After Virgin Orbit failure: Richard Branson's successes and disasters

The man who reached the stars… but it wasn’t always plain sailing: Billionaire Virgin founder Richard Branson’s huge successes from music to flights to the disasters from cola to bridal gowns after Virgin Orbit filed for bankruptcy

  • Sir Richard’s Virgin Orbit filed for bankruptcy after failed Cornwall space launch
  • MailOnline has looked back at the billionaire’s biggest failures and successes

Billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s space bound enterprise Virgin Orbit failed unceremoniously last week as the satellite launch company filed for bankruptcy.

The firm had failed to secure the long-term funding it needed to help it recover from rocket launch failure in January.

The historic launch from Newquay, Cornwall, on January 9 was meant to have been the first ever satellite blasted into orbit from British soil – but an ‘anomaly’ with the LauncherOne rocket prevented the equipment it was carrying from reaching orbit.

A repurposed 747 – named Cosmic Girl by Virgin – took off from Newquay Airport at 10.02pm. The jumbo jet was carrying the rocket, which would deposit its payload in a low Earth orbit, but LauncherOne was unable to reach the right altitude to maintain an orbit.

The company, based in Long Beach, California, lodged the filing in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware seeking a sale of its assets after announcing the layoff of roughly 85% of its 750 employees last week.

Billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s space bound enterprise Virgin Orbit failed unceremoniously last week as the satellite launch company filed for bankruptcy

The LauncherOne rocket in a hanger at Spaceport Cornwall, at Cornwall Airport in Newquay 

Cosmic Girl, a Boeing 747-400 aircraft carrying the LauncherOne rocket under its left wing, pictured as final preparations were made at Cornwall Airport Newquay on January 9

‘At this stage, we believe that the Chapter 11 process represents the best path forward to identify and finalize an efficient and value-maximizing sale,’ Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a statement on Tuesday.

The company listed assets of about $243million (around £195million) and total debt at $153.5million (around £123.4million) as of September 30 in the filing.

Virgin Orbit went public in 2021 through a blank-check deal, raising $255million less than expected. The company was spun off from Branson’s space tourism firm Virgin Galactic in 2017, Virgin Orbit air-launches rockets from beneath a modified Boeing 747 plane to send satellites into orbit.

And as Branson’s latest business venture has ended in failure, MailOnline has taken a look back at some of the British billionaire’s other, perhaps less well known, ventures that didn’t take off, from Virgin Cola to Virgin Brides. But this goes to show that even the most successful entrepreneurs cannot avoid the occasional misstep.

We will also look at some of Virgin’s biggest successes including the one that started it all, Virgin Records, which Branson sold for more than half a billion pounds in 1992; and Virgin Media, one of the UK’s leading TV and broadband providers.

The Virgin flops: Branson’s brand disasters

Virgin Cola

These days, Richard Branson is not a name you would naturally associate with soft drinks, but when he introduced Virgin Cola in 1994, he thought he could compete with big players Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

Branson now considers Virgin Cola to be one of the biggest business mistakes he ever made, but he certainly made a splash when he introduced the fizzy drink by driving a tank through the streets of New York and ‘declared war’ on their biggest competitor by smashing through a wall of Coca-Cola cans.

While Virgin had ‘grand ambitions’ with the beverage, the business says they faltered as they did not disrupt the market or offer consumers ‘something significantly better’ than the competition.

Recalling the launch in a blog post, Branson said: ‘It’s fair to say that our launch of Virgin Cola in 1994 was not subtle. Driving a tank through New York’s streets before smashing through a wall of Coca-Cola cans certainly created some front-page headlines, which was exactly what we wanted.

‘With Virgin Cola, we felt confident that we could smash our way past Coca-Cola and Pepsi, our main competitors. It turned out, however, that we hadn’t thought things through. Declaring a soft drink war on Coke was madness.’

Richard Branson (pictured) now considers Virgin Cola to be one of the biggest business mistakes he ever made

Richard Branson (left) introduced Virgin Cola in 1994 to compete with Coca-Cola

In response the Virgin Cola’s growing popularity, Coca-Cola retaliated heavily, even going so far as to threaten shops with pulling their product from shelves if they also stocked Virgin Cola.

Branson said they had ‘effectively parked our tank on the lawn of the world’s largest soft drinks brand, and we weren’t quite prepared for the size or the ferocity of Coca-Cola’s response, which included a steep increase in their marketing budget and pressure on distributors not to work with us.

He added: ‘Had we known how the company would react, we may well have taken a different approach. I consider our cola venture to be one of the biggest mistakes we ever made – but I still wouldn’t change a thing.

‘Perhaps the biggest positive to come from Virgin Cola, however indirectly, was the launch of Innocent Drinks. Co-founder Richard Reed, a former employee at Virgin Cola, was inspired by his experience, and later started selling his own smoothies with a couple of friends. He now heads one of the biggest, most purposeful drinks brands in Britain.’

