Richard Branson on life, business and pleasure

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Arianna Huffington interview with Richard Branson

All day today at my apartment, I’ve been hosting a meeting of the B Team, which Richard Branson co-founded last year to change the values that drive businesses, to prioritize people and planet alongside profit, and to move beyond our obsession with quarterly earnings and short-term growth. And before we started the day, I interviewed Richard at AOL’s Brand Camp leadership meeting, which reminded me of a conversation he and I had in 2009, on board Virgin America’s inaugural flight from San Francisco to Orange County, covering everything from space travel and global warming to marijuana and the music business. Here is the video, along with the full transcript:

Arianna Huffington: So here we are, on the inaugural flight from San Francisco to Orange County, and we’ve had hundreds of questions submitted to Digg, and out of those the community chose the top 10. So let’s start with the first one, which is from “dlprager,” with 503 diggs: When does money become immaterial? Having $1 million is different from being broke, and I imagine having $10 million is different from $1 million. Is $1 billion significantly different from, in terms of lifestyle impact and implications, $250 million?

Richard Branson: Well, first of all, welcome to Virgin America. I’ve never done an interview at 35,000 feet, so it’s a pleasure. And I’ve actually just been reading one of [your] books [On Becoming Fearless], and it’s fantastic, so I’m looking forward to finishing that. I think one has to be careful, when you’ve got money, answering questions about money, because, well, some people will say, “It’s easy for him,” but my own personal feeling is that you don’t need that much money to be happy. You know, I think I’ve learned that if you have a house, you end up living in the kitchen, so if you have one big kitchen and then enough bedrooms for your family, that’s about all you need for a home. A car — you know, as long as it’s got four wheels, it’s environmentally friendly, gets you from A to B, you don’t need a big, flashy car to be happy. On a personal basis, I think as long as you can have one breakfast, one lunch, and one dinner, as long as you can sort out for your family if they’re ill, the personal needs are not that great to be happy. Having said that, if you are lucky enough to create a successful business, and with that successful business comes extreme wealth, there are a lot of fantastic things you can do with that wealth. And extreme responsibility comes with that wealth, because you’re no more successful than, you know, a successful doctor or nurse or dentist or journalist, you know, but you’ve got this extreme wealth. And I think you can get happiness through making a real difference in other people’s lives by setting out to make other people’s lives better and setting out to right the wrongs in the world. If you’re lucky enough to have a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank account, that should be sufficient for your own personal needs, and anything more than that you’ve got to put to good use.

AH: So the next question is from “bratterscain,” with 440 diggs, who asks: What is it like to be rich enough to wear naked babes as a clothing accessory?

RB: [Laughs.] Well, I think he’s referring to a photographer that came with his rather beautiful girlfriend to Necker Island, which is our rather beautiful island out in the Caribbean, to do a photo shoot for Italian Vogue, and one of the shots he asked me to do was to take his girlfriend on my back kitesurfing, which is one of my favorite sports, and he said to me that it would be much better if she wasn’t wearing clothes. And you know me: Being an English gentleman, I decided not to object.

AH: And also you proved you have a strong back, right?

RB: Yeah, well, she was quite a tall girl, but, you know, she clung on for dear life, and somehow I got it up.

AH: You know, it was a very popular news story on The Huffington Post. It was clicked through many times.

RB: I’m a great believer in life to saying yes and not saying no, and hopefully making people smile and just having fun in life.

AH: And not holding back because of what other people might say, right?

RB: And not holding back because of what other people say. And I’m certainly not embarrassed by having a beautiful nude woman, certainly one of the more beautiful women I’ve ever seen, on my back.

AH: The next question is from “Chewie67,” with 423 diggs: When do you believe an “average,” middle-class family will be able to take a trip into space?

RB: I saw the Moon landing and thought in my lifetime I would go to the Moon and my children would go to the Moon. The problem is that space travel has been run by governments — the Russian government and the American government — and they’ve never been interested in you, me, or middle-class families going into space, and so in 1990 I formed a company, Virgin Galactic Airways, and I went out looking for engineers who could build a reusable space rocket to take ordinary families, one day, into space. And I think most people would want to go into space if it were affordable, and if we could guarantee them a return ticket. Now, initially it’s going to be expensive. It’s going to be about $200,000 a ticket, but those people who are paying that are going to be pioneering the possibilities of middle-class families generally being able to go into space, and I’m absolutely certain that in my lifetime most middle-class families will be able to afford to have a trip into space. We’re building a wonderful spaceport in New Mexico. We’ve got genius engineers working on it. We’re going to make the experience absolutely magnificent. And I really hope that we will be able to get the price down so people can say, you know, “Do I want to go to Australia for this holiday, or shall I go into space?”

