What can an SMB (Small & Medium Business) Can Learn from David Bowie?


“Huh?”  You might be saying? David Bowie, that weird guy from the 70’s who had a couple of hits?  Well you ought to be saying “wow that guy who amassed a fortune of $100+ million” (when $100 million dollars was a lot of money), yeah, what can I learn from him?”  Well I’m here to tell you that you can learn a great deal.

I grew up in Des Moines, IA, not exactly the epicenter of the David Bowie fan club (although I was a member).  I was certainly his biggest and one of his earliest fans there.  I bought all his albums, joined his fan club, and bought his T-shirts and other promo stuff.  I even took a couple of Rock ‘n Roll magazines with his picture on the cover to the barber shop and asked to have my hair cut (Alladin Sane) like him.  He was a big influence in my musical taste in other artists too.  I remember the first time I found someone else who had heard of him.  I was at the chalk board in Mr. Zimmerman’s Algebra 2 class with the several others writing out equations and humming ‘Rubber Band’ [for those who thought you were a Bowie fan that was an early single later included in his first album entitled: David Bowie].  The guy next to me, Jon Vasey, stopped me mid-hum and asked me where I had heard that song.  He loved it after hearing it over the weekend on American Bandstand but had not caught the name.  “David Bowie” I told him and that moment was to become David Bowie’s most influential moment for me because Jon was to become my best friend for life after that.

Introduction is over – let’s get on with: ‘What can an SMB (Small & Medium Business) Learn from David Bowie?’  I’m here to tell you a lot!

#1 Pivot

Learn how and when to Pivot and don’t be afraid to.  David was the master at pivoting.  Most who consider themselves David Bowie fans have never heard of or heard the song ‘Rubber Band’ which I alluded to earlier, or ‘Love You till Tuesday’ or ‘Sell Me a Coat” all great songs off his first album.  In fact, I’d be pretty safe in guessing that most “fans” would not have given Bowie a second look if they had bought that first album because it was very very different from the music they would later hear on top 40 stations from David.  David knew how to keep his music changing, keep it fresh, experiment and not to rest on his current ‘Fame.’  In business we need to do the same thing.  Apple is always changing and innovating and look at where they are now.  Blockbuster refused to see the future and change and tried to keep milking the same old song.  Look where they are now (hey, where are they exactly!)  Keith Aichele, a friend and business associate of mine who is a marketing and business consultant often says “make your product obsolete or someone else will!”  This is good advice and Bowie literally lived by this mantra.  He pivoted and reinvented many times over his professional career always giving his customers something new, something fresh.  Remember Blockbuster at your next company strategic planning meeting and start figuring out how your company is going to grow and ‘Ch…Ch…Ch…Change!’

#2 Partner

David Bowie didn’t do what he did in a vacuum.  He reached out to other talented musicians at the time and collaborated with them, produced songs for them, learned from them, and often just hung with them.  These included such names over the years as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Marc Bolan (of TRex), and Brian Ferry (of Roxy Music).  All these talented guys were in fact partnering or networking by today’s standards.  Not only were they influencing one another during ad hoc jam sessions but were cross pollinating their marketing.  How often do you think these guys could meet without the The Rolling Stone or other Rock based magazines reporting, annualizing, and speculating as to what they were up to.  Your marketing department or hired firm couldn’t buy such great publicity.  While your meeting with other SMBs might not hit the Wall Street Journal or get mentioned on the Fox Business Network tonight the leads you generate, the trust you gain, and the opportunities you find through partnering and networking with others is invaluable and can often lead to additional ‘Fame’ for your business and its sales.

#3 Passion

David always had passion for his music.  Remember what he wore on the cover of Alladin Sane, Young Americans, or Station to Station?  While many might say this was just marketing and selling records I beg the differ.  His album covers, in my opinion were a part of his passion for the music, they always somehow reflected his current stage of music.  Station to Station is probably the biggest example of that, Bowie wasn’t a suit guy unless it was a zoot suit, but he wore a suit on the album cover to reflect on the music inside and give you a little hint about what to expect from the music you were about to enjoy.  ‘Golden Years,’ an awesome track on that album and was a solid serious powerful song (think Frank Sinatra singing a powerful melody next to a piano wearing a suit).  I strongly believe that David’s massive passion for his music is a great deal responsible for his massive success as an artist.  You need passion for your company too.  Whether it is sells a simple product or commodity, or it sells an exciting new internet app that everyone has to have, you need to keep a passion for what you are doing and let it show through your website, packaging, design, whatever in order to stay a step or two ahead of the competition and bring something better to the table for your customers.  So “Turn and face the strange” with passion and lead your business toward success.

That’s it, that’s what David can teach both SMB’s and bigger companies.  My 3-P’s of David Bowie for SMBs: (1) Pivot, (2) Partner, and (3) Passion. These 3-P’s can be seen over and over again through the career and genius that was David Bowie.  He was not only a man of his time but a man before his time (think Bowie Bonds – but that’s a discussion for another time) and he left us way too soon.  Remember my 3-P’s of David Bowie, your company needs to practice these 3-P’ if it is going to thrive and survive in this twenty first century where “Ch…Ch…Ch…Changes” is everywhere and everything.