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Last week a story that caught fire on Twitter, was confirmed by TMZ.com, and resonated around the world was true… Michael Jackson had passed away at the age of 50.

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It was a sad day when the world learned of Michael Jackson’s passing. As a child of the 80s, the King of Pop was an ever-present part of pop culture as I was growing up. In tribute to Michael, we’ll look at 10 business lessons you can learn based on Michael Jackson’s career.

1. Find out what your passion is
As the son of a musician and being the 7th born in a family of musicians, you might say that Michael didn’t choose to become a performer, he was forced into it. But there’s no doubt he embraced music with everything he had and made it his life’s passion.

Likewise, when running a business or pursuing your dream job, it still amazes me people that go about life doing something they’re not passionate about. I recently heard someone describe what your calling should be in life based on the merger of three things… what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at, and what you can make money from.

2. Practice makes perfect
One attribute the Jackson 5 is known for – not always in a positive light – is that their father made them practice their dance moves over and over until it was perfect. While such a drive for perfection crosses the line when it infringes on having a normal upbringing, it’s certain that his intense rehearsal routine and work ethic is what helped elevate Michael to the greatest performer in the world.


In business, you can never rest on your success. Even if you have a best-selling product, there is always ways to improve it, customer feedback to respond to, and competition right around the corner. One company I admire is Camelbak. They make hydration systems for bikers, hikers, runners, and skiers. If you’re not familiar with their product, it’s like a mini backpack that lets you drink water from a tube vs. having a waterbottle. After my helmet, it’s the most important piece of equipment of all my mountain bike gear.

When I purchased my first one, I was extremely pleased. But every time I’d go back to a bike shop and saw a new model, they’d added a great new feature. One time it was better expandable pockets. One time they lined the inside with neon yellow so you could see your gear better. One time it was upgrading the back of the pack so you’d sweat less. And they constantly upgraded the tubing and valve system.

3. Innovate
This goes along with point number two. Innovation in business is key, to the point where a new podcast I listened to last weekend called Killer Innovations suggests that companies should hire a specific person just to focus on innovations. This person would not be bogged down by day-to-day activities that we get caught up in, but instead can be always looking to the future.

The list of innovations for Michael is long. He is regarded as largely responsible for the growth of MTV. I was about 14 years old when Thriller hit the new music video station, and I can still remember thinking, “Wait a minute, the video is 14 minutes long?”  This new long-form music video blew people away, to the point where MTV would show it twice an hour to meet demand, according to Wikipedia. And you can be sure no one had seen an innovative dance move like the Moonwalk before Michael showed that to the world.

4. Embrace technology
Continuing with videos, I remember watching the “Black or White” video, and staring intently as the faces effortlessly morphed from one person to the next. Sure, there had been some computer animation like this in spots, and Terminator 2 was a blockbuster success because of it, but with the video you could stare directly at it and try to figure it out.

There’s no doubt that keeping up with technology is crucial in business. At a Media Bistro seminar, Tony Hsieh of Zappos.com was being peppered about his company’s use of Twitter. They were being extremely proactive with the service, and finally someone asked, “But what’s going to happen if Twitter doesn’t pan out?”  He replied, that the company isn’t embracing Twitter, it’s embracing the latest technology to communicate with their customers. They’re not pro-Twitter, they’re pro-technology, always attuned to the latest innovations that can help them succeed.

5. Show off a bit
Hey, in business it’s called marketing, right?  If you want your name out there and want to get noticed, sometimes you have to be a little flashy. In my second podcast ever, I talk about “Marketing Gimmicks and Brand Ubiquity” and how you can brand yourself with everything from red shirts and yellow shoes to feather boas and tattoos.


We all know how Michael got noticed. Unlike Elvis’ jumpsuit, Slash’s top hat, or KISS’ makeup, Michael was able to have several different looks that drew attention to himself. Museum-level outfits include his single sequined glove, his red leather jacket, and his military-style uniforms.

6. Work with the best
It’s tough to tell which came first for Michael. Does working with the best producers and musicians help create masterful work? Or does the fact that he does masterful work make the best talent in the industry want to work with him?  Either way, collaborating with icons like Quincy Jones, Paul McCartney, and Stevie Wonder means you aren’t cutting any corners.


For example, did you know that Eddie Van Halen played on the song Beat It? I did. There couldn’t be more distance in the type of music at the time then the pure pop of Michael and the pure rock of Van Halen, so either Eddie realized that this was a lifetime opportunity to work with an immensely talented cultural icon, or Jackson wrote him a rather large check.

Someone once said, you never regret going for quality. There are a lot of trade-offs when growing a business or putting together a marketing program under budget. But the sure way to invite failure is to always go with the cheapest possible option.

7. Brand yourself
Think long and hard about your brand, for it will be with you for a long time, whether you like it or not.
Good example? The King of Pop
Bad example? Wacko Jacko

8. Focus on monetization
With the state of the economy, monetization is the buzzword of 2009, but in reality that’s always been the bottom line. When times are flush, companies have more freedom to try out different products in search of new revenue streams. In leaner times, they might be trying to get more money out of the same resources.

Key business negotiation, partnerships, and seeking out the help of others for sources you might not have considered can be wise. In Michael’s case, he was able to negotiate a deal where he received $2 per record for Thriller, an unprecedented amount at the time. In the end it was a win-win for both the artist and the record company, as it went on to become the best selling album of all time. Jackson later spoke with Paul McCartney, who told him about the revenues from the publishing side of the industry. Jackson later used that information to successfully bid on the Beatles catalog.

9. Give back
According to Wikipedia, Michael reportedly was involved with 39 different charities. Projects like We are the World and countless others helped raise millions for those less fortunate than him.

In business, giving back doesn’t have to mean money. It can mean being a good member of the community, or serving as a mentor for younger professionals.

10. Sometimes things get a little crazy, and the media is there to capitalize

I’m going to keep a positive spin on this feature, so I won’t delve into trials involving children, hanging babies over balconies, changing facial appearances, the elephant man’s bones, and having chimpanzees named Bubbles as a pet.  What I will say, is that if you give the media something juicy, they’re going to pounce on it.


When I recently noted on Twitter that TMZ.com correctly confirmed Michael’s death before all other mainstream media accounts, my friend said “What did you expect? They’re the paparazzi and follow him every day! Of course they broke the story first.”

And that’s how things are these days. With millions of people connected worldwide on blogs, facebook, and twitter, and everyone serving as their own film crew with digital cameras and camera phones, it’s hard to get away from unwanted media attention.

However, as much as Michael was a victim of the press, he also greatly used it for his benefit. And you can do the same.

Thanks for the music, the memories, and the lessons learned.

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