Extra: Richard Branson Full Interview (Ep. 321)
Stephen Dubner’s conversation with the Virgin Group founder, recorded for the Freakonomics Radio series “The Secret Life of a C.E.O.”
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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What follows is a conversation with Richard Branson, founder of the international conglomerate the Virgin Group. Stephen J. Dubner spoke with Branson in November for our special series, “The Secret Life of a C.E.O.”
Stephen DUBNER: Hello this is Stephen Dubner. Is that Richard Branson?
Richard BRANSON: I am. I’m Richard Branson. Yeah. Nice to talk to you.
DUBNER: It’s nice to talk to you, too. Thank you so much for making the time. How’s things?
BRANSON: Everything’s very good, thank you. I’m sitting here with a cup of tea in my hand and I wish we were talking in person. But anyway, nice to talk to you.
DUBNER: All right, so let’s begin. If you would just literally say your name and what you do.
BRANSON: Yeah. My name is Richard Branson and what do I do? I do everything Virgin.
DUBNER: Now, I’m sure most of our listeners are quite familiar with you, but just pretend there’s someone out there who lives in a cave who’s never heard of Richard Branson. How would you describe yourself to them — at least your professional self?
BRANSON: Well, I am an entrepreneur, I suppose you would also categorize me as an adventurer, and, hopefully, a philanthropist. So those are sort of my three main areas of occupation these days.
DUBNER: A tangential and very small question but one that I am curious to know. The Virgin logo is one of the most recognizable in the world, and I would argue one of the most elegant, as well. I’ve read a little bit about its history — I know it came from Virgin Records, and Roger Dean was the original designer, and then it morphed over the years. But can you just talk for a moment about the logo itself, and what it means to you, I guess?
BRANSON: Yes. I mean, I was 16 when I started off in business. So I was a virgin at business. And we were either going to call the company Slipped Disc records or Virgin Records. And fortunately we went Virgin, because Slipped Disc Airlines would not have been a great success, I think. And we started with a fairly, sort of hippie-based looking logo by Roger Dean. And then when we signed the Sex Pistols, we felt the logo was not going to be appropriate. And so we got somebody into the office, and we talked at great lengths about what we wanted. And I stood up to go to the loo, and I walked past him and he just scribbled on a napkin the Virgin logo. He just signed the word “Virgin,” and I said, “You don’t have to do anything more. We have our logo.” And it became the iconic logo of the last 50 years.
DUBNER: Was it in red originally?
BRANSON: I think the original scribble — I can’t remember whether he scribbled it in — with a red biro or a black biro. But anyway, it became red from day one. And we were fortunate to get that bold, bold, bold, color and the bold logo. Just very simple. I mean, it can be used tiny. It can be used large. You know, we’re just building three enormous cruise ships. And I’ve just seen the logo on the side. And it works, really, whatever size.
DUBNER: You know, obviously it’s not your last name. It doesn’t say Branson. But Virgin has come to mean almost Branson. I’m just curious, what is it — what does it feel like for you to see that logo on all these different things, whether small or you know, cruise ship size?
BRANSON: Well, I still pinch myself. I mean, I still get enormous satisfaction if somebody comes up to me and, say, they’ve just flown on a Virgin Atlantic or a Virgin America plane, and had a wonderful experience, or you know, worked out in about a Virgin Active club or being on a Virgin train, or booked a ticket on Virgin Galactic. And you know, I must admit, I sometimes think I’m going to wake up one day and just realize I’ve just had the most incredible dream. And I’ll be — you know, well, hopefully back as a poor student again one day. And starting all over again. But, yes, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had a extraordinary life. Just finished publishing my second autobiography, so that’s — I suppose — says it’s been pretty full. And yeah, it’s been an incredible ride, so yes. But — I appreciate every minute of it.
DUBNER: Now, your title — your official title, as far as I can tell, is “Founder, Virgin Group.” In addition to that, are you the C.E.O. of anything?
BRANSON: I used to be. But I’ve delegated pretty well all the C.E.O. roles. And I actually believe that people should delegate early on in their businesses, so they can start thinking about the bigger picture. If I’m ever giving a talk to a group of young businesspeople, I will tell them you know, go and take a week out to find somebody as good or better than yourself. Put yourself out of business, and let them get on and run your business day to day, and then you can start dealing with the bigger issues, and you can take the company forward into bigger areas, and you can — maybe if you’re an entrepreneur, you can start your second business or your third business. And so I think too many young entrepreneurs want to cling on to everything, and they’re not good delegators.
