When we think of entrepreneurs who have disrupted major business industries, Richard Branson and the Virgin brand are at the forefront of our minds. While large and powerful enough to literally go out of this world with Virgin Galactic, Branson’s huge empire came from humble beginnings.
When Richard Branson left school at 16, his headteacher predicted he would end up either in prison or a millionaire. While he spotted something special about Branson, unfortunately school did not encourage or harness his talents. Branson was dyslexic and struggled with school – unfortunately in the 1960’s, there wasn’t the recognition or support that schools provide today. It’s quite ironic then, and reflective of Branson’s character, that his first business venture at age 16 would be a magazine, “Student”.
At 16, Branson was close enough to his customers to know what they would be interested in, and his next business, selling records, was created from his own passion for music, and marketed to fellow music lovers through Student Magazine. He knew that students wanted a cheaper way to access music than the high street stores, and creatively found solutions to make that happen. As exciting and controversial bands hit the music scene in the 1970’s, Branson created his own record label to ensure their music reached the wider public.
All of Branson’s business ventures start with a frustration with an industry, usually around pricing, and an almost childlike belief that he can change it. Virgin Records and Virgin Music disrupted the music industry before the term was even invented. Branson saw multiple industries that were ripping customers off, and that the big corporations made huge profits, while the regular person was denied access to ordinary goods such as entertainment.
Like a toddler being told “don’t touch”, Branson kept poking at every industry; “What happens if I try this?” As each venture succeeded and capital resources grew, he looked for more industries to break into – trains, mobile phones, credit cards. Each company looked for customer frustration and brought an innovative low-cost solution. The Virgin brand became associated with value and honesty.
Famously, Branson’s entry into the airline industry came from his own frustration as a customer – his flight from Puerto Rico was cancelled. And like a teenager calling Dad for a ride home, he just chartered his own plane and offered a ride to the rest of the stranded passengers for a small fee to cover costs.
His ventures have not been without failure or scandal – he has had several failed businesses (Virgin Cola, Virgin Cars, Virgin Publishing) as well as an abandoned attempt to cross the globe in a balloon. He’s also had some occasions where he’s been closer to prison than millionaire – for tax evasion, price fixing and near bankruptcy in the earlier years. But with a childlike optimism, Branson’s view of mistakes is: “I suppose the secret to bouncing back is not only to be unafraid of failures but to use them as motivational and learning tools… There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes as long as you don’t make the same ones over and over again.”
As fast as his wealth accumulates, Branson finds ways to share it, with countless humanitarian initiatives founded over the decades. He is also a huge supporter of young entrepreneurs – an invitation to a retreat at Necker Island is every entrepreneur’s dream.
Part of Branson’s success is his ability to see the obvious. He looks for the problem, the frustration, and a better way to do things. He isn’t an inventor, but finds better, simpler, cheaper ways to do everyday things. His goal seems to be simple – give more people more access to more things, whether that be through charities and foundations, or giving customers what they want. Branson is living proof no matter how young you are, or what your challenges may be, you can succeed in whatever you put your mind to.