The licence for Virgin Cola was sold by Princes Group to Silver Spring in 2007, but the new owners stopped producing it less than two years later in early 2009.

Virgin Vodka

Virgin Drinks launched Virgin Vodka (pictured) in 1994 but it did not last long on the market

Virgin Drinks launched an altogether more adult product around the same time as Virgin Cola in 1994 – their own brand of vodka.

Virgin Vodka did not catch on with the public and did not last long on the market – and it was officially withdrawn when all of Virgin Drinks went out of business in 2007.

Virgin Brides

Richard Branson launched wedding dress firm Virgin Brides in 1996 with a photoshoot of him in a wedding dress

Richard Branson launched Virgin Brides in 1996 with a now infamous photoshoot of him, having shaved off his trademark goatee and made up in blue eyeshadow and lipstick, modelling a wedding dress sold by the firm.

While the business did not become a success, Virgin say it is worth talking about ‘on the strength of that photo alone’.

The last Virgin Brides shop, which was based in Manchester, shut its doors for good in 2007.

According to The Guardian Branson later quipped: ‘I think because there aren’t many virgin brides, it never really took off.

‘Or maybe it was the picture that put people off.’

Virgin Clothing

Richard Branson, in lipstick, eyeliner, and a wig, attends a Virgin press conference at Union Square Virgin Megastore in New York in September 1998

Branson launched his own fashion line, Virgin Clothing, in 1998 which sold garments designed for men and women between the ages of 18 and 35, according to CEO World.

However the clothing line, which Branson wanted in high street clothes shops, only lasted two years until 2000 as, according to analysts, their target market did not find it appealing.

Younger people were sceptical about the prices offered as well as Branson’s own fashion sense.


Models pose for the launch of Virginware underwear onboard a Boeing 737 above Sydney, Australia on October 15 2003

Not deterred from his previous garments failure, Branson created lingerie line Virginware in 2003.

It seemingly off to a better start than Virgin clothing with rapid expansion due to impressive online sales.

They opened 30 stores by 2004 which included a flagship one in Carnaby Street in London, Retail Week reported at the time.

But this success was short lived as the brand went into administration just a year later in April 2005. In a closing down sale that July they sold 35,000 pairs of bras and G-strings.

Virgin Vie At Home

Branson’s cosmetics brand, Virgin Vie (later known as Virgin Vie At Home) launched in 1997. At the time he thought he would have the products sold in over a hundred high street shops in just five years.

But the make-up never really gained popularity with the public and in 2009, the unsuccessful company was sold off and renamed Vie at Home, the Telegraph reported at the time.

But this evolution of the brand went defunct itself in 2011.

An archived webpage from 2005 of Richard Branson’s Virgin Student website

This Branson failure could well have been a victim of being too ahead of its time.

Community website, which launched in 2000, is similar to what today we might call a social networking site – but it launched four years before Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.

An archived version of the site shows it has similar features to Facebook, including profiles, photo albums, friends lists, and messaging. And the site had managed to amass hundreds of thousands of users by 2001.

One former user said: ‘VirginStudent gave you free email, as well as a space to share and store photos and other files. Additional features included a free SMS service, instant messenger functionality, calendars, and news and reviews.’

However, the site eventually shut down in 2005 repeated technical issues and it not gaining enough traction against competitors such as MySpace.

Virgin Cars

Branson attempted a foray into the automotive industry in the year 2000 with Virgin Cars

Branson attempted a foray into the automotive industry in the year 2000 with Virgin Cars.

The online car retailer launched in May of that year, with Branson making the bold prediction that they would sell 24,000 cars within their first year – but they had only shipped 2,000 by October.

And by 2003 they had only sold 12,000 cars before ceasing operations in December 2005. 

Looking back at the venture, Branson said: ‘Back then, we identified a gap in the retail market and set about revolutionizing the way that cars were being sold.

‘That turned out to be the wrong angle, and Virgin Cars ended up shutting down just five years later.’

Virgin Racing

Sir Richard Branson and daughter Holly Branson with their Virgin Racing F1 car and a car from film Cars 2 in 2011

Unperturbed by his first experience in the car business, Branson set up Formula 1 team Virgin Racing in 2010.

It only operated under that brand for one year, becoming Marussia Virgin Racing in 2011, and then Marussia Racing from 2012-2014.

The team then was renamed as Manor Marussia F1 Team in 2015 and then Manor Racing 2016 when they last appeared on the tracks.

Virgin Little Red

Virgin Atlantic launched subsidiary Virgin Little Red in 2012, which operated domestic UK flights from 2013. Pictured: Sir Richard Branson flashes his underpants on his arrival in Edinburgh after he left the inaugural Virgin Atlantic Little Red flight from London Heathrow

While Virgin Atlantic has made itself known as a successful airline, not all associated ventures have turned out so well for Richard Branson.

They launched subsidiary Virgin Little Red in 2012, which operated domestic UK flights from 2013. They said they were happy to lose £3million a week until the brand had grown, but this never happened.

