Richard Branson Explains Why He's Different From Elon Musk, and What He Looks For When Investing in Startups
Excerpted from Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography by Richard Branson, published on Oct. 10, 2017 by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Richard Branson.
Two of my favorite things are taking calculated risks and helping to grow businesses. I've built my career on these pillars with Virgin, but I have always made targeted investments outside the Group, too, such as the Twitter stake I wrote about elsewhere in my book. More recently, these have developed into a full-blown venture capital strategy. Jonno Elliott and our investment team find innovative businesses at early stages and we take relatively small stakes to support their growth. The portfolio of more than 35 companies is always growing in areas ranging from health to education, technology to financial services. I am as inquisitive as ever, and believe if you have resources you should use them well.
Our investment policy is to support businesses we feel can make a positive difference. It's foolish to do something just for financial gain -- that usually ends in failure. Every household name today, from Pinterest to Slack (a couple of my other investments), had to start somewhere. The best, most purposeful startups are living, breathing examples to new generations that creativity, innovation and good honest hard work really can change the world for the better.
Whenever I speak to young people, or whenever I write on my blog, I'm determined to help turn more of those people looking for inspiration into the leaders who inspire the entrepreneurs of the future. My prominence online has other benefits, too, proving useful for discovering the most exciting startups for us to invest in. There is now a long line of ambitious entrepreneurs with bright ideas itching to share them with us. I am always more than happy to hear them out and do so on Necker Island, while traveling or online.
One question people ask me a lot is what I would do today if I lost all my money and had to start from scratch. My answer? To begin with, I'd have to make sure I went bust in the most spectacular, exciting failure in history. Then I'd autograph lots of £10 notes and sell them (hopefully for more!). Next, I'd go through all my notebooks, find the best ideas that had fallen through the cracks and start them up. While business may have changed from when I started out, the principles are the same and still fit what I am good at: finding markets that need shaking up, coming up with ways to make people's lives better, then finding brilliant people to bring it to life. Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur. I know I'd find a gap in the market somewhere.
How successful I'd be in that market is open to debate. My friend Elon Musk notoriously told Management Today in 2014 (though he's since assured me he was misquoted!) that I lack practical technological skills: "I like Richard and I think he's doing some cool things. But, technology is not really his whack." To a degree, he was right. We have very different brains, which is part of the reason we get on so well. He has a lot more technical knowledge than me and is very detail-focused, while I think in broader strokes. We'd probably make a good team. As I once joked while he was holidaying on Necker: "If you don't have your own ventures one day, you're welcome to come and run one of mine -- just brush up on your people skills."
What I am good at is coming up with interesting ideas and then finding amazing people to turn them into reality. I see investing in startups in the same way. I'm not always caught up in the details of what a particular app will or won't do; I'm more interested in the personalities behind the companies, and the purpose within their visions. I'd happily invest in a company that ends up failing in order to find a young entrepreneur who will go on to change the world. Entrepreneurs are the job creators and innovators of the future; it's up to those of us who have been fortunate enough to have some success to give them all the support we can. It's a privilege to see so many entrepreneurs taking their startups to the next level and transforming the way the world lives, thinks and does business.
When I meet entrepreneurs, especially in tech, I am often struck by how young they are. But then, when I started out, I was a teenager. The only other entrepreneur people had heard of (though nobody used the word "entrepreneur") was Body Shop founder Anita Roddick. There was British Airways, British Steel, British Telecom, British Coal, British Gas, British Rail -- the government ran everything, and poorly. Entrepreneurship wasn't something "proper" people did. It was seen as a dirty business, as if the idea of creating and making money from it was beneath people.
Over the last 50 years, thankfully, that has changed and there are new, exciting breakthroughs all the time. Today, I wore a pair of Snapchat Spectacles on the tennis court to film my game, then took an update call about M-Kopa, the East Africa solar energy provider we have invested in. Tomorrow there will be another breakthrough. Entrepreneurs are now everywhere, and society is benefiting.
There is a popular sentiment that if you haven't made it in tech by the age of 27, it's unlikely you'll make it at all. The same used to be true in music, though, of course, many artists haven't made it past the age of 27. It is wonderful that so many young people are succeeding in business and I hope they will have progressive attitudes and use their wealth and influence for good. One has to hope they have the maturity to look after their companies and, most importantly, their people, well. In my experience, some have that, some haven't. Like lottery winners, entrepreneurs who make huge amounts of money overnight can be slightly confused about what to do with it. I met WhatsApp founder Jan Koum in San Francisco after Facebook bought his app for $19 billion. He was so rich, so young and hadn't given much thought about how it was going to change his life. But, thankfully, he did want to look after his team and use his money as a force for good -- I'm sure he will. After five decades, I have much experience in how to use my wealth, know what I want and have more understanding about what causes to focus on.
Does this focus on non-Virgin companies mean I'm less focused on my own brand? Not at all. When I wrote Losing My Virginity, we were still fighting to survive and that book documented all the struggles. In the last 20 years it would have been extremely stupid of me to let the Virgin Group go under, as we've built up such a strong brand to play off of. I've been able to spend a lot more time speaking out on issues I care about and encouraging others to do the same. But, I do worry about Virgin not continuing to take risks in the way we used to. We now have the resources to do things with a long-term perspective for the first time. We can consider building hotels, cruise ships and spacelines that will take years to come to fruition, rather than needing to get records sold each week to balance the books, or an airline up and flying in six weeks to stay in business. Now, it's absolutely critical to keep that early hunger I had. I mustn't get complacent; I've still got to be fleet of foot and quick to jump upon opportunities. There is a danger Virgin could become too risk-averse without me. It is easier for me, as the founder, to be risky. When you're CEO or a board member, it is more difficult, as you are playing with somebody else's money. But, I have every confidence the adventurous streak that Virgin was built on runs deep, alongside the shrewd business sense. With a sound investment strategy and a great team, our success rate should keep going up -- but only if we keep sticking our necks out.