In celebration of foundr’s 10th anniversary, we’re reflecting on the moment that changed everything—interviewing Richard Branson. Below, Foundr CEO Nathan Chan shares why this moment was pivotal in validating the business.
10 years ago, I started foundr to help other young entrepreneurs like myself get access to the greatest founders of our time. I never expected that one of my first interviews for The Foundr Magazine would be Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.
He’s a personal hero of mine, and I’m sure many other entrepreneurs, mavericks and rockstars. After the interview, I knew I could shift from working on foundr as a side hustle to a full-time business.
In this exclusive Richard Branson interview, he shares what it takes to turn his “ideas into reality,” how to build an empire, and his thoughts for the next generation of entrepreneurs.
The Richard Branson Interview:
Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted for Issue 8 of the Foundr Magazine.
Foundr: Even though you’re remarkably successful, do you still find yourself seeking mentorship from others?
Branson: With all my employees, I listen to them, trust in them, believe in them, respect them and let them have a go! I never believe I know better than they do and have been fortunate over the years to build up a very strong management team whom I can trust and take advice from.
In the past, I have had some wonderful mentors. Outside my friends, family and staff: Freddie Laker, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Peter Gabriel, the late, great Mo Mowlam and the aviation genius Burt Rutan have all given me some great guidance and inspiration.
Foundr: How we bounce back from our set-backs and failures is often thought as critical to success. What is your advice for young entrepreneurs starting out and facing tough set-backs, and do you have any particularly memorable experiences that have come from failures?
Branson: I’ve had many challenges – every entrepreneur does – it’s the nature of the beast. It can be a challenge not to let failure, or negativity from others, prevent you from going after what you believe in and what in your gut you know can work. However, it is important to face these challenges head on and give them a go and importantly don’t beat yourself up if you fail – just pick yourself up, learn as much as you can from the experience and get on with the next challenge.
Granny’s favorite saying was – You’ve got one go in life, so make the most of it.
Foundr: When did you first start dreaming up the concept for Virgin Galactic – was it a culmination of your aviation adventures, or was it a dream that was around back in your Student magazine days?
Branson: It all started back in 1969 at my family home in England with my parents and two sisters watching the live black and white pictures of astronauts traveling to the Moon. I was spellbound and from then on was determined that one day I would follow them to space!
Foundr: Until Virgin Galactic, Virgin brands were usually an alternative to an existing category – offering everyday consumers more than they were accustomed to within the sector – a disruption to the status quo. But with Galactic, Virgin becomes the innovator. Is there a difference in approach to business when switching from ‘improver’ to ‘innovator’?
Branson: Not really. The core principles are the same. I believe a great company, whether improving a sector or creating a new one, needs to have an excellent product or service at its core; needs strong management to execute the plan and a good brand to give it the edge over its competitors. Providing quality service, combined with value for money and in an innovative way ensures you offer real value – and finally to be responsible to society and the planet.
Foundr: If you were a start-up now, with no money, how might you approach launching a business, and do you think the internet has leveled the playing field for young entrepreneurs?
Branson: First and foremost, a successful business must have a sound knowledge of its market and work on how its product or service will be different, stand out and improve people’s lives. If you can ensure it responds to a real need out there in the marketplace, your business can punch well above its weight.
All in all, the internet is a force for good, providing young entrepreneurs with access to an incredible wealth of information, has changed the way we see the world and is also a great source of innovation and entrepreneurial opportunities.
Foundr: When you come up with a business idea, do you generally know if it’s going to be a winner? What do you listen to first: your gut, your heart, your brain, or your accountant? And is there a winning formula?
Branson: I definitely go on gut instinct but it has always had the back up of research and information. Never to be frightened of taking risks and always follow your instincts! Don’t be afraid to take that leap into the unknown. I’ve taken many knocks over the years but it has only made me stronger and more determined to succeed. I always say ‘The brave may not live forever – but the cautious do not live at all!’
