Few businesspeople live long enough, or have enough success after their first autobiography, to write a second.
As with many things in his life, Richard Branson is the exception to the rule.
Branson’s original autobiography Losing My Virginity was published 20 years ago, in 1998. He was 48 years old.
Since then, he’s enjoyed incredible success with Virgin Trains, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Blue, as well as notable failures with Virgin Vie and Virgin Cola. There’s also the business which (to me at least) stands firmly apart from all his others, his moonshot Virgin Galactic.
Understandably, Richard thought it time for another bite of the cherry (pun intended…;-). I’m glad he did.
Branson’s ebullient second biography is at once motivational and reflective.
He is incredibly open in this book, he doesn’t flinch away from describing difficult choices, embarrassing situations or personal conflicts. It’s reassuring to realise that someone who created 12 billion dollar businesses in the timeframe of this autobiograpy, is also deeply human.
As a personal interest story, it’s a fascinating read. Richard takes us through some very intense periods in his life, ranging from his reactions to the tragedy of 9/11, the loss of a Virgin Galactic test flight, the most pressured of his board meetings, his wranglings with Donald Trump, and his extensive work on addiction and the environment.
However, today we’re here to take a look at what we can learn and apply in our business lives. Here are our top 5 takeaways and top 5 quotes:
Finding My Virginity review: Top 5 takeaways
- Hire great people and let them get on with it. As a leader your job is to find the right people for the job and leave them to it. Your job is to inspire and encourage big thinking and risk-taking. I was amazed at the lengths Richard goes to (throughout his life) to go and see people in person, persuade them to take jobs/do deals/get involved in something he’s passionate about. He literally hops on a train or plane to see people all over the world, at the drop of a hat in most cases, to bring his projects to life. He’s very clear throughout the book that high quality people are what it’s all about and suggests that too many of us overthink the process of starting something new.
- Think (really, really) big. Richard’s vision and drive are truly extraordinary. From the very earliest age he has clearly thrived on challenges, and just wants those to get bigger and bigger. You’d think that once you’ve ballooned around the world, kitesurfed with Obama and created loads of billion dollar businesses you’d be through with challenges. But Branson’s achievements just seem to spur him on even bigger ones. He seems to start every new business with the end in mind. He thinks about how it can be the challenger to the best companies out there, right from day one, and builds huge companies (seemingly overnight) as a result.
- Customer service is its own differentiator. There are dozens of examples of customer service excellence in Branson’s book. He actively chooses to go into certain markets precisely because customers are underserved. He cites the creation of Virgin Hotels, an area where the team brainstormed everything that was wrong with hotels and sought to use them as an opportunity and a differentiator. (Free wifi, rooms laid out for more safety and privacy, more affordable minibar items). He also cites Virgin Blue (Virgin’s Australian airline) where they actively sought to attract cabin crew from non-airline industries to make the onboard service as jovial, engaging and remarkable as possible.
- Give it a go. Branson’s nickname is apparently “Dr Yes”. Reading this autobiography you can see why. He’s tried hundreds of businesses, usually taking investment so that the risk is spread around. Not all of them have worked but he’s adamant in a number of places in his book, that it doesn’t take as long as people think to create a business. Given his huge fame, he is pitched almost constantly and seems keen to give most things a go. However, he’s very clear that lots of people have ideas and that 9 in 10 of them don’t have a workable plan. Execution is everything.
- Distribution + brand = billions. Which leads me neatly on to my final takeaway. In the early years, Virgin businesses were built from scratch with an idea, a plan, hard graft and great people. Now that the brand itself is so recognisable, Branson is able to leverage a new model. In the case of Virgin Mobile and others, he’s been able to bring his brand to an existing infrastructure/distribution network and create something of much, much more value. Virgin sticks to strong, defined strategies and brand associations – it’s that core strength that enables it to partner with huge distributors and reach millions of people. As Richard says “the sweet spot was always where we could differentiate from the competition, in service and in product, and where there was a real appetite for change.”
Finding My Virginity review: Top 5 quotes
- “…running a company like Virgin is never a question of sitting back, it’s about constant reinvention as the world changes, and as do I.”
- “Discussing the incredible success of Virgin Mobile: “T-Mobile matched our investment of £42.5 million and we st about creating one of Britain’s biggest start-ups of all time. After we secured bank debt of £100m, City Analysts starting putting heady numbers on the value of the company. One even estimated the company was worth £1.36 billion – before we even had our first customer!”
- Discussing setting up Virgin Media: “My only concern was the terrible customer service reputation that NTL and Telewest had. HTL was hated by the press and. worse, consumers referred to it as NT-Hel.. Could our team turn that around like they’d done with British Rail…? …I wanted to limit the potential damage of putting our name on two companies with the lowest customer satisfaction in the UK.”
- “When it comes to negotiations, the key is to display passion, know-how and determination. Get to the point really quickly, be persistent and consistent, and don’t rely too heavily on prompts, statistics, and certainly not PowerPoint slides… Investors buy into people and ideas, not numbers alone.”
- “When people wonder if we are stretching ourselves too thinly, across too many different sectors, they are forgetting one of the traits of the Virgin brand – its ability constantly to adapt. We have gone through countless inventions and reinventions, and will continue to do so. After 50 years our brand has a freshness others don’t have. We are still more human, more adventurous and exciting and have added trustworthiness to that.”
I hope you’re able to read a copy of Branson’s book soon, it’s rewarding and entertaining.
As always, happy reading. – Lindsay
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