Billionaire businessman Richard Branson takes off from where he left in his last autobiography, recounting his life from being a records impresario to a global entrepreneur
Sir Richard Branson is the quintessential poster boy of entrepreneurship who went on to build a global conglomerate from nothing. He dropped out of school as a teenager to run a magazine; set up a mail-order record business from a church in 1970 that later went on to become the world’s largest independent record label, Virgin Records (currently wholly owned by Universal Music Group); his Virgin Atlantic became profitable within a year of its launch and put Virgin Group on the global map; and the rest, as they say, is history. A major part of Branson’s success is attributed to his unique approach to doing business. He tries to disrupt traditional industries in which existing market players are making high profits. He stresses on delivering superior customer service and effective branding and marketing. He does not believe in R&D while setting up a company, but takes advantage of early movers who fail to make a mark in the market.
Today, as the chairman of the eclectic Virgin Group of businesses, the 67-year-old billionaire entrepreneur may be worth over $5 billion (as per Forbes), but he continues to break rules and push the boundaries, both personally and professionally. That is why the bite-sized chapters of Finding My Virginity become so gripping. The book comes close to two decades after Branson’s first autobiography, Losing My Virginity, hit the bookshelves. Although it was followed by other biographical works by Branson, including Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur (2008) and The Virgin Way: How to Listen, Learn, Laugh and Lead (2014), none could compare to the success that Losing My Virginity achieved—at last estimate, the book had sold about 3.5 lakh copies and counting.
Branson’s latest book takes us on a journey of the last two decades—starting where Losing My Virginity left off—told through one of the most dynamic brands in the world. His home has moved from a houseboat to Necker Island, his 30-hectare paradise in the British Virgin Islands, while his company has grown from a business in the UK to a global brand. As a child, Branson had dreamed of flying private citizens to space. Today, that childhood fantasy is on the brink of reality. All this while, in Branson’s own words, “I’ve experienced joy, heartbreak, hurricanes, business (and other) highs, grief, records, doubt and my toughest ever crisis. It’s been a rollercoaster ride and I have no intention of getting off any time soon.” Over the years, Branson has scripted some major success stories. His Virgin Records has been home to artistes such as the controversial Sex Pistols, to the evergreen The Rolling Stones. His airline, Virgin Atlantic, won one of the largest libel cases in British history after British Airways’ “dirty tricks” campaign tried to put the company out of business. His Virgin Trains have gone on to become one of the most highly rated rail operators in the UK, an accolade that would have sounded implausible a few years ago. His telecommunications company Virgin Media created the first ‘quadruple-play’ media company in the UK, offering television, Internet, mobile phone and fixed-line telephone services.
The list goes on, and that’s even before we talk about Virgin Megastore, Virgin Money and Virgin Active. Equally interesting are his stories on the smaller ventures, some of which never got off the ground or became unworkable overnight. While companies, particularly Virgin Blue (now Virgin Australia), Virginmoney.com, Virgin Wines and Virgin Mobile Australia have gone on to become big success stories, others like Virgin Clothing, Virgin Brides, Virgin Cola, Virgin Vodka and Virgin Vie never quite made it, eventually disappearing in a few years. Branson also takes pride in his eccentricity and has some crazy stories to share. From dressing up as a giant butterfly while running the London Marathon to diving with whale sharks off the coast of Mexico to promote ocean conservation, and from serving AirAsia’s Tony Fernandes in a cabin crew’s uniform after losing a bet to partying a little too hard (he reveals how he openly flirted with F1 driver Jenson Button’s girlfriend in an inebriated state, much to his embarrassment later), Branson has got an outlandish reputation for being a risk-taker in both his professional and personal lives.
The self-made billionaire equally revels in his brush with US President Donald Trump when both men had entrepreneurship-focused reality TV shows in 2004, with Branson hosting The Rebel Billionaire and Trump hosting The Apprentice. While doing press rounds to promote his show, Branson was frequently asked how he differed from Trump. Each time, his answer was the same: they had very different personalities. Trump didn’t take kindly to Branson’s observations and wrote him a letter criticising the mogul’s reality show and questioning whether he was actually a billionaire. Branson replied to the letter saying why he disagreed with Trump’s rules for success. He didn’t get another letter for a decade until 2015, when Trump decided to go ahead as a contender for the White House.
If one were to dissect the book, business would take up a sizeable space, Branson’s quest for adventure another major
chunk, and his family (relationship with parents, children and grandchildren) and charitable efforts (like raising money by playing tennis with Andy Murray, setting up Virgin Unite, the independent charitable arm of Virgin Group, etc) the rest of it. Branson’s political forays find the least mention in the book. Finding My Virginity is enjoyable, although the prose is basic at its best. Overall, it’s a worthy sequel to Branson’s 1998 bestselling autobiography.
Kunal Doley is a freelancer