Foundr: You are a high-achiever in both business and personal accomplishments – your extreme adventures have a high profile, but you also complete challenges with your family (such as running marathons together and climbing Mont Blanc). Do you have a particular process for setting and achieving these personal goals?
Branson: I like challenges in life and pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I just think you need to spice up life every now and then with a bit of adventure and excitement. After all – life is not a dress rehearsal! I was very impressed and must say a little jealous of Felix Baumgartner’s recent record for the highest and fastest-ever skydive jump from space. I am yet to decide what my next big challenge will be…but watch this space.
Foundr: Leadership was once described by Sir Ernest Shackleton as lonely – a necessary solitude in order to be able to separate yourself when you need to make tough decisions. How do you balance this with your evident charisma and popularity amongst your staff – do you ever have to step back from the fun in order to be ‘the boss’?
Branson: I believe a good leader brings out the best in people by listening to them, trusting in them, believing in them, respecting them and letting them have a go. When employees tell you about their good ideas for the business, don’t limit your response to asking questions, taking notes and following up. If you can, ask those people to lead their projects and take responsibility for them. From those experiences, they will then have built the confidence to take on more and you can take a further step back.
Foundr: Our future generation of leaders will no doubt look to you for inspiration, and your influence over this next generation will be a legacy. What do you want to see from the next generation of leaders and how can you help them?
Branson: If young people do see me as an example (I’m very flattered if they do!) I hope it is as someone who will go out there and live life to the full. I have always believed that business should be a force for good, and The B Team – an organization incubated by Virgin Unite, the not-for-profit arm of the Virgin Group – has started to frame a new approach to business where people and planet are business priorities alongside profit.
Mentorship is key to unlocking each of our entrepreneurial spirits. The Virgin Group operate a number of entrepreneurial programs around the world. The Branson Centres For Entrepreneurship provide mentorship to young entrepreneurs in Jamaica and South Africa, Virgin Media Pioneers connects entrepreneurs together so that they can share their ideas and get feedback from other aspiring innovators, and our work with Start Up Loans in providing UK entrepreneurs with mentorship and a loan to help get them on their feet.
Foundr: Out of all the ideas, products and services you have created, if you had your time all over again, and could only choose one to work on, which would it be and why?
Branson: It’s difficult to pick just one, as we have had many successes to be proud of over the years! For me, the triumphs that stand out the most are when, despite a lot of doubt and criticism, Virgin has entered a sector and truly turned it on its head in a positive way. Watching my staff’s faces, whether that be at Virgin Atlantic when we first launched in 1984 or at Virgin Trains in 1997, when the doubters and the critics who said we’d never do it, we’d never turn an industry around, we’d fall flat on our backsides, being proved wrong. There’s no better satisfaction than watching the people around you, who have worked day and night to get something right, realizing that dream.
Foundr: What question would you ask yourself, Sir Richard Branson in 2013, if you were a young entrepreneur starting out? Which question would you most value the answer to?
Branson: That’s a very difficult question as I have learned so much over my 40 years of business which would have been valuable to me when I was younger. Maybe, is it ok to take big risks?
Foundr: When coming up with a business idea, what generally are your work processes to get this idea off the ground?
Branson: I am a great believer that you need passion and energy to create a truly successful business. Remember many new businesses do not make it and running a business will be a tough experience, involving long hours and many hard decisions – it helps to have that passion to keep you going.
First we develop a sound knowledge of the market using many different channels including social media, and then we work on how our product or service will be different, stand out and improve people’s lives compared to other existing ones. Our brand appreciates what the customer wants and is always delivering an extremely high standard of product and service. Our staff believes in what they sell and would buy the product themselves. We would need to ensure that our brand is not at risk of disrepute and would adopt it to local cultures whilst still staying true to the core of what the brand stands for, at Virgin that is: quality, value for money, innovation, competitive challenge and fun.