READ ON TO DISCOVER:
- Which wild Guinness World Records are held by Richard Branson
- How Nelson Mandela almost ended the war in Iraq—before it even began
- Why finding success can, and should, be so much fun
Sir Richard Branson, founder and chairman of The Virgin Group, is a world-famous entrepreneur, adventurer, activist, business icon, and author, whose latest book is Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography. Adam Grant is a renowned Wharton psychology professor and the author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. As part of the Authors@Wharton series, the two recently sat down to discuss entrepreneurship, risk-taking, and living life to the fullest.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full version, click the video below.
Adam: Can you walk us through how to have more fun in life while still earning a billion dollars?
Richard: I think a lot of businesses take themselves far too seriously. How you spend your time at home should be, to a large extent, how you spend your time at work. It’s up to the person running the company to be willing to let their hair down, to be the first to dance on the table at a party, to be the first in the swimming pool fully clothed, to make sure everybody has a good time.
We like to run companies where everybody is looking forward to coming into work, and they don’t think, “Ouch, it’s Monday morning… I’ve got to go to work.” We go out of our way to try to make sure that’s not the case.
Adam: How do you do that? If I work at Virgin, what does that mean in my everyday life?
Richard: Well, different companies experiment with different approaches. At the Virgin Group, you can dress as you wish. If you want to work from home on Fridays and Mondays, you can work from home on Fridays and Mondays. If you want to take two months off and travel the world fully paid, you can do that. We try to treat people as adults and have as much flexibility as possible. And we find that if you give people a lot of trust, they’re really careful not to abuse it.
Now, if you run an airline, it’s slightly more difficult. [Someone can’t say,] “I don’t think I’m going to turn up for two months to fly the planes.” So obviously we have to have slightly different rules for pilots or cabin crew, but with people [doing other] things, there’s no reason at all why you can’t run a company like that. We’ve been doing it for a while now, and it works.
“If you give people a lot of trust, they’re really careful not to abuse it.”
Adam: Let’s talk about airlines. One of my all-time favorite quotes was when you said, “If you want to be a millionaire, it’s really simple. First be a billionaire, then start an airline.” Why is this industry so hard and so broken?
Richard: When we started in this industry, there was PanAm with 300 planes, TWA with 300 planes, Air Florida with 300 planes, People Express with a couple hundred planes… it goes on. We had one plane against all these. People thought we’d have no chance of surviving. That was 35 years ago, and not one of those names exists today.
I think the reason that Virgin Atlantic survived was because we were different. In those days, airlines didn’t entertain you. You got a lump of chicken dumped in your lap. If you’re lucky, they might have shown one grainy film on the big screen. The cabin crew hated their jobs. They hated the fact that people were complaining all the time, and they got grumpy. So when we threw into that mix a 747 with standup bars and fun staff, we were six years ahead of anybody else [installing] seatback videos.
Then British Airways launched the infamous “dirty tricks” campaign to drive us out of business. We only had four planes at the time, but they went to extraordinary lengths to get rid of us. They had teams of people sneaking out early in the morning and going through my rubbish bins at my home, trying to find anything incriminating. They set up a department that was illegally accessing our computer information, finding out the names of our passengers, ringing them up, pretending to be from Virgin, and telling them, “I’m so sorry, but the flight has been canceled today,” then switching [them] to British Airways.
Fortunately, one of the people in that computer organization felt so badly about what he was doing that he came and saw us about it. We took them to court, and we won the biggest libel damages in history. It was Christmas time, so we handed them out to all our staff equally. It was known as the “British Airways Christmas Bonus.”
There was one occasion where [British Airways] decided to sponsor the London Wheel, the massive wheel opposite the House of Commons. They had flown in all the world’s press to watch this wheel go up, but I got a call at six in the morning and was told they had technical problems. We happen to have an airship company, so we [decided] to have some fun. We scrambled this airship and flew over the wheel at about 9:00 that morning, dressed up as pirates, and took over their Concorde.
If you’ve got a company you believe in, and you can do things to make people smile and get on the front pages of the paper, that’s a lot cheaper than taking a whole lot of full page advertisements and saying how wonderful you are. I think it built Virgin up into a fun brand, which meant that we could stretch it into a lot of different areas over the years.
“Every day I see as another wonderful day of learning something new.”
Adam: That’s one of many examples of you hating monopolies and bureaucracies. Is this something you remember as a child, this deep distaste for giant companies, and the desire to poke at them?
Richard: As a child, business in Britain was almost like Soviet Russia. It was dominated by companies run by governments—British Gas, British Coal, British Steel, British Airways, British Rail, etc. And governments, they not only don’t know how to run countries, they don’t know how to run companies either.
So for instance, I got the head of British Rail to come and see me, and I said to him, “Wouldn’t it be more exciting if British Rail was broken up into smaller units? Then people like myself and others could run chunks of it.”
We had a very amiable conversation. He then left the room, and as he was leaving the front door, the intercom got stuck on, and booming all over the house was “I’m not going to let that fucker Branson get his hands on our rail network!”
A couple of years [later], we did end up taking over the biggest chunk of Britain’s rail network. We did to rail what we did to the airline business—we made it fun. We brought in brand new high-speed pedal trains.
The staff had worked for the government for years, so to kickstart them into the Virgin philosophy, I invited all 20,000 of them out to a massive party in the countryside. We made it a four-day weekend party. They brought their children. We arranged tents. We had bands playing. We had log fires at night, people playing guitars. And by the end of the weekend, they’d become Virgin people. They’ve been loyal ever since.
Adam: You have this new book [Finding My Virginity] out, two decades after the previous autobiography. I was puzzled when I read the title, because my understanding was that when you lose your virginity, you can’t find it again. So what is it about? Why did you write this book?
“It looked like a nuclear bomb had hit us.”
Richard: Because I love trying things for the first time, I’m known as Dr. Yes. It gets me into a lot of trouble, so it makes for a good read as a book, but it also means that I end up learning about an awful lot of different things in life. Every day I see as another wonderful day of learning something new.
If you try things for the first time and nobody has tried it before, you’re sometimes taking risks. I’ve been pulled out of the sea five times by helicopters—I think I’ve got the Guinness World Record. [In addition to] the adventure side, there’s the deadly serious side of building really fun businesses, and taking on some of the biggest companies in the world.
Adam: You have seven Guinness World Records: for hot air ballooning, for kite boarding across the English Channel… Why? Why do you do this?
Richard: Because [when] somebody said, “Would you like to be the first person to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon?” I would have hated to sit back and watch somebody else do it. I said, “[When] are you thinking of going?” He said, “In two months.” I said, “Well, I can’t fly a hot air balloon.” He said, “In two months’ time you can get your ballooning license.”
Two months later, I found myself sitting at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine, ready to climb into the biggest balloon ever built, and head off on a spectacular adventure. We did get across the Atlantic, but it all went wrong at the end. He jumped out. He’s the experienced balloonist of 25 years, and he jumped out of the balloon. I’m left flying this balloon on my own.
Adam: You had a harrowing experience this fall. You chose to stay at Necker [Island] through Hurricane Irma, in a basement with a bunch of your team. What was that like?
Richard: We effectively got hit with a Category Seven hurricane. There isn’t a Category Seven, but technically it would’ve been Category Seven if there was. It was ferocious. It looked like a nuclear bomb had hit us.
The world is getting hotter. The sea is getting hotter. It doesn’t take much increase in heat before hurricanes become more intense. The sooner we can have breakthrough technologies, the better.
I’ve just come from Washington seeing the World Bank, the IMF, the International American Development Bank to try and rally support, not just for the British Virgin Islands, but for the whole Caribbean. Islands have been completely trashed.
When adversity hits, you’ve got to try to come back with something better than before. Seven years ago I wrote about how our house got burned down. We made sure that the new house that we built was a lot better and stronger. Romance blossomed from it. So good things often come out of bad.
“When adversity hits, you’ve got to try to come back with something better than before.”
Adam: I wonder if you could talk about the Council of Elders that you set up with Nelson Mandela, and what role that’s playing in the world today. How do you think about how a group of people, who really just stand on the respect and credibility they’ve earned, can drive change?
Richard: Peter Gabriel, one of our artists on Virgin, had a similar idea. We put the two ideas together, and we formed The Elders.
My personal experience was Saddam Hussein had some hostages in Iraq some time ago. I knew King Hussein of Jordan, and I asked him if he could deliver a letter from myself, endorsed by King Hussein, to Saddam Hussein, to see if we could bring some medical supplies into Iraq, and bring any hostages that were not completely well back out again.
Surprisingly, he agreed to do so. So we flew in with a 747 full of volunteers from England. Saddam Hussein came to the airport and handed over the hostages. We took off and we left. It was a wonderful feeling. Then a few years later, George Bush Jr. and Tony Blair decided to invade again. I knew people who had been involved in looking for these weapons of mass destruction, and they said, “It’s bollocks. There are no weapons of mass destruction.”
So we were doing everything we could to try to stop the war. We contacted Saddam Hussein. He was willing to have Nelson Mandela come meet him. Our idea [was] to persuade him to step down in the interests of the Iraqi people, and go live elsewhere to avoid a horrible war. Mandela said he would do it if we could get Kofi Annan to join him. Kofi Annan agreed to join him. The day before they were due to fly, the bombing started. The trip never took place.
The Iraqi war has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and maimed hundreds of thousands of people. It resulted in ISIS.