In 2014, they announced they were cancelling the service as  it was unable ‘to make a positive contribution to Virgin Atlantic’s network’.

The Virgin successes: Branson’s brand winners

Virgin Records 

Virgin Records is where it all began for Richard Branson. He started selling records in a magazine in 1970 using the name Virgin Mail Order.

As sales were so strong his team decided to open up a brick and mortar store in Oxford Street, London leading to the birth of Virgin Records in 1972.

It gave music-lovers the opportunity to listen to tracks and hang out with their friends, making it an incredibly popular place to browse and buy records.

Richard Branson, pictured aged 28, set up the first Virgin Records store in Oxford Street, London in 1972

After the shop was a runaway success, Branson and co turned to developing their own record label, releasing their first album – Mike Oldfield’s prog-rock record Tubular Bells – in 1973.

The label bagged what is now considered a pivotal British band when they signed the Sex Pistols in 1977.

Branson sold Virgin Records for a whopping reported £560million ($1billion) to Thorn EMI in June 1992.

Virgin Atlantic

Richard Branson founded airline Virgin Atlantic in 1984

Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic airline operated its first flight between London Gatwick Airport and Newark in New Jersey, USA on June 22, 1984.

They set out to use Branson and other Virgin leaders’ experience in public relations to their advantage and convince the public to fly with them.

Branson, the airline’s chairman, took every opportunity to bring it attention, including hot air ballooning, abseiling down Manhattan high rises and even kissing the Spice Girls.

This media onslaught gave Virgin Atlantic a reputation as the airline for adventurers.

And clearly customers are still happy to fly with them, as they reported a revenue of £928million in 2021, showing a remarkable recovery after the pandemic.

Virgin Mobile

Virgin Mobile was founded by the Virgin Group in 1999 as the world’s first mobile virtual network operator

Virgin Mobile was founded by the Virgin Group in 1999 as the world’s first mobile virtual network operator – meaning they do not maintain their own radio towers and networks, instead using other’s hardware.

They originally used coverage of One2One, which became T-Mobile, before moving to EE. They then moved to Vodafone in 2019 and again to O2 in 2022 after a merger was announced with the brand.

All Virgin Mobile customers will be moved to O2 contracts by the end of this year. 

Virgin Media

Virgin Media lay their own network of fibre-optic cables across the country which and can offer speeds of up to one Gigabit per second

One of the UK’s biggest TV, phone and broadband providers Virgin Media was founded in 2007.

Their origins lay in early comms firms Telewest and NTL, who merged in 2006 before being bought out and rebranded as Virgin the next year.

Virgin Media lay their own network of fibre-optic cables across the country which and can offer speeds of up to one Gigabit per second, among the fastest available in the UK.

They merged with O2 in 2021 to become Virgin Media O2, and the company has a massive annual revenue of £10bn in 2022.

Virgin Money

Virgin Money’s first high street bank in Newcastle in January 2012

Branson decided to branch out in March 1995 when he founded Virgin Money, although it was originally known as Virgin Direct.

As Virgin Direct they offered a value personal equity plan, a kind of tax-privileged investment account that was replaced by individual savings accounts in 1999. They launched Virgin One in partnership with the Royal Bank of Scotland in 1997.

Virgin then founded price comparison website in 2000, which was merged with Virgin Direct in 2002 to form the company as it now stands.

The brand made a failed attempt to acquire the Northern Rock bank in 2007. But in the wake of the financial crisis, Branson said in 2009 that he still wanted the company to enter the banking sector, telling the Telegraph: ‘We are going to get back into the mortgage business and we will become a bank either by acquisition or by getting our own banking licence. You will see us become a consumer bank within the next couple of years.’

They then applied for a full banking licence in 2009.

Virgin Money then bought Northern Rock from the British Government, who had nationalised it after the credit crunch, for £743million in November 2011.

Virgin Money then later merged with CYBG plc in 2018, who owned Clydesdale Bank and Yorkshire Bank.

In 2022, the brand is growing banking powerhouse, with a revenue of reported revenue of £1.7billion in 2022.

Virgin Active

Richard Branson takes a beating from model Nell McAndrew at the launch of the Virgin Active Gym and Life Centre in Shepherd’s Bush, West London, in September 2002

Richard Branson launched his own fitness and health club business Virgin Active in 1999 as the first club opened in in Preston, Lancashire.

The brand introduced the equivalent of a Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse underneath the gym floors of some of their high end clubs to make the experience feel like a private members’ lounge rather than just somewhere to exercise.

As of today there are 43 active Virgin Active health clubs in the UK. 

Virgin Active expanded to South Africa in the year 2000, buying the assets of the Health and Racquet Club, whose parent company had gone into liquidation – and as of today they now have 133 locations in the nation.

They have also have clubs in Italy, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Namibia and Botswana and report revenues of millions of pounds a year.

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