Necker Island, New Year’s Eve, 1998. I was in my bedroom, trying to make an urgent to-do list. As I stared at the blank piece of paper in front of me, across a sandy path a song Prince released in 1982 was booming around the Great House on repeat. It was a song that let everyone know 1998 was nearly over and the ball was about to drop on the last year of the millennium: 1999.
The New Year’s festivities were in full swing. My daughter Holly was leading the celebrations with our family and friends. I could hear the clink of glasses as my wife Joan toasted with friends while our fourteen-year-old son Sam ran around getting under her feet. They were the familiar sounds of family life and ones that I was grateful to hear after my adventures of the previous weeks.
Five days earlier, on Boxing Day, I had arrived on the island fresh from my last ballooning adventure. I was lucky to be alive. On 18 December, Steve Fossett and I had set off from Marrakech in the hope of completing a record-breaking round-the-world trip. What had followed was a mixture of high-stakes adventure and diplomacy – pulling in favours as our balloon had veered over Libyan airspace, then having our approval to fly over China rescinded before being reinstated as we made our way over Nepal. Finally, having got close to crossing the Pacific, the winds blew us back, forcing us to land in the ocean near Hawaii. I’d made it there for Christmas, then flew on to Necker Island the following day.
Back in the security of home, with the end of the year approaching and the end of the millennium looming, I found myself both reflecting back and looking forwards. As so often during my life as an entrepreneur, I really had no idea what was coming next. I had created and sold the biggest independent record label on the planet, and fought doggedly to build Virgin Atlantic into the best airline in the world. The Virgin Group had grown from a couple of companies to more than a hundred and I had gone from a struggling hippy to a proud father and businessman. My mind was starting to wander to other projects, fresh ambitions and bigger dreams. Within the space of twelve months we would launch nine different companies and begin turning Virgin into the all-encompassing global brand it is today. It was time for a new start, and to look to the stars.
How do you go about becoming a millionaire? I’m often asked this question and ever since I founded Virgin Atlantic in 1984 my answer has been the same: ‘Start as a billionaire and launch a new airline.’
The first fifteen years of Virgin Atlantic had been a topsy-turvy tale of excitement, innovation and survival. We had taken the might of British Airways head on and, unlike the airlines that came before us, lived to tell the tale. In fact, we won one of the largest libel cases in British history after BA’s Dirty Tricks campaign tried to put us out of business. It was a campaign that most people within the industry knew by another name altogether: Operation Barbara. Why was it called that? Because Barbara Cartland had written a lot of novels about virgins getting screwed.
As we emerged from this most challenging of periods, I had clear skies for the first time in a while, exploring new horizons for the Virgin brand. Many experts will tell you it tends to take a year to get a business off the ground, from the initial idea through planning, market research, development and launch. Personally, I’ve always disregarded this rule. As far as I’m concerned, anyone following it should pull their finger out.
When I was a wide-eyed teenager our mail-order record company was set up in a couple of days, and even more complex businesses like Virgin Atlantic went from idea to lift-off in a matter of weeks. Generally, we like to work fast: try ideas, see if they stick, and, if they don’t, quickly move on to the next one.
I work best when my mind is able to jump from one topic to the next in quick succession. It keeps things lively, and it’s amazing how often good ideas for one company come out of another completely unrelated business. As I took a step back from the day-to-day running of Virgin Atlantic, I was able to concentrate on what was next for Virgin. As it turns out, there was more than even I had ever imagined.
The turn of the century was to prove unprecedentedly productive, even by our standards. After my first wave as a records impresario and second as an airline founder, the third wave of my career as a global entrepreneur was about to begin in earnest. Some of the companies, namely Virgin Blue (now Australia), virginmoney.com, Virgin Wines and Virgin Mobile Australia have gone on to become big success stories. We had already launched the likes of Virgin Clothing, Virgin Brides, Virgin Cola, Virgin Vodka and Virgin Vie cosmetics by this point, all of which would disappear in the next few years. But failures didn’t put me off at all. They had all been fun to get stuck into, and we’d learned a lot of important lessons.
