Richard Branson’s resume is like no other.
From selling mail order records as a teenager to heading the Virgin empire, Branson’s business dealings encompass hundreds of companies and tens of thousands of employees.
Sir Richard Branson
Starting a record company that signed acts ranging from Genesis to the Sex Pistols? Check. That record label eventually sold for a cool $1 billion, by the way.
Getting so frustrated with the shortcomings of airlines that he founded his own, eventually serving millions of travelers across the UK? Check.
Starting a company to send tourists into suborbital space? Yep.
What about knighthood at the age of 50? World record attempts to be the first to cross the Atlantic via hot air balloon? Kitesurfing with former President Obama on Necker Island, his own private getaway in the Virgin Islands?
Yeah, all of that too. And he shows no signs of slowing down at age 67.
It seems that no industry or accomplishment is off-limits, making Branson a beacon of inspiration for business owners. But his tale, with its many twists and turns, presents a challenge for would-be success stories who want to follow in his footsteps:
How do we begin to interpret such an unconventional journey and turn it into something actionable for entrepreneurs today?
That’s precisely what we’ve set out to do here. If you haven’t already, you should definitely go directly to the source and read Foundr’s very own interview with the man himself. But in this deeper look at all we know about Richard Branson’s career, I’ve attempted to distill some of the most distinct lessons today’s business owners might learn from his entrepreneurial journey to date.
Regardless of your own resume or level of success, there’s plenty to glean from Branson’s life.
Breaking Down the Richard Branson Business Playbook
The challenge in such a task is, known as something of a rebel throughout his storied career, Branson would undoubtedly scoff at the idea of an entrepreneurial playbook.
In fact, he’d probably set it ablaze.
Although Richard Branson’s story is anything but traditional, and could never be replicated, his personal and professional journey is still brimming with lessons for budding business owners.
Sure, comparing our own ventures to someone who is such an outlier might seem laughable. But Branson’s road-less-traveled certainly wasn’t without its bumps along the way.
We all start from square one, after all. Richard Branson included.
When It Comes to Opportunity, Don’t Be Afraid of Variety
Finding commonality among Branson’s accomplishments is easier said than done.
Within the span of a decade, Branson went from a teenager in the 1970s slinging mail order vinyl to the head of Virgin Records.
In the 1980s, he was laser-focused on travel and tourism, putting his energy into Virgin Atlantic alongside smaller ventures that included hot air balloons and holiday tours to the United States.
The 1990s saw Branson try his hand at everything from vodka to cosmetics, eventually finding success at the turn of the century with Virgin Mobile.
And since the new millennium, his focus has turned to renewable energy and space tourism through the founding of Virgin Galactic, looking to literally send its customers into space.
If you can’t find the common thread between Point A and Point B, don’t worry. Neither can we.
Branson obviously isn’t shy about taking on new opportunities, but specifically claims to be a fan of calculated risks.
“I definitely go on gut instinct,” Branson said to Foundr. but it has always had the backup of research and information. Never be frightened of taking risks, and always follow your instincts! Don’t be afraid to take that leap into the unknown.”
And yeah, not all of his ventures panned out perfectly. In fact, some of them crashed and burned (but more on that later). That’s part of the process, though.
Takeaways for Entrepreneurs Today
There is no prescribed path for “making it.”
On paper, someone whose entrepreneurial roots are in the music industry has no business starting up an airline, let alone trying to send people into space.
But we don’t live on paper, do we?
Our skill sets are defined by our experiences. Our experiences are defined by the risks and the chances we take. Those risks could be as simple as stepping out of our comfort zones to network with others, or saying “yes” to someone who we normally would have brushed off.
Just as Richard Branson has remained open-minded to new opportunities, so should we.
Think about it. Your journey as an entrepreneur stagnates when you close yourself off from new ideas. There’s a reason billionaires are the most avid readers—they’re constantly on the hunt for new perspectives to guide them toward their next ventures.
The more you’re willing to evolve, the better. Embrace new experiences. Say “yes.” Try something new.
Besides, what do you have to lose when opportunity comes knocking?
Perhaps Branson says it best on his own blog:
“Even if I have no idea where I’m going or how to get there, I prefer to say ‘yes,’ instead of ‘no.’ Opportunity favours the bold – this is a lesson that I learned early on.”
There is No ‘Right’ Time to Start
Branson was 16 years old when he started Student magazine. This initial venture would evolve into the mail order record business that became Virgin Records.
