Business Master Class Print

How to Push Boundaries According to Sir Richard Branson

Written by Chris Metler | Illustration by Thales Molina

HOW TO PUSH BOUNDARIES

By dropping out of high school and establishing his own alternative magazine at the ripe age of 16, it didn’t take Sir Richard Branson beyond adolescence to communicate his aspiration to become an entrepreneur. 

In fact, by the time he was 20, he had gone on to set up a mail-order record business. Two years later, he opened Virgin Records, his chain of record stores.

You probably don’t need to be filled in on the extent to which this once-fledgling Virgin brand swiftly ascended throughout the 1980s, with Branson launching the Virgin Atlantic airline and expanding the Virgin Records music label, then beginning to operate Virgin Trains in the 90s.

Or how, by 2004, he’d founded Virgin Galactic, tasked with developing commercial spacecraft and one day providing suborbital space flights to astro-tourists. Or how, in the present-day, it’s  reckoned his Virgin Group now controls more than 400 companies in various fields.

Or how, along the way, the almost-septuagenarian has continued to advance his status as a global figure. One that, to add, is as closely associated for his pioneering work in retail, music and transport as he is identified by his taste for adventure, as well as humanitarian efforts. 

What does all of this suggest? That the self-made titan likes resting on his laurels? Yeah, right.

Whether through innovation or living outside the box, the British business magnate, investor, author, and philanthropist is clearly someone inclined toward pushing the boundaries. His dazzling résumé and devil-may-care disposition proves it.

But, while Branson himself believes the magic behind his many business triumphs can’t be easily distilled, that certainly doesn’t imply there’s nothing to be learned from his half a century of practical knowledge and professional wisdom.

In speaking to the entrepreneurial troublemaker during a Toronto stopover, we’re discovering that first-hand for ourselves. He’s here to announce that his latest endeavour, Virgin Voyages, will be ready to take to the open waters next spring. 

Yes, not content to have conquered land and air travel alone, and probably outer space in the not-so-distant future, Branson is also out to seize the sea via Virgin’s adults-only and decidedly rebellious luxe cruise experience.

Rather than recite the inspiring platitudes straight out of his bestselling books, Branson is in the mood to instruct.

Class, it seems, is in session.

Lesson number one: pushing the boundaries demands purpose. In Branson’s specific case, that meant ensuring that Virgin became known for challenging the status quo; for taking on industry giants and championing people and the planet. Disruption is in Virgin’s DNA, after all, and changing business for the better is the company’s official motto for good reason.

Simply put, over the last five decades, Branson’s had his share of experiences where he feels things weren’t being done well by others. “It’s simple,” he says. “We only go into businesses where we feel it’s not being done well by other people. Otherwise, there’s no need for us to be there.”

"WHEN WE COME IN AND START SHAKING UP THOSE INDUSTRIES, THEY'LL NEVER BE QUITE THE SAME AGAIN,"

Branson matter-of-factly declares. Make no mistake about it, purpose is critical

Lesson number two: pushing the boundaries not only requires an understanding that your personal and brand reputation aren’t just one and the same, but things you should zealously protect and nurture.

Virgin, of course, is set to celebrate 50 years of business in 2020. And, when thinking of this upcoming golden jubilee, Branson can’t help but correlate Virgin’s success with its dedication to consistency and reliability. 

Ensuring a consistent standard of excellence is crucial. For Branson, that means that flying in a Virgin Atlantic plane will yield the same great experience as being on a Virgin Voyages cruise ship. 

“Those who try a new Virgin product are not necessarily surprised, because they would expect us to come up with something exceptional. But we, therefore, have to come up with something even more exceptional,” he adds. “It’s just doing everything and surprising people in everything you do.”

To that end, a little humour doesn’t hurt, either. “It makes people smile, and if people smile, I think your brand is going to come into focus more,” the renowned jokester insists. Famed for his elaborate pranks and publicity stunts, he categorizes fun as the secret of Virgin’s success, even if it goes right against the grain of convention. “Fun is at the core of the way I like to do business and it has been key to everything I’ve done from the outset,” he once remarked in his book, Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way

Finally, lesson number three: pushing the boundaries takes recognizing what is necessary to be an effective leader. For Branson, that doesn’t just boil down to how you treat people, but your ability to be attentive to them.

“A great leader is somebody that is a good listener, and doesn't spend all this time listening to himself or herself,” he contends, citing this as his top leadership soft skill.

Branson further describes his vision of a great leader as somebody who’s always looking for the best in other people; somebody who praises and doesn’t criticize; somebody who learns the art of delegation; and somebody who gives other people a chance. At the end of the day, there’s only one Richard Branson, which is why he stresses that there’s no blueprint for success—no ingredients or techniques that will guarantee it. 

"BUSINESS IS A FLUID, CHANGING SUBSTANCE."

“Every business, like a painting, operates according to its own rules,” he tells us, repeating what he said in Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur, his dynamic 2010 guide to success in business and in life. “There are many ways to run a successful company. What works once may never work again. What everyone tells you never to do may just work once.”

“To be successful, you have to be out there. You have to hit the ground running. And, if you have a good team around you and more than your fair share of luck, you might make something happen. But you certainly can’t guarantee it just by following someone else’s formula. Business is a fluid, changing substance.”

Still, Branson maintains that far too many people don’t excel in life because they are too afraid of taking the necessary steps to achieve their dreams. Some manifest fear as a safeguard from failure, while others don’t even try, believing that they are restricted by limits.

He’s felt all these pressures, but instead of giving in to them, he decided to ignore them; to treat those limits like they didn’t exist and, you guessed it, by opting to push the boundaries instead.

If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t be where he is today. And if you don’t, you’ll never know where you could be tomorrow.