DUBNER: But it’s true also — at least I would argue, I’m curious to hear your take — that, you know, I think in the public perception, there’s sometimes not that much difference between the entrepreneur and the C.E.O. But in fact, the energy and the ideas and even the personality of the person who creates the firm is often very different from the energy and so on of the person to be executing and running the firm daily. Do you see that split in that way? Or do you think that’s a little bit of a misperception?
BRANSON: I think it’s more often than not that you’re correct. There are exceptions to the rule. I mean for instance, when we had a record company in Germany many years ago, the person who actually ran the record company was a true C.E.O. He was not an entrepreneur. He was great with people. He didn’t want to stray from his job of running the record company. And he did a fine job. Whereas in France, we had a guy called Patrick Zelnik, who was a C.E.O. but he was also an entrepreneur and he took the record company into Virgin Megastores, into all sorts of different businesses, a bit like myself. And he pulled it off. But you know, once he’d become a true entrepreneur, you know, the two of us sat down, and he then just found other people to be the C.E.O.’s who were perhaps less entrepreneurial, who would stick to their onions and do the day to day running well. Because it’s difficult to concentrate on looking after your people and also be, being an entrepreneur.
DUBNER: I know that once, when you were asked how involved you are in the mechanics of your businesses, you said, “I don’t understand these things completely,” and you said, “I’ve never been able to know the difference between net and gross.” I’m guessing you were exaggerating at least a little bit, or no?
BRANSON: Well, I’m quite badly dyslexic. And really bizarrely, it was on my 50th birthday that I was having a meeting with a group of executives. And I asked the question, “Is that good news or bad news?” when some figures were given to me. And one of the executives took me outside of the room and he had already prepared himself for this: he had a — some coloring pencils and he had a blank sheet of paper. He colored in this piece of paper blue, and then he put a net — a fishing net amongst it. And he put little fish in the fishing net. And he said, “Richard, I don’t think you know the difference between net and gross, and let me simplify it for you. The fish in the net are your profit. And the — all the fish that are not on the net are your gross turnover.” And hey, presto, I got it. And ever since then, I’ve been very swankily saying, “net profit and gross turnover.” As if nobody else knew it before. But the bizarre thing is that by then we had the biggest group of private companies in Europe. And I’d managed to build all these companies without knowing it. And I think that should be reassuring for all those kids who are failing their maths exams. It actually doesn’t matter a damn. What matters is, you know, have you created the best company, the best airline, or the best record company? And the best train company. And if you have created the best, your figures will add up at the end of the year, and you’ll have more money coming in than going out, and you can employ some accountants to work out the difference between net and gross.
DUBNER: Now, maybe it’s — maybe you’re a fluke, or maybe it’s a bit of a generational thing, maybe the world has just changed a lot. But you know, management has obviously become very, very professionalized in the last 20 or 30 years. And you know, M.B.A. programs are just exploding everywhere, there’s so — and so now, to be the C.E.O. of even a very small company, one is expected to be extremely well drilled in all the things that it sounds like you’ve really never had to be very good at. Do you think that that professionalization of leadership is in some ways a mistake, that someone like you had a lot of instinct and energy and appreciation for what you are trying to do with the company, and that some of that gets killed off by this professionalization of the leadership class?
BRANSON: I think it can be. I think if you feel a little bit lost in a company because of that should spur you on just to get out and run your own company. I mean, I’ve never had to report to anybody since I was — well, since I left school at 15. And that’s a luxury. And you know, I can do foolish things like, “Let’s start a spaceship company.” Which, you know, if I was working for a public company or a normal company, I would never have got it through. And so the great thing about being an entrepreneur — I think entrepreneurs are a class unto themselves. You know, they do not need that professionalism. They need a passion, absolute passion for what they’re doing. They need an absolute belief in what they’re doing. They need to be wonderful motivators of people. Inspirational leaders. And you know, those are sort of the key things that they need.
DUBNER: Can you talk a little bit more about being a wonderful motivator of people? By all reports, everything I read about you, it sounds as though most of the people who work with you and for you really like you. And that you — I don’t know about, go out of your way to treat your co-workers well, but you have a lot of policies that are very employee-friendly and so on. I think a lot of people out there, bosses — whether they’re C.E.O.’s or down — they’d like to be like that, and they’d like to motivate people. But it’s hard. Do you have any secret advice?
