Stijn in Book-highlights 16 minutes

Highlights from the book: Finding my virginity - Richard Branson

Richard Branson is managing to lead a life completely in line with his own internal values. Or at least, that’s how he tells it. “Finding my virginity” is a wonderful book from a chap in love with life and adventure. It is a testament to daring to be your own uncompromising, quirky self, instead of trying to fit in the image of the consummate professional. Even if you’re not sure this approach will work, it’s sure a lot more fun to live this way!

A few (lot) of quotes and highlights below, for your enjoyment and my reference.

On trying to find talent and ideas everywhere

Spotting someone with potential and the same values as Richard.

Brett was a great example. I’d first spotted his potential when he wrote an excellent note to a group of new starters. I began following his progress closely, and saw how he dealt with people in a personable manner and got the best out of them. He was someone who understood the little details of the airline industry that make all the difference; he knew management had to be accessible and visible, so would often get out and about, even rolling his sleeves up with the baggage handlers to heave bags and hear their issues from the front line.

Richard wanted to offer Brett a new job. It didn’t go as planned however:

‘I really appreciate the offer,’ he explained, ‘but I’ve got two young kids now, and my wife and I have decided to move back to Australia.’ I was disappointed, but accepted his reasoning. ‘I always respect a person who puts family first,’ I told him. Wishing him all the best, I added: ‘If you want to do anything in Australia, let me know and we’ll see what we can do.’ There was a pause. ‘Funny you should say that,’ he replied. ‘I’ve had an idea for a few years now that I’d love you to hear.’ I always like someone ready to seize their chance. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘What is it?’

Brett’s plan was delivered to my door the next morning. I’ve always liked people who move fast too.

Valuing values over experience. To me, this also equals looking for talent where others won’t look.

Rather than going for experience we wanted to recruit people who wouldn’t usually apply for airline jobs. Virgin has always focused on finding the best possible people, and I was determined to set our new airline apart by having the finest staff in the world. We didn’t want people who had been working at airlines for years – we needed fresh faces with new ideas.

Starting (and running) a new business

Richards approach when thinking about a new idea is not to start it himself, but find the people that can run it better than he can. Although, he’s able to do that now, he did run many businesses himself in the beginning.

As with any other business, I started to search around for people to make it happen.

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.

All the businesses are pretty much the same: they deliver some service and try to do it better, with better customer service and less dull. It works because people respond to humanity and who doesn’t like to laugh once in a while?!

Virgin Active is one company that closely mirrors my vision for the whole Virgin brand. It is all about improving people’s lives, has a spirit of fun and entrepreneurship at its heart, and is committed to giving staff and customers the best possible time. The way it has been run, from a boot-strap start-up into a global business, is the perfect example of delegation and trust. By letting them make their own mistakes and enjoy their own triumphs – chipping in whenever necessary, instead of being on the phone every day second-guessing their decisions – Matthew, Frank and the team have grown a worldwide brand people love.

But being able to see the bigger picture is what has enabled me to move into so many different sectors. Most business leaders want to oversee every single part of their operation. I hone in on what is important. This can be tiny details, not just over-arching strategy. Either way, I find brilliant people like Will, I delegate and let them get on with it. I am able to let go, when other people can’t. As shareholder, I delegate to management teams who take strategic decisions to drive our business forward. But I can also be as stubborn as hell when I believe in an idea and those same brilliant people around me do not. I have learned that my mind works in different ways to many others. If I had to name a skill I possess, it would be lateral thinking. When all logic is pointing in one direction, but it just doesn’t make sense to me, I question it. ‘Forgive me, it’s probably my dyslexia,’ I will begin, or ‘Sorry, I’m probably being foolish, but I don’t quite follow you.’ Then I will ask seemingly obvious questions, which don’t always result in the answers I expect. Out of this inquisitiveness, companies are sometimes born.

A crisis is a moment where many opportunities pop up. If you’ve put yourself in a good position in the fat years, you’ll be able to take advantage of those opportunities.

A crisis is often a good time to start a new business. When the 2007 economic downturn happened, I thought it would be the perfect moment to begin searching for suitable properties.

