Friday, December 28, 2012

Richard Branson on Being Richard Branson

It’s a typical Wednesday for Sir Richard Branson -- and enough to make his 2.7 million Twitter followers tired just from following along. Fresh off a lavish gala in New York, where he walked the red carpet with the likes of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and actress Olivia Wilde and collected a Conde Nast Traveler Visionary Award for his work with ocean conservation, he boards one of his own planes for a Virgin America Instagram promotion, serves a tray of mimosas to surprised passengers, and grabs a quick nap en route to San Francisco, where he’s the marquee speaker at Salesforce’s annual conference for some 90,000 attendees. After that, it’s back to JFK, a stop in London to compete in a triathlon, and then on to Finland for a conference.

It’s a question for any entrepreneur who’s reached a certain level of success, but for the 62-year-old iconic founder of Virgin Group, one has to wonder, “What possibly keeps this guy going?”

Indeed, the British billionaire, who helped make Virgin a household name in everything from records to air travel, has crossed the Atlantic in a speedboat, circled the globe in a hot-air balloon (well, almost), and routinely swims with sharks and whales. When he does pause to catch his breath, it’s on his own island. The Virgin portfolio now includes some 400 companies, with revenues of $21 billion, and the aggressive expansion continues, including a foray into hotels. Then there’s Virgin Galactic, his effort to commercialize space travel, and Virgin Oceanic, which plans to send a sub to the deepest parts of the world’s oceans. Over the years, not every project has taken off (remember Virgin Cola?), but he’s certainly had more hits than misses since starting a magazine at the age of 16.

While Branson remains the very public, often mischievous face of the brand, he spends most of his time these days focusing on philanthropic efforts, including Virgin Unite, his foundation; the Elders, a group of world leaders, including Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter, that champions peace and human rights; and B Team, his newest initiative, which gathers business leaders like Puma Chairman Jochen Zeitz to focus on corporate social responsibility.

But Branson also remembers his startup days fondly, and frequently imparts a little wisdom from his journey to millions of fellow entrepreneurs around the world. Most are drawn not to his billions, but to a can-do spirit that has earned him the nickname Dr. Yes. We recently caught up with Branson -- at 35,000 feet, where else? -- for a candid conversation about mistakes made, lessons learned, and how to keep the entrepreneurial fire burning after all these years.

Edited interview excerpts follow.