BRANSON: Well I mean, I think, I find that some American companies are anything but good at motivating people. And I find that hard to understand, because if you’ve got a happy, motivated group of people you’re working with, you can achieve anything. And you know, you can ride the good times together, you can ride the bad times together. If you treat your people badly, they’re not going to go that extra mile when things get tough. I just think you should treat your people in the same way that you treat your family. I mean, however you would treat your brothers and sisters or your children, the same should apply exactly to the people you work with. And it’s so much more pleasant. I mean you know, I mean a lot of our time we spend at work, and work should be fun. It should be enjoyable. And you should also have policies that follow through with that, so you know, if people want to work from home, let them work from home. If people want to work from home on Fridays and Mondays, let them work from home Fridays and Mondays. If people want to take a month off and go around the world, let them take a month off and go around the world. I mean, people will give everything back if you give them the flexibility and treat them like adults.
DUBNER: I hear you and I so want to believe that that’s the way to be. But the sceptic in me just thinks well, if every company let everybody work from home Fridays and Mondays and let them take a week off and go take balloon trips or climb a mountain that, you know, productivity would plummet and economy would fall apart. Why do people not exploit that, at your firm, at least?
BRANSON: Because they feel trusted. And also, look — let’s just look at this business of forcing people to come to an office. First of all, you’ve got maybe an hour or an hour and a half of travel time in the morning, another hour and a half of travel time in the evening. And, you know, when you’re at the office, it’s important that you say hello to everybody and that you’re friendly with everybody, so you use up another hour or two, you know, socializing with people. Then, because you’re not at home, you need to communicate with your family. So you spend another bit of time communicating with your family. And so the day carries on and you might get a couple hours of work done. If you’re at home, you know, you wake up. You can spend a bit of time with your family. And be a proper father, which is perhaps the most important — or mother — most important things that we can do in our life. But you can also find the time to get whatever your job is done, because you’ve got another four or five hours free to do it. And you know, we’ve never been let down by people that we’ve given that trust to. I think treating people as adults, giving people trust, is so important. And I mean — I’ll just give you one other example — slightly different. But I mean, we have a policy of giving ex-prisoners a second chance, and taking on as many people who’ve been imprisoned as possible into our Virgin companies. Because we give them that trust, not one of them have ever re-offended. And, we’re talking, you know like in Virgin Trains, I think we have 35 people. Well, the person who is head of our security at Virgin Trains, she comes out of prison on a Monday morning, works until Friday night, goes back to prison for the weekend, comes out. But she’s absolutely brilliant at her job. And somebody who will do everything they can for the company because the company has given them that second chance.
DUBNER: You have started and sold and shut down and grown many, many, many companies. Can you talk just for a moment about your overall win/loss record? I’m curious to know if you actually have ever tallied up the successes versus failures.
BRANSON: I haven’t. I mean we’ve never had a company go bankrupt. Because our reputation is everything. And we believe that if you can afford to, if a company is not working out, you must settle all your debts. And so you know, we’ve never had a bankruptcy, and that’s in 50 years, so we’re proud of that. And I think that’s really helped keep the reputation of Virgin. But obviously over 50 years things change. So you know, give you a very good example. We started off with record shops. And we built maybe 300 record shops around the world, Virgin Megastores. And then iTunes came along, and the internet came along, and people, sadly, didn’t see the need to go into record shops anymore. And so, we either sold or closed down most of those 300 record shops. There’s still a few left in the Middle East but that’s about it now. But, you know, that spurred us on to move into mobile phones and into new technology that was evolving. So rather — if mobile phones was going to put us out of business, cause — and games — people — a lot of kids were spending more time on games than music, then it was up to us to embrace it, and so we embraced that instead. And I think, you know, fortunately we’ve been ahead of the game over the last 50 years. So by and large, we’ve had many more successes than we’ve had things which we’ve had to say goodbye to.
DUBNER: Now, a lot of the businesses you’ve been in, including some of the ones you just mentioned there, are not businesses that you build from scratch, or even really necessarily run from the ground up, but they’re more partnerships. And the way you do business — and the Virgin Group is a little bit different than many other firms — you call it branded venture capital. Talk to me just about how that works and whether it was a happy accident or is that something that you decided strategically to pursue a long time ago?
