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Richard Branson Weathered the Storm–and Lived to Enjoy It

Known for his adventurous approach to entrepreneurship, Branson is much more than a survivor. We found four ways to follow his lead from his latest book, Finding My Virginity.

Richard Branson Weathered the Storm–and Lived to Enjoy It
By: Anne Fisher
 
Mother Nature’s wrath knows no bounds, including billionaires.
 
Back in September, Hurricane Irma  smashed everything above ground on Virgin Group founder and CEO Richard Branson’s private Caribbean island. Branson was there, but no worries. He and his staff waited out the cataclysm hunkered down in a vast wine cellar, playing dice and having what his blog called a “sleepover”, replete with bunk beds and big fluffy pillows for all.
 
Leadership, after all, is about being prepared. 
 
A prolific writer and brand leader, Branson’s next book is likely to recount the details of rebuilding what Irma destroyed. Meanwhile his most recent tome, his seventh since Losing My Virginity in 1998, continues the tale of building the Virgin brand into a global empire of more than 400 companies with almost a million employees.  
 
Finding My Virginity (Portfolio, 2017) is a lively, likeable read. The book provides a few peeks into Branson’s leadership style, and how he’s managed his many triumphs and failures that ordinary mortals might find useful. Here are four of them.
 
1. Admit your mistakes quickly, and move on.  Ever heard of Virgin Clothing, Virgin Cola, or Virgin Vie cosmetics? How about Virgin Cars, or Virgin Vodka? No? Not surprising: Those are some of the many Virgin product lines that didn’t work out and were swiftly shut down. 
 
Then there were strategic goofs like Branson’s belief, back in the mid-90s, that he could safely ignore social media, since upstarts like Twitter would turn out to be, he recalls, “a passing fad.” Oops.
 
No matter. “Failures didn’t put me off,” writes Branson. “Generally, we like to work fast: try ideas, see if they stick, and, if they don’t, quickly move on to the next one.”
 
2. Listen to customers, not critics.  In 1998, when the worldwide market for cell phones was taking off, the only providers were traditional behemoths like British Telecom. “I, along with everybody else, was paying through the nose,” recalls Branson. “Lengthy contracts that had huge service charges became the norm.” The phones “had become so useful so quickly that most people just accepted they would be ripped off.”
 
Enter Virgin Mobile, with the notion that those customers deserved better. Financial analysts, journalists, and assorted other experts “suggested we were spreading the Virgin brand too thinly and entering too many sectors in which we lacked expertise,” Branson writes. “I wasn’t worried about that.”
 
Smart. By offering phone users a better, cheaper deal, Virgin Mobile became the fastest-growing start-up in British history, signing up its one millionth customer in 2001—not bad, writes Branson, for “a company that started as a punt only a couple of years earlier.”
 
3. Pitching an idea? Passion beats PowerPoint. To reach its (literally) stratospheric goals, fledgling space travel venture Virgin Galactic needed big investors. So in late 2009, Branson made an appointment with United Arab Emirates’ deputy prime minister Sheikh Mansour, one of the world’s richest men. 
 
Having been up late the night before fine-tuning an elaborate presentation, Branson took one look at the Sheikh and his entourage and decided to chuck it. “I was nervous,” he recalls,”…and I knew I needed to appeal to their imaginations.”
 
Branson came away with the cash infusion he was after (about $380 million), thanks in large part to “beautiful spaceship pictures [and] a lot of enthusiasm and belief in the project,” he writes. “Investors buy into people and ideas, not numbers alone.”  In “any negotiation really, the key is to display passion, know-how, and determination,” Branson adds. “Don’t rely too heavily on statistics, and certainly not PowerPoint slides.”   
 
4. Write everything down.  “I jot down ideas, thoughts, requests, reminders, and doodles every single day. If I didn’t, I’d forget them before I could ever put them into action,” Branson recommends, adding, “I have met one particular government minister many times who never takes notes; he agrees on things and nothing happens. Another minister I know always takes notes, follows up, and gets things done.”
 
Branson expects that of his employees, too. “Virgin has a note-taking culture, and I’m certain it wouldn’t be the success it is today without it,” he writes. “If somebody works for me and doesn’t take notes, I ask them, ‘Are you too important?’ Note-taking isn’t beneath anyone.” 
 
While you’re recording your thoughts, consider putting some of them online. Branson and his content team write about 600 blog posts a year: “If you think that sounds too time-consuming, think of all the things you do that take lots of time and are not productive. Rather than slave over a spreadsheet, why not write a blog and turn your pitch into a story?”
 

Of course, unless you’re an iconoclastic billionaire, your jottings might not attract the millions of fans and followers that Branson’s do at virgin.com. But you might have fun. Finding My Virginity, like Sir Richard’s previous books, makes clear that he’s a big believer in that.