Richard Branson, the business icon and entrepreneur extraordinaire is back on the bookshelves with another autobiography, “Finding My Virginity,” which, um, bookends a shelf of previous autobiographies like, “Like a Virgin,” The Virgin Way,” and “Losing my Virginity.” Branson’s appropriation of virginity was mildly shocking once but in these times, it serves well to describe a man who admittedly knew very little about many of the endeavors he embarked upon but who also proved to be a remarkably quick study on the way to amassing a fortune estimated at $6 billion at one point.
“You can only lose your virginity once.” he writes in the prologue. “But in every aspect of my life—building businesses, raising my family, embarking upon adventures—I try to do things for the first time every day.” In other words, he is a serial virginity loser, which helps explain his success.
Branson’s daring, impulsivity and ability to take a hit and keep on functioning have made him a legend, a fortune, and at least once saved his life but as is often true of the great ones it’s the failures that tell much more. For instance, there was a New Yorker article a few years back that described his death defying attempts (yes there was more than one) to circumnavigate the earth in a helium balloon. The first attempts ended in oceans and with introductions to some very nice navy and coast guard types but the attempt that sticks is the one that made it, naturally.
But there was a more harrowing experience in which Branson and his wife were sailing in the Caribbean with another couple when the boat’s mast broke. They were by Branson’s estimate miles from land and the foursome had to decide whether to stay with the wreck or swim. Branson and his wife didn’t think twice and made a swim for it. The other couple was never heard from again. It could have easily gone the other way, but it didn’t.
Closer to the present, I started following Branson’s career in earnest about ten years ago when he offered a prize of $25 million of his own money for a method that in prototype could absorb one billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year for ten successive years and keep it out. Branson’s thinking was that such a demonstration would likely scale up to a level sufficient to help ease the planet’s problem with carbon pollution. As an owner of airlines he felt some responsibility for finding a solution.
Naturally, there was news coverage. In my book, “The Age of Sustainability” I quote headlines in the New York Times including, “A Cool $25 Million for a Climate Backup Plan,” in the Science Times section on February 13, 2007, above a story by John Tierney. Referring to global warming at that announcement, Branson said, “Man created the problem, therefore man should solve the problem.”
No matter that what Branson wanted was a way to un-smoke a cigarette, he compared his Virgin Earth Challenge to the quest to discover a method for determining longitude at sea which was inspired by the 1714 Longitude Act of the British Parliament.
But four years later another Times story, “Cash Prize for Environmental Help Goes Unawarded,” told a very different tale. Branson and his team had reviewed more than 2,600 challenge submissions and found none of them worthy. What happened in the intervening four years is a lesson in large-scale research, development, international cooperation, invention, and expectation setting. In short, Branson’s discovery that at least some of the solutions required tampering with earth’s natural systems, and violated various international treaties poured cold water on the effort. Then too, many of the solutions simply didn’t work for various reasons. Solving the problem would require international cooperation at the level of nation states, an area where Branson’s expertise was, and still is, virginal.
Today the Virgin Earth Challenge is in a state of suspended animation, no prize has been awarded but people are definitely working on projects and no one is very concerned. After all, solving the longitude problem took up most of the 18th century and the productive lives of those who chased the dream which culminated when a self-taught clock maker, John Harrison, produced the first true marine chronometer which enabled mariners to compare the time at a home port (later the prime meridian at Greenwich, UK) with the local time derived from celestial observations. After that, a simple calculation could tell you where you were.
In all of this Branson has played the role of catalyst providing capital but also, and more importantly, vision and encouragement derived from a belief that problems have solutions. In essence this divides the world into two camps engineers who can figure out solutions to problems, and those who dream quixotically of doing the impossible, like repealing the law of gravity. Branson is many things but he is not, contrary to the image, quixotic.
It’s a slow week with lots of people on vacation. I am on a plane heading to San Francisco to shoot a video with Zuora but judging by the number of screaming children under five on the plane I would say that I am in the minority on this one. No matter, they’re cute and well behaved and remind me of a time when I burned a bunch of miles taking the family on a cross-country trip. As I recall, we sat in first class and one of my boys who was in the process of toilet training liked to stand on his head in his seat. Takeoffs and landings were an especially challenging part of the trip. I’ll spare you the fond memories of the other thing.
But I am flying and writing today and wondering about inflation of all things. You might find that odd given the state of the economy and the official numbers coming out of Washington and other world capitals but maybe it isn’t.
Inflation is measured as the cost of a market basket of goods and services measured and recorded on a monthly basis. Naturally, there are numerous games we can play with inflation by simply manipulating the market basket. One of the favorite tricks of pundits and prognosticators is the exclusion. That’s where someone says that for instance, energy and food are so volatile that we shouldn’t count them because their volatility skews the numbers.
But what’s the point of having the market basket if you aren’t going to compare apples? When they take the volatiles out they skew the picture just as sure as they do when they leave them in but with one critical difference. If energy prices rise or if food does the same, it does me no good to know that inflation is somehow supposedly under control if I don’t have any money left at the end of the month because I spent more on the staples of life than I did the month before.
A few years ago one administration, I forget who was president, started substituting things in the market basket a construct (and a data record) that went back to the New Deal. Here’s how they worked it. Say beef prices went up because Argentina was suddenly exporting less and the American beef industry moved to sell more product internationally leaving less for domestic demand. The inflation watchdogs would substitute chicken in the market basket thinking that this is what savvy consumers might do if beef prices rose too much too fast. The result was stable inflation rather than the reality that higher beef prices contributed to that penniless feeling you came home from the grocery store with.
Finally, the market basket is far from all encompassing so there are plenty of places where prices rise but their rise does not register. I remember reading about a guy who kept his own version of the market basket and based it on the things that were most important to him. One of those things was the cost of a milkshake at the local dairy bar. I don’t recall all the details but his results were at variance, as they say in economic speak, to the “real” inflation numbers.
In that spirit I would like to offer an item for the basket and, who knows, I may be starting my own basket. It’s the price of wireless internet service on a Virgin flight, which uses the go-go service. Thanks to go-go’s record keeping, I am able to access mu account history. It seems in 2010, the first time I bought the service I paid $12.95. The cost actually went down for several flights after that either because they were running a special to get people hooked or, and this is a dim memory, someone was giving free or discounted service to all passengers during the holidays.
At any rate, my point is that the price of WiFi has gone up dramatically over less than two years. Today I paid $17.95 for the same service I once paid $9.95 for. Off the base of $9.95 we’re looking at an 80% increase and divided over two years that produces a 40% inflation rate. Yikes! Looks like the increasing cost of internet is tracking the plane’s altitude.
Economists would probably just call this pricing the asset to its utility. You pay a small-ish price for connectivity and you get to have the illusion of being productive while flying 500 mph across the continent. But even as the price of connecting has increased, the service has deteriorated. More people on the router means slower connections and increasing frustration.
But more to the point there is the issue of the customer. Am I simply a consumer who the airline seeks to extract money from as quickly as possible or am I a customer with whom they expect to develop and nurture a long-term relationship?
To be fair much of Virgin’s messaging to me by the way they treat me suggests they think of me as a customer but that’s just the business model showing. The corporate urge to promote consumerism is strong and I would say not fully domesticated. So we have the market basket of services and they we have those special things they wouldn’t dream of including in the base package. Perhaps it’s my age and experience showing but I don’t trust corporations much any more.