Ironically, Jennine and I just watched a David Bowie documentary on New Years Day. I learned a lot about him and I’ve been thinking it over from a business perspective ever since. Here’s what I’m taking away from his career.
Surround Yourself With The Best People
What do Luther Vandross, Nile Rodgers, John Lennon, Brian Eno, Earl Slick, Iggy Pop, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Pete Townshend all have in common? They’ve all appeared in backing roles for David Bowie. He had a knack for recognizing talent and would recruit the best to play with him. In 1974 when he wanted to make an American R&B influenced album (Young Americans) he went to the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Bowie didn’t know the first thing about R&B music other than he was a fan and wanted to make some. But he did recognize he was weak in the area of R&B so he went straight to the source to hire the people who did it best. Among them was a very young Luther Vandross. (You can see Luther signing backup in this 1974 TV appearance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydLcs4VrjZQ )
The amazing part of this is, Bowie wasn’t intimidated by their talent – quite the opposite. He was inspired by their talent and used it to make him a better musician and rock star. It was still HIS record but he was only able to make it because of the experts he surrounded himself with.
Having been in business for over 20 years, I know this isn’t easy. A couple of times in the past, when I needed to find help in an area I didn’t know anything about, I hired someone who barely knew more than I did. Why? Because I didn’t want to appear stupid and I wanted to maintain control. Pretty dumb, eh? Instead of going out and hiring the absolute best in the business, I let my business suffer because of my nasty little ego.
Be Known For More Than One Niche
David Bowie, Major Tom, The Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust. If you didn’t know any better, you may think these are all different people. Each Bowie character played their own unique style of music. Try listening to the albums Tin Machine and Let’s Dance. Nothing alike. Yet they’re both Bowie creations.
By appealing to many different sub-genres of rock, Bowie was able to appeal to a much larger audience. But he didn’t start out with Ziggy Stardust and say “Ziggy is for everyone. Everyone will like my music.” No, Ziggy had a very niche appeal.
Bowie got really good at the first niche, grew his fan base by adding people who were drawn to that character and then added another niche to his arsenal. He did this every two albums for years – adding persona upon persona. Some people love him as a glam rocker. Some as a master of electronica. And some as a pop-rock god. But they’re all the same man.
I’m often afraid to niche down because I don’t want to get labeled as “that guy.” Take contractors for example. I’ve been resistant to saying I work with them. Not because I don’t like the field (I was one for years!), but because I don’t want to miss out on business from other segments. I need to keep reminding myself that it’s okay to have more than one specialty and nothing lasts forever.
Never Say “Wham Bam, Thank You Ma’am” To Your Mother
When I was about 12 or 13 I thought it would be a good idea to walk up to my mother and her friend and drop “Wham bam, thank you, ma’am” in a conversation. Not a good idea.
While this phrase was a big hit with my friends, it was not the smartest thing to say to your mother. Needless to say, we had a “talk” about respecting woman and where did you hear such a thing? “It’s a David Bowie song, Mom. They play it on the radio.”
I learned that day about speaking the language of your audience. Mom definitely was not into David Bowie lyrics the way my friends were.
Recently I wrote some emails for a client where we used some less than professional language. It’s part of an auto-responder welcome sequence to a group of blue-collar guys. So far they’re doing great with high open rates, engagement and sales, even though they have the occasional f-bomb dropped in the copy. But that’s how my client’s audience talks in their daily lives. They aren’t going to connect with someone who talks like they just left a British Prep School.
Now if I took that high converting copy and gave it to one of my clients who has an audience of 50+-year-old woman who are all into spiritual healing and introspection, it would bomb. Actually, it would more than bomb – it would be a disaster.
I see this happen all the time when folks buy those “fill-in-the-blank” email templates or they copy this guru or that guru. Just because it works for someone else’s audience doesn’t mean it will work for theirs. And if it does work, the client is hiring the wrong person. They should be hiring the guru.
When you read my ramblings here, I have a style – a voice – that I use. It’s me. I’m not trying to be someone else. My thoughts and delivery are my own. If you like it, you’re my people. If you don’t, I’m not offended.
Have a great day and wham bam, thank you ma’am.