AH: And you’ve already had about 100 people who have paid and signed up?

RB: Well, we actually have about 300 who’ve signed up to go into space. But I won’t let you off this plane until you say you’re willing to go into space!

AH: I’ll go into space when you go into space!

RB: Well, OK, I’ll get you on the first flight. We’ll get [you] into space!

AH: OK, so from “Bisquick,” with 353 diggs, your next question is: Your net worth is currently estimated in the billions. What is the most valuable thing in your life?

RB: Well, I think there’s no question that the most valuable thing in most people’s lives are their family, friends, and, you know, that ends up being the most important thing in all our lives. Having said that, if there was one material possession that our family really loves, it’s a tiny little jewel of an island that we have in the Caribbean called Necker Island. I bought it when I was in my 20s. It cost $120,000; there was nothing on it. It’s a little jewel. It’s the place we escape to. It’s the place where we pull up the drawbridge. It’s the place where I have time to think. It’s the place where I think about global-warming issues. It’s the place where The Elders come to meet to talk about conflict-resolution issues. It’s the place where we can talk about setting up Centers for Disease Control in Africa. It’s a wonderful magnet to get people together.

AH: And also you were telling me that you haven’t had anything to drink in six weeks?

RB: Six weeks ago I actually was in Australia, and we just sponsored a team for the Grand Prix, and we came in first and second, and we celebrated, and I drank so much that the next morning I couldn’t remember anything after 9 o’clock that night. I literally couldn’t remember anything. And it shocked me, you know. I just thought, “While it was fun and a great party, you can’t go four hours just not remembering a thing.” And I woke up, and I thought, you know, “I’ll try a month or two of just cleansing my body,” and I haven’t drank a drop since. I feel like I’m getting three or four more hours in a day of really quality time.

AH: And you really love the feeling?

RB: Yeah. I’m a true believer, you know, in working hard and partying hard. I’m fortunate to be one of those people who can have just as much fun partying without alcohol, and I only just realized that in the last six weeks.

AH: When you started, you started with Virgin nightclubs, then Virgin health clubs, and you predicted at some point there will be Virgin funerals.

RB: I think you should do in life what you think you’ll make a real difference at. And generally, as a businessperson, you do things you don’t really have experience in. And you know, the only reason we started an airline was that I hated the experience of flying on other people’s airlines. I wanted the kind of airline I would fly on. And so, 25 years ago today, we started Virgin Airlines with one 747.

AH: I love the purple that you say changes every couple of hours!

RB: Yeah, well, you know, airlines that travel domestically in America have really not cared about the passengers that travel with them. I mean, it’s just been like a cattle truck to date. So if you come on this plane, immediately you feel comfortable, because the color schemes are lovely; they make you feel relaxed. You don’t have the same color schemes for the whole journey; they change depending on the time of day outside. The seating is really comfortable; you know, in economy there are lovely leather seats, and fantastic entertainment systems, you know. If you want to be on the Internet the whole flight, you can. If you want to watch films, you can. If you want to play games, you can. If you want to chat with the passenger four rows back, you can send them a message, and if they want to go to the loo and have a quick look at you, they’ll respond.

AH: So you already told us about giving up drinking for six weeks. Now “braddaniels,” with 351 diggs asks: Do you still smoke marijuana? If so, how often? If pot was legal, would there be Virgin joints?

RB: That’s a good question, and, personally, I think that marijuana should be legalized. I think the only reason it isn’t legal is because politicians who smoked it when they were young men or young women just don’t have the courage when they become politicians to legalize it. Smoking marijuana, as long as you leave the nicotine out of it, is certainly no more damaging than having a drink, and I suspect better for you than having a drink. It just seems absolutely wrong that young people — most young people — either smoke the occasional spliff or they smoke quite regularly and they risk having a criminal record and all the problems that come with having a criminal record. All the customs’ time, the police’s time, the court’s time is wasted having to prosecute these young people, and it’s a war that the authority is never going to win. They might as well accept it and legalize it. As far as smoking myself is concerned, I don’t, personally, because, you know, I’m not even drinking at the moment. I like to get high on life, and I don’t really need to smoke, and it doesn’t give me the nice high that it gives most people.