Despite coming from a privileged prep-school background, the success of his first business certainly wasn’t set in stone. Infamously told by his former headmaster that he’d either end up in prison or a millionaire, who knows where Branson would be today if he hadn’t taken that initial leap as a teenager.
As a matter of perspective, Branson launched Virgin Galactic at the age of 54. The mere concept of a space tourism company is lofty to say the least, especially for someone with no degree or hard science background.
It would have been easy to rest on his laurels and current ventures instead of exploring new ones. But Branson isn’t concerned with the clock—he’s worried about making another breakthrough.
Richard Branson’s ambitions serve as proof that age is so often arbitrary for entrepreneurs. The willingness to dive in and get your hands dirty is far more important than the year you were born.
Takeaways for Entrepreneurs Today
In business and in our personal lives, there’s always that fleeting feeling that we’ve missed the boat.
And considering we’re constantly bombarded with stories of young entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg and the various twentysomething success stories of the world, it often feels like time is our worst enemy.
I’m too old.
If I was going to make it, it would have happened by now.
It’s too late.
Listen: Just because you’re not some entrepreneurial prodigy at age 20 doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of mediocrity.
When you consider notable entrepreneurs who got their starts later in life, such as Lynda Weinman (Lynda.com) and Bill Porter (E*Trade), you can’t assume that time isn’t on your side.
What about that initial leap, though? What about those doubts?
Hey, there will always be those question marks and “what-ifs” about what you’re capable of as an entrepreneur.
But you’ll never know until you just start.
Imposter syndrome is a serious problem plaguing young entrepreneurs in particular. Rather than being paralyzed by fear of the unknown, embrace the challenge.
Who says that a copywriter can’t learn C++? Who says that a programmer can’t build a killer Instagram presence?
Entrepreneurship is an inherently uphill battle, and getting started is undoubtedly the hardest part.
Win three clients over the next week. Publish content every single day for a month. Heck, even lofty challenges like Foundr’s own Instagram Domination represent a shining example of what’s possible when you just start.
Still pushing boundaries, Branson still feels like he hasn’t made it and wants to keep it that way. As such, we should never assume that our time is ever truly “up.”
Believe in Your Brand (No, Seriously)
Virgin Records. Virgin Atlantic. Virgin Mobile. Virgin Galactic.
See a pattern here?
Branson is insistent on slapping the “Virgin” label on just about everything he touches. But he isn’t doing so out of vanity.
After all, the namesake of the Virgin empire comes from the fact that he was indeed a virgin to business himself. Branson wasn’t ashamed of his lack of prior experience—he embraced it.
Branson believes in Virgin because Branson is Virgin.
And so the Virgin brand as we know it was born, embracing the concept of exploring new territory and experimenting. It’s also embraced a purpose of helping others. Recently, Branson recalled a conversation he had with a former receptionist at his own Virgin Mobile. Her words encompassed his own outlook on business and Virgin as a brand.
“She said business is about relationships and getting on with people in order to build great things. The more you are nice, the more people will want to help you make things a success – and I couldn’t agree more.”
Few massive brands have the relatively squeaky clean and scandal-free reputation that Virgin boasts. With an emphasis on problem-solving, Branson manages to present himself as a protagonist in a business world filled with questionable characters.
Takeaways for Entrepreneurs Today
If you want your business to last, you need to stand behind your work. Your business isn’t a game of “fake it until you make it” when it comes to your brand.
And entrepreneurship doesn’t have to be akin to pulling teeth or swindling people when you focus on the needs of your customers as a core tenet of your brand.
This rings true if you’re a solo business owner, too. When I write for clients, I don’t see myself as some sort of hired gun or mercenary. I’m invested in the goals and results related to my freelance writing clients—I want to hear their concerns and understand how I can help.
Adopt this sort of mentality and focus on filling a void. With a sense a purpose, work feels less like, well, work.
As an added bonus, Branson has his own five-step checklist for building a purpose-driven brand:
- Sit down and talk to flesh-and-blood people in your market—pick their brains to understand what value you can create in their lives.
- Develop a thesis for what your brand stands for and use it to position yourself.
- When developing your brand identity, think about your tone and personality—everything from logos to typography should send a message (think of the Virgin logo).
- Create experiences for your customers—do everything in your power to turn their pain points into positives.
- Focus on people first—seek out clients and customers that you want to work with and inspire you.
