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Confession: I’ve got a Richard Branson Man Crush

January 5, 2009

I’m reading Richard Branson’s Autobiography Losing my Virginity. This is an aphrodisiac for an aspiring entrepreneur.  Here are a few great snippets and takeaways from Branson’s adventurous life.

  • Sought challenge from a young age. Branson tells a story of how he learned to swim at seven years old.  His aunt bet him 10 shillings he couldn’t learn how to swim.  He spent hours thrashing about in the cold ocean in Devon.  He couldn’t figure it out, and left exhausted.  As the family was driving home the next day, Richard spotted a river from the car.  He demanded is father pull over so he could have one more shot.  His father complied, and pulled over.  Little Sir Richard stripped to his underwear and dove into the water.  After a few minutes and a few close encounters with a rapid river current, he was strongly swimming on top of the river.  He proudly collected his 10 shillings, and the family drove on.
  • Demanded and accepted overwhelming responsibility as a teenager. While in high school, Branson started his first international company: Student Magazine. He lined up contributing authors such as Jean-Paul Sarte.  He delivered block buster interviews with rock stars like Mick Jagger.  And, he took responsibility for publishing, editing, and acquiring advertisers to fund the enterprise.  He says in his book: ” The responsibility made me grow up fast.  You might say that I was old before my time. While other might sit around happily and get stoned, unconcerned about waking up the next morning with a hangover, I was always aware of the need to keep a clear mind.”
  • Operates with Candor.  In the book Branson outlines some very personal stories that most people would be unwilling  to share.  He tells a story about  how as a teenager he and a girlfriend organized and financed an abortion.  He comments on his experimentation with LSD and other drugs.  He talks openly about the swinging he and his first wife did during their marriage.  But, his willingness to open himself up to criticism is what makes him so likable.
  • Cluttered with ideas and future focused. He writes: “Fantasizing about the future was one of my favorite pastimes.” He told a story about how when he was in talks to sell Student Magazine to IPC magazine, he told them all these ideas he had for extending Student into a travel agency, bank, nightclub, hotel, train service, and airline.   They were so overwhelmed by his lunacy that they walked away from the deal.  Come to find out that vision was realized under the Virgin brand name, instead of Student.
  • Makes deals spontaneously and artfully–not analytically. He describes how he negotiated his first rental agreement for his first Virgin record store.  He and a partner scouted for a building in a desirable neighborhood.  They found what looked to be an empty shop and walked into it.  As they walked in the landlord who owned the building and the shoe store next door asked: “What are you doing?”  Branson responded, “We’re looking to set up shop.”  The owner said: “You’ll never pay the rent.”  Branson: “Correct.  We can’t afford any rent.  But we can bring a lot of traffic past your shop, and they’ll buy shoes. “What kind of shoes?” the man responded.  Right there, they cut a deal for free rent until somebody else wanted to empty spot.  Within weeks, Branson had a flourishing record shop, and the shoe store owner was growing along with him.
  • Exacting quality standards. Branson realized early on that the real money makers in the music industry were the record companies.  He was eager to set up a recording studio.  He secured a loan, purchased a country manor, recruited a team and said this about the studio: ” Phil Newell wanted to install a state-of-the art 16-track Ampex tape machine together with the best of everything else he could think of….We both wanted to ensure that everything was as good as at the best studio in London.
  • Cynical about education and credentialing. Branson doesn’t believe you need any formal education or training to be successful at a craft.  You just need to go do it. As his American girlfriend ( future wife) was preparing to return to America to complete her architecture degree, Branson implored: “Come on!  You don’t have to study for six years to qualify as an architect.  Start doing it!”  She ended up staying and designing the Manor.
  • No distinction between personal and professional life. Branson talks about how his life in an integrated chaos of business and pleasure.  It caused conflicts in his first marriage.  In the early days of Virgin, employees and partners would be conducting business in his home.  When he came home from work, before he even closed the door the phone would ring.  Branson writes: “Wherever I am, I always pick up the phone. I’ve seen other businessmen say ‘I’ll call them back,’ but I’ve never been able to do that.  In many ways I wish I could…but one call leads to another which leads to the next opportunity.”
  • When in trouble, spend more money and increase risk. Branson has a theory that he’s proven correct multiple times.  When faced with a huge business problem, take the highest, nastiest, riskiest road; and shoot for the upside (and do you best to cover for downside, but don’t dwell).  A safer strategy is certain death.  In 1980, the recession was negatively impacting global music sales.  And, Virgin had not landed a big hit since Tubular Bells. They were quickly running out of money and had two options.  Option 1: Save costs, and cut out bands that weren’t paying out.  Option 2: Shoot for a big break and risk going bankrupt.  Branson went with option two–and lost his business partner who cash out his 40% stake because of Branson’s brazenness–and spent all his money and leveraged over $1MM in debt to sign up Phil Collins, the Human League, and two night clubs: Heaven and the Roof Garden.  They all proved to pay out and relaunch Virgin back into cash positive territory.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2009 10:58 pm

    I have a man crush on him too! very inspiring.

  2. January 15, 2009 5:34 am

    EXCELLENT blog post Elliot. I have studied Branson and there are so many little things that people can learn from him that could take them to the next level.

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