BRANSON: Well, I think just to be slightly more accurate, we’ve generally speaking started by owning pretty well every company. So we start with 100 percent ownership in the companies. And then over the years, in order to then invest in new entrepreneurial ventures that I may have come up with, we’ll sell shares in the companies that we started. And sometimes we’ve sold 100 percent. But we keep a brand royalty in everything. So — and we keep in touch with the Virgin brand, we monitor the Virgin brand. We have a team of people who monitor it to make absolutely certain that anybody who’s running a Virgin company respects the fact that our reputation, for all of us, is all we’ve got. So generally speaking we’ll start with 100 percent ownership and then maybe over the years we’ll settle down and then put that money into new ventures.
DUBNER: Thank you for that clarification. Was that the case with Virgin Mobile? Was that a little bit different or no?
BRANSON: So Virgin Mobile, we own 50 percent of the company. So with Virgin Mobile, we didn’t have the resources to build out a network, and we also didn’t think that would be our strength. What our strength was, was marketing to the public, and the brand, and the whole proposition. So we did a deal with a company called T-Mobile and they took 50 percent of the company. They gave their infrastructure — their masks. And then we ran it on a day-to-day basis. We put the team in. And yeah, we built a pretty formidably successful company. And then we merged it with the biggest cable company in the U.K. And it became Virgin Media. So that’s how that worked out. And I actually — my new book, Finding My Virginity, I tell the story of how our partners in that one actually were, in our opinion, naughty boys and tried to steal the company from us. But anyway, we fortunately won quite a big court case on that.
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DUBNER: Talk about your strategy for choosing the right C.E.O. for a Virgin firm.
BRANSON: Oh, Helen? Could I have another cup of tea? Thank you. Sorry, just being British, order some tea. Say that again?
DUBNER: No, take your time. I’d like to know your strategy for choosing the C.E.O. of a Virgin firm. What do you — what do you look for? How do you — how does the process work, and so on?
BRANSON: Well, we — first of all, ideally, we’d like to promote from within, because I think there’s nothing more discouraging for, say, a thousand people who work in a company for a so-called expert to be brought in from outside. And generally if you can’t find a good C.E.O. within a thousand people in a company, there’s something wrong in the first place. You should have deputies who are quite capable of stepping into the C.E.O.’s position. You know, I look for people who are fantastic motivators of people, people who praise people, who genuinely care about people, people who, you know, are not apt to criticize people. And — obviously they have got to be good at what they do. And then, you know, we let them get on with it. And we try not to second-guess them. And we accept that, you know, some things they’ll do differently than us. Some things they’ll do better than us. But you know, by finding somebody, that frees me up to have a life and move on to other adventures or other entrepreneurial things. And so I think we’ve managed to get a great team. Now, the other advantage of promoting from within is, you know what you’re getting. You know, quite often people bring in outside C.E.O.’s into a company and it can destroy the whole atmosphere of a company, and you know, the damage can be enormous. And the other thing is, we try to promote our C.E.O.’s, — if I give you two examples. There was a recording studio division and we had. And there was a excellent lady that cleaned the floors. Anyway, she ended up, a girl called Barbara Jeffries, running the whole recording studio division. And in Canada, we had an excellent receptionist who ended up being C.E.O. of our foundation in Canada. And so I think again, you mustn’t always put people in boxes based on their job. You’ve got to think that people are often capable of far more than meets the eye. And if you promote people above what they’d expect, they will give everything back.
DUBNER: You’ve been quite outspoken about supporting women in business leadership. A lot of Virgin companies have or have had female C.E.O.’s or managing directors. But as I’m sure you know well, overall —especially in the States — there’s relatively very few female C.E.O.’s, especially of big companies. What do you think is the issue there? And — obviously it’s not an easy problem to address. But what do you think is the issue and what you think are some smart steps to begin to address it?
