See This Guy: Sir Richard Branson

richard branson

There’s lots of familiar ways to describe Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson:

Entrepreneur. Showman. Visionary. Billionaire. Daredevil. Knight.

Here's some terms you might not have associated with him:

Dyslexic. Dropout. Failure. Tone Deaf. Criminal. Crazy. Unusual.

Yet none of these prevented him from building a far-flung empire.


You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.

Sir Richard has had a severe learning disability since childhood. His academic performance in high school forced him to drop out before completing his degree requirements.

In fact, when he left school, his headmaster wrote him a note: "Congratulations, Branson. I predict you will either go to prison or become a millionaire." (And he would eventually do both).

And, personally, we love the irony that despite his disability, he’s written a slew of best-selling books.


Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again.

It’s easy to take for granted Sir Richard’s decades of success. Yet, his first three businesses all failed.

Then again, it’s hard to imagine growing Christmas trees, selling parakeets or printing a student magazine fitting in with other parts of his Virgin empire (then again, is it?).


Business opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming.

It’s also worth noting that even though the magazine itself never made money, it paved the way for his first successful ventures.

Sir Richard had the idea to sell records through the mail at discount prices after running a similar ad. That also led him to rent an empty shop and open the first Virgin record store (dubbed so because everyone involved was a complete “virgin” at business).


A business has to be involving, it has to be fun, and it has to exercise your creative instincts.

Ok, sometimes your best quality is also your worst. In Sir Richard’s case, his creativity landed him in hot water with the British government.

The Virgin store was strapped for cash when he concocted a scheme to avoid paying British sales tax. He was arrested and jailed, and later settled out-of-court agreeing to pay the taxes back over a three-year period.

Needless to say, he learned a pretty valuable lesson and vowed to run his future businesses legitimately.


My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them.

How does a man who admits to being tone-deaf build a huge mail-order record business, a thriving record store and the world’s biggest independent record company?

Amazingly, his empire started with one single: a jarring instrumental song that was the theme to a horror movie.

Tubular Bells (from The Exorcist) became an unlikely worldwide hit and put Virgin Records on the map. It’s highly doubtful anyone with “good ears” would have launched their record company with such an odd song (and, if the song were not a hit, you might not even know who Richard Branson is today).

Eventually, Sir Richard did hire strong music execs who paved the pay for an eventual $1 Billion sale to EMI Records with a stable of superstar acts including Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, the Rolling Stones and Paula Abdul.


I never get the accountants in before I start up a business. It's done on gut feeling.

In 1984, colleagues told him he was crazy to start a transatlantic airline, due to the sinkhole of costs and regulations.

But Sir Richard was convinced that major airlines were missing something and he could beat them at their own game simply by focusing on making air travel fun, affordable and responsive to customer’s needs.

And it looked like he was dead wrong in the early 1990’s, as his airline's financial situation was severely shaky. In fact, the sale of Virgin Records was primarily due to the need for cash to keep it afloat.

The airline eventually turned profitable and the experience led Sir Richard to change his overall business strategy, by licensing the Virgin name for new ventures, rather than fronting the start-up costs himself. 

Has it worked? Virgin now comprises over 400 companies around the world, with his partners putting up almost all the cash in exchange for the right to use the Virgin name (and with Sir Richard controlling a majority interest in all).


I love the freedom of movement that my phone gives me. That has definitely transformed my life.

Sir Richard doesn’t do business-as-usual. He works from his home, is barely computer literate, refuses to hold board meetings, scribbles ideas on his hand and writes his appointments in a paper diary.

Yes, success may look easy for some. But there are always obstacles. And a man who probably had no business becoming a business kingpin did just that.

Yet he still looks at the world as “virgin territory”.



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John Lavallo57 Posts

John is Columbia Business School MBA with expertise in marketing, business leadership, and law. John is a successful entrepreneur who took his first company public. He currently resides in New York City.


  • Speedbo

    Mon, 12/12/2016 - 09:20

    "Congratulations, Branson. I predict you will either go to prison or become a millionaire." BAHAHHAHA. Dude is a legend.