Branson expressed his desire to become an entrepreneur at a young age. At the age of sixteen his first business venture was a magazine called Student. In 1970, he set up a mail-order record business. In 1972, he opened a chain of record stores, Virgin Records, later known as Virgin Megastores. Branson's Virgin brand grew rapidly during the 1980s, as he set up Virgin Atlantic airline and expanded the Virgin Records music label.
In March 2000, Branson was knighted at Buckingham Palace for "services to entrepreneurship". For his work in retail, music and transport (with interests in land, air, sea and space travel), his taste for adventure, and for his humanitarian work, he became a prominent figure. In 2002, he was named in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. In 2004, he founded spaceflight corporation Virgin Galactic, noted for the SpaceShipOne project.
In March 2017, Forbes listed Branson's estimated net worth at $5 billion.
Branson has stated in a number of interviews that he has been much influenced by non-fiction books. He most commonly mentions Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, explaining that Mandela was "one of the most inspiring men I have ever met and had the honour to call my friend." Owing to his interest in humanitarian and ecological issues, Branson also lists Al Gore's best-selling book, An Inconvenient Truth, and The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock amongst his favourites. According to Branson's book, Screw It, Let's Do It: Lessons in Life, he is also a fan of Jung Chang's Wild Swans and Antony Beevor's Stalingrad. In fiction, Branson has long admired the character Peter Pan, and in 2006 he founded Virgin Comics LLC, stating that Virgin Comics will give "a whole generation of young, creative thinkers a voice".