Beeple is a 21st Century Napoleon

How one artist changed the game and conquered the world

It was a Tuesday. On May 1, 2007, a guy nicknamed “Beeple” (Mike Winkelmann) doodled on his computer. He did it the next day. Then the next. Then the one after, and again, for 4,999 more days—almost 14 years total—until January 7, 2021. A little after, he stitched them all together, called it “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days,” and sold it for $69.4 million at a Christie’s auction on March 11, 2021.

Everyone focused on the dough, but there’s so much more to this story.

It rocked art. An expert at Christie’s predicted the art world would be “really pissed,” and that was right. Beeple took two art classes in high school. “Everydays” was his own paint-every-day way of art self-education. Beeple’s the ultimate outsider that overturns an entire system. It’s easy to see why the aficionados would be miffed.

But some collectors love him. Beeple’s sale demonstrated that digital art can be owned. It fixed a practical problem—how to claim ownership when something can so easily be copied. “Non-fungible tokens, known as NFTs,” wrote one article, “are electronic identifiers confirming a digital collectible is real by recording the details on a digital ledger known as a blockchain.” Another journalist called it “like owning an encrypted JPG.”

One small step for files, one giant leap for art. Beeple described this innovation as creating a “new type of canvas” and “the next chapter of art.”

Earthquakes don’t erupt every day. But Beeple is more than just an art world earthquake. Earthquakes only shake within a given circumference. The ripples from the “Everydays” sale will propagate and cascade out across the world. Like another human catalyst.

Napoleon.

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Three years ago, in 2018, another big ticket item went up for auction. It wasn’t digital, it was physical. It was one of the iconic black, felt, bicorn hats worn by Napoleon Bonaparte. It was in rough shape, faded in color and diminished over time. There were over one hundred of these double-cornered hats known to be out there at the time, but this one was unique. Napoleon wore it on the day of his greatest loss, at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. It sold for a little over $400,000.

Someone would pay so much for an old piece of faded felt because Napoleon dominated his age. Historians record Napoleon won 46 of the 60 battles he led, and lost only 7 (the rest were considered draws). He took advantage of new ways of raising armies, new methods of organization and maneuver, and defeated much larger opponents piece-by-piece. 

But it wasn’t just that. Napoleon was as unlikely a success in that world as Beeple is in ours. Napoleon wasn’t even fully French: he was an outsider, from the island of Corsica, which only just became a French possession in Bonaparte’s birth-year.

Napoleon led France, dominated Europe, established new ways of law and governance. He was a genius to many. Historian Darrin McMahon, in his book Divine Fury on Napoleon’s special place among those deemed geniuses, wrote

“Napoleon overthrew centuries-old customs, traditions, and laws. A destroyer, he abolished kingdoms. A creator, he made them anew. Here was the basis of a powerful Romantic myth that was at once heir to the original genius of the eighteenth century and a genuine original. Combining creativity with action, originality with deeds, the genius could be a poet of the political, remaking the world in his image. The genius could be a legislator of the world.”

Napoleon’s wake was enormous. His land sale in North America—the Louisiana Purchase—helped turn the United States into what it is today. His war with Russia helped a widow known as “Veuve Clicquot” give birth to modern Champagne. And his campaign in Egypt helped unlock the mysteries of ancient civilization by securing the Rosetta stone. 

When Napoleon acted, the impact kept going on, and on, and on.  

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If you change the game, you can go by one name. Success’s privilege shortens ID. Beeple and Napoleon now have that in common.

But there’s more. You can see it in the ways Beeple changed the game, particularly the spinoff impacts his big sale has brought on.   

First, Beeple’s sale heralds the solution to the problem of digital art. Without exclusivity there’s no collection. NFTs provide ownership, like the master recording of a popular song. While people might play and rent a copy of that song, nobody would claim to “own” that song. It’s the difference between temporary access and permanent ownership.

NFTs are here to stay. They’ve broken the dam, and the spillover will cover everything. Sports memorabilia and historical interest items, like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s first-ever tweet (which sold for $2.9 million last week). Many valuable real-world items will likely have an NFT applied so you can prove ownership in the digital-verse. Cars, diplomas, houses, or concert tickets may all be places we’ll soon see NFTs. 

And let’s admire the power of exponential gains enabled by NFT and blockchain. Beeple’s previous high sale was about $66,000 for a piece called “Crossroads,” for which he held a “smart” contract. In the old days, art world practice meant the first sale was a 90 percent commission to the artist and then nothing thereafter. Smart contracts allow more flexible terms, so the “creator constantly is able to benefit from it,” as Beeple put it. 

After “Everydays” sold for more than a thousand times the “Crossroads” sale, “Crossroads” was sold again for $6.6 million. This is one hundred times its original price of about $66,000. But Beeple signed a smart contract on “Crossroads” that pays the original artist 10 percent of any future sales. So Beeple earned over $600,000 on this secondary sale, nearly ten times what he’d made on the first. 

It’s also opened up greater fractionalization and financialization of art. One investor bought up a bundle of 20 of Beeple’s digital artworks. He then chopped them into 10 million shares at $0.36 each, then sold them in tokens. They’ve since risen to $12 per token. 

Beeple imagines Instagram and other image-sharing platforms will soon carry options such as: “Like,” “Share,” “Comment,” and “Buy.” The “Buy” button would use NFTs to restrict image ownership that can then be sold hyper-exclusively (i.e., sell a single image to the highest bidder) or make a volume play by selling ten thousand of the same image in a limited-edition set.

“I made the art,” Beeple has said, “because I love making art.” While the big sale draws interest, it’s clear his motivation was never financial. On that first Tuesday, he sat down to sketch on his computer with an audience of one. And so it went for most of those 5,000 days. It’s hard to imagine the love it takes to do something consistently for so long. (I write from experience here. I did one year of drawings to send my young kids while deployed. And that was just seven percent of what Beeple did.) He’s firm on another aspect, that “if this stuff all went away tomorrow, I would keep doing it because that’s what I love to do, and that’s what I’m going to keep doing, period.”

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Why should we care about Beeple? 

Skeptics will say there’s nothing special here, that he’s no Napoleonesque conqueror, that the technology was more important than the individual in this story. 

Yet, exponential success demands attention. Of course the technology is critical here, but a torch is meaningless until someone picks it up and lights it in the dark. We can’t separate Beeple’s digital art from the era. He found a way to use the trends and tools of today to succeed wildly above all others. It wasn’t just anybody. It was Beeple. His actions have changed the world.

What does this mean for strategists?

Strategists must know what works—yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Beeple’s success announces—with a 5,000-piece marching band—that society demands expanded ownership in the digital world. If more value is shifting from the physical to the digital, then that’s where more of our strategic goals and objectives will lie. We’ll compete and fight more in the virtual world. And if you don’t recognize this feature of the environment, you’ll fall back behind others that do. 

Beeple also demonstrates the uncertainty inherent in every endeavor. His magnum opus began on a Tuesday and ended with a $69 million paycheck. It changed the world.

Strategy’s the same way. Wake up, orient yourself toward success, and get going. You never know what upside’s waiting. So start tomorrow.

It’s a Tuesday.

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*Afterthought: “My future starts when I wake up every morning. Every day I find something creative to do with my life.” (Miles Davis)

*Editor’s Note: What do you think? Please let me know with a comment, and, if you enjoyed this, forward it on to anyone you think might benefit or find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention to another person means everything to this little community’s continued growth. 

All the very best & see you next week, Matt