The Life, Adventures and Trials of Richard Branson
Richard Branson’s school principal once told him, “I predict you will either go to prison or become a millionaire.” Branson would do both during his young beginnings.
Now worth $5.1 billion at 67-years old, the ‘maverick’ billionaire started with nothing but a small independent magazine and ended (so far) with businesses that span the globe. He’s known for his unorthodox approach to business, flamboyant publicity stunts and a taste for adventure. He’s led an interesting life, to put it mildly. So whether you’re looking to take notes from a successful businessman or just be entertained, check out these 14 interesting facts about the life of Richard Branson.
He Started His First Business at 15
Fed up and “disgruntled with the archaic school practices of the day,” a 15-year-old Branson decided to skip writing for the official school magazine and start his own with a friend. “We wanted to campaign against corporal punishment, compulsory chapel, games and Latin,” he wrote on his Virgin.com blog.
Instead, Branson started Student magazine, an independent publication which worked with other schools in the area. But it wouldn’t be a business without contributors, distributors, and people to pay for advertising, all of which Branson assembled. He even cobbled together a list of 250 members of parliament to contact in the future, in case they wanted to contribute to the magazine in some way (no word on if that actually panned out).
The first issue released in 1968.
And Dropped Out of School at 16
Not because his magazine was a success — quite the opposite — but because Branson was, and still is, very critical of academia in general.
Student magazine was a commercial failure and wasn’t generating income. However, the project’s failings may have been the spark that led Branson to become the billionaire he is today.
Virgin Records Started as a Mail Order Record Business
In 1970, Branson formed Virgin as a mail order record business. He used Student magazine to promote the fledgling business and employed the staffers at Student to also work at Virgin, which was then an empty shop with a few shelves above a shoe store in London.
Branson picked the Virgin name because a staffer mentioned they were all “complete virgins at business,” according to the Independent. So far so good, right? Nope.
He Tried to Defraud the British Government
Virgin was actually quite popular, but the company was in the red.
The records they sold were cheaper than the competition, but that also meant the company couldn’t turn a profit. So a 20-year-old Branson embarked on a slightly hilarious, albeit very illegal, scheme: to avoid paying the 33-percent domestic tax levied on all records sold in England, he would instead tell the government he was exporting them. So he made a trip to customs with boxes of records, got the paperwork and records approved, then brought the records back and sold them domestically. That didn’t work out so well, or for very long. A rival record label alerted authorities to the company’s rock-bottom pricing. After a probe, “they noticed that Branson claimed to have exported 30,000 records inside of a single Land Rover. The four-wheelers were big, but not that big,” writes Slate.
And Then He Went to Jail
Customs raided Virgin and arrested Branson. He was sent to jail, albeit briefly, but negotiated a settlement with the government: He would pay John Bull back £60,000 pounds (£15,000 up front and £45,000 over the next three years) or be re-arrested.
But before this, he had to make a £30,000 bail. Virgin was broke and Branson was broke.
So his mother mortgaged her own house to foot the bill. Then, on the car ride home, she said something 99.9 percent of all mothers would definitely not have said in that situation, as recalled Branson’s autobiography “Losing My Virginity:” “You don’t have to apologize, Ricky,’ Mum said as we took the train back up to London. ‘I know that you’ve learned a lesson. Don’t cry over spilled milk: we’ve got to get on and deal with this head on.”
But That Just Made Him Work Harder
Even more baffling is that the whole fiasco made Virgin more successful. During that night in prison, Branson wrote in his autobiography that he was more determined than ever to make a successful business the right way and avoid ever doing something like tax evasion again.
Effectively, the £60,000 payback in 1970—closer to £700,000 in today’s rate—forced Branson to create and execute a sustainable and profitable business model.
He formed Virgin Records in 1972 and by 1973, signed a 19-year-old English musician named Mike Oldfield, whose debut album “Tubular Bells” became a significant success (it’s the creepy opening theme in the original “The Exorcist” movie). Virgin Records was on the map, but Branson was just getting started.
Without Branson, You May Have Never Heard of the Sex Pistols
Virgin Records made a name for itself by signing controversial artists other record labels didn’t want to risk, setting itself up as the go-to-record label for the incoming punk era.
As written by the Independent: “By 1977, the company was over-reliant on Oldfield but managed to ditch its hippie image with the master-stroke signing of The Sex Pistols. Virgin became the punk and post-punk label of choice for X-Ray Spex, Penetration, XTC, Magazine, Devo, The Skids, the Members, Ruts and Public Image Ltd. The company became a synth-pop powerhouse with the Human League, John Foxx and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark as well as Simple Minds and Japan, two acts poached from Arista that went on to define the Eighties, along with Culture Club.”
