Text by JAMES SUROWIECKI
Richard Branson has lived his life according to a simple motto: Screw it, let’s do it. Since leaving school at the age of 16 to start his first business, the founder of the Virgin Group has driven a tank down Fifth Avenue, crossed the English Channel in an amphibious car, taken a 124-meter jump o the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, and traveled from Morocco to Hawaii in a hot-air balloon. He’s started more than 100 different companies, including a major record label and two high- profile airlines, and has made a career of challenging corporate giants. He’s a master showman in the P.T. Barnum manner, skilled at catching the public eye with clever publicity stunts (hence the tank and the leap o the casino roof), and he’s been brilliant at understanding what consumers want and delivering it to them. He’s also been brilliant at shaping a winning public image—fearless, irreverent, more interested in fun than pro t—which over the years has become one of Virgin’s major assets and turned him into one of the greatest business entrepreneurs in history. Yet despite all of the success, which has driven his personal net worth of approximately R85 billion, he’s remained permanently restless.
A typical entrepreneur, Branson has never stopped looking for the next big idea and believes he’s found it in Virgin Galactic, a company that wants to put ordinary people into space. And he’s done it all, as he says, while working from a hammock on the private island in the Caribbean where he lives. Branson’s entrepreneurial enthusiasm was there from the start. When he was growing up in London, his mother was a small-businesswoman in her own right, doing things like making rubbish bin covers that she sold to Harrods. “I was always fascinated by my mother’s moneymaking projects,” Branson says today. “If an item didn’t sell, she tried something else. She always taught me never to look back in regret, but to move on to the next thing.” She pushed Branson to rely on his own devices to get ahead. When he was just a little boy, for instance, she once stopped the car when they were returning to the family house and told him to get out and find his way home. That kind of pressure might have crushed some kids but Branson seems to have flourished—even as a child, he tried various business schemes, like growing Christmas trees and selling birds. Those schemes, as Branson’s mother once put it, almost all ended up “in some form of disaster, with us picking up the pieces.” But in what would become the defining pattern of his business life, failure didn’t diminish his appetite for new ventures.