I learned two major things from this book: the power of branding, and the fact that Richard Branson has balls of solid steel.
Branson is one of the great entrepreneurs of our era, and it was truly inspiring to hear his story in his own words. A kid who skipped college and dove straight into business, and time and time again proved he can succeed with a lot of will, determination, and his maverick ability to take big bets and win. Bransons' success is nothing short of inspirational.
I had no idea until reading this how powerful the Virgin brand is, or how many businesses they have gone into. They effectively function like a VC, except they also lend their brand (and perhaps some infrastructure too). Each business is a subsidiary, given its leaders the freedom to move fast and achieve their goals without being slown down by needing permission from the mother ship. This is brilliant. Many of the businesses also complement each other in profitable ways - such as how Virgin Travel and Virgin Atlantic complemented each other.
Branson is a risk-taker. When Virgin Records was about to run out of cash, instead of scraping what he had left to limp on, he scraped it together to make a big bet. It's kind of like going all-in in poker when your chips are getting low - better than losing slowly!"I have always believed that the only way to cope with a cash crisis is not to contract but to try to expand out of it."
But the difference with Branson is that he didn't take the risks blindly. When he started the airlines he spent considerable effort leasing the airline for 1 year and limiting his downside. It is only by being bold that you get anywhere. If you are a risk-taker, then the art is to protect the downside."
One thing I loved about Branson, is he was not afraid to bluff. This was first illustrated early in the book when, learning about a plot to force him out of Student, he acted pre-emptively and told the leader that he had already switched the teams mind - when instead he had no idea how far along the plot actually was. We see this time and time again - Branson is able to divine where things are going, and negotiate on points he isn't even wholly sure about.
Branson detailed a lot of his crazy ballooning adventures, which I wasn't so into. I wanted to hear how he built Virgin. Although I did appreciate that his passion for ballooning did lead to several advances in airplane technology.
The end of the book went into a lot of detail of how Branson is giving back to the world - which I respect a lot - any billionaire worth their salt should do that, but it was great to see him embrace the challenges with the same zeal he embrace business. From climate change to Virgin Fuel to Virgin Galactic, Branson is thinking hard about our planet and where its going and how to get us there. And of course, if Virgin Fuel does well it will only help his airline business - so not a bad bet.