Best of Young Turks: In 2012 Richard Branson said he'd 'make space travel affordable', and now he's almost there

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In this Young Turks Archives edition, watch Virgin Group founder Richard Branson discuss his philosophy, lessons from piloting the Virgin conglomerate and a whole lot more.

Best of Young Turks: In 2012 Richard Branson said he'd 'make space travel affordable', and now he's almost there
India's longest-running show on startups and entrepreneurship Young Turks marks another milestone as it completes 19 years! To celebrate this landmark occasion, we wish to take you through our time capsule, The Young Turks Archive, recounting the journeys of some of the trailblazing entrepreneurial talents this country has produced over the last two decades.
As India transforms, shrugs off the old cloak and dresses up with the digital debonair, we believe the lessons gleaned from these handpicked stories will be a trusted guide to the next generation of changemakers. Join us in this celebration of ideas, innovation and inspiration!
This week, we feature Sir Richard Branson, who now holds the title of ‘Commercial Astronaut’. On July 11, 2021, off he went at thrice the speed of sound, aboard the rocket Virgin SpaceShip Unity, reaching the far-reaches of the earth’s atmosphere and a tad bit beyond. Though pulled this-way and that-way by G-force, the 70-year old billionaire grinned as he realized his childhood dream of floating in space.
After nearly 17 years of development and billions of dollars poured into Virgin Galactic, Branson became the first from the billionaire space company founders to ride his own 'bus to space'. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who is set to make a similar trip on his Blue Origin Space Ship shortly, will surely remember the moment with a hint of jealousy.
As someone who says, "Screw business as usual", he has created businesses unusual among the 40 companies the Virgin Group runs across 35 countries. Today, he can take you to the deepest point in the ocean and the Earth's orbit.
“Making space travel affordable” was Richard Branson’s biggest dream at the time of this interview with Young Turks in 2012. Cut to 2021, Branson is almost there. For entrepreneurs looking for Branson's advice on life, as always, he is the anti-embodiment of all sayings, particularly this one: The sky is the limit.
In this Young Turks Archives edition, watch the Virgin Group founder discuss his philosophy, lessons from piloting the Virgin conglomerate and a whole lot more!
Shereen Bhan:
How do you introduce a man who started his first business venture when he was just 16? How do you introduce a man who's gone on to create over 400 different companies across diverse sectors? How do you introduce a man who's tried to travel the world in a hot air balloon? How do you introduce a man who can take you to the deepest points of any of the five oceans in the world? Or give you a ticket into space? How do you introduce a man who believes in sticking it to the big ones? I won't even bother attempting to introduce him to you because anything that I say will sound clichéd, and perhaps a tad boring. So ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Richard Branson.
Thank you very much for joining us here, Richard.
Richard Branson: Lovely to see you again.
Shereen Bhan: Let me start by asking you about the question that everybody in India wants an answer to. Is Richard Branson going to buy into an Indian aviation company, now that the rules have been changed? Are you going to be the white knight that comes in and saves any of our beleaguered Indian airline companies?
Richard Branson: Sadly, I think, not immediately. I think we are just starting to fly to Mumbai. That's something we're starting from tomorrow from London. We already do Delhi to London. But, I think that at the moment, there seems to be an over-capacity in the Indian aviation market that is hurting all the airlines. I think that, sadly, it looks like that one or two of those airlines may die, which sometimes is necessary - in the forest for the trees that are not as efficient as other trees to, to die and make room for others. Maybe one day. Now that the rules are changed, we might partner up with somebody.
Shereen Bhan: Has anybody reached out to you, by the way?
Richard Branson: I think it's been fairly apparent in the press, that there are people who would like a “virgin” to come and marry up with them. But, we are not in any specific talks. I hope for the sake of the employees of some of these companies that there is a white knight that comes and saves them. But, it could be that it's necessary for one or two of these companies to disappear. And, hopefully, for those employees to get jobs in other companies. I know that we've taken on quite a few people recently, from one particular company that's in trouble.
Shereen Bhan: Do you believe that it's the death of the full-service airline as well? Do you believe that it is going to be a market of low-cost airlines only here in India?
Richard Branson: I think there's always going to be a market for a quality airline. I hope so. Because, Virgin isn't a for-quality airline.
Shereen Bhan: Do you think one of the common mistakes that people make, and not just in the aviation business but across businesses, is the obsession with the front-end and not enough thought goes into the back-end? And, actually aligning the front-end with the back-end. Do you believe that is one of the biggest entrepreneurial mistakes?
