How Storytelling Helped Richard Branson Become a Billionaire

By Rod Kurtz September 29th, 2015

Virgin’s founder on on taking risks, finding stories, and reading Where the Wild Things Are… to a young couple in bed.

When most people hear the name Sir Richard Branson, they think of the high-flying, big-smiling mogul who’s left his irreverent imprint on the worlds of music, air travel, and a host of other completely unrelated industries—while defying everything you learn in business school in the process.

But few know, or at least recall, that the billionaire Virgin Group founder got his start as a professional storyteller. Yes, in the swinging ’60s, an ambitious teenage Branson dropped out of high school to pursue his magazine venture, Student, an effort to give youth culture a voice and an outlet to protest the Vietnam War at a time when Snapchat and Periscope weren’t readily available.

“To get it started,” Branson once said, “all it took was a few pennies to call advertisers and contributors from the school phone box, a lot of determination, and a bit luck.”

He’s been telling stories ever since. His blog is filled with tales of his exploits—from his attempts to circle the globe in a hot-air balloon to his world-record-breaking trip across the Atlantic in a speedboat—that almost always link back to poignant leadership lessons (or at least a feel-good message about the Virgin brand). He’s penned six books, has been translated into a cartoon character, and has appeared in a James Bond movie. (Quite possibly No. 1 on my own bucket list.)

More than anything, though, he has proven to be a master of modern media. His robust operation creates content for Virgin’s roughly 400 companies and distributes it across myriad owned and outside platforms, from company blogs to The New York Times Syndicate to social destinations like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and, of course, LinkedIn, where his thought leadership has amassed a following nearly twice that of any other influencer. Today, Branson sits atop an outlet with wider reach than many traditional media.

It’s no accident. For years now, I’ve had the pleasure of tagging along for the ride—to New York, London, even Jamaica—as a scribe and friend to the Virgin family. I was there the day he joined Instagram at 35,000 feet on a Virgin America Airbus A320 to San Francisco and served champagne to unsuspecting coach passengers, turning it into a full-fledged hashtag extravaganza (naturally).

What I’ve seen firsthand—as have millions around the globe—is that when Branson tells stories, people listen. Because they’re good stories, yes. But with his plainspoken, “screw it, just do it” delivery, you get the impression he’d be telling the same stories in the same way behind the bar at a quiet London pub.

But like any good barman worth his keep, Branson also listens. A lot. Because when you have over 17 million followers, your platform isn’t just a megaphone, it’s also a sounding board. Therein lies a big lesson for other CEOs.

I recently caught up with Branson to get his take on what makes brand storytelling effective, where many companies go wrong, and why he never leaves the house without… well, you’ll just have to read for yourself.

You were an early and incredibly influential blogger on LinkedIn and continue to top the charts, with more than 8 million followers there alone. What’s your secret—and what benefits have you seen as a result of your posts?

Listening is one of those skills that a leader must have. It is so important to listen to employees, partners, customers, everyone around you. Being a customer is how I felt the pains of getting stranded at an airport and what led me to start my first airline. Putting your ideas out there and getting feedback is a wonderful way to make the most of social media. Listening to feedback that I get from my blog and social media platforms is incredibly helpful and instant. It is an important, intentional, and everyday skill for leaders to get right—and that’s why it’s a frequent topic for my posts.

Why does content matter in business? We hear lip service these days, but a lot of companies still don’t seem to take it too seriously.

There is a lot of choice out there, and customers today can take their business anywhere. My sense is they want to be part of communities that share similar values. That means it’s important for a brand to speak up about what it stands for. One thing about Virgin is our brands are straight to the point and easy to understand. All of our content is the same way, and I think customers appreciate that.

Do you think enough CEOs blog? And what do you think is stopping those who don’t?

More and more leaders are getting their words out there through blogs or social media or simply sharing photos. Every CEO should make an effort to be online. It’s a great way to reach your customers and to hear what people think about your brand. It gives you a direct connection to them. If you get online and really take advantage of this, you will see great benefits for your business—having fun along the way being one of them!

One thing that might be stopping them is figuring out what to write and trying to find time to write. I always carry a notebook with me, and that’s where I get all my ideas. Writing down great things is how I remember what I’m learning every day and things that I talk about with friends and family. More than likely, all of these would make great topics for my blog.

