While hopefully you will never find yourself in a life-or-death situation, if you ever do, just know that an entrepreneurial background can definitely help increase your chances of survival.

At least it did for Richard Branson.

Richard faces a number of perilous moments in the excellent documentary Don't Look Down, the story of his transoceanic hot air balloon voyages that is now playing in theaters and available on VOD. (Here's my review of the movie.)

And here's my conversation with Richard about the movie, and branding, and how he feels his entrepreneurial experiences gave him the ability to stay focused when he needed to most.

No one had ever crossed the Atlantic in a balloon. How did you develop the trust in Per Lindstrand (his co-pilot) and the rest of the team, since no one had "been there, done that"?

It's a very good question. [pauses]

Partly it was learning about Per's experiences and achievements to date. As I said in the film, he had a couple of children and if he was going to put his life on the line, he would certainly be careful about it. And partly it was a real desire to do it despite an inner voice saying, "This is, maybe, quite foolish."

And partly it was the "screw it, just do it" attitude I've had all my life.

That's a great segue to the moment in the Atlantic crossing when Per has jumped in the water and you're floating back up into the clouds and thinking about jumping. Many people would have panicked but you had the presence of mind to realize that you had the world's biggest parachute above you and could use it to come down safely. Where does the ability to think clearly in a crisis come from?

Years of being an entrepreneur; I started when I was 15 years old, and this happened in my early 30s. Having to face calamity as an entrepreneur, having to fight to survive--that type of concentration of having to deal with survival quite a bit in my entrepreneurial years, to be calm under fire--all of that helped me.

But interestingly in that particular case, my dyslexia also helped save my life. If I hadn't been dyslexic, I would have confidently jumped and used the parachute and probably pulled the wrong cord. [During parachute training, Richard pulled the wrong cord and was saved at the last second when one of his trainers grabbed his secondary chute cord.]

Maybe being dyslexic helped me to not be too cocky, to not think I knew everything. That also made me think hard. So the combination of not thinking I knew everything, and knowing how to stay calm under fire from my entrepreneurial experiences, was critical.

It could seem that you take on adventures to grow your brand and your businesses. I think the two go hand in hand: You also see startups as adventures, and your businesses support your adventures just as much as your adventures support your businesses.

If I hadn't owned an airline, I still would have done the balloon trip. Once I got involved, I may not have flown in it if it had had "British Airways" on the side, but pretty much anything other than "British Airways," I would have done it.

I had to argue to the taxman that it was purely for commercial purposes, of course. [laughs]

So it was the adventure that was irresistible, basically, but there was the by-product that Virgin as a brand became an adventurous brand, a sexy brand, and I think some of these adventures did actually help with that. Today Virgin is one of the better known brands in the world. It punches quite a long way above its weight compared to its turnover and profits.

I had a lot of fun, incredible adventures, and the by-product from a branding point of view was positive as well.

Many brands start with a clear identity, but when the company grows past a certain level it loses the ability to connect with the original brand. Since you were always doing something different, something that hadn't been done before, your brand could always grow with you.

We've gone into a lot of different sectors, shaking up a lot of different industries, but we're not the biggest in any sector, so we're pretty much always the challenger brand.

In America, we have Virgin America, the challenger brand taking the big guys on, delivering a much better product and winning more awards, and enhancing the Virgin brand.

Virgin Hotels Chicago have just been voted the "Best Hotel in America" by doing things differently. We are building Virgin Cruises and will launch in Miami and will be completely and utterly different from any other cruise ship company--very Virgin.

Virgin Galactic--that's very different, bringing a sexiness to the space industry and enabling people to be able to dream about and possibly go to space.

So because we're not just specializing in one area, because we're not dominant in one area, that has also kept the brand alive.

Some people who have near-death experiences come out the other side changed. Yet your experiences did not stop you from tackling new adventures. Let's take the trans-Atlantic flight: once you had landed, what was in your head?

Enormous relief at surviving. A feeling of never wanting to go near a balloon ever again in my life.

But it's funny how quickly one forgets these horrendous moments. Not forget, but put them in the back of your mind.

Overriding all of that is my "Dr. Yes" mentality; I'm known as someone who can't say no, and the idea of having learned everything we had learned from the Atlantic flight, of having the capabilities to build a balloon that could cross the Pacific, well, the idea of then watching somebody else cross the Pacific on my television from home rather than being in the balloon doing it myself was even more difficult to imagine than getting back in the balloon.

So, yes, very foolish, but it worked out.

During the Pacific flight, you released what should have been one empty tank and a malfunction caused several to fall, including two full tanks. Yet in the movie you don't look as scared as I would have thought.

I was scared. It was a ghastly feeling. Inside, I knew something terrible had gone wrong. In the capsule, we were at such an angle that Per's down there and I'm up here. I'm an inexperienced balloonist so I didn't know what had gone wrong, and even Per didn't quite know what had gone wrong.

The moment he said, "We've lost half our fuel," I knew we were facing certain death, and bursting into tears or collapsing does not help. When you're spending what you think are the last 30 or 40 hours of one's life, you've just got to do everything you can to fight to survive.

Because of my entrepreneurial experiences, I possibly coped with that situation a bit better than Per did at the time. Of course, he had also been awake a bit longer and was worn out and it hit him hard, but, as is very clear in the film, he was also as sharp as anything when he needed to be.

It's an interesting study of complementary skills and personalities, and how one person picks the other up at different times, and how that creates a lifelong bond.

We went on to do four other massive balloon trips after that with just as much drama. Unfortunately, we lost a lot of the footage because it sank in the Pacific.

Per has a lot of skills and attributes that I don't have, and we bonded together very well. But yes, Per and I were complete opposites. We talked a lot about that on the transglobal flight.

Per once said, "Why do you think you're so successful and some other people aren't quite as successful?" I said, "I just think you have to be much more positive in everything you do."

I'm quite a positive person, always looking for the best in everything in life, and genuinely believe that a positive attitude can actually help bring you success.

Published on: Nov 14, 2016
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