Appearing recently at a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference, Virgin Group founder and CEO Richard Branson sits hunched modestly in his chair, legs crossed, fingers knitted around his knees. The posture is not that of the powerful, self-assured tycoon, but of the beta male signaling submissiveness. Thereby reduced in size, Branson chuckles a lot and tells stories on himself — how Mates, his condom brand, failed and how he is now godfather to one of the results; how Virgin Brides went under when he couldn’t find any customers; how he can never remember the difference between net and gross; how he once tried on Goldie Hawn’s huge diamond ring and had to have it cut off his finger when it got stuck. Branson tells a charming tale, and comes across as an approachable guy who is simple in the best of ways — humble, fun, open and with nothing to hide.
Branson’s autobiography — a fat, international bestseller that he has updated and expanded several times since its publication in 1999 — functions as an extension of this persona. At nearly 600 pages, Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way is a delightful — if long-winded — account of how Branson rose from inauspicious beginnings as a severely dyslexic high-school dropout to become one of the world’s wealthiest and most innovative entrepreneurs and one of its most entrepreneurial philanthropists.
Based heavily on Branson’s voluminous diaries, the book is filled with anecdotes and details from his early days as an aspiring journalist, to his creation of a mail-order record business called Virgin (so named because Branson knew nothing of what he was getting into), to Virgin’s transformation into the world’s hippest record company and finally, to Virgin’s expansion into almost every imaginable sort of enterprise — from planes, trains and automobiles to retail, cell phones and, yes, spaceships.
Along the way, we meet the Sex Pistols, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Mike Oldfield and Janet Jackson, all of whom Virgin signed. We watch Branson get caught gaming the United Kingdom’s value-added tax system by fake-exporting records and then selling them domestically at reduced prices. And we see him do battle with the English courts, which charged Virgin with obscenity for publishing the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks.” (Branson won when a linguist testified that far from being an anatomical slur, “bollocks” is actually an 18th-century word for “priest;” because priests talk so much nonsense, “bollocks” eventually became a synonym for “nonsense.”)
Losing My Virginity also introduces a stunning sample of Branson’s friends, from Princess Diana to Nelson Mandela to Queen Noor and King Hussein of Jordan. Yes, Branson’s a bit of a name-dropper. But it’s true, too, that he’s not making these relationships up. They are a real and important part of his world. So are his two Caribbean islands, his African game preserve and his penchant for death-defying attempts to balloon his way into the record books — a hobby that has almost killed him countless times, whether by drowning, crashing, burning, freezing or, most memorably, shooting (on one balloon trip, the winds wafted him over Chinese airspace and kept him there despite threatening orders to get out or else).
Branson is a natural raconteur, and the stories flow easily and enjoyably along. As such, Losing My Virginity is a fun ride. But, like the balloons Branson adores, there is a sense of hot air about the book. When the author is a multi-billionaire and when the subtitle is “How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way,” one expects more. One wants to come away from the book with some specific, precise insight into how Branson got where he is. But while Branson tells us about Virgin’s many successes, he doesn’t do so in a way that really gives away any secrets.
A Financial Forrest Gump?
It’s almost as if Branson would have us believe that he is a bit of a financial Forrest Gump — sweet, unassuming, a bit hapless and yet crazily, intuitively gifted when it comes to making smart business decisions. He reminds us repeatedly that he never reads a full business proposal because he can’t. Instead, he relies on his gut to make snap decisions about investments and people. As his net worth attests, he is rarely wrong. Also like Forrest Gump, Branson leads a life that constantly places him at the center of history: Where Forrest Gump becomes an international ping pong champion, Branson sets world records in hot air ballooning; where Forrest Gump wins the Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam and exposes the Watergate scandal, Branson airlifts hostages out of Iraq and devises a plan for peace in the Middle East that, he believes, was foiled only by the United States’ declaration of war.
Like Forrest Gump, Branson boils it all down to a basic maxim. For Gump, it’s “life is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get.” For Branson, it’s “screw it, let’s do it,” a proverb that also happens to be the title of his 2006 follow-up book.
Branson thinks capitalism is good, that government shouldn’t meddle with the market, that doing business should be fun, that growth is positive and contraction is negative, and that anti-competitive behavior, whether on the part of government or business, is about the worst moral sin there is. He sees no point in micromanaging, and prefers action, risk and a bit of chaos to safe, conservative management. He likes to break rules and enjoys a reputation as capitalism’s prodigal son, its lovable, fun-loving wild child. Virgin Atlantic’s first flight is a classic example: It was an in-flight transatlantic party hosted by Branson, complete with free-flowing booze and topless models.
