Money Matters

Flying high down under

By Richard Branson
Mon, 10, 17


Sometimes the publicity stunts we pull at Virgin can take even me by surprise. That was the case with the launch of Virgin Mobile in Australia. By November 2000, Virgin Mobile UK had more than 500,000 customers and scooped Mobile Choice’s Network of the Year award (not bad, since we didn’t actually have a network!). As the Aussie public had embraced our airline so quickly, it made sense to strike while the iron was hot and launch a second mobile company Down Under.

As in Britain, we found an established company, Optus, and agreed to a partnership using Optus’ network infrastructure and Virgin’s branding and customer experience. And, as with the launch of Virgin Mobile in the UK, we wanted an event to get people talking.

The first inkling I got that something unusual was going on was when I was picked up from my hotel, the Holiday Inn in Potts Point, Sydney. I got into a car with Jean Oelwang, our chief marketing officer, Catherine Salway, our brand director, and Peter Beikmanis, Virgin Mobile’s designated “party prince.” I presumed we would be driving to the harbour, but instead we started heading out of the city and into the countryside.

“I thought we were going to do the launch next to Sydney Harbor,” I said.

“Erm, yes, we are,” said Jean, a little too nervously.

As the others in the car exchanged sideways looks, I could tell something was up. The next thing I knew we had arrived in an empty field. It seemed an unusual and unpopulated venue for a business launch. Then I heard the whupp-whupp-whupp of helicopter blades. That made more sense. I stood back in the full force of the wind as the helicopter landed next to the car.

“I think I get the picture.” I was about to climb into the helicopter when Jean pulled me to one side.

“Richard, we probably should have told you this earlier ...”

Jean stood back as one of the helicopter crew put a harness on me. “You’re not actually going in the helicopter. You’re going to fly a hundred feet under it.”

That was a new one! I could feel my heart beginning to thump, but nothing ventured and all that. The helicopter crew told me to lie flat on the ground. As I lay down in the soft warmth of the grass, I could feel a bungee rope being attached to my waist.

“Keep still,” I was told. “Keep your head down.”

As I lay there I could hear the blades whir into action. I was just wondering what my wife Joan would make of my current predicament when, with a jerk, I was lifted off the ground. As I went up, I spun around and around uncontrollably fast. I tried to get myself into a skydiving position — arms and legs spread-eagled. My face had a fixed expression somewhere between bemusement and, I suspect, terror. Probably closer to terror, thinking about it.

Finally, I got the hang of it, and now we were really moving. I was flying forward through the air, 100 feet below the helicopter, at a rapid rate. Over the years, I have often had dreams where I am flapping my arms and flying. Sometimes I soar around Necker Island in the Caribbean, smelling the ocean air. Other times I fly up into space, looking down at the pale blue dot of Earth. Usually, however, I am looking down along Oxford Street in London, where our first Virgin Records store was, knowing that if I stopped I would crash. I swoop down, knock somebody’s hat off and zoom back upward. Occasionally I wake up falling.

This was as close as I’d get to my dreams in reality. I’ve never had a more exhilarating experience in my life. I worked out that if I dropped my arm on either side I could even control my direction — to a certain extent. As we approached the city I began to enjoy myself, waving to confused-looking people far below, and feeling more like Peter Pan than ever before. This is what being a bird must feel like, I thought to myself.

The next thing I knew, the imposing structure of Sydney Harbor Bridge was approaching fast in front of me. I tried dropping my arms as I’d just taught myself, but it wasn’t going to be enough. I tried shouting to the helicopter pilot to climb higher, but that was just as futile: There was no way he could hear me.

“Higher! Higher!” I shouted.

I’m going to hit the bridge. I was sure of it. What a way to go, I thought, zooming across the sky in a harness before ... SPLAT! A face-first collision with one of Australia’s most iconic constructions, like Wile E Coyote in a Looney Tunes cartoon.

At what felt like the last possible second, the helicopter veered upward and I narrowly avoided becoming a permanent addition to the side of the bridge. I barely had time to catch my breath as we zipped across it, low enough for me to see the astonished expressions of the bridge walkers looking up.

Finally, we landed on top of a giant cage structure next to the Sydney Opera House. I was bursting with adrenaline, pumped up after everything I’d just been through. Inside the cage, people were dressed in the colours of all of our rivals — there were lots in Australia’s highly competitive mobile market. They were wearing handcuffs to signify the long contracts they were locked into by the likes of Vodafone and Telstra, and singing, “Set us free! Set us free!” I set off some explosive bolts, the cage collapsed and the “customers” were freed.

“I thought I was a goner for a minute there,” I told Jean afterward.

“I’m very glad you weren’t,” she said reassuringly. “We hadn’t managed to get you insured!”

It’s crucial to make a big splash whenever you launch a business, particularly when you’re entering a new competitive market. Of course, you don’t need to take your life into your own hands and lasso yourself to a helicopter (as much fun as that is). But publicity stunts do serve a vital purpose: They get people’s attention. And these days, what’s more valuable than that?

(This article is adapted from Richard Branson’s latest book, “Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography.”)

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© 2017 Richard Branson (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)