Richard Branson's Virgin Group is worth more than $7 billion. His empire comprises more than 400 companies. And a big reason for its success, Branson says, is his unshakeable--and sometimes mischievous--sense of adventure.
At Imagination Day, part of the Tribeca Film Festival, Branson recalled that in 1985, a colleague suggested that he try to set the record for the fastest transatlantic boat trip. Branson couldn't say no. Months later, aboard the 65-foot Virgin Atlantic Challenger, the entrepreneur and his crew made it three-plus days into the journey before disaster hit. While traveling at a high speed, they hit an object floating below the surface and capsized 100 miles short of the English shore.
The bright side, Branson joked, was that when news footage showed the wrecked boat bobbing in the water, the word "Virgin" was visible on the hull.
A year later, Branson's boat successfully completed the journey and shattered the previous world record by more than two hours.
"Saying yes is a lot more fun than saying no," Branson said at Tuesday's event. "It's gotten me into a lot of trouble, and certainly nearly killed me on many occasions. But if I didn't have that spirit in me, Virgin wouldn't be a global brand."
Branson's Virgin Group began with a record shop he opened with a partner in 1970. The company now consists of music, travel, financial services, and communication companies, among others.
That sense of adventure led him to found space tourism company Virgin Galactic in 2004 with the goal of providing commercial spaceflight. In October 2014, the company's SpaceShipTwo broke up in flight due to a pilot error. One pilot was killed and the other was severely injured. Soon after, Branson expressed his sadness but stated that space flight was still worth the risk.
At Tuesday's event, Branson also recalled his most explosive publicity stunt on behalf of his now-defunct Virgin Cola. With the brand gaining traction in the mid-'90s and looking to challenge Coca-Cola for global soft-drink domination, Branson decided to drive a Virgin-emblazoned tank through Times Square and crush 300 tons of Coke cans. His team rigged pyrotechnics to a Coca-Cola sign to make it look like the tank had successfully shot and blown up the advertisement.
Coca-Cola responded swiftly. Several years later, Branson says, he learned that the Goliath company had set up a "SWAT team" to ensure Virgin Cola never caught on, discounting its product below what Virgin could afford and threatening to pull its product from stores that sold Virgin. Branson's beverage lost its momentum and later went belly up.
Still, the entrepreneur knows that Virgin has benefited from his willingness to try what others won't. "My greatest fear," Branson says, "is saying no to something and regretting it."