Lesson 6. Platforms fail forward

Sir Richard Branson

Richard Branson, much like Steve Jobs, made a virtue of failure. His high-profile successes overshadow the failures that taught him where and how to mine growth.

At age 16, Branson dropped out of school to launch a student magazine. He turned to selling records by mail to fund that flailing enterprise. His Virgin Records label rocked the charts with its first release, Mike Oldfield’s iconic Tubular Bells. From the 70s into the 90s, Virgin famously signed the Rolling Stones, broke records with Janet Jackson, and built the foundation for the Virgin Media platform, ultimately expanding into radio, television, films, internet services, performance events and online gaming.

Branson's Virgin Records signs the Rolling Stones

Virgin Records signs the Rolling Stones

In the 1980s he launched his travel platform with Virgin Atlantic, extending as Virgin Travel into Virgin Holidays, Virgin Trains, and spinning off a lodging platform with Virgin Hotels, and automotive platform with Virgin Cars and Virgin Bikes.Virgin Direct kicked off Branson’s consumer finance platform, morphing into Virgin Money with Virgin Credit Cards and the recent acquisition of a UK bank. Following Warren Buffet’s lead, Branson belatedly but nobly launches his philanthropy platform with two funds, one promoting green energy.

Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Airways embodies Branson’s irreverent assault on old industries

Bransonaut looks to the stars

Boldly go, Bransonaut

Branson triggered a commercial space race with the formation of Virgin Galactic, a seemingly literal flight of fancy reminiscent of his earlier ballooning exploits. But timing is everything, and by 2011 Branson dedicates the “Galactic Gateway to Space” as the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport. A deal with NASA takes on research missions on SpaceShipTwo. Is this an extension of the travel platform? Considering the company he keeps — Elon Musk’s Space X, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and interstellar startups sponsored by luminaries like Bill Gates and Paul Allen — Branson may have the foundation for a galactic platform.

Now consider the commercial failures that prove essential to Virgin’s remarkable success…

Branson sold his beloved Virgin Records out from under his media empire to fund his bleeding airline. The second and last time his records business would salvage another Virgin platform.

John Sculley chokes his Newton

Apple pretender John Sculley succeeds — at making the Newton look even clumsier.

Apple interloper John Sculley and the Newton could have warned Branson that with new technologies, timing is everything.VirginStudent launched it’s pre-Facebook face book in 2000, with prescient features that have become familiar a decade later. Despite hundreds of thousands of users, Virgin’s social media platform died in 2005 with the arrival of MySpace.And in a head-to-head collision with Apple, Virgin’s Pulse, an ipod-like system, failed to extend into an electronics platform. (Virgin resuscitated the name. Virgin Pulse today refers to an employee wellness program.)

“The rise of Apple’s iPods and iTunes meant that Virgin’s device suddenly looked out of date before we had even launched it,”

Despite driving a tank through Times Square, Branson couldn’t make a go of Virgin Cola, learning not to underestimate established rivals Coke and Pepsi.

“I’ll never again make the mistake of thinking that all large, dominant companies are sleepy!”

So Virgin Vodka went down without a mixer. Virgin Vie, a cosmetics line, died the same quiet death as  Virgin Clothing and the Virginware lingerie line that tried to out Victoria’s Secret. Virgin Brides stayed that way. Maybe he should have brought flowers – but Virgin’s floral business died before it launched.

“My mother drummed into me from an early age that I should not spend much time regretting the past. I try to bring that discipline to my business career. Over the years, my team and I have not let mistakes, failures or mishaps get us down. Instead, even when a venture has failed, we try to look for opportunities, to see whether we can capitalize on another gap in the market.”

The essential lesson of Branson’s remarkable success (besides a loving mother): fail fast, fail often, and fail learning.

Having launched over 100 companies, Virgin has lost count of those that failed. As a hero to bold entrepreneurs and strategic designers alike, Branson leans forward fearlessly, and fails on his feet.

Make better.

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