Stepping off the boat onto Makepeace Island, I was ready. Ready to change out of my ripped jeans and comfy tee (the ideal plane clothes combination), ready to scope out the perfect spot for our cover shoot and ready to, if I’m truly honest, pee. But barely a few hundred metres in, I suddenly crossed paths with Sir Richard Branson. Having kindly invited Collective Hub to his extended family’s weekend away, he was a ball of energy after escaping a brutal thrashing on the tennis court. Always eager to give everyone he meets his undivided attention, Sir Richard declared that now – hours ahead of my scheduled preparation time – would be a great time for our interview. So, minus the notes I promised myself I’d prepare as soon as I got to my room, I sat down with Sir Richard for what would be one of the most exciting conversations of my career journey so far. Yep, there’s nothing like being thrown in the deep end!
But, in a way, I felt like I had prepared my whole life for this moment. Nearly 20 years ago, in 1998, I first read Sir Richard’s book, Losing My Virginity. Then, in 2014, I was invited by mutual friends to spend time on Necker Island – Sir Richard’s private island that he bought when he was just 28 years old to impress his then-girlfriend (now his wife) Joan. Not so suddenly, I found myself sitting in Sir Richard’s private living room, as he propped his bare feet on the coffee table, sand sprinkled over the floor. After this trip not only did Sir Richard kindly write a testimonial for my next book but he offered to, each month, place a copy of Collective Hub in every bedroom.
Come 2016, I had the privilege of watching and working alongside Sir Richard over five days on his recent trip to Australia. We spent countless hours talking everything from politics, decriminalising drugs, Snapchat, the koala chlamydia epidemic, people with too much money, family and everything in between (including things that couldn’t possibly be recorded, though they will stick with me for a lifetime). What follows is a snippet of just one of those hours – the unplanned, unscripted and uninterrupted conversation between two people, chatting entrepreneur to entrepreneur.
It seems Sir Richard’s story has been told so many times that it’s entered the realm of fable. This interview isn’t a rehashing of that. Instead, I wanted to dive into the stories behind ‘the story’, and I implore you to look for the lessons between the lines.
These words alone reinforced, to me, that there are always parallels that can be made and lessons to be learnt from different industries; it verified how our business is building extensions; and it reminded me that no matter who you are and what business you’re building, it’s our loved ones – our teams, our friends and our families – that matter most.
Nothing could have demonstrated this more clearly than the obvious respect and love Sir Richard had for the people he was holidaying with: his godfather, his godfather’s daughter and grandchildren, whom he was incredibly conscious of spending as much time with as possible. And after receiving his godfather’s nod of approval (thanks to a spare copy of one my books that was lying around), my team and I were invited to stay for the majority of the weekend and were generously made to feel like part of the family – meals, koala cuddles, real-life talk and all.
Here’s what Sir Richard had to say on everything from the education system and being taken to court for swearing to the source of true happiness.
Lisa: At Collective Hub, our audience are entrepreneurs and other people who really look up to you. But this community didn’t come easily – 15 years ago I started my business, had 11 years of dismal failures and finally something, Collective Hub, is working. So first of all, I’d love to know when you started Student magazine as a teenager in 1968 – what was your burning ‘why’?
Richard: I started when I was 15 at school. I was interested in what was going on in the world; the Vietnam War was raging, young people felt very strongly that the war should be stopped and there were ghastly pictures of Americans napalm-ing children – it was as bad as the Iraq War was subsequently. So, we wanted young people to have a voice. People didn’t listen to students to find out what we wanted to learn, we were taught things that were completely useless – our days were spent going to church for an hour, which I thought was a waste of time [and studying] French which nobody could learn, Latin which seemed pretty useless to me, and so on.
So I was never interested in being an entrepreneur, I was just interested in creating a magazine. But I soon had to become an entrepreneur in order for the magazine to survive. I had to worry about the advertising, the printing, the paper manufacturing, the distribution, so I became an entrepreneur by mistake. Ever since then I have seen situations where I feel, ‘Why is the airline business so badly run? I can do it better, I can create the kind of airline that I’d like to travel on’, ‘Why is the rail network [that’s] so broken run by government? We could go in and make it a lot better’, ‘Why are governments not allowing us to go to space? Let’s set up a space ship company and sort that problem out.’