Richard Branson: Yeah, if the majority of your customers are going to be travelling in your economy-class cabins, it's extremely unwise not to look after them. About 20 years ago, we were the first airline to put seat-back videos into all our economy-class seats. We were about six years ahead of anybody else.
Shereen Bhan: But, that's what a lot of people in India attempted to do and they're sitting on a debt of about ₹7,000 crore, currently, for just one airline.
Richard Branson: Most likely it’s a number of different reasons why that particular airline has had problems. And, I don't know, I don't know the exact details.
Shereen Bhan: Yeah, sure.
Richard Branson: But, I don't think having quality for people travelling in economy needs to be a thing of the past. I don't think the airline industry has to just become one big, unpleasant bus service.
Shereen Bhan: Alright. Let me move away from the airline business and talk to you about what else interests you in India. You attempted to come into the mobile market with a joint venture with Tatas. That hasn't gone as per plan is what we're given to understand. What interests you about India? It's one of the fastest growing markets in any of the consumer spaces. What can we expect from the Virgin Group here as far as India is concerned?
Richard Branson: We've looked at and expanded in a lot of other countries around the world. We haven't expanded in India because of the laws that have existed up until now. But going forward, now, there's a lot more flexibility about overseas companies coming and partnering with Indian companies.
Shereen Bhan: But, those are only in specific sectors. Aviation in particular, telecom in particular, but not across the board. I mean, you've got every major multinational...
Richard Branson: Retail.
Shereen Bhan: Retail, now the rules have changed, yes.
Richard Branson: Yeah. But, then of course Indians can come and set up and have done very successfully in the UK. And, most shops I shop in are 100% owned by Indians in the UK. Land Rover - it's 100% owned by an Indian company in the UK. So, anyway, it's a step in the right direction. But, I suspect that for India to become, to really get 100% investment from overseas, it needs to go a bit further.
Shereen Bhan: So, you're only interested if you can come in at 100%?
Richard Branson: We don't mind having partners.
Shereen Bhan: Because, that’s something you’ve done across the world.
Richard Branson: At the Virgin brand, we like to control the brand. We've got 400 companies around the world with the Virgin brand attached to it. The last thing we want is anyone to damage that brand. And therefore having control of the brand is quite important to us. And if you want to set up a business with us, I'm sure we would...
Shereen Bhan: Should I give you a call?
Richard Branson: Of course.
Shereen Bhan: Or any of the young entrepreneurs sitting in this room, should give you a call. But, any areas in specific that you've identified as potential areas that Virgin would like to foray into, with or without a partner.
Richard Branson: See most of my time, these days, is spent setting up not-for-profit charitable ventures and not setting up new businesses. I mean, our team at Virgin are still hungry for new business ventures, but...
Shereen Bhan: Is there really any other virgin territory left that hasn't been co-opted by you?
Richard Branson: Well, there are lots of problems in the world. That's what I’m enjoying spending my time doing now. So, from here I go to Egypt for a meeting of The Elders where they're trying to tackle conflicts in the world. Then, from there I go on to another meeting - something called the Carbon War Room, which is trying to get on top of the problems of global warming. I've had great fun building businesses making lots of money. But, now, I suppose, trying to give back a bit more.
Shereen Bhan: Virgin is Richard Branson. You are the brand. You are the brand ambassador. You are the PR Director. You are this brand. Pretty much what we saw happen with Apple and Steve Jobs. I mean, Steve Jobs was Apple, Apple was Steve Jobs. Is this a challenge that you're thinking about? How do you address this issue? What happens to virgin post-Richard Branson?
Richard Branson: We used to be in the recording business. When one of our recording artists died, the records sold enormous quantities. So, Virgin will be fine. But no, more seriously, I have a tremendous team of people who run Virgin, which frees me up to go and spend more time on the philanthropic side. And, if companies want me to dive in and help out, I will do so and hopefully sprinkle a little bit of magic dust and get a new company off the ground or whatever. I do have two lovely children, Holly and Sam, they have tonnes of personality. They're bright, they're intelligent, they're young, they're-good looking.
Shereen Bhan: So, the succession plan has been put in place?
Richard Branson: If they want to. Holly's just got married. So, we'll have to see how much time children are going to take up. Sam's running his own film company and doing some wonderful film projects. When my balloon bursts, one or the other I'm sure will be very, very capable of keeping the Virgin brand going.
Shereen Bhan: I want to talk to you about the way that you've actually run this business. For you, your motto has always been, “Screw business as usual”. But this whole business of creating a branded venture capitalist model that you've created. What are the limitations of that? Amongst the many lessons that you've learned, in your experience, do you now tend to believe that perhaps less is more?
