What single emotion spurs people to start successful companies? It's not inspiration or passion or confidence. According to Sir Richard Branson, the 68-year-old founder of Virgin Group, which controls about 400 companies, here's the sentiment you need: Frustration.

"You often spot opportunities from personal frustration," Branson told the audience at the Qualtrics X4 Experience Management Summit last week. To illustrate, he explained how Virgin Atlantic got its start. "I was 28, in Puerto Rico, trying to get to the Virgin Islands, and the pilot announced we had to wait until the next day." Why? Simply because the flight didn't have enough passengers, and so it was canceled.

That left Branson one highly dissatisfied customer. "I had a beautiful lady waiting for me, and I was damned if I would wait till the next day," he recalled. There was only one alternative--hire a chartered plane. Now, Branson is a billionaire today, but at the time, Virgin Records was still establishing itself, having signed some little known or controversial artists, such as the Sex Pistols. According to some reports, Branson didn't really have enough money to charter a plane. But, as he told the audience, "One of my favorite 
phrases is, 'Screw it, let's do it!'" 

Of course, "Screw it, let's do it," has gotten Branson into a number of sticky situations, for instance when he attempted to cross the Pacific in a hot air balloon and wound up in Antarctica instead of Los Angeles (he almost died), or more recently when he was badly injured in a spectacular bicycle accident while training for the 2016 Virgin Strive Challenge, in which he and a group of other triathletes ran, swam, hiked, and cycled from the base of the Matterhorn to the top of Mount Etna. 

In this case, "Screw it, let's do it" led the young Branson to go ahead and charter the plane, so he could get to his lady love. Once he'd committed to the charter, he borrowed a blackboard, wrote "Virgin Airlines, one-way Virgin Islands $39" on it, and went around to the other passengers of his canceled flight. "And I filled my first plane," he said.

A record company and an airline?

A lot of people would have left it at that, especially if they were already busy building what was to become the world's largest independent record label. In fact, most VCs and entrepreneurship experts would have counseled Branson to stick with what he knew--he had his hands full, what with Sid Vicious and all. But after he filled that flight, Branson began pondering the nightmare that was air travel. In those days airlines didn't care that much about fulfilling their commitments to passengers, he said, and they would regularly oversell flights and then bump people off them.

Branson was sure he could do better. So--"Screw it, let's do it"--he decided to buy a secondhand airplane and give it a try. He called a Boeing executive and said, "I'm Richard Branson, will you sell me a 747?" 

"He said, 'Who are you?'" Branson recalled.

"I said, 'I have Virgin Records and the Sex Pistols.'"

"He said, 'As long as you don't call it Virgin, because people will assume your airline won't go the whole way.'"

Of course, Branson did call his airline Virgin, and the rest is history. The airline differentiated itself by putting screens in seatbacks before any other airline did, and providing standup bars on its flights. When British Airways tried to force the upstart out of business using underhanded tactics such as falsely telling passengers that its flights were canceled, Branson sued for libel and won $945,000--which he distributed to the airline's employees. It was reportedly known as "the BA Christmas bonus." 

"All a business is is a group of people," he explained. "You can have five airlines, and they all have 747s, but what will differentiate them is the people. So we do everything we can to make sure we have the happiest group of people working for us." (Virgin sold Virgin America, which mainly operated between West Coast cities, to Alaska Airlines in 2016, and the brand was retired in 2018. But Virgin Atlantic is alive and well.)

What frustrations are inspiring Branson to consider starting new companies these days? Well, there's rail travel, which leaves a lot to be desired. And then there are cruises. Branson is an avid world traveler, but he had never set foot on a cruise ship. "I'd never dream of going on a cruise," he said. "And we said, what if we could create the kind of cruise ship myself and our friends would like to go on?" The result of this thinking is Virgin Voyages--the company has the word "cruises" crossed out on its website. It promises "no kids, no buffets, and no limits." Its first voyages are planned for spring of 2020. Who knows what frustration Branson might tackle next?

Published on: Mar 18, 2019
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