When I get these ideas, I don’t get accountants in to look at the figures and tell me whether it’s a good or bad idea. Because I know only too well that you can get one firm of accountants in who will set up figures which will show how much money you are going to lose, and with all the same figures you can get another firm of accountants in and they will show you how much you are going to make. The most important thing is just doing it and making sure that your product is superb and that people are going to want your product. Then you’ll most likely have more money coming in than going out at the end of the year.
Lisa: I totally agree. Early on with Collective Hub, my accountant was getting redder and redder in the face as the bottom line was getting redder and redder, and I actually had to break up with him for four months. I said, “I can’t even see you because it’s so difficult to sit there and say, ‘You need to trust me, I can feel this!’” So, what was your next, ‘Wow, I have to do this’ moment after the magazine?
Richard: It was simply that someone played me a tape by a 15-year-old artist that I thought was breathtakingly beautiful. I went to six record companies and no one would put it out so I said, “Screw it I’ll do it, let’s start a record company”. We put it out as our first release and it sold millions of copies.
Lisa: When people think of a great idea like that, they can hit brick walls, like funding, really quickly and become frustrated. So how did you pre-fund your early businesses?
Richard: I didn’t have any money when I started out in business, which actually most likely has turned out to be a good thing… I set myself a rule that unless I could get the printing and the manufacturing of my magazine covered by advertising, I wouldn’t launch.
I worked out of the school phone box – that was my actual office, a red phone box at the school – ringing up Coca-Cola and shoving money in. I did learn a trick, I shoved money in and I got cut off and so I rang the operator and they said they’d put me through, so I had the operator as my secretary then: ‘I’ve got Mr. Branson for you, will you take the call please?’
So I self-funded the magazine by getting the £4000 worth of advertising. Before the record company, I started a mail order company. I couldn’t afford to buy the records so I printed off leaflets and would stand outside concert halls handing out thousands of leaflets and then people would order the records, they would send the money in advance and then we’d go and buy them. So I used lots of devices like that to self-fund our initial businesses.
Lisa: What were your next steps from there?
Richard: There were a number of spin-off businesses from Virgin Records. We had the record company, we had some wonderful artists: The Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Culture Club and so on…
Lisa: How did you convince artists to sign with you?
Richard: They saw the job we’d done with the Sex Pistols and The Rolling Stones. [It] took me a long time to sign, but Janet Jackson I took up in a hot air balloon and threatened to use her as a ballast unless she signed. But I think we were good at marketing and that’s really what an artist needs, and then we got a reputation. Genesis was signed to us and they would tell Phil Collins and then he would tell Peter Gabriel. So we have a basic record company and normally you would just licence your product to other people around the world. But instead of licencing our product to other people, we went and set up our own record companies all over the world, so that when we had a success, we had a much bigger margin on it. And then we’d set up an advertising agency to promote it, we’d set up a publishing house to publish the music, we’d set up an artist repertoire company. So we built up lots of extensions, T-shirt companies and so on, on the back of it. Then because of all these companies overseas, I was flying on other people’s airlines all the time and I hated the experience – then one day I decided to just get a second-hand plane…
Lisa: I love that story. I know obviously with Virgin Airlines you’ve had a lot of fun, but what other businesses have been the most fun to go into?
Richard: The record company was a lot of fun. We had a wonderful court case where we called [the Sex Pistols’ 1977 record], Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols and we were taken to court for the word ‘bollocks’. The police obviously thought that bollocks was a nickname for balls, which I always thought it was. But I rang up a linguistic expert at a university and he said, ‘You’ve been prosecuted for the word bollocks? Bollocks is the nickname that was given to priests in the 18th century, so the actual meaning of your album is, ‘Never mind the priests, here’s the Sex Pistols.’ And then he said, ‘Would you like me to come to court?’ and I said, ‘Yes, please.’ And then he said, ‘Well, I happen to be a priest as well, would you like me to wear my dog collar?’ So that was a good one.
