Richard Branson Takes Us Into Orbit
The eternal Virgin and restless billionaire is very close to commercializing space travel.
September 22, 2016
When I ask Richard Branson how he feels about mortality, he tells me, deadpan, about a new pill he and Google founder Larry Page are working on that will add another 200 years to the average human lifespan. This outrageous claim was followed by a few moments of silence and bewilderment. I stopped typing. He’s full of shit, I thought. Or is he?
Branson was joking; there is no pill. He slapped my knee and we both laughed as I tried to conceal my humiliation. I had been had, but it dawned on me then that as the grand overlord of the Virgin Group and patron saint of restless billionaires, Branson has reached a point in his five-decade career where discovering the fountain of youth doesn’t seem implausible.
He is one of the most recognizable people on earth. The British serial entrepreneur, adventure junkie, philanthropist, and founder of the Virgin Group has reinvented corporate promotion and marketing over the years, frequently putting himself in harm’s way or at the very least embarrassing himself. He’s an outspoken disputant against capital punishment, nuclear arms proliferation, anti-drug policies, and global warming, and has publicly supported humanitarian efforts in Darfur, South Africa, and Uganda. He also had a cameo on the Friends episode “The One With Ross’s Wedding,” which, even for a man as accomplished as Branson, takes humblebragging rights to a new level.
This beneficent Branson, who gave us multitudes of products stamped with the Virgin prefix, ranging from mobile phones to airplanes to tour operators, has in the past several years begun dipping his ambitious toes into different pools, all of which will cause major shifts in the world of travel. He opened the first of his branded hotels in Chicago last year with plans to expand to a handful of American cities; a cruise line will launch in 2020; and as early as next year, Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline, will transport average people—albeit with above average incomes—into orbit. He’s a man committed to raising any bar he can wrap his hands around.
Last April, we met at SoHo House New York’s homey Club Bar. From my perspective, this meant a den of T-shirt-clad executives and well-heeled youngsters cooling off away from the 80-something temperatures and merciless midday sun. The 66-year-old Branson, with his iconic mane of gray hair, fit right in, though it felt a bit like running into Kofi Annan on a school bus or Donald Trump at the library. Be that as it may, he’s a SoHo House member and was staying in a room downstairs. Over drinks—a latte for him and a tap water for me—we discussed the future of travel, life’s successes and lead balloons, and his interest in creating cruise ships.
When I moved to London years ago, I didn’t have much money. I was skint, you know? And I bought this wonderful burner flip-phone: Virgin Mobile pay-as-you-go. It was little and black, cost £10. I loved that phone.
Oh, I remember those skint days. [Laughs] They’re tough, aren’t they?
Are you a fan of mobile phones?
I’ve finally given up on the Blackberry and now have an iPhone. There’s no question that it’s made life much more convenient. When I used to travel, I’d go with three suitcases full of paperwork. I started my business in a phone box where I had to put coins in every 20 seconds to have a conversation with somebody. The freedom mobile phones give you is tremendous.
You’re not just in town to talk with me are you? I won’t be offended.
My son has a company called Sundog Pictures, and he’s launching a film at the Tribeca Film Festival tomorrow called Don’t Look Down, which is about my two attempts to be the first to cross the Atlantic and Pacific in a hot air balloon.
I don’t want to tell the end of the story. It will have people on the edge of their seats. It certainly had me on the edge of mine. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. It makes for an exciting film. And obviously, I survived.
Mazel tov! When did you get into philanthropic work? And why drug reform in particular?
As you can see from reading about me, I’m a sort of serial entrepreneur. I’m a person who can’t say no to an issue. It became very apparent to me that the War on Drugs was an abject failure. It was an attack on ordinary people and has done untold harm. If it were a business, I’d have shut it down 59 years ago. A country like America, I find it so backward.
There’s a lot that people can learn about you from the “Richard” button on the Virgin website. Seems like a nice way to keep your cult of personality alive. Is that part of what has made Virgin so successful—your personal image?
I think in the early days I didn’t have the advertising spend of a Pan Am or a TWA. I used myself to get Virgin on the front pages. That’s why we did these big adventures like the ones in the hot air balloons. Using that method made the Virgin brand a household name globally. And now it’s bigger than Richard Branson. That was the aim. I don’t have to jump off buildings as much as I used to in order to get the brand out there.
Redefining—and redesigning—how people think about travel is one of your missions in life, right? You’ve opened a hotel chain with prosecco on tap at the bar, launched air and train businesses, next up you have a cruise line, and now you’re democratizing space travel. How do you stay focused?
