Over the course of his long career, Richard Branson has made himself a singular figure in the world of entrepreneurship. With a net worth of over $5 billion, the founder of Virgin Group is one of the wealthiest and most consistently successful entrepreneurs of all time. Entrepreneurs at every stage of their careers can learn a great deal from Branson’s experience, philosophy, and wide-ranging approach, as well as the way he has pursued humanitarian initiatives and community engagement.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Branson didn’t attend university, relying more on raw talent and his entrepreneurial spirit. He started his career by launching Virgin Records in 1972, soon after which he was caught committing tax fraud. Despite this initial hiccup, the business grew to be highly successful, and largely made his later, more unconventional enterprises possible. This initial success story is a fairly common start for many successful serial entrepreneurs. Unlike most other entrepreneurs, however, he didn’t continue building his business in a linear, predictable fashion. His next big enterprise, launched in 1984, was Virgin Atlantic Airways, shifting into an entirely different industry. To the surprise of many, Branson proved to be just as successful running an airline as he had running a record company.
Starting in the 90s, and going on till today, the serial entrepreneur has broken into many other industries, including the railway industry, clean energy, space flight, telecommunications, healthcare, and even comics. Today, Virgin Group is made up of over 400 businesses, and that stunning success is largely due to Branson’s unique talents.
Inspiring others by thinking big
Traditionally, success in business is about taking well calculated risks and developing projects that promise a steady return for investors. Branson, on the other hand, believes in dreaming big, and building projects that investors and the public can get excited about in their own right. He once famously said, “There is no point in starting your own business unless you do it out of a sense of frustration.” Great businesses aren’t just about generating a return, they’re about resolving problems that we can all identify with.
This approach is ultimately responsible for the way that Branson’s career has progressed. Virgin Airlines was catalysed by a cancelled flight, while Virgin Galactic was founded out of a sense of frustration with the world’s progress on spaceflight. These frustrations aren’t unique to Richard Branson, they’re shared by the public and his investors. This is key, because it allows him to offer value to investors that goes beyond simple profit. It offers investors the sense that they can help to change the world, and to move society forward to a better future. It inspires them to reach for more than great returns.
Taking a stand
Even when he’s not launching a business to do so, Richard Branson doesn’t believe in leaving problems unaddressed. He is directly involved with a very wide variety of humanitarianinitiatives ranging from the development of clean energy, to rescuing missing and exploited children, to fighting climate change, to denuclearization. Besides this, he invests heavily in startups that he feels “will make a positive difference” in the world, with more emphasis on the purpose of the business than its ultimate profitability
He also isn’t shy about getting involved with global political issues, and taking stands that business leaders typically avoid. In 2013, Branson urged business to boycott Uganda over an anti-homosexuality bill, and has actively campaigned against the use of the death penalty in the United States.
This bold approach has had the side effect of keeping the entrepreneur in the public eye for years, even outside the context of his business activities. The result of this, besides the direct effect of his work, is the celebrity that he enjoys in addition to his considerable business success.
We can learn from Branson’s bold approach
Branson and a few other broad-spectrum entrepreneurs, like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, don’t just do business for profit, they do it to directly change the world. Each of them is engaged in businesses explicitly designed to solve the problems they see in the world, occasionally the same ones. For example, all three are competing to deliver space access to the private sector.
What sets Richard Branson apart from the other two is his very broad involvement with a wide array of issues, regardless how controversial they might be. Branson takes serious risks, both in terms of the businesses he has launched, and in how he presents himself to the world. This boldness sets him apart from his competitors, and has played a major role in building and maintaining his success over the last four decades. Successful entrepreneurship is about more than a sound business plan and solid investment, it’s about solving common problems, inspiring consumers, and taking a stand.