Richard Branson's Virgin Success The Incredible Triumph of an Enigmatic
By: John Shepler
When Richard Branson's granny was 99, she wrote him to say
that the last 10 years had been her best. He should read the
book, "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking.
She had loved it. But most of all, her advice to Richard was
"You've got one go in life, so make the most of it."
Those are words that mean so much to Richard Branson, as they
go right to the heart of his belief in making it on your own.
Now, head of 150 or so enterprises that carry the Virgin name,
with a personal wealth estimated at nearly $3 billion, he has
followed that personal dream and made the most of it. He still
holds the record as fastest to cross the Atlantic ocean by boat.
He was in the race to circle the globe in a balloon. It is a
success that was never expected for a dyslexic, nearsighted boy.
Richard didn't breeze through school. It wasn't
just a challenge for him, it was a nightmare. His dyslexia embarrassed
him as he had to memorize and recite word for word in public.
He was sure he did terribly on the standard IQ tests...these
are tests that measure abilities where he is weak. In the end,
it was the tests that failed. They totally missed his ability
and passion for sports. They had no means to identify ambition,
thefire inside that drives people to find a path to success
that zigzags around the maze of standard doors that won't open.
They never identified the most important talent of all. It's
the ability to connect with people, mind to mind, soul to soul.
It's that rare power to energize the ambitions of others so that
they, too, rise to the level of their dreams.
Ironically, Richard Branson's talents began to show themselves
during his adolescent school years. Frustrated with the rigidity
of school rules and regulations, and seeing the energy of student
activism in the late 60's, he decided to start his own student
newspaper. This might not have been remarkable, except that this
paper was intended to tie many schools together. It would be
focused on the students and not the schools. It would sell advertising
to major corporations. It would have articles byMinisters of
Parliament, rock music stars, intellectuals and movie celebrities.
It would be a commercial success. That was the business plan
that 17 year old Richard Branson put together with his pal, Jonny
The had a little help. Richard's mother donated four pounds
to help cover postage and telephone expenses. It was enough to
start. They worked in his basementand scrimped on everything
except the grand vision of the magazine. The first edition appeared
with a cover picture of a student drawn by Peter Blake, who designed
the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album cover. He also agreed to give
aninterview. Student debuted in January, 1968. The headmaster
of Stowe, where Richard and Jonny were students, wrote: "Congratulations,
Branson. I predict that you will either go to prison or become
1970, the British government abolished the Retail Price Maintenance
Agreement, but none of the stores elected to discount records.
Richard Branson saw an opportunity for Student to offer records
cheaply by running ads for mail order delivery. The student readers
of Student spent a great deal of money on records even at full
price. How would they respond to this opportunity?
It turned out that the orders so flooded in that they were
more lucrative than magazine subscriptions. Richard rounded up
the staff of Student and recruited them to spin off a discount
music business. They found an empty shop above a shoe store and
persuaded the owner to let them build shelves and move in a couple
of old sofas for their first store. In lieu of rent, they promised
that they'd bring so much traffic that the shoe store's business
would pick up too. Now all they needed was a name.
The first candidate was "Slipped Disc." It had promise.
It was catchy and appealed to a wider range of buyers than "Student."
Then one of the group piped up "Virgin." Because, she
said, "we're complete virgins at business." In retrospect,
Richard says he's happy they went with the alternate name. Slipped
Disc Airlines just wouldn't have the customer appeal of Virgin
Virgin Airlines is very much a Richard Branson style company.
Instead of getting caught in the downward spiral of chopping
fares and cutting service, he's taken a stand of reasonable fares
on transatlantic flights with amenities like in-flight massages,
ice cream with movies and soon, private bedrooms, showers and
exercise facilities. Far from failing, Virgin Airlines is a big
In fact all 150 companies make money and Richard Branson claims
no prior expertise in any of them. He has no giant corporate
office or staff. Few if any board meetings. Instead, he keeps
each enterprise small and relies on his magic touch of empowering
people's ideas to fuel success. When a flight attendant approached
him with her vision of a wedding business, Richard told her to
go do it. He even put on a wedding dress himself to help launch
the publicity. His Virgin Cola is bigger than Pepsi in Europe
and looking to take on Coke in the United States. Richard drove
a tank up to the Coke Sign in Times Square and fired at it to
launch that challenge. Flamboyant? Yes. Greedy? Well, certainly
not in the sense we normally use that word. "I never went
into business solely to make money," he says. Yet, over
and over again, he's done just that.
If he is greedy, then it is a craving for turning possibilities,
even unlikely ones, into raging successes. "It all comes
down to people," he remarks in an interview with David Sheff
of Forbes. "Nothing else even comes close." He writes
them all, all 5,000 Virgin employees, a chatty letter once a
month from his paper notebook, and invites them to write or call
him with their problems, ideas and dreams. They do...and new
Virgin successes are born.
Books of Interest:
Richard Branson, Virgin King: Inside Richard Branson's
Business Empire by Tim Jackson.
Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson. Bill Gates
meets P.T. Barnum in this most unusual and revealing autobiography
by one of the most outrageous and successful business tycoons
in the world: Richard Branson, who has launched a unique global
brand, and over 100 companies, and has amassed a billion-dollar
personal fortune by breaking all the rules.
Richard Branson: The Authorized Biography by Mick Brown.
A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes
by Stephen W. Hawking. This account of the history of the universe
was written for the layman by one of the most renowned physicists
of the 20th century.