Q: How do you maintain your motivation to generate new ideas and execute them?
-- Gunita Migliniece, Latvia
A: My motivations have changed a lot over the past 40 years. In retrospect, it's clear that this has been a long-term process, and I acquired new motivations as time went on.
I am not sure anyone could have predicted my future career arc, except perhaps my parents. I was not a promising student, probably because of undiagnosed dyslexia. My parents did not see my trouble with learning as a limitation. Rather, they helped me to find my strengths by teaching me to constantly look for new challenges. Achievements in sports and early business ventures such as a Christmas tree farm taught me to be inquisitive, and also to rely on my own persistence and creativity when problems came up.
Since I wasn't doing well academically, I was partly driven by a desire to prove myself when I started Student magazine at 16. My friends and I wanted to give our generation a voice in the issues of the day, especially the Vietnam War.
We started the magazine on our own initiative and because of our convictions, and we loved what we did. It didn't matter that we were working out of a basement in West London, in cramped conditions and with no financial backing. We had no business or publishing experience, so we just threw everything we had into the venture and secured advertisers and interviews. It was terrifically hard work, but for us it was also fun and exciting and, above all, a project we felt strongly about.
That sense of fun, enjoyment and purpose underpinned our expansion to selling records and then establishing record stores. Our stores had listening posts so customers could sample recordings, it had bean bag chairs for people who wanted to hang out, and the staff was passionate about the music we sold. Our next move, into the recording business, was no different. My love of music and concern for the people behind that music ensured I was never short of motivation -- just sometimes short on cash!
The U.K.'s recession of the late 1970s coincided with a slowdown in our record sales and a lack of hits. By that point we had created a close community at Virgin, and I wanted the people I worked with and cared about to enjoy their jobs; I was also deeply concerned about job security. We were running at a loss, and I had to decide whether to consolidate our stores and rein back the recording business, or follow my instincts and invest in new artists.
Hoping to expand our way out of our financial problems, I bought two nightclubs and invested more money in our record business. Its managing director, Simon Draper, was a great talent, so I backed him to create the U.K.'s largest independent label.
Our resulting success in the music business saved the day. The strength of the brand meant that we started to look beyond music for business opportunities, and about this time my motivations broadened again. With our old and new businesses, we were developing a community of customers, so my goals now included Virgin's becoming one of the world's most respected brands.
At this point, everything came together. The different motivations added up to a strategy of setting up businesses Virgin employees were passionate about, trying to shake up markets and win the trust of potential customers. We often succeeded as we targeted leading companies in established sectors where we felt the customer was no longer well served. In quick succession we moved into airlines, trains, drinks, financial services, health clubs and hotels.
Over the past decade, my motivation has broadened to encompass large-scale philanthropic endeavors, as the global scope of the Virgin Group's businesses has put us in a position to help to address the great challenges humanity faces. This led to the creation of Virgin Unite, which was instrumental in establishing The Elders, the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship and the Carbon War Room -- all exciting tools in the fight against poverty, illness and catastrophic climate change.
What will keep me motivated in 2011? The thousands of people who work for Virgin, the many people around the world who rely on us, and the work of Virgin Unite. Also, of course, my restless curiosity and enthusiasm. I am constantly challenging my management team with new ideas, innovations or ventures I would like set up -- in double-quick time.
Come to think of it, my original inquisitiveness and desire to seek out new challenges can be seen in our Virgin Galactic space adventure. Following a busy year culminating in the inauguration of the Spaceport runway in New Mexico in October, my dream of space tourism is getting that much closer. A big project for 2011 will be getting our underwater exploration business up and running. Drawing on the late Steve Fossett's work, we are keen to chart the deep-sea trenches.
You may wonder if such adventures are appropriate for a man my age, 60, which brings me to my last motivational rule: "Screw it, let's do it!"