“If you got there two days sooner, you may have been able to avert that war.”
We then spoke with Nelson Mandela and said, “If you got there two days sooner, you may have been able to avert that war. Would you be willing to be the founding father of a new group of elders? The 12 people in the world that you think have the highest moral standing, maybe in the last 15 years of their lives, who are no longer interested in party politics.”
He agreed to found The Elders. He pointed to people like President Carter from America, Mary Robinson from Ireland, Kofi Annan, Archbishop Tutu, and others. [They’re an] incredible group of people, and over the last ten years, they’ve gone into conflict regions and knocked heads together. I think they avoided some conflicts, and they’ve done their best to stop conflicts that have already started. They also use their moral authority to speak out on issues that they feel strongly about.
They [recently] said that what Trump had done in trying to rip up the Iran nuclear deal was a ghastly mistake. They’ve set up organizations like Girls Not Brides to encourage countries to stop 11-year-olds from being married off, and to encourage young girls to be able to go to school. They were in Paris campaigning to push the climate talks through. Some of these people are 85, 86, 92 years old, but they’ve got tremendous moral authority, and people listen to them.
Adam: There’s a lot more for Virgin to still do in terms of the number of industries you can enter, the number of companies you can disrupt. What are the industries that are piquing your interest lately? Where might you go in the next few years?
Richard: I don’t necessarily know. That’s the exciting thing about Virgin. We’ll see something that frustrates us, and we’ll think, “Christ, we could do it better!” And we’ll dive in and do it. For instance, I would never go on a cruise. So we decided to build three beautiful cruise ships that I would like to go on and that my friends would like to go on. I’m going to lay the keel in Italy next week of the first of those, and in a couple years’ time, they’ll be [ready].
Most of my time nowadays is spent on the not-for-profit ventures, using the fact that I can pick up the phone to most people in the world and they’ll take my call. If you get into that position in life, you don’t want to waste it.
You want to use it to create more marine reserves, to protect the species that are imperiled in the world. Try to change drug regulation to [something] that’s sensible, and so on. There are just so many problems in this world that need sorting [out].
Last week we helped set up a fund for people in America who don’t get bail. You’ve got this ridiculous situation in America where the rich, they commit a big crime, they just write out a check and they go free for a year or two waiting for their trial. The poor get sent straight to prison, whether they’re guilty or innocent. A lot of them are innocent, and they languish in prison. They lose their jobs, maybe lose their family. So we helped set up a fund that can lend money to these people.
“Gather a wonderful group of people who believe in your idea, and just give it a go.”
Adam: You have a remarkable habit of writing things down. The first time we met was a couple years ago at a dinner. There were maybe 30 CEOs there, and you were the only one taking notes. I just wondered why.
Richard: It may go back to my dyslexia, but I think it’s good for people whether they’re dyslexic or not. I see managers, directors of companies walking around talking to their employees, and almost every employee has an idea. They’ll nod and say, “What a great idea.” But they’re not going to remember that idea the next day. If they don’t write it down, they’re not going to do anything about it. If I’m having a meeting, sometimes 20 different ideas come up, I know at least 19 of those will never get [acted upon] if people don’t take notes.
One of the reasons I think Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America are such exceptional airlines is because we worry about the details. If you get every little detail right, then the people who work for the company will be so proud and happy with the company. They won’t have customers complaining, because every little detail is sorted [out]. They can afford to smile. They can afford to have a good time. Note-taking is one of the best bits of advice I can give to people.
Adam: What advice would you give to people who want to start companies?
Richard: If somebody feels they’ve come up with an idea that’s going to make a real positive difference in other people’s lives, which is basically what a company is, I would say just do it. If you’re at college, start it from there. Don’t necessarily wait until you leave college. You can start there—you’ll have lots of people to work with on your project. Gather a wonderful group of people who believe in your idea, and just give it a go.
In your first company, you’re going to learn almost everything there is to running a business—how to deal with people, how to motivate people, how to praise people, never criticize people, always look for the best in people. I think I’ve proven this: if you can run a student magazine, you can run a record company. If you can run a record company, you can run an airline. If you can run an airline, you can run a health club chain. If you can run a health club chain, you can run a mobile phone company. If you can run a mobile phone company, you can run a bank, etc.
If you’re going to run an airline, get the chief technical officer of a rival airline to come and run it for you, so you know you’re running a safe airline. Then once you’ve got your team in place, give them the freedom to make mistakes. Give them the freedom to do good things. Give them the freedom to create magic. Don’t criticize them when they mess up. Don’t think that they’re going to do everything exactly as you would do it. Sometimes they’ll do things better than you do it, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Sometimes they’ll do things not quite like you do it, or maybe not quite as good, but the fact that you’ve delegated means you’re going to be able to achieve a hell of a lot more.
It’s all about people. That’s all it is.