Richard Branson, perhaps the world's preeminent entrepreneur -- having dabbled in everything from a record company to an airline, from banking and health care to telecommunications, and now space and earthbound supersonic travel -- prepared to divulge the six words that he said have been his personal mantra for business for five productive decades.
As the crowd of nearly 5,000 at the Theater at Madison Square Garden for the Synergy Global Forum on Saturday leaned forward with baited breath, the tall and lean bearded Brit, dressed all in white, definitively voiced his motivating motto:
"Screw it. Let's just do it," he said with a big, broad grin, to enthusiastic applause.
During an hour-long Q&A with Fox News meteorologist Adam Klotz, Branson repeatedly praised his entrepreneur-heavy audience: "When I started 50 years ago, the word 'entrepreneur' didn't exist," he said. He then addressed the highlights of his multifaceted billionaire-achieving career:
Venturing out on the cutting-edge
"I think we'll be in space within three to four months," Branson said of his space-travel company, Virgin Galactic, "and then I hope within another three months to go to space myself. And then when the test engineers say we're ready, we'll get [as paying passengers] one or two people in this room."
Branson acknowledged that other billionaire entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezosare also working toward space travel. But he described different approaches: His, for instance, is the only company whose space vehicles will land back on Earth, on wheels, while his competitors will have to rely on parachutes.
In addition, he described another space subsidiary, Virgin Orbit, "which we'll also be launching into space roughly the same time Virgin Galactic will. Virgin Orbit carries a giant rocket on the wing of a 747 and will drop that rocket and then fly into orbit at 18,500 miles an hour, dropping off satellites around the world ... to connect the 4 billion people on Earth not connected at the moment."
He added: "What space can do for people back here on Earth is fantastic."
Meanwhile, Branson recently announced investing, back on this planet, in what's now being called Virgin Hyperloop One, a supersonic model of travel -- using 1930s-era banking pneumatic-tube technology -- which will transport passengers at 670 mph, faster than an airplane.
Taking risks -- laced with humor
"I think I've been pulled out of the sea five times by helicopters, which is why we sponsor London's ambulance and helicopter service," Branson said, describing several long-distance hot air balloon attempts he's made (including a record-breaking 6,700 mile crossing from Japan to Arctic Canada).
Several balloon and other feats failed, like his try to break the record for the fastest Atlantic Ocean crossing in a boat.
"I wrote a letter to the kids telling them how much I loved them and then prepared to jump," Branson said in a video played Saturday. But he emphasised how all his daredevil activities had a method behind their madness: to promote his brand.
"Virgin Atlantic Airways had one 747 flight across the Atlantic, up against British Airways' 300 747 planes and we didn't have any advertising money at all," Branson recounted. "So, we thought if we could wrest the record back from the Americans, that would help put us back on the map."
Things didn't go as he'd expected. "We ended up sinking, and in some ways that helped," Branson joked, "because the only thing that was sticking out of the water was the word 'Virgin.'" (The next year, he tried again, and was successful.)
Along the way he not just took physical risks but also business ones, taking on his giant competitor, British Airways. An example was the time he got word, for instance, that BA was having problems putting up a big promotional wheel across from the House of Commons.
"We just happened to own an airship company," Branson said, "and all the world's press were there, waiting for this wheel to go up." At Branson's behest, a plane flying overhead was emblazoned with the words, "BA can't get it up."
"The headline was in every city," Branson said. "So I think humor is important, and pulling the tail of your bigger competitor can be effective."
Humor wasn't so effective, however, when he took on another corporate competitor, Coca-Cola, to promote his soda brand, Virgin Cola, on Coke's home turf. Branson rented a Sherman tank and drove it through New York's Times Square, crushing strategically placed Coke cans and staging an "attack" on a Coke billboard. The beverage behemoth wasn't amused. "They filled DC-10 [jets] full of money and flew them to England," Branson said, and "Virgin Cola disappeared out of all the [U.K.] outlets we were in."
Of course, he added, "We're still number one in Bangladesh."
Deciding to get into an industry
"It's generally out of frustration," Branson said, when asked how he decides to jump into an industry new to him. He also told a story he's told in the past, about Virgin Airways' founding. It seems that that airline started with another airline -- American -- cancelling a flight to the British Virgin Islands for lack of passengers. It was a flight Branson was supposed to be on.
He remembered he was 28 at the time and, "I had this beautiful lady waiting for me. I'd been away from her for three weeks, I was not going to wait until the next morning." So, he hired a plane to take him and his fellow frustrated travellers, scribbling on a borrowed blackboard that seats would cost $39.
Not surprisingly, the plane filled, and a grateful passenger suggested Branson start an airline. That's just what he did, phoning Boeing the next day, looking to buy a secondhand 747. It wasn't all that hard: "When we started Virgin Airlines, the situation for American airlines was dire," Branson said. "You could steal the staff."
In terms of service, the airlines "didn't get the details right. We threw Virgin Airlines into the mix 10 years ago, and it's been a fantastic success story." (Though, Virgin American has since been sold to Alaska Airlines and slid far down the success ladder, Branson said ruefully.)
Treating employees well
Asked for an example of employee behavior he's proud of, Branson offered his own checklist for leaders who create "extraordinary companies":
If they are great motivators of people; if they're always looking for the best in their staff; if they're praising, not criticising; and if they create products that people who work for them feel really proud of. ... If the leaders are people who listen and don't always want to hear their own voice; [if] they get ideas from their employees and write them down.
"It sounds simple," Branson said, "but make sure your people are really happy."
He went on to describe the "enormous flexibility" he's purposely built into Virgin as a workplace where employees can work at home on their own set schedules, take time off when they need it and wear what they want in the office. "You give flexibility and treat people as adults," Branson said. "The way you deal with your home situation is the way you should deal with your work situation.
"People appreciate that atmosphere, and they'll give everything back. [Leadership] is literally being a human being."
What's changed over the time he's been an entrepreneur
The chief difference between back when he started vs. today, Branson said, is of course the internet, but also the greater ease in raising money.
He himself started without investors, and "The advantage of that is I still have 100 percent of the [top-level] company," he said to big applause. "If I want to start a spaceship company, you don't have outside partners to say, 'We're going to send in the guys with white coats to take you away.'
"I think it's a tremendously exciting time to be an entrepreneur," Branson added, "and the the world is your market. That's the other exciting thing in this world: There are no borders. ... It's sad to see some governments trying to create borders. But, we don't see borders in this world, and that's to be welcomed."
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