‘Losing my virginity’ is an atypical autobiography Virgin’s founder, a gigantic business group and a well-known brand. Virgin has built numerous enterprises, from airlines, telecommunication, and food companies, spreading all over the world.
Richard Branson talks about his childhood, adolescence and his numerous adventures in business and extreme sports. From balloon flights around the world to voyages on ships across the Atlantic, Branson lived life at high speed.
Also, his company did business with big names such as the Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones and Janet Jackson. Come and see how this great businessman started his business and handled marriage and family in the middle of it all.
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Dyslexic and Nearsighted
Richard Branson was raised in Shamley Green, Surrey, England. Shortly before dying, at age 99, his grandmother advised him to enjoy his life to the fullest. The adventurous spirit came from the family and also influenced his parents, Ted and Eve Branson.
They married in 1949 and spent their honeymoon in Majorca, where Richard was conceived. He and his sisters, Lindi and Vanessa, were encouraged and tried new things and ventured, and their opinions were always encouraged by their parents. At age 8, however, Richard separated from his best friend Nik and was sent to a Preparatory School in Windsor.
Richard was dyslexic, myopic, and couldn’t read the blackboard. He frequently got spanked by his parents for doing bad at school and making other mistakes.
At age 11, he learned to make up for these flaws by winning several races and becoming the captain of the football, rugby, and cricket teams. However, he suffered a knee injury and was sent home because the doctor had forbidden him from doing any sports. Richard was then sent to another school.
At the new school, he visited the director’s daughter every night until a teacher discovered it and expelled him. To escape his parent’s punishment, Richard handed a “suicide” letter to a friend, and that made the director reconsider the expulsion.
After finishing high school at the second school, Richard went to a third school in Buckinghamshire. It was a public school with 800 boys. Richard couldn’t participate in sports because of his injury and his grades didn’t improve. Consequently, he was one of the last in the class and bullying target of the other students. He hid in the library to avoid them. He met Jonathan Holland-Gems, the son of a famous playwright, which sparked his interest in journalism. Richard had written a short story to compete in a contest, which he ended up winning. Encouraged, Richard’s English improved and he became the third best in the class, although poor in math and science.
The first enterprises
By this time, Richard was thinking about starting to make money. During the Easter holiday, Richard and his friend Nik Powell agreed to grow Christmas trees on the farm where they lived. They planned to plant 400 trees, which would grow by the next Christmas. Richard and Nik decided to split the work and the profits. Unfortunately, most of the branches were eaten by rabbits, which were killed and sold to a butcher for much less than the trees. It wasn’t much, but it was already something for that pair of poor teenagers.
The following year, Nik’s brother got a parakeet for Christmas, and Richard decided to breed parakeets. He calculated the costs and potential profits to encourage his father to build an aviary. However, the parakeets produced more birds than he could sell in Shamley Green. These ventures helped Richard figure out the value of mathematics to make money and build his first business plans.
At school, Richard and Jonathan rebelled against the requirements to attend school games, as they thought they could do more important things. The principal suggested that they write their ideas in the school newspaper, but they decided to create an alternative journal in which their revolutionary ideas could be uncensored. Richard wrote his first business plan to design, organize, and announce a political magazine called Student. Branson made a pitch in five minutes for an advertiser, who didn’t know he was a 15-year-old student. Backed by the encouragement and confidence of their parents, they promoted ‘Student’ for a year. Richard was congratulated by the head of Stowe College at his graduation with these words: “Either you will go to jail, or you will become a millionaire. ”
Working in the basement
Richard and Jonathan moved the ‘Student’ from the school to their parents’ basement where they lived in the summer of 1967. ‘Student’ reached its turning point when Vanessa Redgrave agreed to conduct an interview. This soon brought in other collaborators like David Hockney, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Peter Blake. Also, Mick Jagger and John Lennon agreed to interview for the magazine. Gradually the magazine grew and made some profit for the duo.
The basement was small, and most of the money went to printing the copies and bills. Jonathan dealt with the editorial side, and Richard took care of printing and selling ads. The magazine had other collaborators, but while the others listened to music and talked, Richard grew more mature and became responsible for the business.
In the fall, Jonathan returned to school, and the teenagers moved from the basement to a house on Albion Street. Richard asked Nik Powell to replace Jonathan and control the company’s finances. The house was from a church and had been rented on behalf of Richard’s parents. The property was residential and couldn’t house a company. Hence, homeowners inspected the house regularly because of complaints from neighbors. When Branson’s team received an inspection notice, they hid the phones and moved the furniture. This worked until one day they forgot to turn off the phones which rang during an inspection. They had to move once again.
A few months later, Richard launched a new business: selling records by mail to Student readers. Being novices in the business world, Richard called the company Virgin.