Virgin Airlines Killed Branson’s Virgin Records
By 1983, Branson’s Virgin business, now Virgin Group, had expanded to over 50 different companies of various industries, from the gay nightclub Heaven to restaurants to air conditioning cleaning services.
Entrepreneur.com estimates Branson’s businesses generated over $17 million in sales during that time.
But Branson had loftier goals: his own transatlantic airline service. It was a pretty insane idea and would require tons of capital, but for a time it worked due to high-end services (the planes offered free ice cream and movies to all classes). However, the recession of the early 1990s drove up the cost of airline fuel and disrupted business all over the world, which ultimately led to Branson needing to sell his beloved Virgin Records for $1 billion, enough to keep Virgin Airlines afloat.
He “Drove” Across the English Channel
In 2004, Branson donned a dinner jacket (complete with bowtie), hopped in a car, and drove into the English Channel.
For most people, this would end with a hefty insurance bill and a mandatory check-in at the nearest mental hospital. Unless of course you’re Richard Branson and driving an ultra-expensive Gibbs Aquada vehicle that can turn a car into a speedboat in less than a minute and blast across the water at 30mph. Branson made it across the waterway in a record time of one hour and 40 minutes, beating the previous record set in the 1960s by two French men who crossed the channel in six hours via an amphibious vehicle. The Top Gear guys did not have as much luck.
Then He Surfed Across It
Eight years later in 2012, Branson once again set a new record by being the oldest person to kite surf across the English Channel.
At 61 years old, Branson kite surfed over 30 miles for three hours and 45 minutes until he reached France. This challenge had been spurred by his son, Sam, who held the record by setting the fastest time to kite surf across the waterway. Sam had made it in two hours and 18 minutes.
He Once Drove a Tank Into Times Square and Pretended to Blow Up a Coca-Cola Billboard
In 1994, Branson decided to launch Virgin’s own brand of soda, Virgin Cola.
To drum up interest, he pulled a publicity stunt which, according to Inc.com, had him “ driving a tank through Times Square, running over three tons of stacked Coca-Cola cans and pretending to fire a gun at the Coca-Cola sign, which had been wired with explosives the night before to make it look like it had actually blown up.” That didn’t work. As you might have expected, Virgin Cola flopped and Coke crushed them. It wasn’t the first time (and possibly not the last time) the entrepreneur had some wonky business ideas.
He Had Many Failed Business Attempts
As Business Insider notes, Branson has launched over 400 companies under the Virgin brand. Some were great successes, and some were spectacular failures. As reported by Business Insider, those notable failures included:
- Almost a whole line of Virgin drinks. Virgin Cola was just one in a series of beverages. Branson also created Virgin Energy Shot, Virgin Vodka and a carbonated alcoholic beverage called Virgin Ooze (not quite sure why that one didn’t stick). However, Virgin Vines—the wine—actually did quite well.
- A line of cosmetics
- Virgin Clothing
- Virginware, an off-shoot of Victoria’s Secret
- An automobile line called Virgin Cars (it sold about 12,000 cars total)
- Virgin Brides, a bridal-wear company
- Virgin Pulse, a software and hardware competitor to iTunes and the iPod
He Bungee Jumped Off the Roof of a Casino and Ripped His Pants
Always willing to put on a show for publicity, at age 57 Branson decided to promote his new airline for the United States, Virgin America, by bungee jumping 407 feet from the top of a Las Vegas casino. On the way down, the billionaire tossed out airline tickets.
Also on the way down, he bumped against the wall several times and tore open a rather large hole in his pants seat.
Fortunately, aside from some bruises, he was fine. He said of the incident, “I never thought I would take the saying 'flying by the seat of my pants' quite so literally,” according to The Daily Mail.
He Wants to Sell You Tickets to Space
Branson launched Virgin Galactic in 2004 with hopes of sending paying passengers—those who can afford the $250,000 ticket price—into outer space flight.
Initial hopes that a maiden voyage would happen in 2009 but delays plagued the program, and then tragedy struck in 2014. During flight test over the Mojave Desert, the SpaceShipTwo, a space plane designed for two pilots and six passengers, broke apart at 50,000 in the air, nine seconds after the rockets kicked in. The disaster killed the co-pilot while the other pilot suffered serious injuries but ejected and deployed a parachute.
Investigators said the cause of the accident was due to the co-pilot’s error, although the National Transportation Safety Board criticized the launch for not having enough safeguards in place. But according to Bloomberg, Branson says he wants the program fully operational and selling tickets by 2018.