At the age of 66, Virgin billionaire Richard Branson has seen a lot of entrepreneurs come and go, but he’s also gotten to know some of the enduring titans of the tech industry, such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Seattle’s entrepreneurial spirit is one big reason why Branson scheduled one of his signature “Business Is an Adventure” forums here this week. (Another big reason was the start of Virgin Atlantic’s nonstop air service between London and Seattle.)
During an exclusive interview with GeekWire, Branson gave his unvarnished views on controversial issues ranging from Donald Trump’s presidency to the status of women in the entrepreneurial world. But he also reflected on his relationships with Bezos and Gates.
Both Branson and Bezos have founded space companies. Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture is testing the SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane, and Virgin Orbit is working on LauncherOne, an air-launch system for putting small satellites in orbit. Meanwhile, Bezos’ Blue Origin is testing its own New Shepard suborbital rocket ship and working on its New Glenn rocket for putting payloads in orbit and beyond.
Branson shares even more history with Gates, ranging from their collaboration on philanthropic efforts to their tennis games.
Last year, the three billionaires teamed up with other movers and shakers around the world to create the Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investment fund focusing on clean-energy technologies. So it looks as if Branson, Bezos and Gates will be working with each other for years to come.
Here’s a transcript of Branson’s observations on Seattle’s top entrepreneurs, edited for length and clarity:
GeekWire: You’ve said how great Seattle is as an entrepreneurial city, and so we wanted your thoughts on some of the big entrepreneurs of the city. Jeff Bezos at Amazon, for instance. You’ve got a space venture. He’s got a space venture. Do you have any thoughts on how Jeff is doing? Do you compare yourselves with each other?
Richard Branson: “It’s funny. The last time I met Jeff was about 30 years ago in Seattle at Bill Gates’ home. We were sitting next to each other, and there were 19 other bigwigs from different companies from around the world that Bill had pulled together.
“Bill stood up on a little platform at the front of the living room and said, ‘Richard, would you like to come and talk to the other 19 business leaders?’
“I nervously got up to talk, and before I left my chair, he said, ‘I’m a great believer that we should all be tested in life, so I’m going to hand out a bit of paper to the other 19 of you, and if you could, mark Richard nought-to-10 for what he has to say to you all.’
“I was like, ‘Ah, f—. I left school at 15.’ That was the last thing I expected. I thought I got away from all of these exams. So I turned to Jeff Bezos and said, ‘Look, I’ll give you 10 if you give me 10.’
“That was 30 years ago. I haven’t spoken to him since.”
Q: I assume you gave him a 10?
A: “I don’t even know if he actually got up, but sure, of course I did. I am going to pop by and say hello to him this afternoon. I haven’t seen him since then, strangely. We’ve both been pretty busy.”
Q: What score would you give him now, based on what he’s done over the past 30 years?
A: “It’s extraordinary, extraordinary, extraordinary what he’s achieved. You can’t do better than 10 out of 10, but he’s definitely one of the greatest entrepreneurs of all time.”
Q: What stands out about him as an entrepreneur, or about Amazon?
A: “From a consumer point of view, he’s produced a brand that delivers extraordinary, competitive, good products. But he’s now moving on from his conventional business into an area that we’re very excited about, which is space travel. And I think, knowing him, he will be highly competitive and most likely very successful at it.
“Fortunately, from our point of view, there are millions and millions of people who want to go to space, The experience that Blue Origin offers and that Virgin Galactic offers are very different kinds of experiences, although similar in some respects.
“A lot of the people who want to go up in one would most likely, in time, want to go up in both experiences. Then, we’re also putting up this big array of satellites around the Earth. He’s building thes massive monster rockets. We’ll be working alongside each other. I’m sure we’ll be overlapping, competing a bit, and we’ll watch this space. It’ll be interesting.”
Q: And Microsoft and its CEO, Satya Nadella? You’ve already mentioned Bill Gates. …
A: “I’m working very closely with Bill in the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. When you have a president of America who is denying climate change, you need business leaders like myself and Bill Gates and others to step into the breach and try to fill the gap that the leader of a powerful country like America leaves.
“I also work with Bill Gates on the Giving Pledge, so we meet up two or three times a year on that. We also are avid tennis partners and foes on the tennis court, and so we try to get to play tennis. He sometimes comes down to our island in the Caribbean. So I’ve gotten to know Bill Gates much better than Satya or Jeff Bezos.”
GeekWire: Who wins at tennis? Is Bill Gates competitive?
Branson: “You better ask Bill. Yeah, he’s competitive. I think I’m slightly ahead at the moment, but I have the chance, living on the island, to play morning and evening.”