"No one really wants to take themselves all that seriously."-- Sir Richard Branson.
I interviewed Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, in front of an audience of more than 200 luxury professionals this week at the American Express Publishing Luxury Summit in Dana Point, CA. He had just arrived at 4 a.m. from London, where he was a visible presence at the London Marathon, sponsored by Virgin.
In sunny Orange County, Sir Richard was escorted onstage by two smartly-dressed Virgin Atlantic flight attendants. However, the audience had heard him before ever seeing him. He'd been telling stories backstage, and we were laughing so loud we were told to keep it down. Branson likes to tell stories, and he'd been recounting to me one of his recent publicity stunts to inaugurate Virgin flights to Scotland. He was competing against longtime rival British Airways. Branson said he was wearing a kilt for the cameras at the event and finally thought, "Oh screw it, so I lifted my kilt." Underneath he wore underwear bearing the slogan "Stiff Competition."
Onstage, we turned to questions about the best ways to run a consumer-focused, high-end business. He showed a video previewing his Virgin Galactic space tourism venture, and he said the first manned flights should finally happen by the end of this year or the beginning of 2014. Branson will be on that first flight along with his two children. "My wife would never forgive me if I don't bring the children back safely," he said, in explaining the many delays in getting Virgin Galactic off the ground. "She's not especially worried about me."
While seats on a Virgin Galactic flight cost $200,000 each,many of Virgin's businesses aim to provide the feel of luxury—or at least of being cool—at a more affordable price. His latest venture, a chain of new Virgin Hotels, will be a bit like his U.S. airline Virgin America:fun, trendy, nice, but not exorbitant. The first hotel opens in Chicago next year.
Here are six takeaways from Branson's talk.
Branson said when launching something new, or to keep your business fresh, you have to be first with what the consumer wants. For example, with Virgin America: "We had to be the first to have free on board wi-fi." When I asked him what "first, new thing" the consumer wants now, he smiled and said, "Well, romance." During some Virgin flights, a dating app allows passengers to ask another flier if he or she would like to meet. "Perhaps on the way to the loo that person can let you know if they fancy you, too," Branson quipped. When I asked if that means you are supposed to follow the person to the loo, the audience laughed. "Let me just say," Branson replied, "we are not the sort of airline which bangs on the lavatory door."
It may sound trite, but Branson says it's true. Your product or service just has to be better than the competition. He admits not everything Virgin has tried was successful. Virgin Cola seemed like a great idea and did well for a time. "Until Coca Cola realized Virgin Cola might actually takeoff." He said Coke went to great lengths to kill the competition and succeeded, though not completely. "We're still number one in Bangladesh."
Pay Attention to Detail
No detail is too small. Branson said a manager should always carry a notebook and get out from behind a desk to walk around. Talk to customers, take notes, he advised. Talk to employees, take notes. "Attention to detail leads to happier employees." And happy employees are key. When your employees are happy, your customers are happy, too. As a customer, Branson said it is important to him that employees greet him with a smile.
Make Failure an Option
"One thing I think America should change is Chapter 11." Branson said that allowing failing airlines to stay in business and restructure is one reason why he thinks most U.S. airlines are terrible. "Trees die, people die," he said, so why can't a business die to make way for a younger, healthier replacement?
Approach Charity Like a Business Opportunity
Branson is increasingly focused on nonprofit enterprises through Virgin Unite. He's also supporting initiatives like one encouraging hotels to filter their own water on site and stock reusable bottles in rooms to erase disposable plastic water bottles. When I asked him how he chooses which charitable endeavors to support, he explained he likes to pick projects where he feels he can make a difference, in much the same way he chooses a new business. He wants to be able to bring together the right people to "run" a charity and succeed much as he would choose an executive team for a for-profit venture.
The Best Investments Are Priceless
A member of the audience asked Branson to recall a luxury moment in his life that cost him nothing. Branson thought for a moment before replying. He said many years ago he saw an island in the Caribbean "which was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen." It was for sale for about $6 million."I scraped together $100,000 and left it on the table." It was all the money he could raise at the time. The sellers received no other offers, and one year later, "They told me the place was mine." That was Necker Island, Branson's now famous home in the British Virgin Islands. You can actually rent the place for around $42,000…a night. "We'll never sell. It's priceless." When asked what the island is worth now, he said he's been offered $200 million, making it the best $100,000 Branson has ever invested. "It didn't exactly cost nothing" for that moment of luxury, he said, "but it cost next to nothing."
—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: