Richard Branson was 17 years old when he began his business career that would eventually lead to his becoming a billionaire. School was a nightmare for him because he suffered from dyslexia. He was frustrated with the rules and regulations of schools and liked the energy of student activism of the late 1960s.|
So, Branson and a friend started a student newspaper. Not a school newspaper. A student paper that tied many schools together. It was called STUDENT. He sold advertising to major corporations, and interviewed politicians, rock stars and movie celebrities. It was a commercial success.
The headmaster of Stowe, where Richard and his friend were students, wrote: "Congratulations, Branson. I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionaire."
In 1970, Branson saw an opportunity for STUDENT to offer records cheaply by running ads for mail order delivery. The readers of STUDENT spent a great deal of money on records even at full price. It turned out that the orders flooded in and that they were more lucrative than magazine subscriptions. Richard rounded up the staff of STUDENT and recruited them to spin of a discount music business. The name Virgin was adopted because they were complete virgins at business.
In 1972, a recording studio was built and the first Virgin artist Mike Oldfield, recorded TUBULAR BELLS released in 1973. TUBULAR BELLS became the theme for the movie THE EXORCIST. The album went on to sell five million copies.
In 1977, Richard signed The Sex Pistols to the Virgin Records label after the group was turned down by every label in Great Britain. Over the years, he signed many superstars including Steve Winwood, Paula Abdul, Belinda Carlisle, Genesis, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds, The Human League, Bryan Ferry, Culture Club, Janet Jackson, and The Rolling Stones, which helped turn the Virgin Music Group into a giant success. In 1992, The Virgin Music Group-record labels, music publishing, and recording studios-was sold to Thorn EMI for $1 billion.
Richard Branson shrewdly expanded retail operations, using the profits to fund diversification of the enterprise into a recording company,more retail outlets, the Voyager Group travel company, Virgin Atlantic airline, Virgin radio, Virgin Direct and V2 music.
Richard Branson is now chairman of Virgin Group PLC which is the largest private group of companies in Britain, has assets over $6 billion.
He runs the whole thing without having a corporate office. He has four homes with an office in each one.
Unconventional work spaces aren't a problem for him, because he has run his businesses out of all sorts of places, including a basement, a houseboat, and a crypt. He says his secret is: He doesn't need a lot of equipment.
When he started his first business, STUDENT when he was 17 he worked from a basement apartment in London where he and his co-workers slept on mattresses that "were stuck up against the wall during the day," he says. When they were kicked out of there, he says a vicar let them work in a crypt of a church. Virgin's mail-order record business was started in a room above two coffins.
In the 1970s, Richard Branson bought a houseboat and worked from there. It was a big draw, he says, creating interest in him and his ideas. "I've never had a problem getting people to come meet with me," he says. "People from the City (London's Wall Street) were especially intrigued when I was on the houseboat."
But, while he worked on the houseboat, privacy became a problem for his family. "Joan had to retreat to the bedroom to get away from all the people coming by all the time," Branson said. Eventually they moved to a five-story townhouse in a tony London neighborhood.
Each day, about 20 of his top strategic advisers and those on his development team come to the home to work.
A few years ago, privacy became a family issue again. The house was overrun with people constantly meeting with him. So, Mrs. Branson packed up and moved next door. Now the couple owns two houses, next door to each other.
Despite the size of his company, Richard Branson still operates with a somewhat 60s mentality. Formal board meetings? Not his style. Instead, he prefers having people over for a meal or tennis. Otherwise, "a five minute decisive phone call will do," he says.
He is known for setting up companies, immersing himself in the new business for several months and then stepping back. "It helps with the art of delegation enormously not to be here," he says.
In addition to his two homes in London, he owns a 17th century stone house in the country 60 miles northwest of London, an island in the Virgin Islands and a home in Spain. In all of those places he keeps an office which is decidedly low-tech. Being "computer illiterate," he never bothers with them and he doesn't own a cell phone. On his island, he does his work from a bar stool at his own personal bar.
His favorite method of working is one that he has always relied on: writing everything down in notebooks.
"I can't believe when I see people not writing things down. You know they're not going to remember everything," he says. He now has 122 black ledger notebooks that he�s written in over the years. There were more, but on his last attempt to circle the globe in a hot-air balloon, he lost nine notebooks and his address book when the balloon went down.
When he travels on Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson looks for flaws and writes down lists of things he wants improved. "After trips I used to come back with a list of 50 or 60 items I didn't like," he says.
Although Virgin's Upper Class service has become known for shiatsu massages and pedicures, Branson often flies economy class. If you fly Virgin and see a guy furiously writing things down in a notebook, it might be him.
Since 1985, Richard Branson has been involved in breaking records. In 1986, his boat Virgin Atlantic Challenger 2 crossed the Atlantic in the fastest time ever. A year later, he crossed the Atlantic in the hot air balloon Virgin Atlantic Flyer with veteran balloonist Per Lindstrand, setting new records which stood until 1991, when the pair flew the Pacific Ocean in another Flyer balloon setting a then record distance of 6,761 miles. He has since attempted to fly around the world in a hot air balloon several times without success.
But, he keeps trying. And he keeps thinking up and starting new businesses. Over 200 and counting. The ideas for the next 200 are probably in his notebook.