This Is Richard Branson’s Number One Piece of Advice
As famous for his death-defying stunts as for successfully running hundreds of companies over the past 50 years, Richard Branson has one of the best stories in business—which he tells in his new book, Finding My Virginity. He sat down with Fortune’s Anne VanderMey to talk about his plans to go to space, the airline industry, and whether he’s on a collision course with Elon Musk.
Is there a key lesson that people should draw from your career trajectory?
Well, I’ve never pulled in the accountants and said, “If we go into space can we make a lot of money? If we start an airline can we make a lot of money?” Because I know that if you went to two separate accounting firms, you’d get a big bill, and one would say, “Great idea,” while the other would say, “Terrible idea.” What I’ve learned is, Screw it, just do it.
I don’t have business plans. I mean, I have a back-of-the-envelope idea of what I want to do. Just make sure that your product is better than anyone else’s out there.
Virgin America recently sold to Alaska Air against your wishes [for $2.6 billion plus assumed debts and obligations]. Are you done with U.S. air travel?
I don’t normally give up. If we see a gap in the market you may well see us back again. As I say, watch this space. But anyway, the money that we got was not inconsiderable. We’re building cruise ships, we’re building new ventures, there’s the Hyperloop [transportation system]. So it won’t go to waste.
Speaking of the Hyperloop—between that and Virgin Galactic, your companies seem to have a lot of overlap with Elon Musk’s. What is he like as a competitor?
We haven’t gone completely head to head so far. Elon is interested in sending people to Mars. We are more interested in our earth that we live on. We will overlap, and he will be a formidable competitor. But, you know, like in most businesses there’s room for the two of us. There’s room for Jeff Bezos and in time there will be room for others as well.
Is it true you weathered Hurricane Irma on Necker Island in your wine cellar?
Yes, so you don’t have to take too much pity on us.
What is one thing that you hate?
Anybody who’s living in the White House.
What is the best piece of advice that you give entrepreneurs?
As a leader you’ve got to praise a lot. You’ve got to be a good listener. You’ve got to write notes and listen and then do something about it. You’ve got to inspire your team to believe in what you’re doing. If you can’t do that, you’re doing the wrong thing, I think.
A version of this article appears in the Dec. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Richard Branson’s Best Advice.”