson Mandela.
On 18 July 2007, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Mandela announced the formation of The Elders chaired by Kofi Annan. The Elders is of course funded by a group of donors, including Branson and Gabriel.
In 1999, Branson also became a founding sponsor of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (“ICMEC”).
Through initiatives like the Carbon War Room, Branson has also sought answers that can address the question of global warming in a proactive way. He imagines a post-carbon economy and our civilisation choosing sustainable energy alternatives.
Branson is also a signatory of Global Zero campaign, a non-profit international initiative for the elimination of all nuclear weapons worldwide. Over the years, he has campaigned against homophobia, draconian drug laws, wildlife poaching and trafficking as well as death penalty.
These are of course, only some of the ideas he has fleshed out to remake the world into what he believes to be is a better version. He once wrote, “I thoroughly believe that we should do everything within our power to make the world a better place for generations to come.”
Read inspirational stuff
Branson did not derive much from school but he has a life long passion for learning. His life has been impacted by books like Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock, Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad. That he still learns something new everyday is the secret of his success. That, and a sense of purpose that goes beyond just making money.In the end, Branson does not really abide by the “go big or go home” credo or thinks of success as a desperate war that must be won at all costs. His work and his home are playgrounds where he has fun, learns, builds synergies and does what comes naturally to him. A sense of fun, adventure and the inexhaustible desire to keep testing new waters. And to fly towards news horizons. Preferably in a hot air balloon.