The playful tycoon

The playful tycoon

There's a sort of ultimate ideal, popular in society, that is considered the end goal for every entrepreneur. This ideal involves winning at everything in life - at family, at business, at all sorts of physical endeavours, at charity, and most importantly, at marketing oneself as the cheeky winner. A large part of this ideal, I think, has been shaped by Richard Branson's life.

In 1998, he wrote his autobiography, Losing my Virginity, in which he talked of how he rose from small business-ideas at school to the owner of Virgin Records, and later Virgin Airlines, all the while taking on awe-inspiring physical challenges such as circumnavigating the globe in a balloon.

In his new book, Finding my Virginity, he continues the story from where he left off, talking of how he started up railway companies, multiple airlines, mobile carriers, a fitness centre chain, a spaceship company, and numerous others. In parallel, we hear of his death-defying athletic feats - not to mention death-defying marketing campaigns, and also about his interactions with various world leaders.

One starts off reading this book somewhat bemused at what is essentially a long series of boasts - "I did this, I did that, etc." As one goes on, though, what sticks with the reader is Branson's readiness to take risks and the spirit of can-do that he exhibits.

Most important here are the times when he actually tried and failed - there have been spacecraft crashes, train accidents, businesses going bust, deaths of friends, even celebrities who hated him. Branson is as open about these instances as he is about his successes. In-between these stories, Branson also talks about when not to take those risks he's famous for - an essential part of improving one's success rate.

This is not a business-management course. Branson doesn't go too deep into what it takes to run the business itself - he focuses on his own experiences, and keeps in mind that the readers are likely to be interested in the funny details rather than in the mundane. Think of it as your dear uncle Richard, whom you come across in a Christmas party, telling you what he's been up to in the past year.

The chapters of the book are focused either on the journeys of individual businesses or on specific people who feature in multiple stories. So, for example, we have one chapter about his father, another on his fitness clubs, then another (or two) on Nelson Mandela.

Maybe the two most relevant chapters for a reader in 2017 are the ones on Donald Trump and Brexit. Trump, in Branson's telling, is every bit the kind of man that his popular image makes him out to be - but there is a huge element of surprise in the American establishment around his victory.

No one expected him to actually win! On Brexit, Branson talks again of how no one expected it to actually happen, and he pulls no punches in talking of the lies that the British public was fed in the run-up to the vote.

He talks of how he's tried to influence withdrawal of the decision but failed. Both these are refreshingly personal accounts of the news, by someone in the middle of things. The relatively positive interactions - with Obama, with Mandela, with David Cameron - also have that personal touch to them, and Branson's respect for them is clear.

Interwoven with all these are the chapters about his family - his father, his children, his wife, and how they have helped shape his life. In later chapters, as the children grow up, they start getting involved in his business and physical ventures as well.

Indeed, that's what you take away from the book - the feeling of being in the middle of dozens of things all at once, and enjoying it. Yes, Branson is insanely rich and lives on his own private island. But this isn't a one-off deal for him - he's working with that money, setting up new ventures and managing his existing ones continuously. According to him, starting up a business is almost the noblest thing a man can do with his life.

Then there's, of course, his trademark brand of humour - poking David Cameron in the ribs, dressing up in drag to serve food on an Air Asia flight (because he lost a bet), sneaking a motor into his bicycle in order to win a race. It's all part of that same 'uncle Richard tells a story' vibe.

The relatively segregated chapter topics make this a good book to read in bits and pieces, even though it's quite long. Go for it if the lifestyles of the rich and enthusiastic interest you. You might find yourself learning a few things, too.

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