Selling records by mail
The Virgin Mail Order Records business made a lot of money. Selling by mail allowed lower price than the competition and good margins. Richard’s plans for Student’s future were postponed to meet a huge number of requests to buy and ship the records to customers. Virgin prospered until the postal strike in January 1971. With the strike, sales stopped, and they decided to open a physical store.
They found a free place above a shoe store and convinced the owner that he would sell lots of shoes if he let them stay there. On opening day, the Virgin record store had a 90-meter queue. Richard believed the record business was profitable and shortly after that found a 15-room mansion for sale to become Virgin’s new headquarters.
In 1971, the company sold a lot of records but owed £15,000. Richard sent records from Belgium to avoid paying English and French taxes, which saved £ 5,000 per trip. He knew this was illegal, but he felt he wouldn’t be caught since he always broke the rules and wasn’t discovered. Customs quickly found out his scheme and planned bust. Richard was arrested, fulfilling Stowe College director’s prophecy. The prison made him appreciate freedom. Quickly, his mother paid his bail, and he got out. The fines increased his motivation to earn enough money to pay them, and after paying his dues, he opened a new record store and a record label and began exporting records.
At the same time, Simon Draper, a South African cousin of Richard was looking for a job. He understood music more than any other friend of Richard’s. Simon agreed to become a record buyer and his skills, and good taste ensured Virgin’s success. Each month they opened new stores, and by Christmas 1972, they had 14. The following year they noticed a drop in sales and Richard was intrigued. Gradually he understood that his stores were very casual and that customers paced and listened to music, but didn’t buy records. With that in mind, they added lights and redecorated the stores to boost sales. As the mansion had a recording studio ready, Richard launched Virgin Records, and as early as 1973 it would release its first artists and albums.
Mike Oldfield’s ‘Oldfield Tubular Bells’ was released in May 1973, and in August the album reached 13 million copies. Virgin Records was slowly starting to show its first signs of success. Richard flew to New York to find a distribution partner and signed a contract with Atlantic Records.
Scandals generate publicity
In 1974, Richard again faced problems with Virgin Records, which had only a single star, Mike Oldfield. Virgin was unsuccessful in hiring a second star, and Mike decided to renegotiate his contract in 1976. That made them cut artists, staff, and costs, to bet on the “next big hit.”
In 1976, Virgin tried to hire bands like Dire Straits, but all gave up at the last minute. However, luck helped, and Richard was contacted by the Sex Pistols manager, who offered the band to Virgin. They signed a contract, and the band’s outrageous behavior generated a lot of publicity. Richard decided to take advantage of this, but was sued because of the album “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.” He was accused of using indecent advertisements, but after a while, the suit was archived.
Meanwhile, Richard began a relationship with a woman named Joan Templeman while she was still married. The two lived a double life, Joan, with her husband and Richard with other girlfriends, but he always declared his love for her.
The trip that changed everything
Time passed, and Richard and Joan fled to New York as they recovered from their failed relationships. They were both married, but not with each other. When Richard was asked if he named Virgin Records because of the Virgin Islands, he decided on a whim to fly there from New York.
Richard claimed he wanted to buy an island for his rock stars and rented a helicopter to observe the islands. Richard liked an island called Necker Island and told his real estate agent that his budget was 200,000 pounds, which was well below the sale price of 3 million.
But three months later, after much bargaining, Richard bought Necker Island for £ 180,000. On one of his trips to the island, when he tried to return to his home, Richard noticed that many flights had been canceled. At that point, frustrated, Richard decided to charter a plane for $ 2,000 and sold each place for $ 39 to people who also had no way to get back. So began the history of Virgin Airways.
In 1979, Richard continued to diversify the Virgin group. He launched a book publisher, nightclubs and began to expand its international operations.
During the recession of 1980, Richard took over 100% of Virgin’s control, which had resulted in a loss of £ 900,000 a year earlier.
To make matters worse, Joan was pregnant from Richard, and the couple’s daughter was born premature and died four days later. This brought them closer and their second child came a year later. In his personal life, things were beginning to improve.
Virgin’s fate gradually improved as well, and in 1981, nine singles were at the top of the charts. Virgin signed Boy George and the Culture Club, which became big hits and generated about 2 million pounds of profit for the company.
An unusual flight
Now Richard had Virgin’s full control, and the company became a leading record company with enough money for him to pursue new challenges.
Richard decided to start operating a transatlantic flight for Virgin Airways. Until approval by the air safety authorities, the aircraft’s engines were uninsured, and an engine exploded during take-off. The inaugural flight with 250 journalists was scheduled for two days after the blast. The £ 600,000 loss had to be covered by Virgin, which caused a £ 300,000 shortfall in the company.