Never Lose Your Sense of ‘You’
There are two types of billionaires out there.
You have the suit-and-tie types who hide behind their hordes of cash, rarely making face in public or acting remotely human.
And then you have Richard Branson, known for various quirks such as his hatred of neckties (sometimes snipping them off of people’s necks), a laid-back sense of style, and lust for adventure.
By spending about two minutes on Branson’s Instagram, you can get a good pulse on the unique brand of charm that defines him so well. For starters, he is infamous for dropping in on his employees, rather than being a faceless CEO that hides in the shadows.
Meanwhile, how many billionaires can say that they’ve gotten into a shirtless face-off with Conor McGregor?
These interactions are more than just publicity stunts and photo ops. This is who Richard Branson truly is. His personality is integral to his success. Sure, Branson probably hams it up a bit for the camera; however, his rebellious nature is anything but an act.
Case in point, Branson attempted a world record to be the first to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon in 1987. Riding in a balloon that naturally sported the Virgin logo, the pair’s crash landing in Scotland and Branson’s eventual ocean rescue cement his daredevil status.
Even today Branson has his brushes with danger, surviving a near-fatal bike accident in 2016.
Although these moments seem to have little to do with Branson’s professional life, they highlight the importance of character. An avid risk-taker in business, perhaps it’s Branson’s personality that influences his entrepreneurial decision-making. If nothing else, his antics certainly help him stand out among the billionaire class.
Takeaways for Entrepreneurs Today
It’s not what’s in our wallets that makes us compelling.
It’s our personalities.
When you look and sound like everyone else on the block, how can you expect to get noticed?
And while it might be tempting to play it safe and copycat what everyone else is doing, what happens in your personal life defines your professional one. The first-grade adage of “be yourself” might sound elementary, but it’s true enough.
Blog your story. Talk about your struggles via social media. Drop the occasional f-bomb if it’s in line with your brand.
In short, let people know the “why” behind your business and what separates you from the pack.
One of my favorite examples is Basecamp’s “about us” page, where they define “giving a damn” as part of their mission statement. CEO Jason Fried regularly goes on the warpath on Twitter and via blogging, calling out workaholics who reinforce what he sees as a toxic culture in business. His blunt attitude not only makes him more compelling, but defines Basecamp as a sort of cult hero among startups.
You’ll likely score more points for being bold than you will for looking like another face in the crowd.
Personal branding doesn’t have to be rocket science. Be vulnerable. Be real. Heck, Mark Zuckerberg even became known for his obsession with gray hoodies and flip-flops. Something as simple as your wardrobe can be your ticket to standing out.
Either way, don’t compromise your beliefs and lose who you are. Use your personality as your not-so-secret weapon.
Failure is Just Fine
Behind every success story are a few screw-ups, and Richard Branson has had his fair share.
However, he’s not haunted by the fact that some of his seemingly “brilliant” ideas have fallen flat.
“I’ve had many challenges, every entrepreneur does,” Branson acknowledged in his Foundr interview. “It’s the nature of the beast.”
In fact, one of Branson’s most notable missteps occurred right before Virgin Records took off. Believe it or not, a 20-year-old Richard Branson tried to game England’s tax system by claiming he was exporting records he was actually selling in the UK, avoiding a 33% tariff in the process.
Brandon was caught red-handedand paid up accordingly, going on to say that the experience was a “crash course in how to manage cash” and run a legitimate business.
The slip-ups don’t stop there.
Remember Virgin Cola, Branson’s futile attempt to topple Coke’s monopoly on the soda game?
Or what about Virgin Cars, an ambitious online auto retailer established in 2000 that folded within five years?
And how about the time Branson donned a wedding dress to promote Virgin Brides, a wedding and bridal wear store that failed to drum up business?
With big ambitions come big risks, and not every risk results in reward. These missteps also remind us that behind any success story, there are always low points. Some happen publicly, others behind the scenes.
And in some cases, those missteps are totally beyond on our control. In fact, Branson attributes the failure of Virgin Cola to the fact that Coke was effectively buying off retailers to dump his product.
In true Richard Branson fashion, he takes his mistakes in stride. Here’s what he told Foundr about his low points:
“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’s 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.”
Takeaways for Entrepreneurs Today
Name an entrepreneur. Any entrepreneur. They’ve screwed up. Big time.
The difference between us and them? Our mistakes (thankfully) don’t cost us billions.
