When Virgin America offers you a seat aboard one of its jets, you scream “Yes!"—even if the flight’s heading to Denver instead of Necker Island.
Virgin founder Richard Branson is worth several billion, his company has expanded by 20 percent in the last year and he recently unveiled a spaceship that he claims will soon allow for Jetsons-like vacations. Branson, who dropped out of school at 15 to launch a magazine that would become a media empire, is known the world over for his charismatic freedom of decision. The man always seems to be doing what he wants, when he wants.
Sure, he’s started more companies than most of us have had birthdays, and not all of them have been successful (think wedding, makeup and soda businesses), but the South London native has kept it in the black, building a legacy of flash, adventure and gleeful showmanship.
Branson famously kite surfed with a nude model clinging to his back. He signed the Rolling Stones and Janet Jackson, and he wept when a legal battle forced him to sell his label. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, he broke records crossing the Atlantic in a hot air balloon and then in a powerboat. Over the last few years, he’s set his sights on sending passengers into space via his Virgin Galactic fleet.
Flying on Virgin America’s inaugural trip on its new route from SFO to Denver, the cabin loaded with reporters and tech entrepreneurs, I spoke with Branson about what it will take to get to the stars—a topic still raw from the 2014 crash that killed one pilot and severely injured another—the war on drugs, how money can change people and how to keep the flame in business and in bed.
Space is such an occupier for you. Is obsession too strong of a word?
No. It is an obsession. We’ve had a tough time. All of the operators have had a tough time in the last couple of years. But I think the team has come out stronger. We’ve got 650 of the best engineers in America fevering away, and in the not-too-distant future, we’ll be able to sit on a Virgin space jet. And my other planes and spaceships look like they’ll be up and enabling other people to do so. I feel very excited again.
Jeff Bezos has Blue Origin, Musk has SpaceX, there’s XCOR. What makes Virgin Galactic different?
First of all, Virgin Galactic is the only spaceship shaped like an airplane. It has wings, it has wheels, it’s not a giant rocket going up into space. The thinking behind that is one day to take our spaceships and do point-to-point travel with them, and that’s not something that our rivals are considering. Also for our trips into space, people will be able to stay inside the spaceship. They’ll go into space and be able to experience it.
When are you going up?
We’re going up in about—well, I better not give the date, but I’ll be the first one. Soonish. We think we can afford to put a lot of people into space, and we can get the price down so an awful lot of people can go.
How low can you really get it down to?
In the short term we’ll go up to $300,000. That I think will be the highest it will ever go, and in a few years time it will start coming down. I think we can get it to a level where people could think "Do we want to go on expensive holiday, or should we go into space?” That’s the challenge.
To make the price comparable to luxury travel?
To make it where most people who have a reasonable life should be able to afford to go. We’re also putting this massive array of satellites around the Earth, which will connect the three or four billion people—hopefully connect a lot of them who are not connected. And then, one day, we plan to build a sort of habitat in space where we can take people to stay maybe for a week or two. We’re doing orbital flights up and that’s something for the future as well.
Fighting for survival, fighting in the trenches, that was the best education I could have had. I’ve been learning ever since.
You once said, “There is no point in starting your own business unless you do it out of a sense of frustration.” Right now in the tech world there’s a lot of discourse around learning by failing. But many founders seem to lack leadership because of that path. How valuable is the experience of getting in the trenches and leading by example?
I think it’s everything. I left school at 15 and learned on the job. Fighting for survival, fighting in the trenches, that was the best education I could have had. I’ve been learning ever since. College is a good fallback—a degree—if your business is not successful. But if you’re a born entrepreneur, the sooner you get on with it, the better.
What about getting out of the way of employees? How can leaders get their staff to work at their highest level?
I always believe that new businesses often come out of frustration. Just by traveling, leaders are going to come across a frustration where they think, “I believe that’s connected to me.” Most of what I’ve learned is what I’ve gotten from meeting, talking to people, getting feedback, relating to things with people, listening. A leader should be a really good listener. And if you get stuck behind a desk all the time, or behind a machine, you’re not going to learn that much. The more entrepreneurs travel, the more they see what’s going on in other countries and other cities, they’ll find ideas for a new business every day if they keep their ears open.
If you did it over with Student magazine, could you have had the same success with that model today?
If there was a gap in the market, I don’t see why not. I don’t know whether there is a national student magazine in America, but if there isn’t one for young people, it might be something someone might consider doing. Lots of people want to get to young people, so there’s lots of advertising potential.
How do you stay creative and productive in a world of constant distraction?
In these sort of trips I’m just full-on [working]. And then I can go back to Necker Island and I can have time to think and be creative, and then get back out into the hurly-burly of everything. Just going kite surfing for two or three hours is a great time to tear the mind from the things you do and be creative.
You made your first million in your teens, your first billion in your twenties. How did you not let the money get to your head?
Because I appreciated it enormously. I struggled to survive for five or six years, so when we were successful, I’ve always reinvested any money that we’ve made. I never believed in sitting with money in the bank account. I think if you do make money, you’ve got this enormous responsibility to utilize it in promoting new jobs, hopefully sorting out some of the problems of the world. And getting that balance is very important.
Medical marijuana is a major issue you’ve been talking about for quite a long time. What trends do you see happening towards legalization?
I’m part of something called the Virgin Drug Commission, and we studied the war on drugs for 60 years—well, we studied it for five years, but we studied what happened in the last 60 years. The war’s been an absolute failure. States and countries need new approaches. We welcome what’s happening here [in Colorado], and I’m going to a meeting at a place today that was funded by the taxes for marijuana. It’s so much better that this money, instead of the trend of billions per day that goes to the underworld, that it goes in taxes or different businesses to be able to make life better.
Smoking marijuana is similar to drinking, if you don’t do it in excess and you do it in moderation. And actually, most likely it causes less harmful side effects than alcohol or cigarettes. But to answer the question, slowly but surely, America’s been a country that has clamped down on Mexico, Columbia and the Caribbean and punished them if they talk about legalization. Now America is legalizing it and decriminalizing it. That trend towards clamping down in North America is beginning to go away. And that means, I think, that you’re going to get a lot more examples of countries decriminalizing.
What’s the most surprising thing about you? Something that people wouldn’t expect?
People always see me with my arms around beautiful girls, having pictures taken, and I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been with the same lady for 40 years. I’m sure that most people think that I’m a playboy, but I’ve been very lucky just loving one lady for 40 years.
How do you keep it exciting?
We’ve got fantastic children, we’ve now got fantastic grandchildren, we have a fascinating life.
Do you still do date nights?
Yeah. Now and again I’ll surprise her and we’ll go off for a long weekend. We make sure we keep the relationship alive. That’s the only way.