I try to simplify everything and apply this to every aspect of my life, however small or big. This means paying attention to detail. A good entrepreneur signs every cheque personally, say, every quarter.

Then there are bigger amounts. Each year our banks required us to undertake a valuation exercise on some Virgin Group assets, apparently as part of their internal policies but for no clear reason, taking substantial time and costing us over $100,000 a year. One call and they agreed that they didn’t actually need this. For every dollar you save today, the cumulative effect is enormous. Too often people only look into these details when times are tight and they are losing money. It is much easier to remove unnecessary over-complications and costs when business is doing well, keeping your company lean and mean.

Like most good ideas, it is an artful solution to a complex problem. As I tell every young entrepreneur I meet asking for tips: keep it simple, stupid.

For some people, delegating comes naturally. For others (like me), it’s difficult. For everyone, it seems to be necessary…

My first widely read blog, in early 2010, was about the art of delegation. It was an appropriate theme since delegation has been a secret of my success for five decades. Asking for support is a strength, not a weakness. If you try to do everything yourself, you won’t succeed and will make yourself miserable along the way. As a dyslexic, things like spelling and grammar have never come naturally to me. Rather than waste time pondering the difference between ‘there’, ‘they’re’ and ‘their’, I find talented people to collaborate with and delegate to. I now work with Greg Rose and our content team on around 600 blogs per year, and call the team several times a day (and night!). If you think that sounds too time-consuming, think of all the things you do that take lots of time and are not productive. Rather than slave over a spreadsheet, why not write a blog and turn your pitch into a story? Humans communicate through stories; it’s how we make sense of our surroundings, ourselves and our place in the world. As the writer Lawrence Weschler said in The New New Journalism: ‘Human beings have glands that secrete all sorts of things. But the human mind secretes stories. We live narratives. That is the only way we know how to experience anything, and it is our glory.’

On staying true to yourself and what feels right

Something that I think people are not doing enough: if you have the capacity to build something, why not use it to build things that make you happy. Not everything has to be a cold, mathematical ROI calculation. We are human after all.

Looking back, I think most people would have taken the money. Certainly, everyone at Virgin Group wanted to – it would have been an extraordinary return on investment. But emotionally – and I do most things on emotion – it would have felt like selling one’s own child. Staying at the Holiday Inn at Potts Point with all the cabin crew certainly influenced me. They were such a delightful, fun team. In the end, the idea of selling them out was just too strange. It felt fitting that the company which started over a few beers was saved by a conversation over a few more.

Approach to marketing

Branson has been in the media many times and it is easy to understand this is at least partly marketing. The impressive part is that he has managed to portray an image that fits with the way he aspires to lead (at least part of) his life. Fun fact, while it doesn’t seem that way now, he was originally not comfortable with putting the spotlight on him.

Ever since my mentor Sir Freddie Laker showed me the benefits of leaders being the visible fronts of businesses, I’ve been comfortable with this.

On family

Not much to add: if someone with x businesses can make time for family, everyone can.

I was debating the role of women in business in front of thousands of people at an event organised by Maria Shriver in California. Although it was a big deal, family always comes first, no matter what, which is why I answered the phone to hear her results. When Holly rang, I had asked the audience to bear with me as I took the call, and they were happy to play along with it. ‘Hang on one second. I want to tell them your results.’ I quickly relayed the good news and the crowd gave her a standing ovation.

Despite Holly enjoying her role, I still had an inkling that she might like to join Virgin at some point. After all, we have always been a family business. I genuinely felt that Holly could achieve more and make a bigger positive impact in the world working under the Virgin umbrella; she could use her medical experience, but working with greater financial resources and variously skilled teams of people to make a difference.

(this one also is about the difference between being an expert and using money, connections, multiple experts to have a broader impact)

As is my usual way on family time, I ignored the phone.

When Joan and I had children I was determined to be there with them as much as possible, which is why I always worked from home, first on our houseboat and then in Holland Park. But I was still away a fair amount with work. Now, with our


Shrewd negotiating? Not always. Sometimes, it’s just about making sure the other party understands you really want a thing to happen. While I do think you should be adequately compensated for your work, we shouldn’t kill a deal that has the potential to benefit everyone because we think we’re “worth more”.

