One On One

Sir Richard Branson

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, talks about the thin line between success and failure, saving the planet, and what makes a good meeting.

Richard Branson at the inaugural Virgin America flight from Los Angeles to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in 2010.

Born in 1950 in Surrey, England, Richard Branson struggled with dyslexia and dropped out of school at 16 to start a youth-culture magazine called Student. In 1969, living in a London commune and surrounded by British music, he had the idea to begin a mail order record company called Virgin (suggested by an early employee because they knew nothing about business). Branson spun that record company into a record shop and then into a recording studio, and by the 1970s, Virgin Music was one of the top six record companies in the world.

Branson expanded the Virgin empire with a number of successful ventures, including the travel company Voyager Group in 1980, the airline Virgin Atlantic in 1984, and a series of Virgin megastores. By 1992, however, the airline was in dire financial straits. To shore up Virgin Atlantic, Branson reluctantly sold Virgin Music for $1 billion.

The titles of his books, Screw It, Let’s Do It: Lessons in Life and Business and Screw Business as Usual, suggest how he handled this and other setbacks: He moved on. Virgin Group now holds more than 200 companies in 30-plus countries, spanning everything from a train company to a hotel company to a luxury game preserve to space-tourism company Virgin Galactic.

“My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them,” he writes in Screw It, Let’s Do It. His business accomplishments have also been guided by his belief that “business isn’t about wearing suits or pleasing stockholders. It’s about being true to yourself, your ideas, and focusing on the essentials.”

While Branson has always kept an eye on profits, he’s equally concerned with people and the planet. Using “our entrepreneurial energy and resources to create change by driving business as a force for good in the world” is the mission statement of Virgin Unite, the not-for-profit foundation Branson founded to support a host of humanitarian, health, and environmental initiatives.

Meetings and events have a role to play in extending Virgin Unite’s reach. Annual Connection Trips bring participants to “inspiring frontline leaders in far-away places where entrepreneurial communities are driving change,” and several times a year, Branson hosts intimate Leadership Gatherings at his British Virgin Islands home. Participants learn from each other and inspiring speakers on how to use “entrepreneurial approaches to reinvent the world.”

In recent years, the ever-adventurous Branson has focused much of his attention on reinventing space travel. His spacecraft’s first test flight broke the sound barrier, and he expects to finish testing the vessel by the end of this year. By April 2013, more than 500 people had bought tickets for Virgin Galactic’s voyages.

Branson agreed to my request for an interview if he could answer my questions himself via email. His responses came a bit later than he planned to send them it seems he was enjoying a week-long celebration of his July birthday. He has much to celebrate.

You have said that there is a thin dividing line between success and failure. How do you stay on the success side of the line?

By not being afraid of failure. Any honest entrepreneur will acknowledge that failure lines the path to success — so do not fear failure. When people ask me for advice on how to succeed as a business person, I count the failed Virgin businesses as among the many useful — and colorful — lessons that have led to the companies that have endured.

Entrepreneurs should be encouraged to pursue their passion. Do things you are passionate about, achieve what you think will make the world a better place. When you’re pursuing something meaningful, even if the business does not work out, you will have achieved something from the heart and something that helps you become better prepared for the next challenge.

You have the power and compassion to change the world, and you’ve said that the people on the top of the capitalist pyramid have the responsibility to safeguard the planet. You’ve also said that if the top 100 business leaders contributed one year of their profits, we could fix the planet. How are you working on making this idea a reality?

While I have joined leaders like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in the Giving Pledge [a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy], it is equally important to not wait until you can afford to make sizable donations to start changing the world.

Branson congratulates pilot Mark Stucky after the completion of the first rocket-powered flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two in Mojave, Calif., in April 2013. Photo by Mark Greenburg.

Young entrepreneurs today are building businesses that equally prioritize people, planet, and profits. I have great admiration for companies that have figured out how important this is, and Virgin Unite (our charity organization) and I are working with successful leaders like Jochen Zeitz (former Puma chairman) on [a nonprofit group called] The B Team to share ways for companies of all sizes to conduct business responsibly so that there will continue to be a world to do business in.

Most of my time is now spent on philanthropic efforts — and it has been encouraging to see that customers care about [the fact] that Virgin uses business as a force for good.

What do meeting professionals need to do in order to become “bootstrapped innovators” and “solution finders” — two of your business terms?

Think small, act big. Every individual counts — and we try to create environments where the world is small enough that we notice when something is going wrong and needs improving.

At Virgin, we start companies that are small and stay entrepreneurial and nimble so that we can respond to customers and guests with quick solutions and personalized attention. The airlines — Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Australia — are perfect examples; if you go into social media, you’ll see countless examples of how our employees went above and beyond to help guests, making a big difference in their lives.

We give employees the freedom and responsibility to make decisions and work towards solutions that show our customers that we care — and we are rewarded with customer service and best-of awards and, most importantly, loyalty.

You recently dressed up as a female flight attendant after honoring a bet that you lost and served passengers on a charity flight from Perth to Kuala Lumpur. What role has humor played in your success and the success of others you have observed?

The world is a tough place with difficult problems that continue to challenge the minds of some of our smartest thinkers and practitioners. We all deserve to have a laugh — and often that means making fun of myself, which I’m the first to offer to do.

Dressing up for that charity flight was great fun — especially dumping a tray of orange juice on the boss! — and for an important cause.

You have attended and spoken at many conferences all over the world. What best practices have you observed at meetings?

I learn best by meeting people informally and listening and talking. While big presentations offer thought-provoking looks into the lives and lessons of fascinating people, I gain just as much insight and inspiration talking to everyday people, during travels, in the elevator, over meals.

A lively, intimate, informal setting can inspire you to be open to new ideas and people; we hope to create that kind of environment at our new Virgin Hotels, but it can also be achieved in large conference events with the help of warm and friendly facilitators who make sure that everyone is relaxed and having a good time.

It is encouraging that there are so many brilliant conferences to choose from.

Are you available (based on your schedule, of course) to speak at conferences; and, if yes, what are your fees and requirements?

Virgin Unite is our charity group, [founded] to incubate new, independent approaches to leadership, including the Elders, the Carbon War Room, Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, and The B Team.

I accept a handful of speaking engagements a year to raise funds to operate Virgin Unite — so the donations we receive go to the front line – and to try to impart a few words of what I’ve learned over the last 40 years or so. One-hundred percent of the funds go to charity; conferences are a great way to help raise the funds and also meet some wonderful people.

You are known as a person willing to try anything. What would you not try?

Smoking cigarettes!

What are your plans for affordable space travel?

Those plans are happening now: We are building the world’s first spaceline, and as commercial operations start, prices will decrease, making it affordable for many more people to experience space and see our beautiful planet from the blackness of space.

Virgin Galactic has signed up more future astronauts to travel to space than the number of people who have already gone to space. While they wait for flights to start, our future astronauts have started a STEM education scholarship fund – we are already making a difference.

It is a very exciting time for us all, and I couldn’t be more proud of the brilliant men and women who are dedicating their lives to help make space travel possible for us all.

Susan Sarfati, CAE

Susan Sarfati, CAE, is CEO of High Performance Strategies LLC.