That prize contract is going to slip through your fingers. Your most valuable customers might disappear out of nowhere or jump to a competitor. What you thought was a “sure thing” one day could go up in smoke the next.
The good news? Acceptance is the first step toward overcoming failure. You can either let yourself be destroyed by your missteps or figure out how to move on.
Bear in mind that every failure is a learning experience. Just as Branson has reflected on his mistakes, we can do the same as we figure out how to avoid a future screw-up. Look at failure as part of being an entrepreneur rather than the end of the world.
Also, don’t mistake failure with the fear of failure. I mean, you can’t actually fail at something until you’ve taken action. While there are always what-ifs and big decisions that stand in your way, you can’t be paralyzed by them.
Go after that client. Send that cold email. Launch.
Don’t Underestimate Optimism
In addition to embracing the occasional failure, Richard Branson credits positivity as an essential ingredient to success. There’s a reason nearly every photo you see of Branson has him grinning from ear to ear.
Labeling himself as “Dr. Yes” via Twitter, leading with “yes” rather than “no” remains one of his signature pieces of advice.
While advice to “be positive” may sound like fluff, Branson notes that approaching people and problems with the proper attitude can be life-changing.
“I’m an incurable optimist,” Branson notes. Given the industries that Branson has dabbled in, being a glass-half-full leader is a must.
When Virgin Atlantic butted heads with British Airways in the 1990s, Branson didn’t buckle. He stayed the course. The full potential of Virgin Galactic remains to be seen, but its founder is optimistic about what the future holds.
Positivity can serve as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, as proven by many of Branson’s ventures. Even for the ones that didn’t work out, there was always some sort of silver lining.
Takeaways for Entrepreneurs Today
Mindset matters, plain and simple.
Positivity is one of the essential elements of entrepreneurial leadership, but is easy to overlook in the face of doubt.
A nightmare customer or a client that refuses to pay up. A call-out from a competitor. Receiving a “no” when you were dead set on “yes.” While these challenges aren’t a choice, choosing a positive outlook certainly is.
There are always going to be these sorts of roadblocks. It’s how you approach them that matters.
Mind Your Mentors
Branson is adamant that doing business is all about people, including the need for entrepreneurs to learn from others and form relationships.
Branson doesn’t take credit for all of his success. He acknowledges those who helped him along the way in his interview with Foundr:
“In the past, I’ve had some wonderful mentors. Outside my friends, family and staff [there has been] 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.”
What’s telling about this list of mentors is its diversity. From fellow entrepreneurs to noteworthy philanthropists and musicians, Branson is willing to absorb knowledge from just about anyone and everyone.
That includes his own employees as well.
“With all my employees, I listen to them, trust in them, believe in them, respect them and let them have a go,” Branson told Foundr. 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.”
Not only does Branson treat his employees as equals, but he also considers them mentors who guide his own decisions. Insight and guidance don’t always have to come from a “guru” Our own colleagues and employees can be our most important teachers.
Takeaways for Entrepreneurs Today
Finding a mentor is one of the most important moves an entrepreneur can take.
We take comfort working with someone else who’s walked the walk. Meanwhile, social media has made it easier than ever to connect with like-minded professionals who can guide us where we need to go. Rather than blindly hoping that a mentor stumbles into our path, seeking out relationships to help our business grow is a cinch these days.
Of course, mentors come in many shapes and sizes. Rather than putting all of your trust into a single person, consider the day-to-day mentors you might interact with on a daily basis. Clients and colleagues. Influencers and entrepreneurs you follow. Bloggers who regularly share their insights with the world on a daily basis.
And sure, mentors can make a massive difference for those who are struggling, but they aren’t the be-all, end-all of your business. At the end of the day, you’re the one in the driver’s seat. When you absorb knowledge from those around you on a regular basis, the need for an individual mentor seems a lot less daunting.
Make Helping People Part of Your Business
Richard Branson has always stressed that companies should strive to do some sort of good in addition to doing business.
Through his nonprofit Virgin Unite and personal philanthropic efforts, Branson has donated billions to fight global warming, provide poverty relief, and fund AIDS research. Meanwhile, business ventures such as Virgin Care have treated more than 6 million people as part of England’s National Health Service.
Beyond charity, much of Branson’s career has been defined by identifying problems and creating products and services that can solve them.