In the end, the maiden flight took off with an eight-hour party, with songs like “Like a Virgin” by Madonna on the soundtrack. Days later, Richard met with a Virgin banker, who refused to cover Virgin Airways’ debt. However, Richard managed other investment funds to cover the deficit and hired a new managing director to attract investors and open Virgin Group’s equity in the stock market.
Passion for speed and aggression
Richard was always addicted to racing, and he also liked speed. Besides, his odd habits ended up generating press interest and free publicity.
In 1986, Richard decided to take part in a race in the Atlantic to win the Blue Riband, a prize given to the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic from New York.
His second son Sam was born the day after his departure.
However, shortly after, a giant wave broke the ship’s hull in half, causing them to abandon the ship and get rescued by a boat.
After the first failure, they tried again in May and were able to make the crossing in 3 days, 8 hours and 31 minutes, thus conquering the Blue Riband.
That year, Virgin became the largest British publicly traded company with 4,000 employees and sales of 189 million. With the IPO, Richard no longer had full control of the company and preferred to reinvest the capital than to pay dividends to the other shareholders. He used the money raised on the IPO to buy American label EMI.
Richard was so bold that in the midst of the EMI acquisition he decided to cross the Atlantic in a balloon.
The balloon departed, and on the first night, they faced a storm. The landing failed, and Richard’s mate was able to jump. Richard stood alone in the balloon, which was rising at high speed. His only option was to land in the frozen sea, which he was able to do but had to be rescued by a helicopter.
In 1987, Richard bought more shares of EMI when markets were in crisis. He was taking on too many debts, and that meant he had to close subsidiaries and sell some of his assets. To finance his ambitions, he had to seek resources in the Asian market. So he sold 10% of Virgin Atlantic to a Japanese company called Seibu-Saison for 36 million pounds. He also sold 25% of Virgin Music to a Japanese media company called Fujisankei for $ 150 million.
Motivated by the discovery of the region, Richard planned to cross the Pacific, leaving from Japan. Until then, no one had flown in a balloon over the Pacific. However, the attempt was frustrated because the balloon fabric tore, causing the plan to be aborted.
After these adventures in 1989, he decided to marry Joan. At a triumphal entry, Richard jumped from a helicopter into the pool of his mansion on Necker Island, where his bride Joan and her wedding guests were waiting for him.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait doubled the prices of aviation fuel. Fuel was the other major factor besides passengers, which affected the profits of an airline. Richard received a call from Queen Noor of Jordan and met her after crossing the Atlantic by balloon, to teach her how to fly in one of them. She called him to transport blankets and supplies for Iraqi refugees in Jordan.
Richard sent a letter to Iraq’s ruler, Saddam Hussein, who responded with an offer to release sick women, children, and hostages if he asked publicly.
With this, Richard organized a flight to Baghdad and thus managed to rescue the refugees. This action, in addition to helping many, achieved enormous coverage in the world press.
A heavy contestant
In 1991, the Virgin Group’s business seemed to be going well, but there seemed to be something strange in the air. British Airways was attacking Richard.
The press was beginning to investigate drug use at one of Richard’s nightclubs, and he discovered that British Airways CEO was the one behind it. He was spreading rumors about Virgin companies.
Richard discovered that the airline had a special team to destroy it. This happened because, at the time, the UK transport secretary had released Virgin to operate two extra flights to Tokyo.
The British team estimated that the company would lose 250 million pounds annually because of that decision and decided to plot against Branson.
For them, the company’s weaknesses were its experimental and risky strategy and the financial risk of Branson’s balloon trips.
Selling virgin music
British tricks against Virgin were exposed in several newspapers such as The Sunday Times and The Guardian. The company said Branson was a liar and filed a libel suit. However, Richard needed to sell Virgin Music to stay on the market.
Richard borrowed $ 1 billion to sell Virgin Music in 1992 and offered employment to all employees who were unhappy with the company. The staff thanked him for the “best years of their lives. “Richard paid his debts to the bank, which ironically offered him a lot of money on loan, now that he didn’t need it anymore.
A private detective from Virgin was able to tap some British phones, and Richard published the recordings, demanding an apology. He received no response and then sued the company and its executives. When the operation was exposed, the company took over and paid damages to Branson and his companies in 1993.
Fun is a central part of Richard’s business and undoubtedly one of the secrets to Virgin’s success. During these 25 years of his career, he has gained financial freedom by overcoming obstacles. He is one of the most daring and bold entrepreneurs in the 12-minute team. Richard runs his companies with notebooks and has lists of people and companies with whom he wants to do business. His office is small, and he doesn’t like to stay still.
He attributes his hunger for business and fun to his wife and children, who give him the courage to venture his life on balloon flights and risky business.