BRANSON: I think that when you have a company dominated by men, they’re apt to think of their fellow men as the next potential C.E.O., rather than a woman. I mean it — and therefore, my own instinct is that the only way of actually solving this, you know, in a relatively short term, is to force things upon companies. So, in Scandinavia their government has said that companies have to have 40 percent, 40 to 50 percent, females as board directors of companies. And you know, initially that was difficult, because there just weren’t enough obvious candidates to fill all the places. And a lot of women had a lot of different roles on a lot of different companies, the same women. But in time, people have realized how much better those companies are run. I mean, women, you know, let’s say a supermarket chain, women have an awful lot more knowledge than men on supermarket chains. And maybe they shouldn’t. But they do. And so on. I mean, you know, women are a breath of fresh air actually, in most most areas. So I think we need to kick start it, it needs to be forced on companies. I’m not sure that a lot of women agree with me on that. I’ve asked women and they say, you know, “We’ve got to fight our own corner.” But you know, personally, I’m not sure they’re right, because I think there’s a danger that men will continue to appoint men. At Virgin our bank in Britain is run by a wonderful woman called Jayne-Anne Gadhia who has actually taken on a big sort of campaigning stance for women in Britain. The chairman of the bank is also a woman. And you know, I think we’re doing better and better. And you know, the people we’ve got are the best for the job. They’re not there just because they’re a woman. They’re there because they’re really, really good at what they do.
DUBNER: But there are many others. You have Mary Wittenberg. You have Lisa Thomas. There are many others. And I’m curious — you kind of are in a, if not unique, unusual, position to oversee a firm with a lot of female leadership, and therefore you can kind of compare female leadership to male leadership. I’m curious — it’s always hard to generalize, but do you see significant differences in female versus male leadership, at your firms at least?
BRANSON: I wouldn’t say significant. I would say that, you know, a good female leader is just as good as a good male leader and vice versa. And you get the occasional women trait, you know, arguably slightly more emotional, maybe. I mean, in the same way that, you know, oh actually hang on there, maybe I’m getting on dangerous ground here. But — but I think I’m seeing — saying it as a positive. I think you know, they express themselves in a female way sometimes. And that can sometimes rub men up the wrong way. And — but you know, it’s in my opinion, it’s a positive thing. It’s great. Great to see people express themselves fully.
DUBNER: So we’ve been speaking with quite a few C.E.O.’s lately for our show from companies like PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, Microsoft, Satya Nadella, and Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg and quite a few others. And obviously every person is unique, in how they, you know, think about their job, how they spend their time. But it strikes me that even the most public-facing of those C.E.O.’s is much less public facing than you. In other words, in many ways the Virgin brand is really Richard Branson. That, at least, is my assessment. I’d love to hear your assessment and how you see yourself as a representative of your firm.
BRANSON: I think, you know, if you go back to when I was 15, 16, I didn’t have any money and I was starting a company without financial resources. And therefore, you know, if you’re going to take on British Airways, or you’re going to take on the big record companies, I had to use myself to promote what I believed in. And so I was creating artists, or I was creating an airline that I believed in. I didn’t have the money to market it. So you know, so in order to get on the front pages rather than the back pages of the newspapers and get the brand out there, I would do anything I could to get Virgin on the map, even if it meant jumping in boats or balloons, and trying to break world records, etcetera. I think that worked. And now, I think the Virgin brand stands on its own two feet and I’m not needed in the way that I was. We can also afford to take advertising and things. But I can still maybe put a little bit of icing on the cake. And you know, if we build a spaceship, I’m certainly not letting the chairman of British Airways jump in on the first flight. I’m jumping in myself. And so yes, still the two maybe intertwined. But I think the Virgin brand is here to stay. And hopefully will outlast me, and that was the original plan.
DUBNER: You know, that’s what I wanted to ask you next. I’m glad you brought that up, because I didn’t want it to appear to be a morbid or overly-probing question. But what would Virgin look like beyond Richard Branson? And I’m curious if you think about succession.
BRANSON: Well, I would be irresponsible not to. And I am fortunate — first of all, we’re — all the companies are run by great, wonderful people. We have a chairman and chief executive who run the group on a day to day basis. And I’ve got two wonderful children who do their own thing, but they dive in and out. And I’m very proud of them and proud of the help that they give me and the contributions they make. And they love people. My daughter runs our foundation and does a really good job. My son makes documentary films on subjects, all of which, actually, we see eye to eye on. So you know, drug reform and the death penalty in America, gun reform and other things like that. And they’re really great — they’re really good films. He just did a film about my ballooning exploits which Netflix just picked up called Don’t Look Down. And so they’re both very capable and I think it helps for a company like Virgin to have a face, and I think they can be the younger faces going forward. But I’m not — I’m still enjoying myself. So for the next 10 or 20 years, I’m still going to be very much involved, I hope.