Regardless of industry or company size, what’s the best way to start?

As I always say, screw it, just do it! But, of course, you have to start somewhere. This is, again, when writing everything down becomes useful. In my case, I write everything down in my notebook. It’s from gathering all of what you learn from different people and industries that you will get your best ideas. Once you have your great idea, believe in it and be passionate about it. And then you just go out and do it. There’s no other way to find out whether or not your business will be successful other than just doing it. Then, you surround yourself with great people who complement you, people who are brilliant at things that you may not be.

You’re very candid when you write. Do you think most brands are too safe when it comes to the content they create?

It’s about taking calculated risks. When Virgin was just starting out, we faced a lot of controversy with the name. Then we attracted more trouble when we signed the Sex Pistols, and then as a record company trying to start an airline in an industry full of regulations and rules. Our personality is what mattered and got noticed and became part of how we innovated.

How do you juggle your personal media brand with Virgin’s? How does the “face” of a brand strike the right balance?

I have a wonderful team to work with and lots of ideas flow from our advocacy issues, our companies, friends, family, and even issues that get debated through both my blog and Virgin’s content. I believe that collaboration is key, and because of this we are able to come up with great things to talk about.

You’re also very big on social media. When you open your Twitter or Instagram app, what are you going for?

Fun and authenticity. I’m fortunate enough to live a wonderfully happy and exciting life, so I like sharing that with people. I only ever use my words—people would know right away if I wasn’t.

You’ve pulled some incredible stunts, which, of course, lead to content. Does something just pop into your head and you do it or is there more of a strategic process?

Humor is one way of dealing with competition, and I love making people smile and laugh. One of my favorites is when our top competitor in the airline business, British Airways, was sponsoring the London Eye opposite the House of Commons and had all the press there to watch them put the wheel up. And that day, I got a telephone call at six in the morning saying they had technical problems. We happened to own an airship company, so I rang and asked them to find an airship at that moment. So we sent one up there and had it fly across the London Eye with a sign that said “BA can’t get it up.” Decades later, it still makes for a good story. There is great content everywhere if you look hard enough—and write down what you see.

What’s the most surprising thing that’ll come out of Virgin in the next year?

I couldn’t narrow it down to just one thing. I recently wrote about the benefits of consistency but also the usefulness of zig-zagging. I could tell you about a zig—but then I’m likely to zag.

How are things progressing with Virgin Galactic? Any content initiatives around that? They sky literally seems the limit.

I’m so proud of the Virgin Galactic team for their dedication and commitment to opening access to space. When a tragic accident like last year’s flight test accident occurs, all too often the naysayers come out and warn of the risks. There are tremendous risks, absolutely, and many brave test pilots have made sacrifices to make commercial aviation safer today than when airplanes were first introduced. The same will one day be said for commercial space, but for now, space pioneers like the Virgin Galactic team and others should be praised for taking on tremendous technical challenges and striving to reach space and improve life on Earth. They are updating their website with informative videos on the exciting activities in Mojave (where the second spaceship is being built and tested) and Long Beach (home of the LauncherOne satellite launcher). Thanks to LauncherOne, one day Internet connectivity will be accessible to the many more billions of people whose lives will be transformed—without even leaving the planet!

What is one company besides Virgin that creates great content, in your view? And why do you think it’s so successful?

I think I’m going to have to mention a Virgin company—just because I love what Virgin Hotels is doing. They share much more than just the usual, typical hotel information and make everything so interesting. From their brilliant social media campaign that introduced people to the hotel before it even opened—I read the wonderful children’s book Where the Wild Things Are and tucked a young couple into bed because of that Twitter campaign!—to their upbeat website, Virgin Hotels has lively, engaging content that they use to chat up their guests and fans. Away from Virgin, there is lots of brilliant content being done in the sporting world. I’ve loved getting involved in campaigns by the likes of the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Tigers recently.

If you could be reborn in any year, past or present, when would it be?

Right now—so I can grow up and play alongside my three beautiful grandchildren.

Who’s your favorite superhero?

My wife!

Image by Owen Billcliffe
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