24 Mar Leadership Lessons from Richard Branson
“My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them.”
Richard Branson’s first business was setting up The Student magazine at the age of 17. The publication, run by students, for students, sold $8,000 worth of advertising in its first edition, which was launched in 1966. The first run of 50,000 copies was disseminated for free, after Branson covered advertising costs.
By 1969, Branson was living in a London commune, surrounded by the British music scene but no previous music business experience, when Branson had the idea to begin a mail-order record company called Virgin to help fund his magazine efforts.
Branson expanded his business venture, adding a record shop in Oxford Street, London. By 1972, the high school drop-out was able to build a recording studio. He signed up his first artist on the Virgin Records label, Mike Oldfield, whose single “Tubular Bells” in 1973 was an instant hit. Branson then signed other aspiring musical groups to his label, including the Sex Pistols. Artists such as Culture Club, the Rolling Stones, and Genesis would follow, helping to make Virgin Music one of the top 6 record companies in the world.
Branson is also known for his sporting achievements, notably the record-breaking Atlantic crossing in Virgin Atlantic Challenger II in 1986. In 1987, his hot air balloon “Virgin Atlantic Flyer” became the first and the largest hot-air balloon to cross the Atlantic. He broke his own record in 1991 by crossing the Pacific from Japan to Arctic Canada, 6,700 miles, in a balloon of with a speed of 245 miles per hour.
Branson’s concept of sending tourists into space seemed a dream too far just a few years ago, yet over 500 astronauts have now been signed up to Virgin Galactic, and their rocket powered Spaceship Two successfully broke the speed of sound in its first flight in April 2013.
“If you’re hurt, lick your wounds and get up again. If you’ve given it your absolute best, it’s time to move forward.”
Branson expanded his entrepreneurial efforts yet again, this time to include the travel company the Voyager Group in 1980, the airline Virgin Atlantic in 1984, and a series of Virgin Megastores. But Branson’s success was not always predictable. By 1992, Virgin was suddenly struggling to stay financially afloat. Branson had to make the difficult decision to sell the Virgin label to EMI for £500 million in 1992 in order to save his airline company, Virgin Atlantic Airways. He was crushed by the loss, reportedly crying after the contract was signed, but remained determined to stay in the music business. In 1993, he founded the station Virgin Radio, and several years later he started another record company, V2 and the successful and popular annual V Festival. Branson has adapted and set up Virgin Media with TiVo to challenge Rupert Murdoch’s Sky empire.
“There is no greater thing you can do with your life and your work than follow your passions – in a way that serves the world and you.”
In 2006, Branson pledged he would put all profits from his Virgin rail and air interests representing £1.6 billion over 10 years to tackle climate change through his non-profit foundation, Virgin Unite.
Projects have included staff taking part in ‘Pride ‘n Purpose’, the charitable arm of Branson’s game reserve, at Ulusaba, where schools have been built and water and health services have been set up. Unite’s fundraising includes everything from staff cake bake-offs (to raise money for the London Marathon which Virgin began sponsoring this year), to petitioning US Congress to establish a national homeless Youth Awareness Month in November. Branson says: “What I see is demand from our people to be a business that is good, makes a profit, but also does something for the planet and humanity. I think this is a trend we will see more of.”
“Whatever your style, whatever your method, you need to believe in yourself, your ideas and your staff. Nobody can be successful alone – and you cannot be a great leader without great people to lead.”
Branson started Virgin with a philosophy that if staff are happy, customers will follow. Virgin Group companies are part of one big family rather than a hierarchy. They are empowered to run independently, yet the companies actively help one another and link together to find solutions to problems, sharing ideas, values, interest and goals.
Virgin’s Philosophy: Virgin believes in making a difference. We stand for value for money, quality, innovation, fun and a sense of competitive challenge. We strive to achieve this by empowering our employees to continually deliver an unbeatable customer experience.
At our core we believe business must be a force for good and use its influence and resources to help find solutions to some of the world’s major issues.