Richard Branson was born in Blackheath, London 18 July 1950. His father was a barrister. Branson attended Scaitcliffe School and later Stowe school. Suffering from dyslexia, Branson did not excel at studies; he was more interested in extracurricular activities, such as football and cricket. At the age of 15, he had started to try his first business ventures, which included trying to grow trees and another raising budgerigars.
On one occasion, he was caught leaving the bedroom of the headmaster’s daughter, and Branson was expelled from school. This left him devastated and he wrote a suicide note, suggesting he couldn’t cope. When the note was discovered, he was forgiven; but failing at his studies, Branson left school at 16 – an early high school dropout.
After quitting school, he moved back to London where he began his first successful business. He started a magazine about youth culture, called The Student. It was produced by students, for students and was launched in 1966. Branson was able to attract significant advertisement from firms wishing to tap the student market; this enabled him to distribute the first 50,000 copies for free.
The 1960s in London was known as the ‘swinging sixties’ – Branson admits he was living the life of a hippy, in a London commune – a large shared house, surrounded by the music and drugs of the age. However, although he may have been a hippie, Branson also had a keen business sense, and he set up a mail order record company called Virgin to complement the student magazine. The Virgin name was suggested by one of Branson’s workers – who suggested the idea because they were all new at business. Branson later said he got into business out of accident – not to make money, but out of frustration things weren’t better.
With modest profits from his magazine and mail order business, he was able to get a record shop on Oxford Street, London. Undercutting other High Street retailers, Virgin Records experienced good growth. Though, on one occasion, due to an unpaid tax bill Branson’s mother Eve had to re-mortgage her house to help Branson stay afloat.
As the record business expanded, Branson created his own record label with Nik Powell – Virgin Music in 1972. Within a year, Branson had a great stroke of luck. His first artist, Mike Oldfield, recorded the album ‘Tubular Bells’ and this proved a smash hit, staying in the charts for over four years. This high profile and earnings helped Branson to sign up some of the top bands of the era, including Culture Club, the Rolling Stones, Genesis, and controversial bands such as the Sex Pistols.
In 1984, Branson branched out into his biggest business venture – forming Virgin Atlantic Airways, and he started competing in a market dominated by big national carriers, such as British Airways. At times this rivalry was intense, with Virgin accusing British Airways of dirty tricks in poaching customers. As the ‘dirty tricks’ was taken to court, British Airways eventually agreed to settle out of court. However, in 1992, Branson had to sell Virgin records to EMI for £500m to help keep a struggling Virgin Atlantic afloat.
Other big business ventures of the Virgin group include – Virgin Mobile in 1999 and entering into British railways with Virgin Trains in 1993. In 2007, he created Virgin Money. Less successful ventures include Virgin cola, and Virgin vodka. He also failed to win a contract to run the National Lottery – even though he offered to do it for zero profit.