Richard Branson is one of the biggest names in business. From starting a magazine for students at the age of 16, to conquering the music industry and attempting to fly around the world in a hot air balloon, the British entrepreneur is famous across the world for his bold and daring projects. Branson talked to INSP’s former editorial assistant Amy MacKinnon about his plans to travel into space next year and his long-term aim to build a Virgin hotel on the moon.
I understand you were only 16 when you founded Virgin. What was that like?
Thrilling. I actually started Student magazine at 16 as we wanted to give young people a voice on the big issues of the day. We actually founded Virgin a year or so later as we saw a music industry that needed shaking up. We were trying to change things for the better and make a difference in people’s lives, that’s an exciting thought and has been our guiding motivation for the last 43 years.
What motivates you and where do you get all of your energy?
Motivation can come from many different places. At this stage of my life so much of my time and effort is focused on our not-for-profit foundation, Virgin Unite, which helps so many people. There’s also so many exciting projects going on in our businesses, the thought of going to space with Virgin Galactic certainly helps get me out of bed in the morning.
How is Virgin Galactic progressing? Will you be heading into space soon?
It has been an amazing journey to date, as we are truly being pioneers in this field. We have built an incredible team over the last few years and now feel that we’re in a very good position. If all goes according to plan, we should be in space next year, [and] that’s when we look to the next goal. I’d love to see a Virgin hotel on the moon in my lifetime. There’s so much we can achieve now that these foundations have been laid.
On a recent post on your blog, you list your friend Ray Chambers’ Five Steps to happiness. What would you say your steps to happiness are and why?
Doing a job that you love, having time in your life for family and friends, and doing good in the world. If you achieve those three things then you’ll be more than close to happiness.
Together with Peter Gabriel, you co-founded The Elders [a non-governmental organization]. Where did the idea come from?
We both felt there was a space for some of the world’s most respected, independent leaders to come together and form a group to take on one of the humankind’s biggest challenges — conflict resolution. We had the great privilege of working with Nelson Mandela and his lovely wife, Graça Machel, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to shape the idea and help select the initial Elders. It has become a wonderful force for good, tackling complex and intractable issues, especially those that are not popular.
What do you hope the Elders will achieve?
I hope, and believe, the work of The Elders will live on for hundreds of years to come. With the foundations Nelson Mandela has set, the wonderful work of Desmond Tutu, and the superb new leadership of chairman Kofi Annan, The Elders can go from strength to strength.
What do you think are the most pressing issues facing the world today?
One of the issues that I have spent a lot of time debating is international drug policy. The war on drugs has been an utter disaster and the sooner it is brought to an end the better. If a member of my family was to suffer a drug problem I’d want them to receive medical help and treatment, not a prison sentence.
In June 2011 you guest-edited the Big Issue South Africa. What are your thoughts on the street paper model, and how can it make a difference?
A great deal of good has come out of street paper projects. For a start, having run a publication myself with Student magazine, I have a great deal of appreciation for the process. The fact that it has helped so many people is wonderful. Street paper projects in 40 countries across the world offers some amazing reach and global impact.
We see street paper vendors as small business people — this is perhaps best summed up by the Big Issue UK’s motto, “A hand up not a hand out.” They buy their stock — the magazine — out of their own money and it’s then up to them to sell it at a profit. What advice would you give to small business people starting out?
To make a difference in people’s lives, research the market you are entering and make sure you set yourself apart from the competition. You have to give people a reason to use your product or service, there are so many industries that are still ripe for improvement. If you manage to pinpoint them then you have a golden opportunity to disrupt things.
The title of your latest book, “Screw Business As Usual,” seems to be becoming a motto of yours. What do you mean by this?
Many businesses are too afraid of taking a risk these days, so many choose to play it safe. While we all need accountants I’m not particularly keen on their involvement at the start of a business. You need to be brave with your ideas and make a statement. Common sense and gut instinct will get you a long way.
You’ve achieved a phenomenal amount, from world record attempts to space exploration, and I count 84 businesses listed as part of the Virgin Group on your Web site. What is the next frontier for you, for your company?
We have some truly thrilling plans in the pipeline. Our plan for Virgin Galactic is to create a pioneering and successful business and to kickstart a new industry which could come to define the 21st century in the same way that commercial aviation defined the century before. The launching of satellites into space could enable us to do so much, from reducing solar radiation on earth to providing humanitarian assistance.
In years to come, how would you like the world to look back on you and your achievements?
Rather than my personal achievements, I would like to think that people look back at what’s been achieved by all Virgin employees, past and present. We have shaken up so many industries and will continue to do so. We’ve looked to have a positive impact in people’s lives and have a lot of fun whilst doing so.