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Friday, April 17, 2015

Profiles In Exceptionalism: Richard Branson

One part Steve Jobs, one part Rodney Dangerfield

In the first entry in our series on exceptional individuals, I profiled Steve Jobs.

Here, I will profile another exceptional person who is one part Steve Jobs and one part Rodney Dangerfield.

That person is the ever-grinning, blond-maned entrepreneurial superstar Richard Branson.

There is perhaps no single person alive who better personifies economist Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction.” Branson has never been so attached to a single business to be typecast, instead carrying himself from one industry to the next seemingly effortlessly when the market speaks.

That’s hardly saying his many business and philanthropic successes didn’t require effort.

Branson worked hard serving others from an early age. He started as a magazine publisher in his church’s basement at age 17 and founded a record company by age 22. He named his record label “Virgin” after a suggestion by an early associate who wanted to play on the company’s youthful idealism.

Indeed, Branson has taken an idealistic approach to every venture he has undertaken.

And it’s worked. The Virgin brand is now worth $5 billion.

He signed the Sex Pistols onto Virgin Records at age 27, a risky move for an unestablished record executive given the band’s controversial heavy metal music. Virgin Megastores followed, allowing consumers to browse gigantic selections of albums in a single place years before Amazon was a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’s eye.

He reinvented transatlantic air travel at age 34 with Virgin Atlantic Airways, which features snappy marketing (“Mine’s Bigger Than Yours” on the tail of its longest jets) and luxuriously modern cabins, particularly in first class.

And now he is pioneering – in the first serious way – commercial space travel with Virgin Galactic.

Branson had to be a pioneer.

Although his grandfather had been a prominent judge, his parents raised him firmly within the middle class. His early ventures were so uncertain that his parents remortgaged the family home to pay a legal settlement stemming from Branson’s run-ins with British export law.

But in addition to the normal risks associated with being an entrepreneur several times over, Branson has been willing to take numerous public risks with his very life, both for the thrill and the marketing value.

No other modern business mogul is more expected to rappel from clock towers or sleek glass buildings to announce the launch of a new venture. He’s set world records in sailing and hot air ballooning, making some very public mishaps from time to time.

Onlookers have no choice but to be sucked into Branson’s extremely visible excitement for life and whatever new ware he’s peddling, whether space travel, trains, or cell phones.

Branson radiates exuberance for changing the world because he knows it can be done.

He has changed the world, and it obviously rocks.

There’s something almost spiritual about Branson when he speaks of his career.

“For me, business is not about wearing suits, or keeping stockholders pleased,” Branson has said. “It’s about being true to yourself, your ideas, and focusing on the essentials.”

In recent years, Branson has added philanthropy to his list of essentials. He has started a school centered on entrepreneurship in South Africa, dedicated his foundation to addressing AIDS, TB and malaria, and supports privately-funded environmental ventures. He also recently began an effort to apply umbilical cord stem cells to treatments for various difficult degenerative diseases.

When examining Branson, various threads begin to wind together to create an attractive melange.

People want to have as much fun in their jobs as Branson does in his.

He bears witness the power of personal initiative to create a life well worth living. He has employed hundreds in unique jobs and offered valuable services to people across the world.

But most of all, he has demonstrated a worldview that success in business can make the world a happier place.

When speaking to the Wall Street Journal in December about his reasons for launching Virgin Galactic, he hit on one of the core limitations of government and challenged those who see it as the institution of first resort for addressing problems and even desires.

I think it just simply goes back to watching the moon landing on blurry black-and-white television when I was a teenager and thinking, one day I would go to the moon—and then realizing that governments are not interested in us individuals and creating products that enable us to go into space.

Branson knows he must be interested in us as individuals if he wants to continue his success.

So if the successful entrepreneur is fundamentally other-minded, Richard Branson fits the bill exceptionally well.

  • Richard N. Lorenc is Chief Growth Officer of Iron Light, an award-winning strategic marketing firm specializing in helping purpose-driven brands change the world. He served at FEE from April 2013-November 2021, most recently as FEE's Executive Vice President.