The Worldly Exclusive – (taken from our first print magazine issue, available to read online now by clicking here)
RICHARD BRANSON, founder and chairman of the Virgin Group, is indisputably an iconic global entrepreneur. Branson, now 64, has led an extraordinary life. Since starting his first business at 16, launching some of the most successful artists in history with Virgin Records to revolutionising the aviation industry, Branson has grown the unique Virgin brand into one of the most recognisable in the world. Once told by his former headmaster that he’ll either “go to prison or become a millionaire” – of which he did both – Branson has spent his life pushing boundaries and undertaking outlandish and world record breaking adventures that have almost cost him his life. Branson talks exclusively to The Worldly for its launch issue about business, success and how to lead a good life…
SP: It’s unquestionable that you’ve led a tremendously successful and mesmerizing life since leaving school at 16 to start Student, but do you ever regret not going to University?
RB: I thought about going to University in my 40s, after I had already gained a lot of business experience, but decided not to in the end. Universities are fantastic places to gain knowledge on a subject, develop a personal network, explore your character and learn new techniques to approach problems.
I do however believe that there is a strong argument for students who have an idea they are passionate about to just get out there and try and turn it into a reality. I fell into this category and I don’t regret not going to University. The years I would have spent at University, I spent building Student Magazine and Virgin Records. For me that was far more fun and satisfying. I have treated everyday as the University education I never had and think I learnt more about business and life than I would have at University in the process.
SP: You’ve just released a new book The Virgin Way. What’s the big idea behind it and what lessons would you want students and young people to take away from it?
RB: The Virgin Way is an inside look into my thoughts on what makes a great leader and my style of leadership. Over the years I have found one of my best strengths is my ability to recognise talent and trust them to lead our Virgin companies forward in an innovative and disruptive way, whilst also staying true to the values the Virgin brand was built on.
I learnt from an early age this need to delegate responsibility out to other team members as there is just too much for one person to do themselves. What is the point of hiring talented team members if you don’t give them the freedom to make the most of the chance you have given them? All good leaders listen to their people and empower them to go away and turn any innovative ideas they have into a reality.
The harder you work, the luckier you get.
SP: You’re a self confessed, compulsive, ‘tie-loathing’ adventurer, how similarly intertwined are those traits with the necessary traits required to be a successful entrepreneur?
RB: Breaking the rules and challenging convention is in the DNA of every successful entrepreneur. Doing things differently and solving problems with new, innovative and fresh approaches are the very reason many start-ups are able to compete and sometimes outpace the established market leaders.
I have had a lot of fun pushing the boundaries on my balloon and kitesurf adventures, breaking some world records in the process, and I think this attitude of having fun whilst working hard is one that lends itself very well to successful entrepreneurship. All of our stunts and adventures also helped our business stand out from the crowd and get onto the front pages of newspapers.
SP: How much of your success would you attribute to luck and/or simply being ‘in the right place at the right time?’
Most entrepreneurs will admit luck plays a part in success. That said, I do believe the harder you work, the luckier you get. Virgin has an incredibly strong team that has tried to keep a start-up-like culture at Virgin. This allows us to react quickly to market opportunities we have spotted and get in there before our competitors do.
Embrace a mistake and learn from it; don’t regret them.
SP: Failure is sometimes an inevitable part of life – how do you deal with challenging situations and what advice would you give to anyone facing challenges or setbacks in business?
RB: Every business will face tough times. Virgin certainly has faced many and it is during these difficult days where the passion you have for a business really helps you stick with it and make it a success.
Whenever we have faced a challenge, we make sure to brainstorm together as a team. Two heads are definitely better than one and by sourcing ideas from each other, you have a better chance of coming up with a strategy that will allow your business to overcome a setback or challenge.
SP: How crucial would you say networking and connections are in business? Do you think that ‘who you know’ and not always ‘what you know’ matters more?
RB: Having a good network can be invaluable. It opens doors for you and allows you to enter into opportunities that are beneficial to your business. In this sense, ‘who you know’ is undoubtedly important, but to me ‘what you know’ is more important because once an opportunity shows itself, it is up to you to make the most of it, and this is down to your knowledge and skill.
SP: What, if any, are your biggest regrets in life so far?
RB: I have always believed that there is no point in having regrets as you learn far more from mistakes than successes. Embrace a mistake and learn from it; don’t regret them.
That said, I was reminded of a lighter one at Virgin Atlantic’s 30th birthday celebration. It happened while we were filming a spoof video for the inaugural flight of Virgin Atlantic, I found myself in a helicopter with Sir Viv Richards and Sir Ian Botham – two of the greatest cricketers in the world. The helicopter flew right over my old school, Stowe, whilst a cricket match was in full flow and I was tempted to ask Viv and Ian if they wouldn’t mind stopping and joining in. I didn’t quite know them well enough at the time – so sadly did not – but I hope to have that game some time!
SP: One of the hardest things for people of all ages to overcome is how to strike that elusively desirable balance between hard work and leisure. How do you manage to do so?
RB: I am always working on the go. I have never had an office that I work out of and work has become intertwined with my personal life. Fortunately I am able to work from my home, Necker Island, and can answer my e-mails in the morning, play tennis or kitesurf in the afternoon to keep fit and have meetings or phone calls in between.
Allowing our people to have a good work-life balance by working flexibly is very important to us. Our people are at the core of everything we do, and we recognize the importance of giving them the flexibility to balance work around their personal lives. At Virgin Management we have embraced flexible working since 2013 and allowed our people to work remotely from home if they wish to. We trust our employees to work in this way and get their work done efficiently and effectively.
Family, friends, good health and the satisfaction that comes from making a positive difference are what really matter.
SP: You’ve said that the main focus of your attention now is on your not-for-profit organisation Virgin Unite. What message would you give to the leaders of tomorrow as to what we can all, individually do to help tackle some of the worlds deepest problems?
RB: I think business leaders all over the world should not just think of how we can make lots of money, which is fine, but to take some of the problems in the world and get out there and tackle them using business. I think that if businesses do that we can get on top of these problems. It’s about coming up with ideas which are not just about creating a business to make profit but maybe about setting up an organisation to tackle conflicts and promote peace, or look for solutions to global warming or promote entrepreneurship in many developing countries like Virgin Unite has done.
SP: What final words of worldly wisdom would you impart on any student, young adult or otherwise, at a stage in their life where they face big decisions, on how to lead a ‘good life?’
RB: Happiness doesn’t come from making a fortune and owning lots of possessions. ‘Stuff’ doesn’t bring happiness. Family, friends, good health and the satisfaction that comes from making a positive difference are what really matter. It always pays off to focus on things that will make you feel proud. Remember this during every difficult decision you face.