Thinking out of the (phone) box

Black and white image of a telephone box against a brick wall. The image has a red border around it
Image by Virgin Startup
A close up of Richard Branson smiling, looking at the camera
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 14 November 2014

The ability to communicate with people is one of the most important traits of any businessperson. The means to communicate are one of the most simple and effective tools for any new business.

Virgin StartUp: Every business has to start somewhere
Image by Virgin Startup
Black and white image of an isolated telephone box with Richard Branson's signature in the top left corner against a black background in white text
Image by Virgin Startup

Back when I was a schoolboy trying to set up Student Magazine, getting in touch with all of the people I needed to – from advertisers to contributors to distributors – was harder than one might expect in today’s ultra-connected age. Nobody had a mobile phone, and the internet sounded as far-fetched as any science fiction comic. When I asked for a telephone in my room at boarding school to run my new business from, unsurprisingly the headmaster refused my request. So I decided to make use of the school phone box outside. From there, I began calling companies to secure advertising so we could launch the magazine.

I quickly discovered a useful trick from the phone box too: by calling the operator and claiming the machine had eaten my change but my call had been cut off, I was often able to get free calls. Plus, the operator was able to put me straight through without the tell-tale phone box ‘pip pip’ sound. As an added advantage, the operator sounded like my secretary! “I have Mr Branson waiting for you.”

Fast-forward five decades and phone boxes have largely became obsolete. We’ve launched Virgin Mobile in countries including: South Africa, the UK, Chile, the US, Australia, Canada, France, India, Poland, Colombia and, most recently, Mexico.

But the humble phone box will always be special to me as the place where my business career first began. With that in mind, we’ve even introduced one on Necker. I haven’t used it to make a call in a while, and if I did I’m not sure the old ‘pip pip’ trick would work anymore!