A non-stop, fast-paced life of adventure as Richard Branson tries one new business after all. A school drop out whose headmaster said he would either go to jail for become a millionaire. He managed to achieve both, as the jail sentence was only a few days.
Fascinating reading about the ballon trips, speed boating across the Atlantic, the early days of the student newsletter, Virgin Records, the recording studio and signing up Mike Oldfield. The adventure continues with the continuing challenge of borrowing money to start new businesses including Virgin Atlantic, entering the Japanese market and defeating British Airways in the courts in relation to BA trying to put Virgin out of business.
The lesson I learnt is that great things are achieved by taking risks and to be work with others to help achieve great things.
Read the notes I made from the book:
Some people say that my vision for Virgin breaks all the rules and is too wildly kaleidoscopic; others say that Virgin is set to become one of the leading brand names of the next century; others analyse it down to the last degree and then write academic papers on it. As for me, I just pick up the phone and get on with it.
Rather like the balloon flight, the first 43 years of my life and my business career are all about survival. – page 14
Bransons grandmother lived until the age of 99. She never stoppped learning. her attitude was, you’ve got one go in life, so make the most of it. – page 20
As with everything she did, Mum worked in a whirlwind of energy which was difficult to resist – p24.
I think my parents must have instilled a rebellious streak in me. I have always thought rules were there to be broken, and Stowe (school) had as many rules and regulations as the army – many of them completely anachronistic and pointless.
I can honestly say that I have never gone into any business purely to make money. If that is the sole motive then I believe you are better off not doing it. A business has to be involving; it has to be fun, and it has to exercise your creative instincts. – p 58
Branson describes the experience of being jailed as a result of evading export taxes: to be imprisoned, or indeed do any kind of business deal by which I would ever have cause to be embarrassed. That night was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. As I lay in the cell and stared at the ceiling I felt complete claustrophobia. I have never enjoyed being accountable to anyone else or not being in control of my own destiny. I have always enjoyed breaking the rules, whether they were school rules or accepted conventions, such as that no seventeen-yearold can edit a national magazine. As a twenty-year-old I had lived life entirely on my own terms, following my own instincts. But to be in prison meant that all that freedom was taken away.
I was locked in a cell and utterly dependent on somebody else to open the door. I vowed to myself that I would never again do anything that would cause me to be embarrassed. – p 101
It was a bold move but even then I knew that it is only by being bold that you get anywhere. If you are a risk-taker, then the art is to protect the downside – p131.
Mike Oldfield lived in a remote part of Wales near a place named Hergest Ridge. This is the name of Oldfield’s second album – some trivia from page 136.
It is always difficult to admit to a failure, but the one positive thing about the Event [a what’s on magazine started to compete against another magazine which had temporarily ceased publication] episode was that I realised how important it was to separate the various Virgin companies so that, if one failed, it would not threaten the rest of the Virgin Group. Event was a disaster, but it was a contained disaster. Every succesful businessman has failed at some ventures, and most entrepreneurs who run their own companies have been declared bankrupt at least once. Rather than defaulting on our debts, we paid them up and shut down the magazine. – p205
In the same way that I tend to make up my mind about people within thirty seconds of meeting them, I also make up my mind about whether a business proposal excites me within about thirty seconds of looking at it. I rely far more on gut instinct than researching huge amounts of statistics. This might be because, due to my dyslexia, I distrust numbers, which I feel can be twisted to prove anything. The idea of operating a Virgin airline grabbed my imagination, but I had to work out in my own mind what the potential risks were. – p216
“Fun” is a particularly loaded word for me – it’s one of my prime business criteria. – p 218
Beneath the facade of stability which a public company is meant to engender, my life was as hectic as ever. The mid-1980s, and the launch of Virgin Atlantic, ran the period when I really started having to put myself forward to promote Virgin. We didn’t have the budgets that British Airways and others had to spend on advertising, but I found that the press enjoyed writing stories about Virgin if they could put a face to the name. it contrast to promoting Virgin Music, where we were actually promoting the bands rather than Virgin as a brand name, for the first time I began to use myself to promote the companies and the brand. And so my wine and the Virgin brand name began to become intertwined. – p 257.
Branson organised a jet to fly to Baghdad to rescue some hostages in exchange for medical supplies. This humanitarian effort embarrassed British Airway’s chief, Lord King who issues a directive to his staff to “do something about Branson”. Kind died in 2005 and more details about this incident can be read in his obituary.
Obstinate as I am, I recognised that there is a time to back down. ‘Live for the present -‘ I heard my parent’s old maxim in the back of my head ‘- and the future will look after itself.’ My instinct for continued involvemenr with Virgin Music and taking Thorn EMI shares was tempered by the need for financial security. – p464
I hate living in the past. I particularly don’t want to think about all the lost friendships – p 468.