Some businesses quickly turned into far less successful operations. Virgin Cars, our automobile company, was effective for a few years but overnight became unworkable. Our business model of purchasing cars, mostly from the Netherlands and Belgium, and importing them to sell into the UK was destroyed by a combination of restrictive practices by the big carmakers and changing currency values. V.Shop, small record stores we launched after rebranding Our Price, never got off the ground, while there were similar stories for Virgin Student, Virgin Energy and Virgin Travelstore. The dot.com bubble was still going strong, but we hadn’t quite got the hang of it. Because our core businesses remained solid, the brand wasn’t derailed by these smaller failures. I was also able to spend even more time with my young family and enjoy life a little more. I didn’t feel I had so much to prove, and was getting more comfortable in my own skin. If the odd business didn’t work out, I was confident there would be another on the way.
We were beginning to see which core areas we could expand the brand into, but it was still taking time for me to understand how flexible the Virgin brand was, the areas where it could bend successfully, and the areas where it would break. The sweet spot was always where we could differentiate from the competition, in service and in product, and where there was a real appetite for change. We were still a long way from creating the more structured strategy we have today, but it was one hell of a ride finding out what worked.
With the financial clout we had gained from selling Virgin Records and the profile lift our battles against BA had inadvertently given us, Virgin Atlantic continued to grow in popularity and profit. I was determined for us to capitalise. Our fleet grew to twenty-eight jets, and by the end of 1999 we had agreed a deal to sell 49 per cent of the company to Singapore Airlines for £600 million in cash. This would give more opportunity to invest in new businesses and reinvest in Virgin Atlantic’s customer experience, while maintaining a controlling stake in our airline. We had already become the first airline in the world to introduce seatback video across our fleet. Now we became the worldwide launch customer for the new Airbus A340-600 and introduced new successful routes everywhere from Las Vegas to St Lucia, Delhi to Barbados and Shanghai to Cape Town.
I began to enjoy flying Virgin Atlantic even more when we created the first ever double beds in the air in business class, and could even continue my meetings mid-flight when we launched Earth Calling in-seat call service via passengers’ mobile phones. Now there really was no escape for my team from phone calls at all hours! Thankfully for them, we also introduced the first ever in-flight bars. It’s amazing who you can get talking to and what you can get discussing over a few drinks at 30,000 feet. I’ve heard hundreds of business pitches at our sky-high bars over the years and several have gone on to become successful companies. As for matchmaking, there are few things I love more than setting up a couple while they sip a drink above the clouds. And at least one hit single has been written at the bar, while birds go flying at the speed of sound outside the window …
One morning in September 1999 I was woken up at four in the morning to learn that BA was having a little trouble with a big wheel. BA was paying big money to be the sponsor of the new London Eye, but its launch was fraught with technical problems. When they were finally ready to launch it, ahead of celebrating the millennium, they were unable to erect the wheel. We just so happened to own an airship company nearby in the Home Counties, so I got on the phone to the team.
‘We need to scramble a blimp,’ I told them. ‘How quickly can you get one to the Thames?’
With the world’s press assembled and the wheel lying limply on the South Bank lawn, our blimp hovered directly above, proudly displaying the legend ‘BA CAN’T GET IT UP’. We got the headlines that night at BA’s expense – literally! The photo also coincided with the same day BA’s share price plunged to a new record low.
The following year, I pulled BA’s tail again when we revamped our free in-flight massages for Upper Class customers. Right outside Heathrow Airport, we installed a giant poster stating ‘BA Don’t Give A Shiatsu’. In just five words we showcased our effervescence, cheekiness and great service. That, to me, is what Virgin is all about. It’s crucial in this job not to take yourself too seriously and people appreciate it when they see a bit of humour and personality shining through. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the average customer is usually far smarter – and more appreciative of a joke – than big businesses give them credit for.
When I founded the airline Lord King from British Airways said that I was ‘too old to rock, too young to fly’. Fifteen years on, where was I now? It was a question I was asking myself, not just from a business sense, but as a father, too. My children, one not yet born, the other tiny when Virgin Atlantic started, were growing up and already making those first steps towards leaving home.
We had never planned to send the children to boarding school; I had suffered such dreadful experiences there myself. But as Holly approached sixteen we discussed the option seriously. Holly was keen to try out full-term boarding, and we compromised on her going to school in Oxford, which was close to where we lived then, but far enough away for Holly to gain some independence.
Choosing a school for your children should be a process of careful thought and contemplation: in our case, we managed to find the right choice by getting lost instead. Joan and I had an appointment at a school in Oxford we were considering for Sam and Holly. But having driven to the school, it turned out we had the wrong one altogether.
