Nine business lessons from David Bowie

When David Bowie died last week, just days after his 69th birthday, he left behind possibly the greatest musical and cultural legacy of the past 50 years. Sift through his life’s work and beyond some of the best songs of all time, you’ll also find a wealth of ideas that can be applied in a business setting. Here then, are nine business lessons from the rock icon and artistic iconoclast.

1. Choose great collaborators

Bowie was invariably the smartest guy in the room, but he also realised that he needed to surround himself with the right collaborators to deliver his musical vision. From the crunchy glam rock guitars of Mick Ronson to the ambient textures of Brian Eno to the commercial sensibilities of disco stalwart and Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers, the stellar roll-call of musicians and producers that Bowie worked with over his five decade career were vital in helping to create some of the most compelling music of the 20th century.

The lesson: Choosing great collaborators and the right team members is key to ensuring that the sum of your endeavour is greater than the component parts. Oh, and it helps if the component parts are pretty damn good in the first place.


Image: Bowie and Mick Ronson, circa 1971. 

2. Have a great work ethic

Outside of The Beatles, the remarkable sequence of twelve studio albums that Bowie released between 1970 and 1980 – bookended by The Man Who Sold the World and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) – is unprecedented in popular music in terms of its artistic scope and influence. It wasn’t just the side-effects of the cocaine that was responsible for this golden run. Fuelled by an insatiable creative curiosity and allied to an incredible work ethic, Bowie rarely rested on his laurels, preferring instead to push ever onwards into new musical territories.

The lesson: Great ideas are only the beginning. Turning them into reality requires consistent focus, determination and a willingness to live outside your comfort zone for long periods of time.


Image: Bowie during the Scary Monsters period.

3. Embrace re-invention

Bowie didn’t so much embrace re-invention as define it. He even set it out as his creative manifesto on the epochal ‘Changes’ from 1971’s Hunky Dory. “Turn and face the strange. Ch-ch-changes”. Indeed.

The lesson: Don’t be afraid to re-invent yourself/your product/your company in a new image to meet a new market need. In start-up parlance, that’s called pivoting. From glam kingpin (Ziggy Stardust) to blue and green-eyed soul boy (Young Americans) to experimental proto-electronica (Low) to commercial megastar (Let’s Dance), to just one of the guys in the band (Tin Machine), Bowie was the master of the pivot.


Image: Bowie as glam alter ego, Ziggy Stardust
4. Get the money up front

Having been fleeced by vampiric managers and greedy lawyers in the ‘70s (the title of 1977’s Low could just as easily have referred to Bowie’s bank balance as his emotional state at the time), Bowie became a shrewd businessman in the ‘80s and 90s’, inking a huge publishing deal with EMI before the release of Let’s Dance and – most famously – establishing ‘Bowie Bonds’ in 1997. This trail-blazing financial move used current and future revenues from the Bowie back-catalogue as security and raised a cool US$55M. No longer reliant on royalty cheques, the former thin white duke was free to live like a king and do whatever the hell he wanted – including disappearing from the public eye for most of the last decade of his life.

The lesson: Bootstrapping is fine if you have no other option, but securing funding up front gives you greater flexibility and the opportunity to follow a more ambitious growth path.


Image: 'Bowie Bonds' paid an interest rate of 7.9% and had an average life of ten years, a higher rate of return than a 10-year Treasury note (at the time, 6.37%)

5. Look for inspiration outside your usual frame of reference

Bowie was rock’s ultimate musical magpie, drawing inspiration from a myriad of musical influences. Crucially, he also looked beyond his immediate industry peers and to other artistic spheres for creative inspiration. Ziggy Stardust was informed by Japanese Kabuki theatre, sci-fi imagery and Andy Warhol, while his final album, Blackstar drew on jazz, hip-hop and monastic chanting to create an entirely new musical language.

The lesson: Make a point of lifting your gaze from your day-to-day business to spot the innovations happening in other industries and the new trends emerging on the fringes.


Image: A screenshot from 'Lazarus', the first single from his final album, Blackstar

6. Be generous with your ideas

Bowie was notable for his musical generosity. Never one to clutch an idea to his chest or file it in a dusty draw away from prying eyes, in 1972 Bowie offered up one of his greatest songs, ‘All The Young Dudes’, to his favourite band, Mott The Hoople, in the hope of securing them a desperately needed hit (he had first offered them ‘Suffragette City’, which they turned down). In the same period he produced Lou Reed’s classic Transformer LP as well as Iggy and the Stooges legendary Raw Power album. Transformer, with the surprise hit ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, resurrected Reed’s career, although rehabilitation was a little slower arriving for the self-destructive Iggy Pop. His moment came a few years later with the one-two punch of The Idiot and Lust for Life – both co-written and produced by Bowie.

The lesson: Don’t be afraid to share your business ideas with trusted confidants – your ideas will invariably be amplified and returned with interest.


Image: Bowie with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed

7. Know when to let go

With the Ziggy Stardust album and character, Bowie had developed a template which he could have milked for several more years (and albums). Instead Ziggy was killed off in July 1973 at a farewell show at the Hammersmith Odeon. With the UK in the midst of Ziggy-inspired Bowie mania, such a bold move must have been viewed as commercial suicide. Now it looks like the master stroke of an artist who would not be tied to past successes, preferring instead the uncertainty of the future.

The lesson: At a time when exponential growth in digital technologies are disrupting established businesses and industries on an unprecedented scale, Bowie’s modus operandi is salutary. Stick with the status quo at your peril and always be thinking about your next move.


Image: Ziggy plays guitar for the final time, July 3, 1973 (Via Getty)

8. Follow your instincts

After killing off Ziggy in 1973, Bowie moved through the Stonesy post-apocalyptic rock of Diamond Dogs to the Philadelphia soul of Young Americans. Then, at the height of his first flush of commercial success in the US (Station to Station having peaked at No. 3 on the charts), he jacked it all in and moved to Berlin to work with Brian Eno on the highly-experimental Low.

The lesson: Stay true to yourself and follow your instincts. Bowie’s musical schizophrenia must have caused conniptions around record company boardroom tables, but 140 million albums later, the Thin White Duke leaves behind a peerless musical legacy, while those boardroom tables have long since been scrapped for firewood.


Image: The Thin White Duke performs during the Station to Station tour – Isolar – in 1976

9. Timing is everything

When Ziggy Stardust arrived fully formed in 1972, singing ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops with his arm draped louchely over Mick Ronson’s shoulder, a generation of UK teens were transfixed and a star was born. But Bowie was far from being an overnight sensation. Over the previous six years he had attempted to launch a career as  variously – a mod, a mime and a soft-permed singer-songwriter. None of those incarnations met with much success. But Ziggy arrived at the perfect moment – a clockwork-orange haired alien space rocker from the future whose arrival signalled the death knell for dirty denim and the hippy ‘60s.

The lesson: Make sure that your business is solving a problem for the customer and that consumer demand for your product/service offering is strong. Great business ideas and products can languish if the timing isn’t right and you are out of step with market demand. Alternatively, slap some lipstick on, cut and dye your hair like some cat from Japan and the rest is history…

Martin Bell is the co-founder of Idealog. The first record he ever bought was The Best of Bowie on K-TEL and he once beat Hamish McDouall, the NZ Mastermind champion whose specialist topic was David Bowie, in an impromptu Bowie quiz.