That was the case with Virgin Atlantic, the launch of which was inspired by the cancellation of Branson’s personal flight to Puerto Rico in 1984. He decided to charter his fellow passengers himself in a hired plane, seeing the experience as an opportunity to compete with British Airways and help keep more people in the air.
In his Foundr interview, Branson outlined what a “good,” help-based business looks like:
“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.”
Takeaway for Entrepreneurs Today
Everyone wants their company to represent a sort of “force for good,” don’t they?
Luckily, you don’t need billions in the bank to build a brand that does good. Simply start with doing work that you care about for people you genuinely want to help.
Perhaps one of the best ways to offer a helping hand is by educating your audience with no strings attached. No sales pitch, no gimmicks, no spam.
Getting involved in Facebook groups with others in your industry and sharing your experiences is a modern example of doing just that. Outside of social media, there’s always blogging or starting up an email newsletter that offers up some much-needed advice to your audience.
Businesses exist because problems exist. Wear your ability to solve those problems on your sleeve.
Note: And much like Branson, don’t rule out the positive impact of taking a stand on social issues relevant to your brand. Given that brands that stand behind causes are highly regarded in the eyes of customers, supporting charities and social initiatives can also be good business.
Entrepreneurship is an Emotional Investment
Finally, Branson is all too familiar with the emotional toll involved with entrepreneurship.
When Branson sold Virgin Records to EMI in 1992, he noted that the tears streaming down his face at the time were not tears of joy. Considering Virgin Records was such a huge step in his career, the emotion is understandable.
In a 2017 conference in San Francisco, Branson reiterated the emotional investment involved in his company when describing the sale of Virgin America to Alaska Air Group.
“Sometimes selling a company is like selling your family,” Branson said of the deal.
Looking at the whole of Richard Branson’s career, it can be difficult to separate the man from the brand. Putting his heart and soul into Virgin has obviously paid off, but it has come with a price emotionally.
To Branson, the rewards have clearly outweighed the negatives. He notes that the key to handling the emotional roller-coaster is finding a sense of work-life balance.
“It’s no secret that I like to play as hard as I work. I’ve always lived the ‘work hard, play hard’ philosophy, believing that it’s one of the best ways to achieve balance. Having a busy career, doesn’t mean that you can’t live your life to the fullest.”
Takeaways for Today’s Entrepreneurs
There are going to be those days where you want to break down or throw in the towel.
There are going to be those 12-hour days where it feels like your personal and professional life have become inseparable.
It happens, and it’s OK. Again, entrepreneurship is an emotional investment.
Managing your emotions is key to keeping yourself sane. Minding your mental health and acknowledging what’s causing you stress is the first step to avoiding a breakdown.
And to quote Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, you are not your job. You don’t have to take everything that happens to your business personally. You have the power to take a step back and take care of yourself.
Don’t succumb to the workaholic mindset. Take a break. Go for a run. Do what you need to do to avoid letting your emotions get the best of you.
Branson himself notes the need for personal time as part of his daily routine. Between an early start, enjoying a stress-free breakfast with his wife Joan, and getting a much-needed workout in, Branson’s personal routine is integral to his professional one.
So establish your own routine that keeps your emotions and well-being in check. Seriously, it might be the most important thing you do for the sake of your business and sanity.
Parting Words from Sir Richard Branson Himself
There’s plenty of insight to pull from the Richard Branson playbook, although it should be noted that the Virgin Group founder isn’t done writing it.
Easily one of the most fascinating entrepreneurial journeys ever recorded, the lessons from Branson’s rise to billionaire status can apply to success stories and newbies alike.
As a quick recap, let’s sum up those lessons in plain English:
1. When opportunity knocks, welcome it (even if it seems beyond your expertise).
2. There’s no “perfect” time to start your next project.
3. Build a business that does good, and believe in what you do.
4. Use your personality and quirks to your advantage.
5. Don’t shy away from failure. Embrace it, learn from it, and be ready to move on.
6. Positivity pays off, especially in the face of doubt.
7. Regardless of what your business does, make time for assisting and educating others.
8. Absorb as much knowledge as you can from those around you.
9. Entrepreneurship isn’t just a financial investment; it’s an emotional one.
To close his initial interview with Foundr, Branson left us with these final words:
“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.”
And with these lessons and Branson’s perspective in mind, hanging onto that passion is possible for those struggling or getting started.
What about you Foundr family, who do you look to for inspiration? What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from another successful entrepreneur? Let us know in the comments.