David Bowie – a role model for entrepreneurs


The sad passing of David Bowie last week has brought a huge wave of emotional outpouring from many parts of the world including myself. I grew up with David Bowie.


He has been in my life as long as I can remember. He was, I admit, my favourite music star. I loved everything about him and remember him with much love and affection.


I have the books and albums, I have been to his concerts, and most recently attended that wonderful exhibition “David Bowie is”, which tracked his life and highlighted his contributions to music, art, video, and our broader culture. I even dressed up as him when we were asked to come as our favourite album to a fancy dress party some years ago. Yes, I am a David Bowie fan.


Much has, and is still being written about his life, his contributions to our culture, and his avant-garde approach to life where he pushed the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo. He was a trail blazer and, in a career spanning more than 50 years he was able to remain current, valid, popular and profitable.


In my view, Bowie was the ultimate successful entrepreneur even before the term became popular, but isn’t that just like Bowie.


He was definitely an early adopter and pioneer in capitalising on his talents and creative output, spotting trends before others did and then setting trends we will remember for many years to come. He was open to many influences and was not afraid to try new things which was highlighted beautifully at the “David Bowie is” exhibition.


Not only was Bowie a creative genius on many levels he was a very astute business person with a sound commercial savviness that helped him protect his intellectual property assets and commercialise his creative talent in ways that enabled him to prosper from his hard work. He was business-focused from the very beginning, taking complete control of his finances from early in his career.


As much as we’d like to think that creative genius and success on the world stage just happens, Bowie demonstrates that his good fortune did not happen by chance. Instead it was underpinned by a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve, sound strategy, effective decision-making, effective self promotion, self discipline, hard work, sound financial and business management, teamwork, collaboration, calculated risk-taking, open-mindedness, courage to lead, humility and the pursuit of mastery.


All hallmarks of successful people anywhere.


He also knew that continued success came from collaboration and that he could not achieve everything on his own. He surrounded himself with other smart people who knew their stuff. He learned from them, experimented with them, and pushed boundaries, not being constrained by social mores and ‘the way we do things around here’.


As stated in many publications this past week his business acumen was as pioneering as his art. He was way ahead of time when it comes to many current day trends, trying many things, failing in some while succeeding in others. Like a true entrepreneur, he took risks and looked outside his realm of expertise to continue to grow and prosper.


He was onto the power of the internet very early on, seeing it’s amazing potential and potentially devastating downsides. In interviews he spoke about the internet being “the celestial jukebox” years before the emergence of Napster, Spotify, and iTunes. He predicted every song in the world will be available from the internet. He did several things to take advantage of these opportunities as well as to protect his intellectual property:


  • He was the first major artist to securitise royalty streams, selling $55 million worth of “Bowie Bonds” in 1997.

  • In 1996 Bowie was the first mainstream artist to sell a new song, Telling Lies, as an online-only release via his website which received more than 300,000 downloads.

  • In 1998 he launched BowieNet a subscription service, through his company Ultrastar, which is an ISP offering fans access to the internet, which was attached to a special Bowie-dedicated website.

  • In 1999, two years before Steve Jobs introduced iTunes, Bowie released his 21st album, Hours, which was the first album by a major artist to be available to download – two weeks before it could be purchased in the shops.

  • He was named 1998 Businessman of the Year by the UK newspaper, the Mirror. Reasons cited included Bowie’s trend-setting “Bowie Bonds” deal and overall business acumen.


    “We gave the award for two reasons. First, Bowie has single-handedly changed the music industry forever, thanks to his ‘Bowie Bonds’. The second reason for our award is that Bowie has shown himself to be a sound businessman,” the paper wrote.


    Bowie was also a master marketer and style icon.


    • He read his markets well, evolving over time, shape-shifting and adapting from teenager pop idol to a timeless icon. We could travel with him and evolve as he was evolving. Whether you liked him or not, you could never be bored with Bowie.

    • He reached many other audiences via his music, art, films, and collaborative efforts with world class designers and producers which is why he is so well known around the world.

    • He used ‘anti promotions’ to surprise markets and drive sales later in his career. For example, after a decade of no new album releases and with no marketing fanfare, Bowie caught the industry by surprise when he put his Where Are We Now? video on his website on January 8th, 2013. As the Irish Times said” “The anti-promotion made it an internet sensation, and provided the perfect pitch for the album The Next Day, which launched on iTunes within hours.”

    • His ultimate marketing genius and final gift to us (that we know of) was the release of his final album Blackstar on 8 January 2016, two days before his death.

      There are many more things he achieved but you get the gist.


      Many people – creatives, business people, scientists, and so on –  can take a leaf out of Bowie’s book. He didn’t dismiss the business of being in business simply because he was an ‘artist’ or ‘musician’ nor did he shun the commercialisation of his talents.  He embraced business as much as he embraced his art. He knew how to make the most of his talents and aren’t we all the better for him?


      Vale David Bowie.


      Remember everybody lives by selling something.



      Sue Barrett is the founder and CEO of the innovative and forward-thinking sales advisory and education firm, Barrett and the online sales education & resource platform www.salesessentials.com.

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      Since 2010 StartupSmart has been Australia’s no.1 publication for the startup community and those interested in the startup movement globally. Publishing news, information and advice daily, and placing itself squarely at the centre of the government’s national innovation agenda, StartupSmart is a leading participant in the momentum that surrounds the world’s focus on technology, creativity and entrepreneurialism.