There are at least five ways an entrepreneur can be seen as important -- not just significant, not just noteworthy, not just successful -- but genuinely important.
He, or in each case she, can enjoy tremendous commercial success; his products or services must not just be widely adopted, they must also make money.
His company's products and services -- and the company itself -- can enjoy popular and critical acclaim. He can change an industry; not just "disrupt" (whatever that means) a model, but fundamentally change how other companies operate.
His perspectives and guiding principles can serve as the model thousands of entrepreneurs aspire to embrace.
In fact, he can become a celebrity in his own right, resulting in nearly everything he says carrying weight simply because he said it.
And that makes Richard Branson the most important entrepreneur of our lifetime (and not just because we're best friends.)
For starters, Branson is the quintessential entrepreneur. He started a magazine when he was sixteen, a mail order record business when he was twenty, opened a chain of record stores when he was twenty-two... and went on to create Virgin Records, Virgin Airlines, Virgin Express, Virgin Mobile, Virgin Money, Virgin Hotels, Virgin Fuel, Virgin Cruises, Virgin Galactic... He's not as wealthy as Gates or Bezos or Zuckerberg -- only in that company does $5 billion pale -- but the breadth of his entrepreneurial interests are staggering.
And, for decades, his ventures have earned popular and critical acclaim. The first time in the late 80s that I flew Virgin Air was the last time I wanted to fly any other airline; just last year, Virgin Hotels Chicago was voted the #1 hotel in the U.S.
I don't remember anyone trumpeting the merits of, say, Windows 8.
When Virgin enters an industry, existing players have to respond. While by his own admission, "We're not the biggest in any sector, so we're pretty much always the challenger brand," Virgin brands tend to deliver better products and win more awards -- which, in aggregate, helps to enhance the entire Virgin brand. Take Virgin Airlines, a relatively small player with outsize influence: Better service, on-flight amenities, entertainment options, reclining seats -- customer expectations rapidly escalated, at least for a time.
Branson is also that rare entrepreneur who can turn an everyday statement into an ethos. In college a friend would grab a fresh bottle of MD 20/20, "the original ready to drink" wine (as if other wines require extensive preparation before drinking.) He loved to toss away the cap and yell, "Screw it. Let's do it!" (Yep: Throw away the cap and you have to finish the bottle.) Inspiring? Hardly.
Yet Branson says, "Screw it, let's do it," and entrepreneurs everywhere are inspired to throw caution to the wind, toss away their Plan Bs, and go all in on their dreams.
And then there's this. He crossed the Atlantic and then the Pacific in hot air balloons. He broke the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing in a boat. He kite surfed across the English Channel.
Many people assume that Branson's adventures (if you're cynical, you call them "stunts") to grow his brand and his businesses. Actually the two always went hand in hand: Branson see startups as adventures, and uses his businesses to support his adventures -- just as he uses his adventures to support his businesses. Where most incredibly successful entrepreneurs achieve that success through a maniacal focus on business alone -- where the work-life balance ratio is nearly all work, no life -- to Branson, work-life balance is an irrelevant concept.
For him, it's just life.
No other entrepreneur has made more money, and received more acclaim, and impacted more industries, and become a brand simply for what he stands for, and shown that it is possible to live a life filled with adventure, fulfillment, family, philanthropy, meaning... and a tremendous amount of fun.
For all the examples Branson has set, that last point may be the most important example of all.