Hanging Out With Sir Richard Branson

Seven years ago I sat down and recorded my first episode of the Barefoot Investor. It was for community radio and the only guest who didn’t turn me down for an interview was a mild-mannered suburban accountant.

He entered the studio, shook my hand vigorously, sat down – and a maggot dropped from the ceiling and landed on his bone-coloured Ralph Lauren knit. I played it cool. Maybe he wouldn’t notice.

Yet no sooner had he nervously begun talking about income tax than he realised that (a) he was live on air, and (b) there was a maggot on his shoulder. What transpired could well be regarded as one of the finest interviews any accountant has ever recorded. Solid gold radio.

Richard Branson says ‘yes’

As the weeks progressed I received more rejections from money guys than I ever got from girls on a Saturday night. Yet it turned out I was aiming too low. In a moment of frustration I put a call through to Sir Richard Branson’s people in the UK for an interview. I got an immediate response: ‘yes’.

Branson was more than happy to help out. Not only that, he encouraged me to keep going through the tough times – and even went so far as to provide me with plug for my then yet-to-be written book.

The 60-year-old virgin

Young, ambitious people love the 60-year-old Virgin. He hangs out with celebrities, does daredevil stunts, parties like the oldest teenager in town – and makes billions to boot. (There’s another side to Branson – the relentless work ethic, the failed companies, and tough times – but people generally don’t want to hear it).

This week he was back in town to spruik the relaunch of Virgin Money. For over 30 years he’s followed the same script: come up with an outrageous stunt to get the media’s attention, make a bold claim about your chance of success, challenge his competitors to offer a better deal (even if they already do), then do wall-to-wall interviews repeating the message.

Seven years on I had the chance to interview him again, this time in my TV studio. Sensing an opportunity, I hit him up for another quote (and he delivered: “The Barefoot Investor Rocks!”), and he then proceeded to give me an interview laced heavily with Virgin Money plugs.

Here’s the best of what he had to say:

Barefoot: ‘What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?’

Branson: ‘You need to take risks, and work hard, but you don’t need to be brilliant. I am dyslexic, so I always struggled with numbers at school. I was 50 years old (and the wealthiest self-made man in Britain) when one of my directors twigged that I didn’t understand the difference between gross and net profit. So he drew me a picture of the ocean and he explained that “all the sea is your profit”, then added a picture of a net and said “and that’s what you get to keep”.

Barefoot: ‘What motivates you more – money or fame?’

Branson: ‘Well I’ve never really been driven by either. I love building businesses, businesses that I can be proud of, with people I am proud of. And if your business is doing something great for its customers, why wouldn’t you want to shout it from the rooftops?’

Barefoot: ‘If you were at the start of your career again – with no capital or connections – what business would you go into today to make your fortune?’

Branson: ‘That’s an easy one – it would definitely be some kind of web-based business. I started my career in the late 60s selling my student magazine on the streets, and then moved to selling records from a phone box. Today both industries are struggling because of the internet – but where there’s pain there’s a hell of a lot of opportunity for someone to shake things up.’

Four days after he touched down, Branson is now back in Britain preparing to kite-surf to France to celebrate his 60th Birthday, naturally.

Disclosure: Scott Pape was the master of ceremonies for a private Virgin event.