HR & Management

How Richard Branson's countless hair-raising adventures have helped him bounce back in business

10 min read

24 March 2015

Richard Branson’s appetite for excitement and adventure has seen him tackle incredible challenges both inside and outside of work and is, perhaps, as insatiable as his business drive.

His latest adventure comes in the form of the final frontier. Virgin Galactic has successfully raised some $390m to propel civilians into outer space.

“Space has always fascinated me,” Branson said. “As a young boy, looking up at the stars, I found it impossible to resist thinking what was out there and if I ever would experience space first-hand.”

Unfortunately, his ambitions were halted when a pilot died during a test in November 2014. But this is far from the first time that Branson has had to face a grave misadventure. One such example was when he capsized while attempting the fastest Atlantic Ocean crossing in 1985.

“I got pulled out of the sea I think six times by helicopters, and each time, I didn’t expect to come home to tell the tale,” Branson explained.

“Every successful businessman will have experienced set-backs and failures – they’re lying if they say they haven’t. Virgin has led some tremendously successful businesses and some have not quite worked out. Virgin Cola springs to mind – the product wasn’t distinct enough for Cola.”

On the subject of Cola: “We mistakenly thought we could take on Coca-Cola, and we launched a Cola bottle called ‘The Pammy’, which was shaped a bit like Pamela Anderson. But the trouble is, it kept on tipping over!”

He admits, however, that his countless adventures have helped him bounce back after each business mistake.

“The important thing is to take what you have learnt from the experience and apply it to your future ventures going forward,” he advised. That’s why Branson said he will “never quit” going on daily kiteboard rides back on Necker Island.

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He said: “Life is the ultimate adventure and I plan to be pushing the boundaries for many more years.”

But what are his favourite adventures?

In 1986, as part of a crew trying to break the world record for the fastest crossing, Branson took off from the US in a Virgin Atlantic Challenger II boat.

“It took us two attempts to get the record,” he said. “The first Virgin Atlantic Challenger ended up sinking and we were rescued by helicopter, but setting the record on the second go made it all worthwhile.”

They completed the voyage more than two hours faster than the previous record-holder.

Branson suggested that his “favourite mode of transport is hot-air ballooning”.

“My good friend Per Lindstrand and I became the first team to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon in 1987,” Branson explained. He admitted that the record-breaking journey was an attempt to compete with “British Airways and their 350 planes”.

“During the initial lift off the balloon was pushed into the jet stream,” he said. “The top of the balloon ended up going at a couple of hundred miles an hour, the capsule that we were in at the bottom was going at maybe two miles an hour, and it just took off. It was like holding onto a thousand horses.”

The pair crossed the ocean in a Virgin Atlantic Flyer, which was also the largest hot-air balloon to fly – at 2.3m cubic feet. They covered 2,900-mile in one and a half days. But during landing, the mechanism supposed to eject the capsule from the balloon failed and they were forced to continue flying over the Irish sea.

“The more experienced balloonist jumped, and left me holding on for dear life,” he explained. “He told me jump, but once his weight had gone, the balloon just shot up to 12,000 feet. I knew I had about half an hour’s fuel left. Then finally, I just thought, there’s a better way. I’ve got this enormous balloon above me, it’s the biggest parachute ever, why not use it? And so I managed to fly the balloon down through the clouds.”

In 2012, Branson crossed the English Channel by kite-surf. Writing in 2010, he said: “I absolutely love the amazing rush you get when going at high speeds, in high winds, with the most beautiful kite acting as your only guide.”

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He currently holds the Guinness World Record as the oldest person to cross the English Channel on an amphibious vehicle. He said: “As a lover of kitesurfing my son Sam and I decided to cross on a kiteboard and both ended up with new world records in the process.”

It was his second attempt in 24 hours after first turning back because the kite was too small.

“I got half-way across and the kite was foolishly too small for me. I was heading for the cliffs of Dover where there is no beach. I was told to go back to France, which I did, to get a bigger kite. When I got there they had packed the kites up and were heading to England.”

During that time his son continued and shaved 12 minutes off the 1999 world record. 

“It’s an amazing thing to have done,” Branson said after completing his record attempt. “The main moment when it really hit me was when we were coming in and could see the white cliffs of Dover. It reminded me of people coming over to Britain to battle. It was an amazing experience.”

Possibly one of the most horrific incidences in Branson’s eyes was his son’s trip up the summit of the Matterhorn.

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“Last summer my son and nephew led a team from London to the summit of the Matterhorn, under human power alone. I joined the team for several legs of the incredible journey, before the Strive Challenge ended with Sam being helicoptered off the summit due to altitude sickness. I’ve been rescued by helicopter many times so I guess it runs in the family.”

In a Daily Mail interview, Branson said: ‘I obviously didn’t know that Sam was throwing up and had a horrendous headache that developed from altitude sickness. I thought everything was going great. It was a beautiful day. We were circling the Matterhorn and had one door open. He was advised not to get to the top but I can understand having got to close that he went for it.

“I could see everyone huddling round somebody. He was retching and was in quite a bad way. Then, just as we were heading down, we saw an ambulance helicopter going up. We were short of fuel, so we landed. Then we heard that Sam had been med-evaced off the top. They dangled him out of the door! He said he opened his eyes and saw the mountain spinning below him, so he felt even sicker than he did before. He was clutching his guide.”

He added: “He was brought up watching me doing foolish things, whether it’s transatlantic sailing records or going round world in balloons. I’m sure a bit of adventure bug has rubbed off on him. I’m a great believer to see what you’re capable of and pushing yourself to the limits.”