Popping inside and realising it was not an open day, we bumped straight into the headmaster, David Christie. Rather than show us where to go, he insisted on whisking us around on a whirlwind tour of his school instead. The tour and his passion for the school were very impressive indeed. It had, until recently, been an all-boys’ school up to Sixth Form, but was now taking girls. There was a progressive air about the place, an unstuffy feel compared to the crammers I had experienced. By the time we left, both children were bound for St Edwards. It was a real sliding-doors moment in more ways than one: as it turns out, a young boy named Freddie Andrewes, whom Holly would get to know rather well in the coming years, was already studying at St Edwards.
When Holly was later named the school’s first Head of School I was overflowing with pride. But I was equally pleased that she was making friends, enjoying herself and growing into a fine young woman. She was already acquiring a taste for tackling injustices, and when she came home bemoaning the fact that girls were not allowed to wear trousers I helped her draft a letter to her headmaster demanding equality for all students. It reminded me of when I was at Stowe School, though in my case I would have campaigned for all students not to wear ties.
There were some amusing antiquated perks to being Head of School, one of which was the right to be able to graze your own goat in the school grounds.
‘Holly, this is too good an opportunity to miss,’ I told her over the kitchen table. ‘Whenever you come across absurd rules, take advantage of them.’
‘What do you mean?’ she asked.
‘I think you should buy a goat.’
‘Don’t be silly, Dad,’ she replied, wisely resisting.
As Holly prepared to graduate in 2000, we spent an evening hunched over her desk together working on her big speech to the whole school. I went to see her make the speech and was amazed how she had already become a better public speaker than her dad. She was shy, but concentrated on her words and spoke unwaveringly in her beautiful, clear voice. Not for the first or last time, I wept with pride.
Although sending Holly and Sam to St Edwards was well worth it, it did take some getting used to the children not being at home. I was accustomed to being away from the kids a little, due to travelling with work so much. For Joan, it was a real wrench – to begin with she would cry every day: she missed her babies so much. She took to driving to Oxford quite a lot, and would ‘just happen’ to pop by the school near midday, and take Holly and Sam out for lunch. Back home, after one of these lunches, there was often no food in the house. I remember standing in the kitchen one evening, rifling through bare cupboards, and saying to Joan: ‘Look, I know the kids are gone, but we still need to eat!’
‘Well, you know where M&S is, too, Richard,’ she replied.
It was a fair point. I got used to driving to Marks & Spencer. But she soon took pity on me!
Sitting there on Necker Island on New Year’s Eve, staring at my blank piece of paper, I’d decided it was time for a new start, to look to the stars. The following year, I followed up on that decision, literally so, with the setting up of a new company.
My fascination with space first started thirty years earlier. It was 20 July 1969 and I had turned nineteen two days before, still nursing the type of hangover that any teenager celebrating their nineteenth birthday could expect. My father turned on the tiny black-and-white television in our home in Shamley Green and I, along with countless millions, watched the extraordinary sight of images from space being beamed back to earth. More than 238,000 miles above, Apollo 11 had landed on the moon. I was gripped as Neil Armstrong uttered the immortal words: ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ Whether he fluffed his line or not, it was inspirational.
I was instantly convinced I would be going to space one day. I assumed that if NASA could land on the moon, in the near future they would be able to take anybody who wanted to go to space. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind. But when the Apollo missions ended, and the years started to pass without new breakthroughs, space travel felt further away again. Nevertheless, I was sure it was just a matter of time, and my enthusiasm remained undimmed.
In 1999, I was to take the first small steps towards fulfilling my own dream. For all the remarkable travels around the world I took that year, the most exciting journey started with a short stroll from my then home, across the icy greenery of Hyde Park, to a dreary bureaucratic building. I walked into Companies House and officially registered a new company: Virgin Galactic Airways. (Being a born optimist, I also registered Virgin Intergalactic Airways!) I did not know how to start a spaceline – nobody had ever done it before – but I loved the name and the idea thrilled me. It seemed an exciting way to enter a new millennium, looking up to the stars and thinking about how to get up there – and back again.
All that, though, was in the future. Back on New Year’s Eve it was time to dance with my wife. I put down my pencil, left my to-do list of possibilities on the table and joined our guests downstairs as Prince sang on: ‘I was dreamin’ when I wrote this, so sue me if I go too fast. But life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last…’