I suppose Virgin is one of the few brands in the world that’s a “way of life.” That’s because of my inquisitiveness. And if I’m frustrated by something, I like to see how we can do it better. The reason we started Virgin America [an airline launched in 2007 and sold earlier this year] is because American airlines were not that great. I hate everything about cruises. Let’s see if I can create the kind of cruise ship my family and I would want to go on. In two years from now, Virgin will have one. But by not staying focused, our knowledge is wider. The number of people we can draw on is much broader. And it’s much more fun.
Do you have a guiding philosophy? Or do you wing it?
I have a general philosophy: All that matters is your choice of people. You can make or break a company based on your choice of chief executive. We look for people who love people and have 90,000 in staff around the world. A good leader is someone who listens well. It’s much better to be listening and learning. Too many leaders want to hear the sound of their own voice.
One of the 65 most memorable adventures of your life, according to one of your blog posts on virgin.com, was when, in 1977 for Virgin Records, you took a boat down the Thames River during the Silver Jubilee, and blasted the Sex Pistols’s new single “God Save the Queen” next to the Houses of Parliament. Is this the kind of experience Virgin Cruises will aim to replicate?
We’re not going quite as left field as the Sex Pistols. But we’re going to make it a lot of fun. Much more classy than most current cruise ships. Ours are quite large, but I believe small is beautiful. Inside these ships we’ve broken everything into small, funky, intimate areas. You won’t have a room full of thousands of seats and buffet on the side or any of the other horrors of most cruise lines.
Is it true you’ve never been on a cruise?
I can imagine how horrible they are.
Then why cruising?
We’ve sent tens of thousands of people on other cruise lines through Virgin Holidays over the years. When I was 27 years old, I decided to set up cruises for under-30-year-olds. Then I got to 30, and it went to under 31. Suddenly I’m 66 and trying to make up for lost time. And the sorrow that people feel about Alaska buying Virgin America is palpable. People feel like we’ve sold a child. Sadly the American authorities wouldn’t have a voting share in the airline, and I think it’s a great pity. But anyway, we’ll fight to get Alaska to respect the brand. I think the point of that story is that we’ve done a lot in a number of industries.
I think we’re getting into the weeds here.
Well, Bain Capital came to us one day and said, “We’ve done market research into which companies in the world could swing people into cruising. It was obvious that the public would go on a Virgin cruise rather than the others.” That gave us confidence.
The cruise industry isn’t known for being a purveyor of cool design concepts. Will you be bringing any creative agencies or big-name designers to help you break the mold?
We brought in the person who used to run Disney Cruises, and we’ve thrown into the mix designers with completely fresh ideas. For the Virgin Galactic spaceport in New Mexico, [we hired] a design company from the U.K. Sometimes it can work, but with most of our [projects], we like to do it ourselves.
You now have a line of hotels under the Virgin umbrella. The first one opened in Chicago a few years ago. You broke ground in New York last year and announced one in Nashville. Where else are you looking?
New Orleans, San Francisco—these are the places we’ve actually got sites. We’ve had fun creating lots of very special boutique places like Necker Island in the Caribbean.
[Branson’s mother enters the room. Branson excuses himself for a few minutes to greet her.]
Sorry about that. Where were we?
We have a new place we’re working on in Mallorca. We have a ski resort in Verbier and so on. Virgin Atlantic flies to most of the major cities in America and around the world, and we’ve had a lot of businessmen who have said, “If you start a hotel, we’ll stay in it.” The hotels have a formula which we can go into other cities with. But ultimately, however good your hotel is, it’s only as good as the people who work there.
You’ve said that some of your ideas come out of frustration. What about hotels frustrate you?
There’s so much. Trying to turn out all the lights in your room when you’ve just had a few drinks and there’s not just one switch. Trying to turn off all the horrible music they’ve left on in the room when you’ve arrived. Pressing every single button imaginable. Also trying to get breakfast early in the morning or at least a cup of tea or coffee. Having to pay for things in the fridge at exorbitant prices. Someone like Hilton Hotels, you go into these dark, dingy rooms and wonder, Christ, who booked me here? They’re just so horrible. It’s like you ended up on United Airlines, but you’re going to sleep there for a couple of days.
Archival photo taken around the launch of Virgin Atlantic. (Photo: Courtesy Virgin Atlantic)
You designed the beds in the rooms, correct?
