Is Richard Branson a typical entrepreneur?

By: Mike Southon

Date: 16 January 2012

The London launch of Sir Richard Branson's new book Screw Business As Usual was a very jolly affair. The man himself said all the right things and was ably supported by Jean Oelwang CEO of Virgin Unite, the not-for-profit foundation of the Virgin Group.

The audience included several notable social entrepreneurs, including John Bird, the founder of The Big Issue, whose scene-stealing cameo made my job of running the question and answer session very easy indeed.

The room was also packed with the world's press and media, but I was concerned that some might take a negative view of the proceedings. This was aptly demonstrated by Lucy Kellaway's review of Sir Richard's book in the FT. Her view was that Branson is an attention-seeking egomaniac prone to shameless name-dropping, and the book was unstructured, even if Sir Richard's charisma was undeniable.

Kellaway does have a point. Many of the very successful entrepreneurs I have met and interviewed were prone to attention seeking, name-dropping and the generation of unstructured books. I also think Kellaway's review is unlikely to change anyone's opinion of Branson himself, the Virgin Group or social enterprise, the key premise of the book.

There can be no argument about the general benefits of all three; Branson is successful, the economy needs driven entrepreneurs and social enterprise is now a proven vehicle for running businesses that have an overall benefit to society.

My own take on Screw Business As Usual is that between the anecdotes and name-checking in the book, there are real-life examples of every flavour of social enterprise.

The book explains how companies such as Virgin Atlantic are reducing their carbon footprint and details charitable entities that are bringing people out of poverty, as well as highly successful and profitable businesses that are improving rather than destroying the social fabric of the world.

If you are inspired by Branson and aspire to be a social entrepreneur, you will find a model in his book that suits your purpose. If you cannot stand him, you will probably continue to avoid his various products and services. If you are an entrepreneur in high dudgeon about unsympathetic press coverage, you need to get over it.

Twenty years ago I launched spoof ‘60s rock star Mike Fab-Gere on an unsuspecting public. I was thrilled to secure a major profile in a national newspaper, but incandescent with rage when the journalist, who had nodded sympathetically at my every utterance during the interview, then wrote what I considered to be a negative piece. Their argument was that my belief in 'peace and love' as a viable strategy for a happy and successful life was unrealistic and naïve.

Everyone else who read the piece took a different view, pointing out the number of column inches and the size of my photograph. The article certainly had no adverse effect on my musical or entrepreneurial career over the next twenty years.

As someone who successfully entertains and informs her readers, Kellaway is entitled to her opinion about Screw Business as Usual. I have also resisted the temptation to track down my journalist from twenty years ago and point out the subsequent error of their ways.

As we said in our own book, entrepreneurs are often over-sensitive and prone to insecurities, which can lead to an obsession with appearing on television and a desire for revenge against those who they feel have crossed them.

But as we also pointed out, the best revenge is not "a dish served cold", but "a happy life", and everyone agrees that Sir Richard does seem to be having very good fun indeed.

Screw Business As Usual by Sir Richard Branson is published by Virgin Books.

Originally published in The Financial Times. Copyright ©Mike Southon 2012. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing.

Mike Southon is the co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur and a business speaker.