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I’d Like to Buy a Used 747, Please (or Lessons from Sir Richard)

Sir Richard Branson came to the Upper West Side last night and did not disappoint. In conversation with Adam Sorkin, New York Times columnist and wunderkind in his own right, Sir Richard appeared disarmingly open about all things Virgin. We left, most of us with books in hand, with a slightly updated spin on some of the secret sauce of entrepreneurship and feeling a little bit of hope for what may come.

Stay Relevant

Branson is on tour for his latest autobiography, “Finding My Virginity,” which covers the years since “Losing My Virginity,” 1999 and forward. These years are full of diversification for Virgin, and that in and of itself is one of the secrets.

In the book, Branson talks about how he likes to keep a lot of things in motion at once, often borrowing ideas from one company (There are currently approximately 400 under the Virgin umbrella.) for another.

But last night’s lesson centered on how Virgin would probably not be in business today if it were not so experimental in nature, and so responsive to whatever current perceived need he and the company respond to. Which leads us to the next point.

Fill the gaps

This is, of course, Entrepreneurship 101. Identify a need in the marketplace and fill it. But Branson puts a humorous spin on this by talking about how some Virgin businesses were born out of his own crankiness, something that was bothering him personally.

He got bumped off a flight to the British Virgin Islands one year, chartered a place in frustration, sold the remaining seats to other stranded passengers, and the idea for Virgin Airlines was born. It wasn’t just that flight but the way the airlines were treating people those days. He knew they could do it better. So, he called up the president of Boeing and asked if he had an used 747's for sale.

He didn’t like the design of hotel rooms and the way most chains treat their customers, so there came Virgin Hotels. He didn't like being charged so much for his monthly phone calls, so he started Virgin Mobile. And so the stories go.

Some of the businesses reflect more significant societal gaps than commercial ones, although they may be related.

Aim High

The race for space is laden with controversy and has heretofore been monopolized by a very few countries, but Branson is clear about his goals for Virgin Galactic (or Galactic Ventures as the group is known).

  • Small satellite launch to connect those people still not part of existing networks

  • Democratize space travel by opening it to those countries (over half that are currently signed up) that have not yet made it into space

  • Enable more people to view Earth from space, which many have described as a life-changing experience, usually associated with a perception of a more united Earth (diminished borders) the beauty of which Branson feels will help contribute toward further sustainability.

Do what you are good at

When Sorkin challenged Branson on his technical ability vis a vis the space projects ("You're not exactly technical."), Branson said what we all knew.

Perhaps what I’m good at is inspiring people.


"The fact that I can’t change a spark plug doesn’t mean I can’t go into space." Amen to that.

Put yourself to better use

Of his philanthropic and humanitarian pursuits, Branson explained:

Once you’ve made more money than you can possibly imagine, you want to put yourself to better use.

Here’s just a couple of the ways he is doing that:

The Elders

Branson and Peter Gabriel brought the idea of a global council of elders to Nelson Mandela in 2007. With the help of Graça Machel and Desmond Tutu, they launched the peace-making organization and have work and are now are engaged in supporting causes ranging from women’s and refugee’s rights to Universal Health Care and managing regional conflict in areas such as Cyprus, the Ivory Coast, and more.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy

The Global Commission was established in 2011 and has grown to now include 10 former heads of state, including former General Secretary of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, among it 24 commissioners. The Commission’s work is based on a major paradigm shift in drug policy away from criminalization and toward public health and access to controlled medicines.

Respond in real time

In real time, as part of the audience Q&A last evening, someone asked for help with getting supplies to Puerto Rico for the relief effort. “Do you have a plane available?” Branson asked the young man if they had anything ready to go in Miami and to see him backstage after the talk.

Keep a notebook in your back pocket

Another question that came up in Q&A was about ideation and tracking different new concepts. Branson mentioned that he keeps a notebook in his back pocket.

Two columns: Good idea and bad idea

Sound advice from a man who has had quite a few ideas in his lifetime.

Links 4 Further Thought


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

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