Business Insider Nordic got an exclusive chat with legendary entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson as he visited the Nordic Business Forum (NBF) in Helsinki. Cramped together in a tiny meeting cube, we picked Branson’s brain on everything from Nordic entrepreneurs to his bromance with Obama.
Before joining us in the intimate setting of the meeting cube however, Richard Branson has reflected on his life in front of the roughly 7,500 guests at NBF with the help of moderator Richard Quest, who points out that Branson, at 67, now has been in business for 50 years.
“I used to have hippie hair. That’s why I keep it scruffy, so I can pretend it’s not been 50 years.”
The young vibrant poster boy of the roaring 80s has grown into a mellow and slightly hunched godfather of entrepreneurship — a word he insists didn’t exist when he founded Student Magazine at age 16 to campaign against the Vietnam war.
“The next day I rang up Boeing and asked ‘do you have any second-hand 747s for sale?”
Later, Branson explains, he became “frustrated” about all the great music no one was putting out and founded the record company Virgin Records, eventually signing artists like Rolling Stones and Janet Jackson — and Finnish band progressive rock band WigWam (which brought him to Finland for the first time in his teens).
For Branson — whose Virgin Group eventually earned him a $US5 billion fortune — one thing has always led inevitably to the next, even if on a whim: His airline Virgin Atlantic was born after Branson got bumped from his Caribbean flight on his way to meet “a lovely lady”.
“I was trying to get from Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands in my mid-twenties. The airline bumped me, and I had a lovely lady waiting for me. So I hired a plane and borrowed a blackboard and jokingly put ‘Puerto Rico one-way to the Virgin Islands’ and sold it to all the people who got bumped,” he tells the spellbound audience.
“The next day I rang up Boeing and asked ‘do you have any second-hand 747s for sale?'”
Virgin Islands is where Branson has had his base for decades, having moved to Necker Island during the 70s. Fast-forward to September 2017 and Branson’s home is one of many Caribbean islands wrecked by hurricane Irma — a “horror story” that Branson rode out with his team by hiding in his Necker resort’s concrete wine cellar.
Ever since the jubilant early days of Virgin Atlantic, and the occasional transatlantic balloon trip, Branson’s ‘flying’ has evolved into the ambitious commercial space venture Virgin Galactic. But unlike another entrepreneur extraordinaire, Elon Musk, Branson’s priority is not Mars.
“[Getting to Mars] is an incredible challenge, and I suspect Elon [Musk] will get there first. He’s more interested in big rockets going big distances,” Branson says. “My love for space is about how much it can do for people back here on earth.”
“We will hopefully be in space in three months, maybe six months before I’m in space.”
Virgin Galactic, he continues, is not only intended for sightseeing — Branson wants to use the crafts (that go 3000 mph) for point to point travel.
“That is something we are going to be in the best position in the world to do.”
Despite recent setbacks, Branson hopes to be in space by early next year, and finally start conquering commercial space travel.
“We are hopefully about three months before we are in space, maybe six months before I’m in space.”
After his talk on stage, Branson is quick to join us in the meeting cube.
“Alright where do you want me?”, he asks briskly before climbing onto the seat opposite us. Sporting a pair of ordinary blue jeans and a slightly ruffled shirt, he might well be the most informally dressed person at the whole conference. (Fortunately none of us are wearing ties, or they might well have been cut off and added to Branson’s infamous cushion on Necker Island).
The meeting cube by Finnish startup Smartblock doesn’t provide too much privacy, as throngs of photographers and people eager for selfies flock around us. Being Stockholm-based reporters ourselves, we dive in and ask him about Sweden, and the Nordics — what are the region’s strengths?
Branson notes that he’s had many Swedish and Scandinavian entrepreneurs come to Necker Island “for debates and conferences” — among them (in his own telling) economist and author Kjell A. Nordström of Funky Business fame, who was called in as part of a team aiming to help Virgin Atlantic recover its footing after 9/11, which caused the whole airline industry to stall.
Nordström later tells us how Branson was known internally as “Dr Yes”, and that his relentless optimism was balanced out by the company’s Chief Financial Officer, “Dr No”.
“I’m inquisitive, I can’t say no. I keep on saying yes, and sometimes I suspect I’ve been doing that too often, but it has made life far more interesting than it would have been to have kept saying no,” Branson has said on stage about half an hour before meeting us.
“By and large, people who live in the Nordics have a basic security, and that gives them the freedom to be adventurous.”
For Branson, it seems a key driver behind his serial entrepreneurship is the constant search for new problems to solve.
“What is an entrepreneur? I don’t think we should over-complicate it. An entrepreneur is somebody who has an idea to make others people’s lives better. That’s all that business is.”
Branson says he’s impressed by the Nordic drive for entrepreneurship, and points out it has “seemingly not been stifled by the region’s high taxes, which is great.”
“I think it’s exciting that despite the basic comfort of people’s lives in Sweden and Scandinavia, that there are still people who are searching to try to improve other people’s lives, creating entrepreneurial businesses and being very successful at it,” Branson says, mentioning the region’s corporate foundations as a good example.
“When they are successful, like IKEA, [they set up] fantastic foundations that make a really big difference to people’s lives around the world. As I just said on stage, I think there’s a lot that the rest of the world can learn from the Nordic countries.”
When asked for examples, Branson lauds the region’s high-quality education and ability to secure citizens’ basic needs. “By and large, people who live in your countries have that basic security, and from that basic security they can be adventurous and they are being adventurous.”
Another reason the world should look to the Nordics, according to Branson, is its experiments with universal basic income — which can help counter the effects of AI.
“In Finland you are experimenting with it in at least one city at the moment,” says Branson, who recently announced his support for the idea.
“Basic income is going to be all the more important. If a lot more wealth is created by AI, the least that the country should be able to do is that a lot of that wealth that is created by AI goes back into making sure that everybody has a safety net.”
“Obviously AI is a challenge to the world in that there’s a possibility that it will take a lot of jobs away. [..] It’s up to all of us to be entrepreneurially minded enough to create those new jobs.”
Besides his space program, Branson is still hard at work with various brands of the Virgin Group, and tells us they are “also launching a cruise ship company, expanding in hotels and so on.”
“At least the same amount of time is spent on not-for-profit ventures,” says Branson, who has long used his influence and billionaire status to tackle issues including climate change with The Carbon War Room, political conflicts with the Elders, ocean pollution with The Ocean Elders, and drug issues through The Global Drug Commission: “There’s lots going on.”
Another prominent philanthropist, Bill Gates, has said that AI together with biotech and energy are the most promising areas of the future. Does Mr. Branson agree?
“Clean energy is something we are involved in, and biotech. AI, we’re not involved in, but I certainly wouldn’t disagree with Bill Gates.”
“Obama and his wife are two of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.”
A few minutes in, Branson looks like he’s done talking and ready to jet off. But we manage to sneak in a question about his friendship with Obama — which Branson touches on in his new book, Finding my Virginity.
“As far as Obama, he and his wife are two of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. Obviously they can talk about any subject in the world, they have a lot of knowledge about any subject in the world. We were lucky enough to have them over for ten days in the Caribbean.”
We all remember those lustrous images of Obama and Branson, sunkissed and with ear to ear smiles, kitesurfing off Necker Island just weeks after the former U.S. president had left office.
“It was a fascinating time in history, he had just stepped down from the White House and Donald Trump had taken over. A lot of the conversations were shared in private, and the ones I can share are in the book. So you’re gonna have to read the book!” he says, shutting down the topic.
At a photographer’s request however, he stays behind a few more moments to write a goodbye note on the table of the meeting cube.
What Branson writes next to his autograph summarises the man’s continued drive to work on everything between the oceans and space.
“Screw it – Just do it!”