AH: The next question is from “digsdigs,” with 275 diggs: Do you feel that with bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead releasing their own music without a label, the traditional record label no longer has its place in the digital age?

RB: Yes, unfortunately, I think that the death knell of record labels is upon us. I had a wonderful time running Virgin Records many years ago and discovering bands. It was tremendously exciting. Culture Club, the Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones, Boy George — lots of great bands. But I think that time has moved on, and record companies are almost a thing of the past. Live music is now really important, and at Virgin we put on these great festivals around the world, the Virgin Festivals, and people love live music now, and that’s largely replaced where a lot of people get their music from. I think bands will actually make more money without record companies; a much bigger share of the money will go to the bands. You won’t have record shops taking 40 percent of the money. You won’t have record labels taking 40 percent of the money. So they don’t have to sell as many albums as they used to in the past. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing if record companies disappear.

AH: When you sold Virgin Records, it was a kind of bittersweet experience. You know, you got a billion dollars, but it was like giving up a big part of your life and what it had meant?

RB: Yes, well, I run our companies in a very personal way, and if you sell a company, it’s like selling a child. I built Virgin Records as a teenager, and I was in my early 30s, and British Airways was trying to drive our airline out of business, so we needed the financial clout to stop them from driving our airline out of business. It was strange, sort of bursting into tears and running down the street, having just sold my record company, and passing a sign that said, “Branson Makes a Billion Dollars Selling His Company.”

AH: But then you cry easily, right?

RB: I do cry easily. My children, when we go to the cinema, will bring a box of Kleenex, whether it’s a happy film or a sad film.

AH: So when was the last time you cried? Do you remember?

RB: Most weeks I cry over something, but often it’s tears of happiness, and actually in my life it’s most often tears of happiness than tears of sorrow — very rarely tears of sorrow.

AH: From “TxnDigital,” with 253 diggs: Is Virgin Media ever going to stop BitTorrent throttling?

RB: Yes. We only do it in absolute peak times of the day in order to try and encourage people to go on in the non-peak times of the day. But Virgin Media is actually introducing 50 MGs. We’ll be the only people with that capacity in the UK, and then we should be able to stop it altogether, and people will be able to use it as much as they like.

AH: OK, from “owaters,” with 236 diggs: Is there anything you would have done differently in your career, even if it meant not reaching the level of success you have today?

RB: I don’t think there’s anything I would have done differently. I’ve had lots of failures, but that’s all part of life’s learning process. I’ve been incredibly fortunate. It’s been great fun, and there’s nothing I would change. I’m sure I’ve learned from some of my mistakes in the past, but there’s nothing I would change.

AH: From “xthpsgodx,” with 228 diggs: What historical figure would you most like to fistfight?

RB: Maybe Mark Antony, because at least if I beat him, I might get Cleopatra. Yeah, you know, maybe Stephen Colbert. He’s not really historical yet, but, you know, we named a plane after him, and now he already wants a spaceship named after him. He’s getting far too big for his boots, but we’ll have a fistfight the next time I see him.

AH: Well, I’m doing his show next week, so I’m going to tell him to be prepared to fistfight Richard Branson.

RB: Well, the last time I was on his show, he ended up getting a cup of water after each sentence, so next time it will be the fists. Say hello to him for me.

AH: I will. From “mrSimon,” with 211 diggs: You’ve handled everything from music to cola, from trains to space travel. What’s next in store for the Virgin brand?

RB: Well, most of my energy now is going into tackling issues, sometimes using the Virgin brand, and sometimes just using the financial resources of Virgin. For instance, all the profits from our airlines now are going into trying to develop clean fuels, clean energy. And hopefully soon, you know, this plane will be running on something called isobutanol that one of our companies has developed — a company called Gevo — which is sugar-based fuel, completely clean, and, with global warming coming, very important to be able to do. We’re also working with a wonderful group of elders, headed up by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, looking at conflict-resolution issues, and they’re using their moral authority to go in and address conflicts. And one of our newest ventures is setting up a Center for Disease Control in Africa so that all of the wonderful organizations in Africa can be coordinated in their attack on diseases, and if new diseases — say, TB in Africa or bird flu or whatever — crop up, they can jump on it as quickly as in America, where you’ve got a Center for Disease Control in the States. So I think more of our time and energy is using our entrepreneurial skills to try and address some of the intractable problems of the world.

AH: Thank you so much. Thank you, Richard.

RB: It’s been a pleasure.


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