None of this is news. Indeed, Branson is himself continually in the news, and when the media isn’t covering him, he’s covering himself on Twitter, Facebook and his Virgin.com blog.
Equally unrevealing are Branson’s accounts of the dangers and difficulties he has encountered in business. We hear a lot about how many times Virgin nearly collapsed when banks called in their loans, when the technocratic state interfered with competition or when competitors themselves played dirty. In all of these stories, Branson studiously avoids digging deep. Instead, we get chivalric romance: He is the good guy, the white knight, the noble underdog protecting his pure, innocent Virgin from an array of corrupt, money-grubbing enemies who are far more powerful and far less honorable than he is. Of these, the worst is British Airways (BA), the government-subsidized behemoth whose efforts to sink Virgin Atlantic read like something right out of a John Grisham novel. The shenanigans went on so long and ran so deep — BA spied on Branson, hacked Virgin’s passenger lists, impersonated Virgin agents and spread lies about Branson and his company — that Branson finally sued for libel. BA settled out of court for just over $1 billion, the largest uncontested libel settlement in British history. Branson gave a chunk of the settlement to his employees and banked the rest.
The BA settlement made Branson truly, fabulously, independently wealthy. He writes with awe about how, for the first time in his career, he didn’t have to worry about money. He describes realizing that now and forever, he can do anything he wants. Anything. It was at that point that the Virgin Group truly took off. To date, Virgin has created more than 300 companies, and employs more than 50,000 people in 30 countries. Global revenues in 2009, Virgin reports, exceeded $18 billion.
Moving Beyond the Confines of Earth
Branson’s victory also enabled him to involve himself in philanthropy in a major and creative way. Believing that it is possible to combine free enterprise with a humanitarian impulse, Branson’s charitable work is centered not in a grant-giving foundation (as it is with Bill Gates, for example, or as it was with forebears such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford), but on investments made through Virgin Unite. His investment in space travel, for example, is grounded in his sense that humanity will soon need to expand beyond this planet to prosper. More generally, Branson believes in market-based philanthropy that enables worthy causes to stop being dependent on gifts and to become financially independent and profitable. In this, he’s an important and successful innovator.
As a business strategy, “win billion-dollar libel settlement” is a bit of a long shot. But in some ways, it’s the most tangible, inspiring tip Branson offers about how he got where he is today. As such, his story winds up coming across as a bit of a novelty item: Losing My Virginity is the business memoir as anti-business memoir, a personal story about how hard it is to make it in business until you have a windfall that changes all the rules.
This is not to be cynical, particularly in an era when capitalism’s chronic image problem is as bad as it’s ever been. Branson is a visionary genius, and he’s also a wonderfully warm and fuzzy alternative to the Gordon Gecko “greed is good” stereotype that dominates the media and popular culture and has helped fuel the Occupy Wall Street movement. But it is important to note that Branson’s primary purpose in Losing My Virginity is not to offer advice on how to succeed in business per se, but to present himself as a role model for how capitalism should re-brand itself.
Throughout Losing My Virginity, Branson talks repeatedly and at length about the integrity of the Virgin brand and the importance of his own reputation as the face of that brand. His libel victory against BA arose from his fierce protection of his good name, and his latest book, Screw Business as Usual (published in December), advocates a “kinder, gentler” capitalism, a strategy of social investment in which the profit motive and the desire to help people are seamlessly combined.
Branson sidesteps the sticky, impossibly political implications of that goal. We hear, for instance, about how Al Gore came to Branson’s Caribbean island to personally deliver the PowerPoint presentation that became An Inconvenient Truth. And we hear about how that changed Branson’s life and his business model. What we don’t hear about is how politicized the climate change debate is, how political pressure and financial opportunities have skewed and, in some instances, even corrupted the science and how Gore himself is at the center of the mess.
But in the end, we don’t really need to. Branson is investing where the money is, just like he always has (Gore has become known as the world’s first carbon billionaire). The difference is that now Branson’s investments are made from a perch atop a soapbox. They come with a patina of virtue and a nice moral glow.
It’s also taking him — and us — in some marvelous directions. As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, 2012 may well be the year that Virgin Galactic can offer space travel (extremely fuel-efficient, of course) to the general public. Indeed, NASA has already booked a ticket. And it won’t be much longer before Virgin Oceanic launches a submarine that can take tourists — and scientists — to the deepest parts of the ocean floor, miles below where anyone has ever been before.
There’s only one thing to say to all that: Screw it; let’s do it.