For more than 40 years, Sir Richard Branson has cut his own unique path in business. Like many successful entrepreneurs, he started out early, at 16, with a magazine
called Student. By the early 1970s, he had begun Virgin Records and has since diversified into a dizzying array of industries.
No other globally successful business has attempted to do as many things as Virgin. As Branson notes: “Of the top 20 brands in the world, some 19 ply a well-defined trade.
Coca-Cola specialises in soft drinks, Microsoft in computers, Nike in sports gear.”
Virgin is the exception and not the rule when it comes to how a business is run. While he has inspired many entrepreneurs, few are likely to emulate him or embrace the Virgin formula, if indeed one even exists.
The Virgin brand, which in Branson’s view is about irreverence and cheek, is key to his success. But companies that diversify often get labelled as being jacks of all trades and, for some, Virgin fits that bill. After all, the success of Virgin companies has been mixed.
Virgin Records signed many excellent artists and Branson’s airline, Virgin Atlantic, has given British Airways some serious competition. However, the buy up of NTL to create Virgin Media has had some serious problems, most notably a woeful standard of customer service, while Virgin Cola bit off more than it could chew when it tried to go
head-to-head with Coca-Cola.
The Virgin brand is loved by many and has proved a major draw for a lot of consumers, but it is no magic fix. Even Branson admits there are times when the traditional view of business, focusing on one thing, is sensible. “You should focus on what you know, on what gets you up in the morning,” he says. “And for most people, that means one core business.”
But Branson isn’t most people, and what gets this seemingly hyperactive man out of bed in the morning is the challenge and the excitement of a brand that nearly didn’t come to life because of objections from the authorities about the sexual innuendo tied to its name. But can we expect there to be more Virgins in the future? Branson doesn’t seem too sure:
“Virgin may simply be odd – an accident of history,” he says. “I like fun. I began in a decade that prized fun. People associate me with that decade and the feel-good factor has stuck with me ever since.”
So is baby-boomer Branson, from a generation blessed with social and economic opportunities, the luckiest of them all? Well, he hasn’t been short of opportunities and has come close to disaster a few times – most notably when he was caught dodging purchase tax in 1969, which could have ended his business dreams. But then every successful entrepreneur needs a bit of luck and you can’t put all Virgin’s success down to that.