DUBNER: I know you’re not much of a fan of Donald Trump. There is a bit of history there. But of all the C.E.O.’s we’ve spoken with, it strikes me, you have more in common with him as a businessman than anyone else, in that you’ve built a brand whose name alone is so recognizable but it’s valuable, and that the name can get attached to a multitude of businesses. Do you dislike that parallel as much as I suspect you do? Or maybe you don’t even see it as the parallel I suggest it is.
BRANSON: The — yeah. I mean obviously, he’s used his own name as his brand. And you know, and obviously we’ve used Virgin as our brand. But — yes, but there’s certainly some truth in what you say. I mean before he became president, there was a certain kind of building that wanted the Trump name on it. And he did well out of that in the end. And I’m not sure how successful he was at stretching the brand. But you know, because I mean obviously he went into airline business, and that failed, and you know, the casino business I don’t think was great. And so on.
DUBNER: The golf courses seem to be doing — that seems to be an exception.
BRANSON: Yes, the golf and the luxury side of it did well. But anyway, I mean, do I like the comparison? Yeah. He’s the president of the United States of America. But you know, there are aspects about the way that — what he has to say, about people in particular, that I find uncomfortable. And you know, I would love him if he could change his approach and embrace people more than he has done in the past and is doing.
DUBNER: Again I know — it’s obvious that you see yourself as a very different kind of human then him, and also as a different kind of communicator and leader and so on. Again, I don’t mean to harp on the parallel, but one thing I will say is true, if I look at the two of you as businesspeople. You certainly stray a lot from the beaten path. You’re kind of both, in different ways, the very opposite of the modern corporate leader. So I guess what I’m asking is — you both been very, very successful — what I’m asking is, does that success indicate perhaps that too many modern corporate leaders are too timid or risk averse? Because neither of you or that.
BRANSON: I’ve just literally five minutes ago saw Michael Bloomberg. Now, he’s somebody that I have enormous respect for. As a businessman, he’s created, you know, he hasn’t been bankrupt three or four times. You know, he’s built extraordinary businesses. And he’s done it, I mean he’s not your normal corporate type of businessman. And I think there is a lot of extremely good businesspeople in America and around the world that fit into that category, who I would have enormous respect for. And most businesspeople, most entrepreneurs, I have enormous respect for. I think entrepreneurs are the people who employ people, who create most of the new jobs, and who make the world a better place, who shake up the bigger, more complacent fat-bellied companies, and who innovate. And I think without all these wonderful young and old thrusting entrepreneurs the world would not move forward. There is a big difference, I think, between entrepreneurs and then the sort of rather staid business leaders of big companies, who often are anything but entrepreneurial. But fortunately there are the young, thrusting entrepreneurs that are taking them on and coming up with new innovations. And these big companies are having to try to find managers who are slightly more entrepreneurial.
DUBNER: I’m curious — so, your career, as I understand it, obviously began — you were very young, and you created your own path and just kept going and kept having ideas, kept trying, failed, didn’t let it bother you, and so on. But from the original — the magazine, student magazine, which was a culture magazine, to record stores, record label, airlines, trains, mobile phone company, etc, etc, etc. It’s not a model — I don’t know who you might have looked to as a model for that, because I think of people who had done what you had done. I’m just curious, what kind of — either, mentorship did you have along the way? Or maybe it wasn’t actually mentorship, but just someone you saw whose ideas and vigor you admired, and patterned yourself after? Or was it really Richard Branson just kind of figuring out Richard Branson along the way?
BRANSON: It was more the latter. I think, first of all, I never thought of myself as a businessperson or an entrepreneur. I just initially thought of myself as an editor and wanted to have a magazine to campaign against the Vietnamese War. But in order for the magazine to survive, I had to worry about printing and paper manufacturing and distribution and so on. And I sort of became an entrepreneur, just in order that I could fulfill my dream of being an editor of a magazine. And my education was, you know, being in the real world and learning the art of survival away from school, away from learning, and just being thrown in the deep end. And that’s exactly the same way I learnt to swim, was going into a fast-flowing river and having to learn not to drown.
DUBNER: It’s kind of amazing you’re still alive, I have to say, with all the things you’ve done.
BRANSON: No. I am a very, very, very, very lucky man. I tell 75 stories of near-death experiences in my new book. But anyway.
