How adventure, celebrity and sheer determination helped the entrepreneur build the Virgin empire.
If you decide to tackle an engineering challenge or to venture into the scientific unknown as an entrepreneur, you’re embarking on a real adventure – difficult, fascinating, often risky. Sometimes you and your team might feel quite alone, while at others you might choose to partner with friends or even competitors. It’s important to remember that we all learn from and build on others’ accomplishments.
This idea was driven home to me a year ago, when one of my publishers came to visit me on Necker Island, in the British Virgin Islands. I had imagined his new book idea would be based on my business experiences, but he said, “There’s this great passage in your autobiography where you nearly get yourself killed.”
Ah, I thought, that’s more like it. “Really. Which one? They were quite a few!”
“You remember: In the mid-1970s, a chap called Richard Ellis got you to try out his early form of hang glider.”
I remembered, all right. The contraption was called a Pterodactyl. I took off in it by mistake and nearly killed myself. “You know, a few days later Richard was dead, too.”
“So,” he said, “Ellis died, and you escaped only by the skin of your teeth. What we were wondering was, what on earth made either of you want to take those kinds of risks?”
Why? Well, let’s not forget that Richard Ellis was one of the inventors of the Pterodactyl Ascender series of hang gliders. A few years after the crash, Jack Peterson, Jr. flew a Pterodactyl across the continental United States in 120-mile hops. His machine now hangs in the Smithsonian – a stone’s throw away from SpaceShipOne, the first private manned space vehicle, which was designed by Burt Rutan.
“Well …” I began slowly, not exactly happy with where this conversation was going, “there was the thrill, obviously. And then there was the whole sponsorship thing. Ellis wanted me to champion this new form of flying that he was introducing to the U.K. from America. I’ve always loved the idea of flying and I thought: maybe I can use this to publicize what I do.”
The more I talked, the more connections I uncovered. “You know hang glider wings are based on a design that was supposed to bring NASA’s Mercury capsules down to Earth? This of course ties in with what we’re doing with Burt Rutan at Virgin Galactic. Re-entry is the toughest recurring challenge for any space vehicle, and …” I stopped. The publisher was grinning.
Soon we had a book, which I called “Reach for the Skies” in homage to my childhood hero, British flying ace Douglas Bader. It’s about flight. More than that, it’s about the people behind the inventions and accomplishments.
If you’re considering a project that involves technical challenges, remember that long before innovators have the right materials at hand, we already know how to achieve our dreams.
Look at the history of flight: the workings of intercontinental air travel were being hashed out by textile engineers John Stringfellow and William Henson nearly 60 years before the first airplane flight.
Throughout my career, I myself have been deeply involved in projects that have pushed the envelope of manned flight. While I am known for drawing attention to Virgin, none of our experiments were just mere publicity “stunts”; they were steps in our research and development process. Swedish aeronaut Per Lindstrand and I crossed the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon in 1987 and the Pacific in 1991, setting records that still stand. The envelopes of those balloons were made of materials as radical then as Rutan’s space-faring composites are today.
Once you’ve solved all those engineering challenges, you’ll have to figure out how you’re going to turn your hard work into money. Drawing attention to your new idea or invention helps, but you’ll need a business plan.
The working method I’ve described, with its components of engineering, adventure, celebrity and business, was not invented by the Virgin team, though it has carried me and my friends from a basement off London’s Edgware Road to the edges of outer space. This approach drew admiration, criticism and incredulity long before Queen Victoria’s Parliament rang with laughter at the preposterous idea of a world airline; long before startled peasants took pitchforks to Jacques Charles’ gas balloon in 1783. It takes a very long time to build a business. At Virgin, my team and I build for the future. And the future’s wild.