“I’m going for astronaut training, I’m going for fitness training, centrifuge and other training, so that my body will hopefully cope well when I go to space,” Richard Branson told BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme last week. “There are exciting times ahead.” Ever since Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, the British entrepreneur has dreamed of ferrying passengers into space. By the end of this year, he is set to have taken his place on SpaceShipTwo alongside five other passengers, paying $250,000 each. Pop star Justin Bieber, one of many A-listers who have booked a space flight, could be among them.
Sending rich people into orbit seems a dangerous and expensive frivolity, especially for someone who claims to be determined to use his £4.5bn fortune (according to The Sunday Times Rich List) to solve the world’s toughest problems, notes Danny Fortson in The Sunday Times. Not so, Branson retorts. “When flights began across the Atlantic, people criticised rich people for doing it, and the price was roughly the same as what we’re charging,” he says.
“One day… the moon could be inhabited. It could be the start of people being able to go to the moon on a regular basis, or staying in a hotel off the moon. Space is transformative for everything on Earth.”
Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, and Branson’s closest rival in the race to get fare-paying passengers into space, agrees. He wants to work with Nasa to build a lunar settlement. “We will have to leave this planet,” Bezos tells GeekWire’s Alan Boyle. “We’re going to leave it, and it’s going to make this planet better.”
The rise of the Disneyland of quilting
In the early 1990s, Jenny Doan, her husband Ron, and their seven children were living in Greenfield, California. In 1995, their youngest son developed a tumour. It thankfully turned out to be benign, but the resulting medical bills bankrupted them, notes Susan Adams in Forbes. So they moved to the small town of Hamilton, Missouri, in search of a cheaper, more rural lifestyle, and Jenny started making quilts for fun.
After realising that Jenny could “earn $40,000 a year finishing other people’s quilts”, her daughter, Sarah, remortgaged her house and bought her mother a $36,000 quilting machine and paid $24,000 to set her up in a shop. Then, in 2009, her son Alan and a friend, David Mifsud, launched the website QuiltersDailyDeal.com, and persuaded Jenny to make YouTube videos about quilt-making to promote it.
By 2013, Jenny was an online celebrity, and the business – Missouri Star Quilt Co – was making annual revenues of over $4m. Today Jenny is still making videos (there are more than 500 online, with around 135 million views in total) while sales at the family business have risen to an estimated $40m. Meanwhile, Hamilton, with its population of 1,900, is a major destination for tourists, with 8,000 visiting “the Disneyland of quilting” each month.
Kissing frogs in the fashion world
“I was always fascinated by the power of clothes and how clothes and fashion are evolving,” Ruth Chapman tells Caitlin Morrison in The Independent. As soon as she left school, Chapman started working in fashion retail. Aged 21, she met her husband, Tom, and together, they launched Matches Fashion boutique in Wimbledon, London.
Investing in computers early on meant “we were really connected to our customers by the time we launched online” – MatchesFashion.com flourished. The Chapmans turned to investors to keep up with demand. “We kissed a lot of frogs,” Chapman admits. Their prince arrived in the form of Scottish Equity Partners and Highland Europe, who largely stayed in the background. Before long, potential buyers were “knocking on our doors” and last year the business sold for a reported £800m. Ruth has stayed on as an adviser.
Sprinkling stardust on M&S
Julian Richer was 19 when he opened his first hi-fi and television shop near London Bridge in 1978, notes Zoe Wood in The Observer. Richer Sounds is now the UK’s biggest hi-fi retailer, and its 59-year-old founder has built an estimated £160m fortune.
So respected has Richer become in the retail sector, that he has now been called in by Marks & Spencer chairman Archie Norman to help reinvigorate the 134-year-old retailer, which, in a “dramatic admission” last week, said that it had become “too corporate” and had lost touch with its shoppers.
It’s not the first time Richer and Norman have worked together. In the 1990s, they joined forces to turn around supermarket giant Asda, and M&S hopes that Richer can repeat the feat as an “independent adviser on culture change” – although this time around, it will be CEO Steve Rowe who Richer will be counselling.
Last year, Richer Sounds rang up sales of £187m compared with Marks and Spencer’s £10.7bn. But M&S is on the decline; Richer Sounds has kept the mighty Amazon at bay and regularly comes top – including this year – in the annual retail poll by consumer group Which?.
It’s fair to say M&S would like to sprinkle some of that stardust on its shop floor, says Wood. Separately, Richer, who cuts a distinctive figure with his long hair and sideline as a drummer in funk band Ten Millennia, recently announced that he is helping to fund Taxwatch, an independent group that aims to investigate and expose large-scale tax avoidance by companies and individuals.