Richard Branson: Well, I just can't resist a new challenge. That's why, Virgin is unlike any other brand ready in the world, in a sense, and that we become a “way of life” brand. We've taken on the big guys in a lot of different industries. Generally speaking, we seem to have succeeded more often than not. Possibly, if we just specialised in the first company we set out, which was the music industry, we may not have gone bust. But, then most music companies are in real trouble today. One of the reasons we are doing so many different things is I just love the challenge. Why shouldn't we be able to afford to go to space?
Shereen Bhan: Will any of those ventures make money?
Richard Branson: Obviously, some of them are, otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here today. We've been in the airline business for 30 years. Every single one of our competitors, bar one, that's about 18 different competitors, they've all gone bust. Virgin has survived because it offers a great product.
Shereen Bhan: One of the criticisms of this strategy of yours has been that people don't really know what the Virgin brand stands for, because you're spread out across so many diverse sectors. Is that something that you worry about? Is that something that you think about? And the fact of overextension of the brand diluting the brand? And the fact that some of these businesses may go bust, And then the tag of failure, gets attached to the family brand?
Richard Branson: Well, we've never had a company go bust. We never plan to have a company go bust. I actually think that people really do know what Virgin stands for. We’re generally, at any poll, voted either the most respected brand in the world, or the second most respected. Maybe sometimes Apple beats us, but anyway, we're up to the top three of the most respected brands in the world. I think that's because each individual company that we build, we're the best in the field.
Shereen Bhan: But, when something doesn't work the way that you hoped it would, how difficult is the decision to divest? How difficult is the decision to exit? How difficult is it then to say, “No, enough!”?
Richard Branson: It's certainly difficult. You have to be quite strong. I will give you an example. We were flying to Mumbai, four years ago, and we hadn't got the right slots at Heathrow. We were losing quite a lot of money on it. We said, “Okay, we'll pull off Mumbai until we get the right slots at Heathrow.” We've now got the right slots at Heathrow - excuse for another party - we're back again. Hopefully this time, we will stay forever. But, if we find we were wrong in our calculations, we are willing to retrench on occasions. If you don't retrench on occasions, you can actually destroy a company. So, you've got to make some tough decisions on occasions.
Shereen Bhan: Your efforts currently are about giving back to society. The raging debate on whether the current structure of capitalism actually works or not, and that debate is on in India, there’s allegations and a lot of talk about crony capitalism, Britain has faced it as well. How do you respond to that? And do you believe that, whether it's corporate India or corporates in Britain or corporates in America, the way that business has been run has actually created this wall of resentment that we're now seeing? What needs to change, to your mind?
Richard Branson: There's no question that a few greedy bankers let the world down big time and the world is still coming out of a fairly lengthy recession, as a result. But I don't think every other entrepreneur and business person needs to feel bad about that. Recently, I launched a book called ‘Screw Business As Usual’, which is basically to say to business leaders and entrepreneurs worldwide, “We can't just leave all the problems of the world to governments to solve. We can't leave it to social workers to solve. We are entrepreneurs. We know how to look at problems in a different way, maybe different than social workers and governments. So, let's make sure that every single business in the world adopts a problem or adopts a number of problems.
Shereen Bhan: Should that be legislated? Should that be mandated by governments? Because that's the attempt or the experiment that we're trying to attempt here in India.
Richard Branson: I think it would be much better if it came from the hearts of the people who are running companies. Because I think then the employees will feel proud of the companies they work for. And I think companies can - if they work with governments and the social sector - we will get on top.
Shereen Bhan: The problem sometimes is that companies work too closely with the governments.
Richard Branson: Not in the UK, maybe in India. But, I don't think that's a big problem. I think that capitalism is the only system that works. I mean, every other system has been tried. It's great to see all these budding entrepreneurs try to come up with new ideas out of creating new jobs, which is what is going to get everybody back to work and going to fuel the economy. But, all I'm saying, and I think this is all that's necessary, is let's make sure that if they're fortunate enough to be successful, that they use that wealth, responsibly, constructively and not just, you know, bigger, bigger and bigger this and bigger, bigger, bigger that for their personal families.
Shereen Bhan: Since we're talking about making a difference and you were talking about “screwing business as usual”, if I were to ask you what are the top five things that you would recommend to young entrepreneurs who are getting started with scaling up at this point in time, what would you suggest they do?
Richard Branson: Find really great people to come and work with. And make sure that they 100% believe in what you're trying to do. Be somebody who's really good at motivating people, be somebody who's good at praising people. Don't jump down the throat of people, don't criticise people. Get a real family team around you. Be willing to use yourself to get out there and market it.
Shereen Bhan: Like yourself.
Richard Branson: Yeah, you know, make a fool of yourself.
Shereen Bhan: What is it like living the life of Richard Branson, living the life where you're being chased, headlines are chasing you wherever you go, people talk about this flamboyant lifestyle? Are you really like that?
Richard Branson: It depends on the definition of flamboyant. I've been together with the same lady for 34 years, I've got two wonderful children, we've got lots of great friends. That gives me that sort of solid, solid grounding. I just live the most fantastic life and it's just full of variety. Whether it's setting up new businesses, tackling problems in the world, embarking on a new adventure.
So what is the new adventure likely to be? What is the next big dream that Richard Branson has?
Richard Branson: We're just about finished building a submarine to get to the deepest trenches in the Atlantic, as a starter.
Shereen Bhan: How do you come up with all this stuff? Do you just wake up at night and say, “I want to go to the deepest end of the ocean”. And tomorrow, get the team organised. And, “Hey, guys, let's think about this.”
Richard Branson: Well, I am an Oceanic Elder and what we, the Oceanic Elders, are doing is trying to protect the species and the oceans, because there's enormous danger that some of the species are going to disappear. So, I realise only two people have been below 20,000 feet. Yet the oceans go down to 38,000 feet. There's a lot to explore down there. There’s Spanish galleons and English galleons. So, anyway, I just thought it would be fun to try to give it a go.
Shereen Bhan: Alright, I'm going to take questions from the audience.
Rahul Kumar: What's the next biggest dream of Richard Branson, and the company would like to have?
Richard Branson: Space travel is certainly the biggest thing I've ever dreamt about. I decided that to write out a check to the Russians of $60 million to go into space was not really achieving anything. I'd feel a bit bad about it. So, I thought, “Rather than doing that, let's try to build our own spaceship”. And, now we're building this much bigger spaceship which will be ready hopefully next year.
Shereen Bhan: How many tickets sold already?
Richard Branson: We've got about 550 tickets.
Shereen Bhan: Including Angelina Jolie, I believe.
Richard Branson: Yeah, she might be coming. If anybody wants to get rid of any mother-in-laws, we can do one-way tickets.
The challenge for Virgin is to do what we do with other industries with the space industry. And that is, make it affordable for not you lot in this room, like you've done quite well already with your businesses. But, for the teacher who wants to go to space, or a journalist or somebody on a basic salary. I think that 20 years from now, maybe 15 years from now, hundreds of thousands of people will be able to have the chance of becoming astronauts.
Abhishek Chakroborty: Young entrepreneurs who dream big, they have to learn to deal with failure as much as they need to deal with success. So in your experience, what would you say, is a good way to deal with and negotiate that path?
Richard Branson: If you have a failure, just pick yourself up and try again and keep trying until you succeed. You often need your family and your friends to support you through it. You need society not to overly criticise you in the press, not to overly criticise people who are in that situation because otherwise people won't try.
Raghuvir Srinivasan: I just want to ask you how difficult a position it was for you to sell off your first venture Virgin Records? How emotional a decision? What did you feel when you had to sell it off to build up your airline business?
Richard Branson: Yeah, it's a good question. I mean, I think, selling a company is not easy because you’re selling people. With your first business, you're particularly attached to it. I have to admit, having just told the staff that we'd had to sell the record company in order to protect the airline, I ended up running off down the street with tears streaming down my face, hoping nobody was watching. I ran past a sign that said, “Branson sells for a billion dollars”. I thought, “If anybody sees me crying, and the billion dollars didn't seem to add up somewhat there”. But, I think sometimes you have to make difficult decisions in life and using that money from selling that first business, we wouldn't be going into space today. We've created hundreds and tens of thousands of jobs since.
Shereen Bhan: Richard Branson, I believe when you graduated from school, your headmaster said, “I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionaire”. Did you go back and visit him ever?
Richard Branson: I did. We became actually quite good friends afterwards. And I think he got both things right. I spent a night in prison once. I don't recommend it. I think everybody should spend one in prison. That's actually a good way to make sure that you don't want to spend more than one night in prison.
Shereen Bhan: Excellent. Richard Branson, it's a pleasure talking to you. We thank you very much for joining us here on CNBC TV-18 and we wish you the very best with the next big Branson dream.
Richard Branson: Thanks very much indeed.
Transcriptions by: Arunima Rao
Arunima Rao interned with Young Turks from April to June 2021
Twitter: @_arunimarao

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