What is most surprising about Sir Richard Branson is how different he is in real life compared to his public persona.
We have this image of an over-confident, brash self-publicist, never shying from dressing in outrageous costumes to promote his latest Virgin enterprise. He thrives on making big promises about how he will revolutionise moribund industries and break even more world records.
When observed at close quarters he is the complete opposite: shy, self-effacing, even humble. This represented a particular challenge for me, as I have had the task of interviewing him live on stage five times in almost as many months.
My usual challenge with entrepreneurs is getting them to stop talking about themselves and relentlessly plugging their own products and services. What the audience really want to hear are some practical learning points for starting and growing their businesses.
Sir Richard is visibly nervous before stepping on a stage - perhaps half as nervous as I was when I interviewed him the first time with only fifteen minutes' notice. To put us both at our ease, I started with some easy questions that he answered effortlessly, enriched with choice anecdotes about Nelson Mandela and Mick Jagger.
But it would be a very poor interview that implied that everything he had ever done was brilliant and successful. He gave me a slightly old-fashioned look when I asked him to talk about one of the Virgin companies that had failed, but then spoke frankly and movingly about the demise of Virgin Cola.
He put this down to aggressive competitive pressure combined with his inability to demonstrate a clear competitive advantage and thus build true customer loyalty, as he did in his long-running battles between Virgin Airlines and British Airways.
In March, he was very nervous in front of one of the largest ever gatherings of entrepreneurs - over 3,000 people at the Global Entreneurship Congress in Liverpool. But he visibly relaxed when they all roared their approval at the famous newspaper headline 'Virgin Screws British Airways'.
At first, British Airways dismissed his single leased 747 as irrelevant competition to their own massive fleet. Later, they began to become irritated by his constant innovations, completely focused on improving the customer experience, such as giving passengers Sony Walkmans and later providing multi-channel video screens, a feature now seen as standard for all long-haul airlines.
Branson was finally able to take the moral high ground when British Airways resorted to 'dirty tricks', such as hacking into Virgin's computers and telling his passengers that their flights had been cancelled.
Most surprising for the audiences of would-be entrepreneurs was his explanation of how he felt when Virgin Records was floated on the stock market and subsequently sold in order to capitalise the airline.
All entrepreneurs dream of one day seeing their own version of the newspaper headline 'Branson Sells for £510m Cash'. He explained that when he saw this, he burst into tears. Having sold a company myself twenty years ago, I know exactly what he had gone through. We agreed that the best way to describe selling the company you have helped nurture from baby to adult is 'a bereavement'.
He has a rock star effect on entrepreneurs, and there were more anxious moments when he was pressed by the crowd and forced into lengthy photo opportunities. But he was never more relaxed then when surrounded by schoolchildren or entrepreneurs from Virgin Media Pioneers and the Branson Centres for Entreneurship in Johannesburg and Montego Bay.
His sense of fun is never far away. I told an anecdote about an entrepreneur whose ambition was to be so successful that he would never have to wear socks again. Sir Richard then tore off his own socks and threw them into the audience.
His key advice for aspiring entrepreneurs was all about people. You should always hire people much better than yourself, treat them well at all times and listen closely to feedback from staff and customers.
When asked for the very best advice he had received from his own mentor, Freddie Laker, it was to generate as much free newspaper coverage as possible, since he could never match the PR budgets of his larger competitors; hence the silly costumes and self-publicity.
Of course, not everyone likes Sir Richard Branson. All his companies have suffered at one time from customer service issues; not all of his big promises have been met and some Virgin companies have been sold off or shut down.
But it is clear if you spend any time with him that his heart is in the right place. It is no longer about money, but how he spends his time. While appearing on stage is probably the least fun thing he has to do, the other benefits of his daily life greatly outweigh the downsides.
The live events concluded with a short film about Virgin Unite, his not-for profit foundation and beneficiary of his speaking fees. In the film he fluffs his lines but is clearly having fun and doing some real good in the world, a perfect message to all us aspiring entrepreneurs.