I had some dealings in the design. [Laughs] There’s a fun thing where you can prop up and work on the bed very comfortably. Once you’re in one, you don’t want to get out.
Just something you scribbled on a napkin, or do you take furniture design as seriously as anything else?
I went with my family and colleagues to test the beds and we did a lot of bouncing around on mattresses, coming up with fun ideas. A bed is quite an important part of a hotel. Some hotels you wonder: Why am I sleeping in the most uncomfortable bed ever designed? Little things matter.
You’re launching Virgin Galactic as early as next year. For the first time in history, lay people will go up into space without spending millions. Why?
Five hundred and fifty people have been to space in the last 60 years. And yet there are millions of people who would love the chance to look back at this beautiful planet. To see the world transform for the better. I also love a challenge, and the initial one was to build a spacecraft that our families can go into space on. Seven hundred engineers are now working on it and we’re building rockets and satellites.
Photo: Courtesy Virgin Atlantic
NASA employees probably wouldn’t be able to afford a ticket. How did you come up with that ticket price?
To go up on a Russian spaceship costs $50 million. To go up on Virgin Galactic costs $250,000. Once we’ve exhausted the market, we’ll start bringing down the price. Most people in this room will one day go to space. I think we can get it down to a price where people will say, “Should I go into space or go on an expensive holiday?” The number of people who want to go is infinite—even at a few hundred thousand dollars. Are you someone who’d want to go?
Some of the people in this room may have already been to space. I’d have to go in Ashton Kutcher’s luggage. I was going to ask you about the Galactic test flight explosion, but I was told recently that the ship didn’t explode. What happened?
A test pilot made a mistake, basically. We may never be able to work out why. They just made a dreadful, dreadful mistake. The technology was fine. The rockets were fine.
You mentioned the sale of Virgin America airlines earlier this year. Are you heartbroken when things don’t work out? Like Virgin Cola and Virgin Vodka?
Certainly not heartbroken about cola or vodka. I’m generally not heartbroken about anything. It’s all part of the learning process. Obviously, if you have a spaceship that crashes, then the word heartbroken comes into real meaning. It was a horrible 24 hours.
What about Virgin Brides?
Well, there weren’t any, basically. That didn’t last very long. I think I just loved the name. That’s why I started it. We had great fun launching it. Maybe shaving my beard and dressing up like a beautiful bride put people off.
You wrote on the Richard blog: “Today, the four mega-airlines control more than 80 percent of the U.S. market. Consolidation is a trend that sadly cannot be stopped.” What’s your take on monopolies?
I don’t think monopolies are in the public interest at all. I’ve spent my whole life trying to break them up. Competition makes the world go round. It’s what made America strong.
Outside the Virgin Hotel Chicago. (Photo: Lucy Hewett)
In that regard, do you consider Elon Musk the enemy?
Elon’s a good personal friend. He’s an extremely talented individual. What he’s trying to do and what Virgin is trying to do are quite different. He’s interested in trying to get people to Mars one day, and we’re interested in space travel closer to home. We’re never going to get any other planet more beautiful than Earth.
And Hyperloop, his high-speed vacuum train?
Let’s wait and see if it’s a reality. Not a lot has happened. Every entrepreneur is guilty of talking ahead of themselves and having to catch themselves up. The one area we might be competing with him is launching satellites to get people connected. We give each other a little competition, which is great from the public’s point of view.
Magic pills aside, do you ever think about mortality?
Not a lot. I just live life to its full and enjoy every minute of it. My mum, who you saw come in, is 93. I run to keep up with her.
Is Virgin like a hereditary monarchy? Are you leaving it for your children to run, or is there a Tim Cook-type waiting in the wings.
Virgin has a tremendous team that runs it on a day-to-day basis. To give the company a heart, if you’ve got to have a face—and my children are well-respected [within the company]—so they can be the faces. That has helped it enormously. My son spends much of his time making documentary films, and my daughter runs the Virgin Unite foundation [a non-profit that supports entrepreneurs].
So you’re grooming them?
Yeah, but I’m learning from them as well.
You’re leaving behind quite a legacy, but what is the mission statement for Virgin after you depart? And by depart, I mean die.
I think the team at Virgin will take the company and make it their own. They’ll see gaps in the market and take it further. I’d love to glance back in 50 years time to see if they’ve done a good job or not. When owners leave companies to their children, they don’t tend be to successful.
Any projects you think you won’t see through?
I’m hoping I’ve got another 25 years still left in.
Will prosecco be on tap?
Yeah. Well, hopefully anyways.