With his head buried in his hands, Sir Richard Branson is struggling to recall some of the famous names booked on to the maiden space voyage of Virgin Galactic. The brief memory loss is somewhat understandable – just 12 hours before meeting ShortList, the magnate-adventurer was stood on top of Mont Blanc. We try to keep him awake long enough to talk business, Usain Bolt and colonising Mars…
You’re known as an affable gentleman. Ever had to be ruthless to get ahead?
An entrepreneur who treads all over people to get to the top is rare. Steve Jobs was quite ruthless, and did very well despite that, but that isn’t the way it should be done.
Too many business leaders are too quick to jump down people’s throats, or rule by fear, which is foolish. Instead, you should lead by praise. You come into contact with the same people again and again in your life – you can’t launch an idea if no one likes you.
What’s been your biggest career mistake?
As an entrepreneur, I constantly have to stick my neck out, but my weakness is that I hang on too long. We used to have a wonderful chain of music shops and they started losing money with the dawn of downloading. I waited far too long to sell them, which cost me a lot. Sometimes you’ve got to cut your losses.
Lord Sugar famously once claimed the iPod would be “kaput” before 2005. Have you made any similar gaffes?
A few years ago I received a call from a friend who was trying to buy rights to a board game he’d been playing in Canada. I took a look and agreed it was fantastic. The developers invited us over but I had to postpone the trip due to work commitments, and by the time I got there they’d sold Trivial Pursuit to another company…
Do you avoid playing it after dinner parties now?
Playing it can be bittersweet, yes. Another big thing we passed on at Virgin Records was Dire Straits; they came close to signing for us.
How close are we to Virgin’s space tourism programme?
Within the next year we will be going into space, I am sure of that. The test flights have been successful and now it’s just a matter of taking people up.
So who’s signed up for the maiden flight?
We have around 600 people. As for celebrities, we have Stephen… [Branson struggles to remember the surnameand his assistant passes ShortList a phone message containing the confirmed names: Russell Brand, Ashton Kutcher, Philippe Starck, Stephen Hawking]… Stephen Hawking, that’s the one.
Are the A-listers flying for free?
Lots of celebrities have asked for freebies. I’m not giving away free seats. The ones with places on-board have had to pay the £200,000 ticket price like everybody else.
What’s the next step in the Virgin Galactic programme?
We want all kinds of people to be able to go into space at an affordable price. And we want to develop planes that can travel at superfast speeds. Imagine London to Australia in less than three hours…
How about Mars?
In the next 50 or 60 years I think Mars will be colonised.
And it’s already red…
That’s true [laughs]. Hawking believes that we must colonise other planets, because if something snuffs out everyone on Earth in the near future, it’s important that we don’t waste thousands of years of evolution.
Are you still racing James Cameron to the bottom of the sea?
We have a submarine that’s going to go to the Puerto Rico Trench, the deepest place in the Atlantic. And James has already gone down to the deepest part of the Pacific. They’re similar projects.
How about teaming up with him?
I think we will, actually. Our submarines are quite different. Mine is smaller, moves better and explores more, while his is bigger and takes better photos. We’ll eventually end up putting the two together. The oceans are gigantic. Only three people have been below 20,000ft and the oceans go down to 36,000ft. A lot more needs to be done.
What keeps you addicted to projects such as that?
When I was standing atop Mont Blanc, my daughter turned to me and said, “This is the best day of my life.” So I always want to do more.
Are you friends with Usain Bolt now, following the TV ads you shot with him?
We have struck up quite a bond. I first met him in Jamaica a while ago. He invited me to watch his 100m final at the London Olympic Games. I couldn’t make it to the race, but straight after his win he sent me a text to tell me he’d done rather well. Of course, I already knew that as I’d been glued to the TV.
And are you disappointed he hasn’t kept your beard?
I was. I thought he’d never shave it off.
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