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Lost and Found: Richard Branson’s Virginity

Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, reflects on success, failure, business disruption, and good marketing in his new book, Finding My Virginity.
by Carrie M. King | Oct 27 2017

“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” — Richard Branson

Back in 1998, everyone’s favorite eccentric billionaire, Richard Branson, released his autobiography, Losing My Virginity. This year, he’s back with the second part of his story in Finding My Virginity, which takes us through the changes — and failures — that Virgin has gone through in the last 20 years.

Having taken his first steps as an entrepreneur at just 16 years old, with his magazine Student, Branson now has a net worth of five billion dollars and has courted his fair share of fame, controversy, success, and failure along the way. We dug into his new release to find some of his key lessons about life and business. Here’s what we learned:

The best marketing is cheeky

Branson is probably just as well-known for his irreverent PR stunts as for his million-dollar enterprises. He’s scaled buildings, made several attempts to break world records, and kite-surfed with a naked model clinging to his back. However, the really daring marketing attempts came when he faced stiff competition. When he founded Virgin Atlantic as a direct competitor to British Airways in 1984, BA had a monopoly on Heathrow airport and, in Branson’s opinion, offered poor service. He wasn’t afraid to take a shot at his competitor, and when Virgin started offering in-flight massages, he advertised it in Heathrow with a huge sign saying, “BA don’t give a shiatsu!”

Exceptional customer service is key

Over the years, Virgin has entered a whole host of different industries. Each time, Virgin tried to fill a gap where services weren’t meeting the needs of customers. To do this, Branson underlined the importance of great, human customer service. He threw away the usual scripts that customer service agents have to follow and encouraged them to speak to customers in a natural, good-humoured, and personal manner in order to find the best solution to whatever problem came their way. This, he believes, is what really sets the Virgin ethos apart from its competitors.

Believe in better

Branson has always believed that the best businesses are service-led. That’s why Virgin has attempted to disrupt businesses where the product, as well as the service, left a lot to be desired. From offering pay-as-you-go phone plans to providing affordable, well-serviced gyms, to overhauling flight transport, Virgin has tried to be at the heart of disruption when it comes to a mind-boggling array of businesses. Not all of them have worked out — far from it. The list of Virgin businesses that have had to be sold or closed down is a long one, but Branson’s entrepreneurial spirit has made him realize that these failures are part and parcel of success. If he keeps believing that the world can be made better by providing better customer experiences to the general public, then there’ll be no shortage of potential opportunities.

Reinvention is essential for longevity

From starting analog businesses back in the ‘80s like record stores, to moving more into digital spaces like online banking, one thing that’s clear from both Losing– and Finding My Virginity is that it’s essential to move with, and indeed, a little ahead of the times to maintain relevance and to provide excellent services. Virgin has managed to stay cutting-edge because Branson has constantly insisted on renewal and reinvention. By accepting that failures are an essential part of growth and seeing them as opportunities for change, Virgin has maintained a longevity that many other businesses struggled to attain.

Look beyond your ego

Whether it’s space travel or philanthropy, Branson maintains that his true purpose is in trying to make the world a better place. He often faces a lot of criticism due to how visible he is, and many people feel like his endeavors — particularly his dreams of space flight — are simply ego-fueled. However, Virgin has always been about providing a great customer experience, and Virgin Galactic is just another step on that journey — providing customers with an experience they’ll remember forever. That’s right up Virgin’s street.

Two things are resoundingly clear from both of Branson’s autobiographies: the importance of learning from failure and of facing every day with good humor. This attitude is perhaps best summed up by Branson’s answer when asked how one becomes a millionaire: “If you want to be a millionaire, start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline.”

To read more about Branson’s adventures in business, check out the blinks to Finding My Virginity on Blinkist.

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