Even if you barely know who Richard Branson actually is, you’ve probably seen his face more times than you can remember.
First of all, he’s pretty recognizable:
More importantly, he’s insanely prolific. While he’s of course best known for his most-successful ventures, Branson has had a hand in founding and running over 400 companies to date.
So, if you’re looking for a short answer to the question “How did Richard Branson build his $4 billion empire?”, there it is.
If you want to dig a bit deeper into how he built his fortune, well… read on.
|Birthdate||July 18, 1950|
|Source of Wealth||Founder of Virgin Group Ltd.|
|Virgin Mail Order Records||Founder||1970|
|Virgin Direct Personal Financial Services||Founder||1995|
Clearly, Richard Branson has accomplished a lot in his life.
But his various business ventures only tell part of the story.
Here, we’ll talk about the key moments that shaped Richard Branson’s life, and led him to become the entrepreneurial powerhouse he is today.
Branson is quite vocal about his early struggles with dyslexia—as well as his realization that it’s part of what enabled him to become the person he is today.
(Dyslexia) is not a disadvantage; it is merely a different way of thinking. Once freed from archaic schooling practices and preconceptions, my mind opened up. Out in the real world, my dyslexia became my massive advantage: it helped me to think creatively and laterally, and see solutions where others saw problems.
Unfortunately, Branson’s struggles often led his teachers to write him off as a lost cause. In fact, his headmaster went as far as to tell Branson he’d either end up in prison or a millionaire.
And, well…he was right.
Though not his first foray into the world of entrepreneurship, Virgin Records is essentially the foundation of Branson’s empire.
And it’s not just that he’s made a killing through his record company (he has).
More importantly, it’s worth looking at why Virgin Records was so successful from the get-go.
See, unlike most other major record labels in the 1970s, Branson’s Virgin had no problem signing the more risque bands of the time. For Branson, signing talented artists like The Rolling Stones, Ozzy Osbourne, and The Sex Pistols was a no-brainer.
Needless to say, the risk would pay off—and would lead to massive success for Branson and company.
Branson formed Virgin Atlantic in 1984 with two goals in mind:
First, he wanted his airline to be known for its innovative and customer-centric approach to hospitality. Secondly, he aimed to create a positive environment for his employees—knowing that satisfied employees would lead to satisfied passengers.
And he was right:
Year after year, Virgin Atlantic (and Virgin’s other airlines, like Virgin Australia) find themselves being nominated for and winning awards in a number of categories, from customer service and experience to responsible tourism.
On March 30, 2000, Richard Branson was knighted by Prince Charles, officially becoming Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson.
In knighting Branson, Prince Charles cited his entrepreneurial drive and innovative approaches to solving problems and improving the world around him. Prince Charles also mentioned Branson’s efforts and ability to inspire thousands of fledgling entrepreneurs from all walks of life.
True to his approach to leadership, Branson accepted his new title not on his own behalf, but on the behalf of the entire team at Virgin Group.
Being the risk-taker that he is, Branson rarely shys away from a challenge—even if they’re self-imposed.
Of all the stunts he’s come up with, Branson is possibly most famous for taking to the skies on multiple occasions. For example, in 1986, Branson claimed the world record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean—his victory coming after a failed prior attempt. One year later, Branson crossed the Atlantic again—this time in a hot air balloon.
Branson’s also done a lot of outside-the-box, off-the-wall, and downright wacky stuff over the years, such as:
- Driving a tank down 5th Avenue to promote the release of Virgin Cola
- Jet skiing in a tuxedo outside of the Bellagio in Las Vegas
- Navigating the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle
It all just goes to show that Branson will do whatever it takes to get his name in the spotlight—even if it means doing something ridiculous that nobody else would ever think of.
Before we get started, understand that a truly comprehensive discussion of Richard Branson’s resume would be enough to fill a book—something the man himself has already done.
In lieu of talking about every one of Branson’s 400-plus business ventures, we’re going to take a look at some of his entrepreneurial career.
Branson’s success story begins with him dropping out of school in his teenage years—and goes way uphill from there.
Let’s start where it all began.
Upon dropping out of school, Branson formed his first business: Student magazine.
As Branson himself explains, Student was meant to be an “alternative to the stale publications and school magazines of the day” with a clearly countercultural slant.
Branson actually had no capital upon starting the company, until he was able to raise 100£ just to keep operations moving. Within a year of Student being in publication, Branson’s net worth had gone from nearly nothing to $50,000.
Formed in 1972, Virgin Records is what really set Branson on the path to major success.
In signing a number of artists who were often considered vulgar or grotesque at the time, Branson knew he was taking a risk. But, he also knew that putting himself at risk upfront would be worth it in the long run.
“You’ve got to take risks if you’re going to succeed. I would much rather ask forgiveness than permission.”
Had Branson waited for society at large to “give permission” to sign the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and The Sex Pistols, some other more established label would have quickly scooped them up—and Branson would have never gotten his first big break.
As much of a risk-taker as he may be, Branson also knows when to play things more conservatively.
Case in point, his initial venture into air travel: Virgin Atlantic.
After taking charge at Virgin Atlantic in 1984, Branson had a clear vision for the company:
Succeed within the first year of operations, or exit the market completely.
As prolific and “big-picture” as Branson is, it’s the perfect strategy: If you can get the business venture up and running, and the demand is there, you have a winner; if not, it might be best to move onto the next big idea as quickly as possible.
For Branson, this “big idea” paid off in spades: He currently retains 51% ownership of the company’s $1.9 billion in total assets.
As you surely know, the conglomerate that would come to be known as Virgin Group Ltd. own a vast amount of subsidiaries in a variety of industries.
Many of these companies are no longer under Branson’s ownership.
- Virgin Games, formed in 1983, was sold to Gamesys in 2013
- Virgin Trains, formed in 1997, is no longer operational in its original format
- Virgin Cola, launched in 1994, ceased production in 2012 (much longer than most originally anticipated, for sure)
Of course, many of Branson’s ventures are still in operation (at least in one form or another):
- Virgin Mobile, formed in 1999, provies mobile phone services to the UK, Canada, and other areas of the globe
- Virgin Hotels, formed in 2010, currently has three locations—with seven more in planning
- Virgin Startup, formed in 2013, serves over 11,000 fledgling entrepreneurs as they begin their journey in the business world
Branson even has his hand in hyperloop technology, investing in Hyperloop One in 2017. He’s also been invested in the world of space travel since 2004 via Virgin Galactic.
Looks like Elon Musk has some competition, huh?