Not only is The Man Who Fell to Earth a science fiction cult classic, and far and away David Bowie’s best movie, it’s also essential viewing for aspiring creative entrepreneurs.
Bowie plays an alien (surprise surprise) who has landed on planet earth in search of water – his home planet is drying up and he’s on a mission to save his people. Adopting the pseudonym Thomas Jerome Newton, he becomes an entrepreneur in order to raise the money to send water home.
In the course of his adventures Newton learns a lot about human beings and doing business on planet Earth. So to complement 10 Creative Lessons from Bowie in Berlin, here are 10 of Newton’s Laws of Business – with takeaways for 21st-century creative entrepreneurs.
1. Come from Far Away
Within months of landing on Earth, Thomas Newton has established one of the largest, most innovative and most talked-about companies on the planet: World Enterprises Corporation.
Unknown to the public, the secret of his success is the alien technological knowledge he has brought with him. This puts him so far ahead of the local tech companies that he effectively has no competition.
Takeaway: when you enter a new market, bring something radically new to the table. Everyone is familiar with the established players and their offerings. This is your chance to shake things up and innovate at the intersection of two worlds. The wider your interests, the easier this will be.
2. Understand Intellectual Property
Thomas Newton doesn’t bring much actual technology with him – he doesn’t need to. He carries the foundation of his business empire in his head, in the form of deep knowledge of the underlying principles of the technology of his home world. He knows that this is far more valuable than dazzling the natives with shiny gadgets.
On arrival, he heads straight for a leading patent attorney, Oliver Farnsworth, and insists on sitting in his living room and paying him $1,000 an hour to read through a sheaf of documents. When he’s done reading, Farnsworth is astonished:
Farnsworth: I don’t believe it! I can’t believe it. You have nine basic patents here. Nine – and that’s basic patents. Do you know what that means?
Newton: Yes, I think so.
Farnsworth: I wonder. It means, Mr Newton, that you can take RCA, Eastman Kodak, and Dupont for starters.
Takeaway: Don’t get attached to your individual products. Exploit intellectual property to extract the maximum value from your creativity, via patents, licensing and leveraging your trademark.
3. Be Ambitious
Once Newton is satisfied Farnsworth understands the significance of the documents, he cuts to the chase:
Newton: In say three years, what would this be worth to me?
Farnsworth: I’m a lawyer, not an accountant Mr Newton. But I’d say it must be somewhere in the area of $300 million dollars.
Newton: Not more?
Newton: I need more.
Farnsworth: What the hell for?! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it to sound like that, it’s just I’m just trying to adjust my mind to all this.
And remember, the film was made in 1976, when $300 million would have stretched even further than it does today.
Takeaway: Be ambitious. Think big, dream big, act big.
4. Have a Purpose
Farnsworth is shocked that Newton isn’t satisfied with $300 million. But the reason Newton says “I need more” instead of “I want more” is that he doesn’t want the money for himself. He’s on a mission to save his planet, and that doesn’t come cheap. It also absolve them of any suspicion of greed or megalomania – he’s doing this for the sake of something more important than himself.
Takeaway: Mark Earls has been saying this for years – the really inspiring and successful companies are the ones that have a purpose beyond making money. So instead of boring everyone to death with ‘vision, mission and values’, ask yourself: “How do I want to change the world?”
As soon as Farnsworth is on board with the value of Newton’s intellectual property and the scale of his ambition, Newton moves swiftly to close the deal:
Newton: I’ll offer you ten percent of my net profits, plus five percent of all corporate holdings… If you take this assignment, you will have complete authority, below me. I don’t want to have contact with anyone, except you.
Newton knows his strength and interests, and structures his business so that he can focus on innovation and vision, leaving the day-to-day operations in the most capable hands he can find.
Takeaway: spend your time and energy on the work you love most and do best. Get help with the rest. If it’s a critical role, find a partner and give them a stake in the business – and your success.
A few months after Newton’s arrival, the World Enterprises Corporation logo is everywhere – on books, cameras, pens, reactolite sunglasses, home entertainment systems … and even a spaceship. Like a seventies vision of Apple, the company has a dedicated following among aspirational, cultured technophiles. With the brand firmly established, Newton can enter virtually any market he chooses.
(It makes you wonder how many times Steve jobs and Richard Branson have seen The Man Who Fell to Earth.)
Takeaway: Build an iconic brand and an army of fans, then leverage them with a range of complementary products.
7. People First, Technology Second
Here’s University lecturer Nathan Bryce explaining to his boss why he’s thinking of quitting the campus for a job with World Enterprises Corporation:
Bryce: The company that made that self-developing film I showed you a while ago, they’ve released this statement. They’re dumping computers, they’re installing human beings.
Canutti: Oh really?
Bryce: You want to know why? They wanna bring back human error, because that’s how you get new ideas, by making mistakes, back to man. His imagination.
A lot of the technological innovations in The Man Who Fell to Earth look very clunky and kitsch today – Newton flaunts an enormous mobile phone and instead of the internet he has an enormous stack of televisions in his front room. But this is one case where the film gets the technological tone right: the emergence of the Internet and social media means we now use technology to facilitate human creativity – via connection, collaboration, and serendipity – not to replace it.