DUBNER: You must be part cat.
BRANSON: But there was one man, a man called Sir Freddie Laker, who ran a — he was the sort of pioneer of discount airlines, really. And he came to my house boat one day and he had gone bankrupt. He’d been pushed out of business by British Airways. And he just gave me a couple of bits of advice. He said, “Three words you got to remember: sue the bastards.” And he said that British Airways will do everything they can to put you out of business. You have to take them to court before you go out of business, rather than afterwards. And I took his advice. We took British Airways to court for a dirty tricks campaign they waged against us. We won the largest libel damages in history. And we distributed — it was Christmas time — we distributed it to all our staff. And it became known as the British Airways Christmas bonus. So we were very popular that Christmas.
DUBNER: Unfortunately you can’t repeat that every year, can you? Well, maybe you could.
BRANSON: Well, if they want to, we’ll —
DUBNER: It’s up to them, I guess. Let me ask you this. You’ve admitted that Virgin Galactic may not be the best bang for the buck when it comes to maximizing profits. You also admit that the Virgin board has not been thrilled with the endeavor. Why is this so important to you?
BRANSON: You only live once. And there is no space line on Earth. There are millions of people who would love to become astronauts, who would love to go to space. Me included. And I want to fulfill a dream for myself, for those millions of people, for my children, and build a Virgin Galactic space line that is safe and, in time, affordable. And it’s taken 12 years to get this far. And I think we are three months or so away from our dream. But space — rocket science is tough. And space is tough. And we’ve had tears along the way. We’ve had many high moments along the way. But I think we’re almost there. And it’s not just putting people into space, it’s putting, like, there’s four billion people who are not connected in the world. Virgin Orbit, which is another Virgin company, will be putting small satellites into space and creating big arrays of satellites around the earth. There’s point-to-point air travel, which we will get involved in at tremendous speeds. I go to Australia a lot, and I’d love to be able to get there in three or four hours rather than in 18 hours. But anyway, I love a challenge. I can’t resist a challenge, whether it’s Virgin Hyperloop, which is another exciting thing we’ve just got involved in, or whether it’s space travel or whatever it is. You know, we love to get in there and learn and hopefully experience.
DUBNER: Once again, you’re atypical for the kind of people we’ve been speaking with for this show lately. You’re not the C.E.O. of a firm with a big structure reporting up to you. You’re the founder and therefore you roam across projects and so on. That said, I’m curious to ask you something I’ve asked some of these other folks. Which is, I hear often that being at the top of a firm, especially if you’ve ascended from internally, it’s very lonely — that you get there and all of a sudden you don’t have any peers. You’re alone at the top. I’m curious whether for you that’s the case, whether you get lonely at the top?
BRANSON: No, I don’t get lonely. I think — I mean, I love people. And I think if you really love people and you see the people who you work with as you know, brothers and sisters, or children, depending on their age, and you’re a good listener of people, and you enjoy the company of people, it’s anything but lonely. And so maybe I’m lucky — I don’t know. But there are occasions, because I’m a recognizable face around the world, that you can maybe get just a little bit too many selfies in a day.
DUBNER: Is that why you want to go to space? To avoid all that?
BRANSON: Well, maybe that’s why I live on an island, anyway. But I mean, I love people, but sometimes it’s good to retreat occasionally. I think, you know, the Virgin company is an unusual company, it’s true. I mean we’re a sort of way of life company, which I don’t think really exists in the world. So you know, we look after you when you are young. We look after you as you get into your 20’s, and then you know, like with health clubs and music companies and games companies. And then we maybe move into trains and planes, and then spaceship companies, and then cruise ship companies, banking, insurance. So we look after most of your needs. And we have stretched the brand into lots of different areas. And most companies — like you mentioned people like Facebook, or others — they’ll specialize in one area and they’ll do an incredible job, and most likely they’re worth an awful lot more as companies than Virgin. But all I can say is, we’ve had a lot more fun, I suspect, because you know, we’ve learned a lot more. And enjoyed every minute of it.
DUBNER: Thanks so much for your time today.
BRANSON: Cheers. Thanks a lot.
Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Our staff includes Alison Hockenberry, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Stephanie Tam, Max Miller, Vera Carothers, Harry Huggins and Brian Gutierrez. For this series, the sound design is by David Herman, with help from Dan Dzula. The music throughout the episode was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.