In those days, it was very much a lot of rock ‘n’ roll going on behind the scenes and there was one occasion where Keith Richards was staying with me in Oxford when he was being a naughty boy and staying with someone else’s girlfriend. And there was a bang on the door and there was this large guy standing outside the door with a gun in his hand – in England no one ever has guns – and I knew straight away who he almost definitely was, he was the boyfriend of the girl. And he said, ‘I’ve come to kill Keith Richards,’ and I started talking to him, and as I’m talking to him I start to see a naked Keith Richards and a naked girl running across the lawn behind this guy into the bushes! So I said to him, ‘I assure you that Keith and your girlfriend are not in the house. You’re very welcome to walk around the house, but leave the gun here and if you find them here you can come and shoot me yourself.’ So he went in and couldn’t find them obviously, and all was well. I’ve certainly lived an interesting, crazy life.
Lisa: You definitely have – I mean, we’re currently sitting on your private island in Australia, Makepeace, and it’s just so beautiful here! How do you see gaps in the marketplace and what are you currently passionate about?
Richard: I should be put in prison for being a serial entrepreneur. I love creating things, I love learning. I see life as one long learning process, one long education that I never had – I left school so young. I’ve been doing a koala project on our island, learning all about koalas and learning about [koala] chlamydia and wild dogs and pythons – why they’re declining so much. Every single little different thing about life just fascinates me.
Lisa: On that point about education, it was the same for me – I was perpetually thrown out the door at school because I wasn’t learning the way they wanted me to learn. I was always asking ‘why’ and that questioning is what’s celebrated as an entrepreneur. I know the non-profit Virgin Unite has set up the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in South Africa and Sir Ken Robinson has done a lot about cultivating creativity in our schools, but why do you think the education system is so broken and linear?
Richard: I think one of the problems with the education system is that the people who decide to reform it are the French teachers, the Latin teachers, the maths teachers. And the educationalists don’t ask the pupils and they don’t ask business what kind of people we want out of school.
The most important thing in life is to be a good listener and I don’t think those people who are reaching our educational system are good listeners, or they’re not listening to enough people. I think ideally they should sit down and think, ‘Right, we’re not going to think we’ve got 300,000 French students in Australia, we’re going to sit down with a blank piece of paper and work out what is the education system for the future? What should it look like, how are we going to turn Australians into the most entrepreneurial country in the world?’
Obviously it shouldn’t be all about entrepreneurs but they are the people who pay for the hospitals, pay for the roads, who make, generally speaking, people’s lives a lot better. And yet there is almost no emphasis placed on entrepreneurship in schools at the moment.
Lisa: Absolutely, the current education system drives me nuts.
Richard: Entrepreneurs can also look at the problems of the world, whether it’s koalas, whether it’s the war on drugs, whether it’s conflict resolution, whether it’s global warming – and entrepreneurs should play a part in all these kinds of issues and not just think, ‘that’s up to government, that’s up to social workers.’
I think that entrepreneurs can look at things differently. And it’s great fun. I think that they’ll enjoy it and it’s great for the people who work for a company to feel that the company is more than a money-making machine – it’s really getting out there and trying to make a difference in people’s lives. And just morally it’s the right thing to do.
Lisa: I love that, and it’s something I’m really passionate about. I think some people have this whole mindset that they just want a super yacht or they just want a private island like Richard Branson, but what I always say is, “But why? What is driving you?” Because if you don’t know why you want that then there’s absolutely no point.
Richard: I think it’s sad when people make a lot of money and they want the biggest boat or the biggest car or the biggest plane. If they would only realise that happiness comes from people and your family and friends. You know, one or two toys is okay but not that sort of ever-searching… like what’s-his-name, the guy that owns Chelsea [Football Club]. He’s got six yachts which are just gigantic and you think, ‘What a waste of money’. He could transform so many people’s lives if he put that money to good use. But anyway…
Lisa: So, just one more thing. Last year you announced Virgin Cruises, which will embark on its first trip in 2020, and I loved it when you said you had no interest in going on a cruise ship – neither do I – but that makes it a great pain point for a business idea. So maybe I’ll have to jump on board…
Richard: I think I dislike the whole idea of a cruise ship company, but this particular one is going to be stunning. And that’s what I think Virgin is good at doing, we can create something that’s very different and special.
Lisa: Yes, and obviously conquering space with Virgin Galactic is a huge thing. Are you any closer to a date?
Richard: We’re not giving a specific date but we’ve got the test program taking place now, so whenever they feel 100 per cent safe then we’ll go. So it could be a year or it could be longer.
Lisa: You’re obviously not going to slow down anytime soon.
Richard: No, I’m not slowing down anytime soon. I love life too much and enjoy learning too much.