When it comes to deals like this, or any negotiations really, the key is to display passion, know-how and determination. Get to the point quickly, be persistent and consistent, and don’t rely too heavily on prompts, statistics, and certainly not PowerPoint slides. I went into the meeting with my notebook in my back pocket, armed with beautiful spaceship pictures, a lot of enthusiasm and belief in the project. Investors buy into people and ideas, not numbers alone.

Then, in March 2018, I received a WhatsApp message from the Crown Prince confirming his commitment to the partnership. He was visiting the Queen and the Prime Minister in London, and wanted to meet up with me. On my flight to England, I decided to sit down with all the details in front of me and write a letter to the Crown Prince’s key adviser, PIF CEO Yasir bin Othman Al-Rumayyan. I set out the history and explained our concerns about how the negotiations were going. I thought through the deal from both points of view and tried to come up with a really fair compromise that worked for both parties. Then I gave a list of seven key points which we needed to agree to close the deal. ‘I really hope that the above works for you and we can shake hands on it today,’ I wrote. ‘Anyway very much look forward to seeing you for breakfast. Best, Richard.’

Gathering your thoughts

Thing is, we’re always going to be as busy as we allow ourselves to be. The real question is: are we as effective as we hope we are? Not thinking about the end goals or having to rework are absolute killers of ideas and projects. Find a system that works for you and stick to it. And above all: make sure you have the time to think things through and write it down!

People also often question how I find the time to write so regularly; whether notes, letters, blogs, op-eds, or even books like this. But the reality is I’m always getting my thoughts down on paper. The trick is to make it part of your daily routine. You have time to eat, drink, brush your teeth and do dozens of other things every day – just add writing to the list. I jot down ideas, thoughts, requests, reminders and doodles every single day; if I didn’t, I would forget them before I could ever put them into action. It doesn’t matter if you use a notebook and pen like me, or a shiny new tablet like Holly – the key is making writing a welcome habit. But keep a little pad in your back pocket just in case – you never have to charge a notebook.

Making lists is both a way of remembering things and of ticking off achievements to mark progress. Without notes and follow-ups, chances are nothing would get done. I have met one particular government minister many times who never takes notes; he agrees on things and nothing happens. Another minister I know always takes notes, follows up and gets things done. If somebody works for me and doesn’t take notes, I ask them: ‘Are you too important? Note taking isn’t beneath anyone.’ I take notes in every meeting, to keep the frame of mind to learn. I edit as I go along, and follow up with dates and tasks in order of importance. I couldn’t have written two autobiographies without them.

General shenanigans

The mindset is the thing! :-)

I became the lease holder of our former London property the Roof Gardens after a bouncer refused me entry for wearing jeans and looking too scruffy. I bought the place the next day, and gently informed the bouncer to let me in regardless of my clothing. He turned out to be a delightful gentleman and ended up working for us for another three decades.

Hunter S. Thompson: ‘Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a ride!”’

The next day we got back on the saddle for the final stretch of the cycling leg: riding to the toe of Italy. It was a fascinating and picturesque journey, which, thankfully, wasn’t as physically gruelling as the day before. However, having already hiked seventy kilometres and ridden nearly 2,000 kilometres, my body felt fit but completely worn out. With just two hours to go to the finish line, Sam overtook me. As he passed, something stirred inside me and I got a burst of energy. For the rest of the leg I rode flat-out as fast as I could, whooping like a schoolboy. Developing mental toughness isn’t just about being resilient – it’s about accessing your reserve tank when you think you just can’t go any further. At that moment, so close to the end and challenged by my son, I felt my reserve kick in. It’s something that I’ve relied on a lot in life, and have had to access on many occasions in business. In the dark moments we all have the power to pull ourselves up to keep going.

Somebody said to me after Strive that there are three stages to life: youth, middle age, and ‘you’re looking well’! Sadly, it’s probably true. I found myself getting more ‘you’re looking well’ comments than usual after Strive.