Lunch with Richard Branson: What Would You Ask?

Richard Branson at the Virgin America OC Launch.If you could have lunch with Sir Richard Branson, on his private paradise of Necker Island, what would you ask him?

One of my clients, Dr. Peter Lilienthal, CEO of HOMER Energy, recently had that opportunity. Peter already knew the question he would ask, because we’d talked about it in advance. And it was fairly specific to why Peter was there in the first place, which was that he’d been hired to create some recommendations for Branson regarding the best way to maximize the amount of renewable energy the island uses for its power.

Do you want the visionary or the ordinary solution?

Without going into the technical details of the question – it was this: Do want us to give you the ordinary solution or the visionary one?

Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group, and Dr. Peter Lilienthal, HOMER Energy, on Necker Island

If you know anything at all about Richard Branson, you’ll know how he answered. He also gave Peter some advice about another project, on Aruba, “You’re not being ambitious enough. Go for it!”

My point in creating this post is twofold. First, I had to brag about having a client who landed a contract to assist Richard Branson on Necker Island! I mean, I’m pretty thrilled about that part.

Second, it made me think about why I admire Richard Branson so much. Sure, he’s a very attractive billionaire, but truth be told, many billionaires are not people I’d care to meet at all. (The only other one on my “You bet I’d have lunch with him!” list is Warren Buffett, but I’ll save that story for another post.) And eye candy’s not rare in this world, either.

So here it is – the three things that attract me to Richard Branson, and why I think that you, as an entrepreneur or a potential entrepreneur, may want to pay attention to how he conducts business and where he puts his attention.

Never afraid to ask

Mahatma Gandhi is credited with the quotation, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” The Bible states (with some variation depending on version and translation): “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; know, and it will be opened to you.”

Branson’s autobiography, Losing My Virginity, is filled with stories of his asking for things that most people would never dare ask.

  • Like offering to lease a space for no base rent, only a share of the sales (the start of Virgin Records).
  • Like making an offer of ₤100,000 on an island that was for sale for ₤5,000,000 (and then finally settling on a price of ₤180,000, now the site of the super exclusive Necker Island resort).

Most of us are so scared of… what, exactly? Rejection? Fear of looking to be a failure? Whatever stops us, we are afraid to ask. Richard Branson is not afraid to ask! (One of my favorite stories in Losing My Virginity is where he was evicted from his helicopter tour of islands for sale for putting in such a low bid, and then having them come back later and negotiate with him!)

I recall one day my (now ex) husband and I were driving along and saw the most beautiful little farm for sale. And he said, “Oh let’s stop and see what they want for it.” I grouchily replied that surely we could not afford it (ouch ouch ouch but I’m being truthful here!), but I reluctantly got out, grabbed a flyer, sort of threw it at him, and said, “See! Too much!” Need I tell you the rest of the egg-on-my-face story? A few months later we moved there, and it was, by far, the most fun place I have ever owned.

What if he had not asked?

Richard Branson asks for deals that would embarrass most of us. But he gets it that making an honest offer should never be considered (or treated as) an insult or an embarrassment. The recipient can just say no! Sure, they may decide to evict you from the tour, but perhaps it will turn out for the best in the end.

What has come to you because you asked? And conversely, what might you have missed out on through fear of asking?

He wants to make things better

When Branson announced to his directors that he wanted to create a high quality, great value for the money airline, his directors were horrified. But it wasn’t just “another” airline he wanted to create. It was a “better” one. Virgin Airline’s goal was to recreate the parts of the travel experience that weren’t working. What if air travel could be – fun?

Revolutionary!

The desire to do things better is at the heart of Branson’s company creation. He wants to have fun, and he wants everyone around him to have fun.

But that’s not all of it. He wants it to be – better – on a grand scale.

One of his personal points of pride is the 200 flamingoes he brought to Necker Island, because they had been hunted to extinction.

To me, the heart of real entrepreneurship is to make things better. Richard Branson is the personification of that, and the 55 companies currently in the Virgin portfolio all seem to be based on the idea of making things better. Whether it’s banking, travel, venture capital, entertainment, or health care, these are all based on positive values that look to make people’s lives better and easier.

How is your product/service/idea making things better? For who?

Pure joy

English: Sir Richard Branson kite surfing at N...

Sir Richard Branson kite surfing at Necker Island. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He seems to be completely in touch with his own spirit, and embraces each day as one filled with joy. It’s not fluff – it’s joy.

Read the stories of those who have met him. His smile is real and infectious. This is a man who does a great deal of his business in his bathing suit, without apology.

I am reminded of a musician I particularly love – Peter Kater. On Thanksgiving this year, just a few days ago, he wrote that he was grateful for the “spaces between the notes”. Being around someone who is in touch with their own bliss helps me be there, too, and is always a joy.

Are you doing something that brings you pure joy? If not, why not?

What about you?

Are you a “fan” of Branson? If you could have lunch with him, what would you ask?

Add a comment below and be entered into a my monthly drawing for a free copy of Branson’s autobiography Losing My Virginity, or another book of your choice from my list of 7 Great Books for Super-Early Startups.

And now it’s my turn to ask you – do you need help thinking through a new business? That’s what I do best. Perhaps a lunch with Sir Richard is in your future. The options are listed on my Consulting page.

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About Marilyn Walker, Ph.D.

Marilyn Walker is Founder and Lead Consultant at Grow Your Org. She helps businesses plan and manage growth, with a specialty in technology.

2 Responses to Lunch with Richard Branson: What Would You Ask?

  1. Jared February 23, 2013 at 5:51 am #

    Excellent post! I have come away from reading it with a fresh perspective on more than one thing. Thank you. And the rest of your blog is very informative too! I am glad I stumbled across it and am certain to be visiting regularly.

    I was actually thinking about this very question earlier today and the thought I had was:

    “Every year there are thousands upon thousands of new companies started and nearly an equal number that close shop. Many of these had brilliant and highly educated founders and teams behind them. Even you (Sir Richard Branson) have had some that were unsuccessful.

    What is it that is the defining element or set of properties that makes the difference in an incredibly (and I mean really incredibly) successful venture versus the failure or only moderately successful venture, irregardless of leadership?”

    After reading this article, I may have to change my question to:

    “Will you please join my board of directors and make a capital investment in my new venture?”

    • Marilyn Walker, Ph.D. February 24, 2013 at 3:48 am #

      Love your question, Jared. And are you ready to convince him of the value of your venture? (Which looks quite interesing, by the way.) Marilyn

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