Exclusive interview: Sir Richard Branson

Is Richard Branson the greatest entrepreneur of all time? From student magazines to space flight, he has mastered almost every arena into which he has ventured. In this exclusive interview he reflects on his own successes – and failures – and offers a call to action to a new generation of entrepreneurs

Is Richard Branson the greatest entrepreneur of all time? From student magazines to space flight, he has mastered almost every arena into which he has ventured. In this exclusive interview he reflects on his own successes – and failures – and offers a call to action to a new generation of entrepreneurs Sir Richard Branson is the entrepreneur’s entrepreneur. He started his first business at the tender age of 16, launching Student magazine in 1966.

Young entrepreneurs need to be encouraged to be brave and to not be afraid or ashamed of failure

Since then, he’s created more than 400 companies across disparate industries, from music to stem cell banking, nightclubs to trains. He’s the poster boy for entrepreneurial vigour, having overcome dyslexia and crippling shyness to become one of the world’s most vaunted writers and speakers. Ask any budding businessman to name a role model and Branson will doubtless be in the top three. He has amassed a fortune worth an estimated US$4.6bn and, at the age of 63, is still launching new projects. These days, he is using his entrepreneurial nous to solve complex socioeconomic problems, rather than just running businesses. Having carved a successful career taking on industry incumbents as a challenger brand, he is not cowed by the insurmountable or politically charged issues of the day.

Sir Richard is proud of the impact Virgin Atlantic has made on the airline industry

“I have always wanted the opportunity to make a difference and I believe that a successful entrepreneur’s mission should be about making people’s lives better,” he explains. “I believe that entrepreneurs can focus their problem-solving minds on larger social issues and come up with workable solutions that utilise their business skills.”

Social issues

Sir Richard is tackling these social issues through his non-profit foundation, Virgin Unite. The independent, charitable arm of the Virgin Group, it incubates several of Sir Richard’s projects. These include: The Elders, the organisation he launched with Nelson Mandela and Peter Gabriel, which aims for peace, justice and human rights worldwide; and his most recent initiative, The B Team, which brings together great thinkers and entrepreneurs to reinvent capitalism under a new social, sustainable banner.

Through these initiatives, Sir Richard hopes to revolutionise the way that businesses, investors and governments view success. Rather than focusing purely on the bottom line, his vision gives equal weighting to three business goals: people, planet and profit. “Entrepreneurs have it ingrained in them to be agents of change,” he says. “I strongly believe that big business needs to play its role in supporting society for the greater good.”

On board with staff from Virgin Trains

Climate change is an issue close to Sir Richard’s heart. Through the Carbon War Room, founded in 2009, the serial entrepreneur is seeking solutions for global warming and the energy crisis. “We all have a part to play, but I believe entrepreneurs will have a really significant role to play in bringing investment and commercial skills to help develop the new technologies needed to grow a post-carbon economy,” he says.

Right now, the Carbon War Room is focusing its efforts on finding sustainable alternatives for three industry sectors: shipping, energy efficiency and aviation and renewable jet fuels. The latter is particularly crucial for Sir Richard: Virgin Atlantic flies six million passengers each year. While Sir Richard is keen to play his part in the quest for a sustainable future, his frustration at the lack of progress by government is evident. “I think many of us will have been to conferences on climate change where governments and policy-makers have called for leadership from business, and where businesses have called for leadership from governments and policymakers!” he says.

“In truth everybody has to be responsible for what they can personally do, whether that’s pushing a new carbon-reduction strategy through your business, a new renewable-energy policy through your government, or telling your governments and policymakers that, as a citizen, you want them to show leadership on global challenges such as climate change. It can be sobering to reflect on the gravity and magnitude of the problem the world still faces, but progress is being made, and by working together we might just be able to build a future with a more stable climate system and healthy ecosystems on the land and in oceans.”

Sir Richard has always thrown himself wholeheartedly into causes. Sometimes these are political or environmental, other times he shakes up the status quo by offering people a radical alternative to the products or services they have been used to. The urge to challenge outdated models has been in him since he was a child, he says. “When I was a young boy, I wanted to change the world. I left school at 15 to start a magazine to campaign to stop the Vietnamese war, so looking back I think I was definitely born with a bit of ambition and entrepreneurial spirit.”

It is this same entrepreneurial spirit that Sir Richard is now working to instil in others. Earlier this year he launched Virgin Startup, an official delivery partner for the UK’s Start Up Loans programme. Through this new organisation, he will provide loans to entrepreneurs between the ages of 18 and 30 UK-wide. A pilot of the scheme, which ran over 11 months, injected £600,000 into 100 businesses.

Helping hand

Sir Richard believes that this new source of seed capital could make all the difference to fledgling businesses. “I started my first business with a handful of coins out of a phone-box at school, but it was the £300 from my mum that really kick-started Student magazine and sparked the Virgin adventure 40 years ago,” he says. “I’ve always believed that all an entrepreneur needs is a small amount of money to get started and the desire to make a change and mix things up a bit.”

Creating a positive environment for entrepreneurs doesn’t just spur innovation and help the individuals behind the start-ups, he argues. In the wake of the global downturn, it is essential for rebuilding the world economy. “I have always believed that a sign of truly healthy economy is a vibrant startup and entrepreneurial sector,” says Sir Richard.

“Today, with the world’s developed economies recovering and with youth unemployment figures still high, we need to encourage investment in more startups and to make it more attractive for young people to consider starting their own business as an alternative to the traditional career path. It’s creating jobs and economic growth for countries, which is exactly what we need in this post-financial crash world: building economies back up with new businesses and great ideas.”

Sir Richard with a goatee-sporting Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest sprinter

Starting a business is still a daunting prospect for many: three out of four businesses fail within the first three years. But Sir Richard believes the rewards out-weigh these risks, and is calling on would-be entrepreneurs to take the leap. “A bold and risky statement, but I stick by this,” he says. “My desire to do something different and take a few risks along the way has been at the heart of the Virgin story from the beginning. It is impossible to run a business without taking risks and Virgin would not be the company it is today if we hadn’t taken a few.”

An example of this entrepreneurial chutzpah is Virgin Galactic. When Sir Richard founded the spacecraft business in 2004, it was with little knowledge of the industry. “I knew nothing about space travel or building rockets,” he admits. “I just said, ‘I’m going to find someone who can build us a rocket and send people into space.’ It’s a hard business and one that is keeping me occupied for the time being, but it is one of the most exciting ventures I have been lucky to be a part of. It gives me goosebumps every time I think about it.”

Sir Richard’s successes as an entrepreneur are matched only by his failures. His first business selling budgerigars to his schoolmates never got off the ground, while his attempt to take on Pepsi and Coca-Cola with Virgin Cola also fell short. This has never stopped Sir Richard from dusting himself off and trying again. “Almost all of my colleagues at Virgin thought I was mad to go into the airline business, but we did it, we took the leap and we’ll be 30 next year,” he says. “Every time I see a Virgin tail fin at an airport around the world I feel genuinely proud that we changed the way the airline business worked.”

Sir Richard’s call to arms for today’s young entrepreneurs is to follow in his footsteps, failures and all. “Young entrepreneurs need to be encouraged to be brave and to not be afraid or ashamed of failure,” he says. “Ask successful business men or women today and they will have all experienced failure at some point. They will tell you it made them the business person they are today.”