Like many others, I was shocked and saddened by the death of David Bowie this week.
I’ve been a fan of his work since my late-teens, and a flip through my record collection (yes, records) yesterday reminded me that I’d managed to assemble most of the great man’s significant albums on vinyl from second-hand record shops for around £3 – £5 a pop.
‘Ziggy Stardust’, Low, Hunky Dory, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, “Heroes”, Aladdin Sane…
I can remember sliding each of these weird and wonderful albums out of their sleeves as a young man and discovering something totally new each time. Something different.
Going through these records (and their fantastic covers) I realised that Bowie was the epitome of the artist as entrepreneur.
Creative, exploratory, determined, risk-taking, confident….
Like all good entrepreneurs, he resisted the obvious.
He rejected life on the payroll.
And he paid close attention to both his own brand and his audience, without ever compromising his unique vision.
Ok, so you may never have convinced your audience that you’re an androgynous alien arrived from another planet (though if you have, please get in touch)…
You may never have turned your back on your biggest success to go and live in Berlin with Iggy Pop and create something completely unexpected (again, please let me know if you have)…
But believe it or not, you may already be following the Thin White Duke’s entrepreneurial lead.
And if you aren’t yet, here’s how you can do as Bowie did, and create unique, lasting and important work.
Unlike the majority of people, entrepreneurs aren’t afraid of change.
They adapt, pivot, embrace and reject constantly while sorting through ideas, but always move forward.
Bowie famously shape-shifted through several fascinating incarnations:
Lithe hippy-poet, glam-punk starman, cigarette-thin soul-singer, Germanic art-rocker, middle-aged drum & bass pioneer, universally-respected eccentric uncle.
He constantly sought new challenges each time, never dwelling too long on past glories.
But he never tried to just… ‘fit in’.
He once revealed:
All my big mistakes are when I try to second-guess or please an audience. My work is always stronger when I get very selfish about it.”
Driven to create by selfishness, audience-dividing…
Doesn’t sound like an easy ride, sure – but that probably reminds you of a few successful entrepreneurs, right?
And on the lazy “chameleon of rock” tag he was sometimes labelled with, Bowie said:
I’ve always felt bemused at being called the chameleon of rock. Doesn’t a chameleon exert tremendous energy to become indistinguishable from its environment?”
That’s an essential way of seeing things for an entrepreneur or product developer.
If you’ve jumped into the entrepreneurial lifestyle, you’re already more likely to be predisposed to change and transformation.
It’s something many ‘norms’ find hard to manage – so make the most of your gift.
Keep moving. Stay supple in your thinking and your approach to your work.
Observe trends and developments in different niches, but don’t be a slave to fashion (beep-beep).
Try new new things. Experiment, and don’t be afraid to screw up.
Bowie’s Ziggy concept was a huge gamble for a yet-to-breakthrough singer-songwriter in 1972 – and in a far more conservative mainstream pop culture than we have now, remember – but it made a real connection with a huge number of people.
(This wonderful and moving piece, written immediately after his passing by a fan with an astounding secret, illustrates the unique strength of Bowie’s connection with people perfectly. Read it, it will make you smile.)
He then took an even bigger risk just a year or so later when he ‘killed-off’ the Ziggy character to try something new.
There’s no reason an entrepreneur can’t embrace ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (sorry) and development the way an artist would. If you think there’s an audience for something a little different to your current service or product line, give it a shot.
Take risks, but do so for the right reasons.
Always aim to help – or at the very least, entertain – people.
Don’t chase a developing market simply because it exists and you want a slice of that pie, like, NOW (yes, I’m talking to you, shady internet marketers)…
Find something you’re nuts about, do your research, watch what the competition are doing, then model only the single most essential common ingredient and ditch everything else they’re doing.
Give it your best shot.
If it turns out more Tin Machine than Hunky Dory, don’t be disheartened.
Change again… suck knowledge from the experience, and grow. Move on.
Entrepreneurs also learn from areas outside their comfort zones…
Bowie dabbled in acting, from The Man Who Fell To Earth to The Hunger, to er, Spongebob Squarepants, and brought his on-screen experiences into his live musical performances… and vice versa.
His diverse interests made him one of mainstream music’s earliest adopters of the internet and digital technology.
At a time when Metallica were trying to stop a tidal wave of change with a bucket made from angry lawsuits against mp3 users, Bowie the visionary was setting up his own ISP, BowieNet.
Check out this clip from back in 1999 where he discusses on the possibilities of the web for music artists and audiences:
Bowie’s interests in performance art, fashion, rave culture, art and literature produced a diverse and fascinating range of work that broadened his appeal and kept his creative instincts fresh, and his audience on their toes.
John Lennon… Queen… Brian Eno… Mick Jagger (hilariously)… Iggy… Nile Rodgers…
…even Bing Crosby!
Bowie was renowned for interesting, sometimes unlikely collaborations, remaining productive even outside of the pop industry’s standard album-tour-repeat creative cycle.
By collaborating with other, distinct talents, he was able to reach more diverse audiences, create different, rewarding work and benefit from the talents of others.
(Not to mention the networking skills he developed over the years…
True, since the mid-70’s pretty much anyone would have jumped at the chance to work with him, right?
But back when he was plain ol’ David Jones from Brixton, and even in his early ‘Bowie’ years, shaping his path, some of these collaborations would have proved more beneficial to him than to the other party.
Hey, everyone starts somewhere, even ‘rock legends’.)
And remember: people are always more likely to agree to a partnership or JV opportunity when you’re on your way up.
So, capitalize on your successes…
Maybe now’s the perfect time to reach out to that design whizz-kid, or that hot-shot copywriter (ahem), or to get on a call with the brains behind that inspiring e-course you just worked through.
Maybe they’re dreaming of collaborating with you, and all it’ll take to seal the deal is to hear you “come back like a slow voice on a wave of pha-a-ase”…
Maybe they’d like to come and meet you (but they think you’ll blow their minds)?
Gotta be worth a shot, right?
After all, as Bowie famously said:
I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I know it won’t be boring.”
Amen to that.