At this point I could of course have retired a concentrated my energies on learning how to paint, watercolours or how to beat my mum at golf. It wasn’t, in my nature to do so. People asked me, ‘Why don’t you! have some fun now?’ but they were missing the point.’ As far as I was concerned, this was fun. Fun is at the core of the way I like to do business and it has been key to everything I’ve done from the outset. More than any other element, fun is the secret of Virgin’s success. I am aware that the idea of business as being fun and creative goes right against the grain of convention, and it’s certainly not how they teach it at some of those business schools, where business means hard grind and lots of ‘discounted cash flows’ and ‘net present values’.
Even though I’m often asked to define my `business philosophy’, I generally won’t do so, because I don’t believe it can be taught as if it were a recipe. There aren’t ingredients and techniques that will guarantee success. Parameters exist that, if followed, will ensure a business can continue, but you cannot clearly define our business success and then bottle it as you would a perfume. It’s not that simple: to be successful, you have to be out there, you have to hit the ground running; and, if you have a good team around you and more than your fair share of luck, you might make something happen. But you certainly can’t guarantee it just by following someone else’s formula.
Business is a fluid, changing substance, and, as far as I’m concerned, the group will never stand still. It has always been a mutating, indefinable thing and the past few years have demonstrated that. – p491
When we were established as a mail-order record company, and thus dependent on the post, out of th blue came a six-month postal strike. If we hadn’t reinvented ourselves, we would have gone bust. There’ was no choice. Within days of the strike we had openedl our first Virgin Records shop. It may have been up a dark, narrow flight of stairs above a shoe shop and have consisted merely of some shelves, a shabby sofa and a: till, but in its own ‘small way it taught us all we now know about retailing. I can draw a straight line from that tiny shop and the Virgin Megastores in London, Paris and New York. It’s just a matter of scale, but first you have to believe you can make it happen. – p492
However tight things are, you still need to have the big picture at the forefront of your mind. – p493
Many people asked me then what the limits to Virgin were, and whether we hadn’t stretched the brand name beyond its natural tolerance. With monotonous regularity, they pointed out that there is no other company in the world that puts its name to such a wide variety of companies and products. They were absolutely right, and it remains something of which I am proud.
It didn’t stop me thinking about the question nonetheless, and the answer wasn’t easily explicable. I have always lived my life by thriving on opportunity and adventure. Some of the best ideas come out of the blue, and you have to keep an open mind to see their, ` virtue. – p494
The more diffuse the company becomes, the more frequently I am asked about my vision for Virgin. I tend either to avoid this question or to answer it at great length, safe in the knowledge that I will give a different version the next time I’m asked. My vision for Virgin has never been rigid and changes constantly, like the company itself. I have always lived my life by makinglists: lists of people to call, lists of ideas, lists of companies to set up, lists of people who can make things happen. Each day I work through these lists, and it is that sequence of calls that propels me forward. Back in the early 1970s I spent my time juggling different banks and suppliers and creditors in order to play one off against the other and stay solvent. I’m still living the same way, but I’m now juggling bigger deals instead of banks. Once again, it is only a matter of scale.
As anyone in my office knows when I’ve misplaced it, my most essential possession is a standard-sized school notebook, which can be bought at any stationery shop on any high street across the country. I carry this everywhere and write down all the comments that are made tom e by Virgin staff and anyone else I meet. I make notes of all telephone conversations and all meetings, and I draft out letters and lists of telephone calls to make.
Over the years I have worked my way through a bookcase of them, and the discipline of writing everything down ensures that I have to listen to peoplet carefully. Flicking back through these notebooks now, I see some ideas that escaped me: I was asked to invest in a board game called Trivial Pursuit and a wind up radio. But, when I turned down the offer to become an underwriting name at Lloyds insurance, my guardian angel must have been looking after me.
Whenever I’m on a flight or a train or in a record store, I walk around and ask the people I meet for their ideas on how to improve the service. I write them down, and when I get home I look through what I’ve written. If there’s a good idea, I pick up the phone and implement it. My staff were maddened to hear that I had met a man on the airport bus who suggested that we offer onboard massages – and please could they organise it? They tease me and call it `Richard’s Straw Poll of One’, but time and again the extra services that Virgin offers have been suggested to us by customers. I don’t mind where the ideas come from as long as they make a difference.
I also insist that we continually ask our staff for any suggestions they might have, and I try my hand at their jobs. When I tried pushing a trolley down the aisle of a jumbo, I found I crashed into everyone. When I talked to the crew about this, they suggested that we introduce a more waitress-style service and keep the trolleys to a minimum. – p503
Once you have a great product it is essential to protect its reputation with vigilance. It’s not just a question of getting it into the marketplace. As a result, every day I receive a bundle of press cuttings – everything that mentions Virgin. These – and staff letters – are the first things I read in the morning. When I launched the airline, I realised that I would have to use myself to raise the profile of Virgin Atlantic and build the value of the brand. Most companies don’t acknowledge the press and have a tiny press office tucked away out of sight. If an inaccurate story appears in the press and is allowed to run for more than one issue of the paper, it becomes fact. Then, every time your product is mentioned, this same story will be repeated. – p507
1. Read Wikipedia article about Richard Branson
2. Lord King obituary
3. Branson’s first balloon trip was with Per Lindstrand.