Takeaway: When creating, put down your shiny gadgets and fancy software from time to time, and take a walk in the fresh air to think. Or roll your sleeves up and make something with your own hands.
And always remember the people you’re creating this stuff for. Who are they? What can your fancy technology do for them? Why should they care?
8. Privacy, Not Secrecy
At one point, confronted with public curiosity about the elusive man behind World Enterprises Corporation, Newton remarks to Farnsworth, “My life isn’t secret, but it is private”. Like Steve jobs and Willie Wonka, he knows the power of creating an aura of mystery around himself and his company.
We supposedly live in an age of radical transparency, where individuals, companies and even governments are subjected to a degree of public scrutiny that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. In the social media sphere, some of the oversharers (NSFW) get a lot of attention for divulging details about their social, financial or sex lives that most of us would not be comfortable with. Yet others succeed through undersharing – revealing little or nothing of their private life, or just enough to fuel the mystery.
Takeaway: Be open and honest when it really counts – in your dealings with customers, partners and suppliers. But when it comes to your public image, think long and hard about what you share and the impression it creates. Sometimes less is more.
9. Fly Your Own Spaceship
In one of the most Branson-esque sequences of the film, Newton is driven through a frenzied crowd who have come to watch him take off in his company spaceship. This is the kind of PR stunt that generate priceless word-of-mouth. Remarkable doesn’t begin to cover it.
Except it isn’t a stunt. The public don’t realise it, but Newton is intent on the final phase of his mission, where he will jettison the need for his company, let alone publicity.
Takeaway: ‘Fly your own spaceship’ could be the 21st century equivalent of ‘eat your own dog food’. If you’re a member of the market you serve, then consider making and using products to solve your own problems. It works pretty well for Jason Fried and 37 Signals: “We just build stuff we want to use. If we need it, they need it.”
10. No Guarantees
I won’t spoil the film by telling you how Thomas Newton’s adventure ends – but you can probably guess it wouldn’t be much of a movie if everything went smoothly to plan.
Takeaway: When you set out in a spaceship, there’s no guarantee of a soft landing or happy ending. But that’s part of the appeal. Remember the motto of the Royal Air Force of Newton’s adopted country, quoted in the movie by Farnsworth:
Per ardua ad astra – Through difficulties to the stars.
Over to You
Which of Newton’s Laws of Business resonate for you?
Fans of the film – what other lessons would you take from it? (No spoilers please!)
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.
Karen Martin Sampson says
This has long been one of my favorite films. The aspect that always has struck me the most is Newton’s ultimate vulnerability. In meeting his mission’s needs he suffers loneliness and illness, yet he persists…and accepts the results of his efforts with dignity.
Living with dignity and awareness of one’s own vulnerability are the big lessons here I think.
Marcy Gerena says
Awesome post –
#1 and #4 resonate with me.
Thank you for the sound takeaways.
I haven’t seen the movie and while reading the post I wondered if he had any language barriers.
Well, I guess I need to see the movie. :0)
Nice comparatives Mark. It’s been a million years since I’ve seen the movie; I’ll have to refresh my memory.
Hitting home the most for me were…
#1 – As a visual artist (painter) with interests in so many other areas as well, I’m always trying to be innovative. Helps to encourage me to combine my interests and strike new ground.
#3 – Just today while working TOJ (The Other Job), I was thinking how my daily/weekly/monthly financial goals are aiming way too low.
#4 – My art is not just about pretty pictures. Need to fine-tune what exactly I’m trying to say.
I can see how the others are important as well. Not as applicable to my situation (yet).
These are concepts we’re familiar with, but the examples you give are valuable and help illustrate application. Thank you!
Mark McGuinness says
@Karen – Yes, vulnerability. And naivety. 🙂
@Marcy – Yep, you need to see it!
@Tracy – Re #4 have you tried the obvious?
Tito Philips, Jnr. says
Thanks for the post Mark. These are the lessons that resonates with me;
2. Understand Intellectual Property: this is so true and highly needed in this our time of boundary-less markets where anyone anywhere could just steal your ideas if left unprotected.
4. Have a Purpose: this cannot be re-iterated enough. As Entrepreneurs our first assignment is not to Take but Give of ourselves for the benefit of others. Profits will only follow after we’ve first given!
5. Delegate: One is too small a number to achieve greatness. It’s impossible to build a great business without a great team.
I haven’t watched the film yet, will have to download it online.
Mark McGuinness says
Thanks Tito, yes I can definitely see your sense of purpose shining through!
Enjoy the film – and make sure you don’t infringe any intellectual property with that download. 😉
Mitch Devine says
Love your “Newton’s Laws for Business” list. #10 – No kidding! I’m going to have to watch the film again, it’s been so long. Your analysis has put this film in a whole new perspective. Thanks!
Mark McGuinness says
My pleasure Mitch. Writing this piece was a good excuse for me to watch the film again. 😉