What's it take to be a big thinker? The famed entrepreneur talks big ideas and even bigger challenges.
If you were to create a comic-strip version of Sir Richard Branson, the thought balloon would take up the entire page. The man may never have had a small idea. Perhaps the only person who can say "been there, done that" about both an airline and a railroad, Branson is now working his way through a to-do list that includes ferrying people into space (Virgin Galactic), traveling to the deepest parts of the world's five oceans (Virgin Oceanic), and ridding the atmosphere of 25 gigatons of carbon (the Carbon War Room). Branson sat down in Virgin USA's New York office with Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan to talk about ambitious ventures--his own and others'.
Can you start out in life pursuing audacious ventures, or do you need to build reputation, relationships, and resources first? I think everybody who creates something is doing something audacious. Because the most difficult time is when you are starting from scratch with no financial backing--just an idea. So true audaciousness comes about with just those people who have the pluck and the courage to say, "Screw it; let's do it." To answer your question more directly: Can you do something absolutely extraordinary with your first venture? I suppose the answer has to be yes. I am great friends with Larry Page and Sergey Brin from Google. Larry got married on my island, and I was talking to his teacher from college. He said Larry came to him with three ideas when he was thinking of leaving school early. All three were as audacious as they come. But he said to Larry, "I think you should try that Google thing first." That was pretty damn audacious.
To what extent do you pursue very ambitious projects because it is in your interest to do so? And to what extent do you do it because they capture your imagination? It's mainly because something captures my imagination. I very, very rarely will go into a business because I think I'm going to make money out of it. What I see is a situation where I think we can really make a difference to other people's lives. But there is often more than one reason why people do things. With [Virgin Green Fund], I'd been concerned about the potential damage global warming could do to the world. So we have pledged to spend the profits from our airline business and try to develop clean fuels. And companies we've invested in have developed clean fuels, which one day will power our planes and other people's planes. And I think those companies will do extraordinarily well.
Do you think about risk differently when you approach a particularly ambitious idea? Take the space program as an example. If you're a government-run space program and you have a disaster, you can afford to most likely get through that disaster and keep going. If you're a private company and you have a disaster in a space program, it could do major damage to the program. NASA loses 3 percent of all the people it puts into space. A private program can't afford to lose anybody.
Which kinds of obstacles do you find most frustrating and difficult to overcome? Regulatory issues can be painful. It would be lovely if America, for example, was absolutely clear cut about, "let's be oil independent. Let's wean ourselves off dirty fuels. Let's say by 2020." Set the target. Get rid of the subsidies for dirty fuels. Help kick-start the clean-fuel industry. You would get there. And if the governments around the rest of the world behaved like that, we'd get the problem sorted. Equally, though, good regulators can be incredibly helpful. With our space program, you've got regulators who have limited the lawsuits that can take place with private space-flight companies. That's allowed us to take bold steps. If you treated the spaceship industry like the airline industry, we could be killed overnight by one lawsuit. So good regulators can really help.
A few years ago, you launched the Carbon War Room. You also started a war room to grapple with disease in Africa. Talk about the metaphor of the war room. The name has been heavily debated. I've got people who work with me who think I was absolutely wrong insisting on calling it the Carbon War Room. In my lifetime, we've embarked on three wars--Vietnam, Iraq, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Afghanistan--that were all dreadful mistakes. But this is exactly what we say it is. It is a war on carbon. It is not a war on people; it is a war that would benefit people.
Have you ever encountered a challenge you dismissed as simply too daunting? My first book was called Losing My Virginity. I nearly called it Talking Ahead of Yourself. Because I sometimes think in life you've got to dream big by setting yourself seemingly impossible challenges. You then have to catch up with them. You can make what people believe is impossible possible if you set big enough targets. Flying from New York to Australia in, say, two hours. Can we do it in our lifetimes? I'm determined to try. If you don't dream, nothing happens. And we like to dream big.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan