We shouldn’t be surprised. Branson has always been the compulsive risk taker. Since starting up his first business selling mail-order records in the 1970s, Branson has become famous for daring innovation, ridiculous but effective publicity stunts – last year he dressed up as Wonder Woman at a press conference to promote Virgin America – and taking on what he saw as vested interests in the business world. In the process he has amassed something in the order of $4 billion.
Beginning the journey
Born into a comfortable middle class background in 1950s England, Branson was never the academic type and, struggling with dyslexia, he left school at the age of 16 to start a student magazine. His old headmaster, on hearing of his former pupil’s new project, remarked that Branson would either “go to prison or become a millionaire”, and it proved prophetic when his publication granted him entrance into the music industry.
Understanding that his student readership were natural music fans, Branson started a direct mail-order record business to undercut the large retailers. He was so inundated with orders he became a retailer himself, opening a shop in London’s Notting Hill. Given it was Branson’s first real business, the “Virgin” name was born. The real turning point, though, was when Branson moved further up the musical ladder into record production. Branson took a gamble on unknown 19-year-old Mike Oldfield’s debut album, which had been rejected by every major label. Tubular Bells, the release on his fledgling Virgin Records, went on to sell 2.5 million copies.
That early experience set a template for all future operations: find where bigger, more established but considerably less competitive companies have taken their customers for granted, and then offer those customers a better deal. “I never get the accountants in before I start up a business. It’s done on gut feeling, especially if I can see that they are taking the mickey out of the consumer,” he famously said. But if the 1970s were about making a name for himself, the 1980s were about making himself the name – placing brand Branson front and centre of a company that would stretch over 360 different, hugely diverse companies. “In the beginning, it was just about the business – now it’s about the brand,” Branson admitted. “Back then we would create a company based on frustration at other people’s service and suddenly realised we had one of the most respected brands in the world.”
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