The Idol Life

Richard Branson

Richard Branson echoes the feeling of the rest of our icons: He didn't mean to become a world-class entrepreneur-he just wanted to make his dream come true. "I wanted to edit a magazine aimed at young people [in] schools," says Branson. "I wanted to put the world right, as you do when you're 15 and believe you can do it. I only became an entrepreneur to make sure my magazine, Student, survived."

After publishing his magazine for a while, Branson observed that mail order discount music companies were doing well. In 1970, Branson started his own mail order record company, and the same year, he and several friends opened the first music discount store in England, calling it "Virgin." Over the years, Branson has tackled numerous businesses, mostly out of frustration with how particular industries were run. "Some of those industries I would never have dreamt of going into," he says. "In the end, when they've worked, they've worked pretty spectacularly."

Virgin took on the airline industry, going head-to-head with British Airways, which eventually led Branson to sell his music company in 1992 to provide his airline with much-needed funds. Today, Virgin Airways Ltd. brings in 51 percent of the revenues for Virgin Group Ltd., its parent company, with sales of more than $2.1 million in fiscal-year 2001.

Other industries Virgin companies are tackling include modeling, bridal services, financial services, book publishing, music stores, electricity and gas, British rail, and even a new music company-V2. Today, there are nearly 170 companies under the Virgin umbrella.

While Branson says his favorite part about being an entrepreneur is the freedom it gives him to do what he wants with his time, the reverse is also true. Being a successful entrepreneur means he doesn't always have the freedom to do whatever he wants. The responsibility is great, particularly with more than 50,000 people working for him.

Branson strives to live by his own business advice every day. "Make sure that anything you do," he says, "you create the best."

Entrepreneur: How do you define "entrepreneur"?
Richard Branson: An entrepreneur is somebody who is willing to go where others are not. Who doesn't often listen to accountants. Who if somebody says [something is] impossible, is determined to prove them wrong.

Entrepreneur: Who is your idea of an entrepreneurial icon?
Branson: Herb Kelleher, who started Southwest Airlines. He pioneered low-cost travel in America, and now we've got an airline in Australia which is taking on Qantas and driving the cost of air travel down. I don't think I would have started that if it hadn't been for Herb Kelleher.

Entrepreneur: How do you keep your entrepreneurial spirit alive?
Branson: Challenging what people think of [as] the norm, seeing if we can make a difference, creating things we can be proud of.

Entrepreneur: What's your legacy?
Branson: I would hope people will say that we made a difference-we created the best rail network in the country; we shook up the airline industry; we created good music. Some of those things will live on, but [I hope they say] "He had good fun and a good time whilst he was doing it."

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Aliza Sherman is a web pioneer, e-entrepreneur and author of eight books, including

PowerTools for Women in Business.

Her work can be found at

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This article was originally published in the January 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Idol Life.

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