11 Entrepreneurial Lessons from Walt Disney
1. Never give up
Walt Disney was once sacked from his local newspaper for lacking creativity. In his first business venture he borrowed a significant amount of money from family and friends and the business failed disastrously. He was not deterred by his earlier failures and created another animation venture, which became the legendary Walt Disney Company.
2. Experiment Endlessly
For a long time Walt Disney persisted with a side project called the Silly Symphonies, which was essentially a platform to experiment with new ideas and characters. From the Silly Symphonies shorts, many of Disney’s most famous characters were born and many of the ideas they found to work here were later implemented into the full-length films. For Walt this platform gave him great freedom and ensured that their big projects would be a success as many of the ideas had already been tested on a smaller scale with minimal risk.
3. Know your Strengths and Weaknesses and Delegate your Weaknesses.
Walt realised early on that he wasn’t the most talented illustrator. Whilst one might expect that to be the end of the road for someone with animation aspirations in those days, this actually became the greatest strength for Walt Disney. Creative people are often perfectionists and can’t let go of their work, being controlling and untrusting of others and this hinders the potential growth of a business. Walt Disney on the other hand knew that he didn’t have the ability to fulfil his vision so from the outset he relied on others. If 8 people can achieve so much imagine what 100 people could achieve – so Walt was determined to continue growing the business and team. Instead of illustrating Walt focused on his strengths – building the companies vision, ensuring motivation was high, creating ideas, building the strongest team, negotiating and overseeing the projects. This allowed the company to grow rapidly and made Walt a great leader.
4. Don’t get bitter, get better.
There were a number of times in Walt Disney’s life when people took advantage of his business, but instead of taking it personally he moved on and made sure it didn’t happen again. A great example of this was with his first successful original character – Oswald the lucky rabbit. After developing this highly successful character and creating 26 well received shorts – the distributor who owned the rights to Oswald took the creation from Disney and had them made by another animation studio. The Walt Disney company lost significant sums of money as the business had no other projects at the time. He learnt from this lesson and made sure the same thing would never happen again, making sure he had the rights to his future characters. Instead of throwing it in and losing hope he created Mickey Mouse.
5. Own the rights to everything you create.
If you are working hard to improve something and increase it’s value, you want to ensure that you benefit fully from your efforts. To increase the value of another persons asset, although a seemingly nice thing to do, can backfire. In real-estate for example, if you invest in improving a building you rent, the likely consequence is that you will need to pay higher rent. Walt Disney learnt a painful lesson when one of his early creation – Oswald was taken from him. He vouched to never repeat the mistake again.
6. Think long-term, stick to your vision.
The Walt Disney company was in debt for its first 25 years of business! This is incredible, not only from the banks perspective of actually lending them $millions of dollars and for multiple decades, but for Walt and Roy’s vision and confidence to continue growing even when losing money. When Roy became concerned about the debt they had accumulated, Walt would lighten the mood be reminiscing about the early days when the Bank wouldn’t lend them a few $thousand. His accumulated assets and successes allowed them to borrow $millions, so whilst it was of some concern, Walt managed to see the positive as it was a complement of sorts from the Bank that they had such faith in the company.
7. Back yourself and grow aggressively.
At a young age Walt created an animation business and immediately employed 8 animators. At the time they had no clients and little prospects of revenue on the horizon. This aggressive position was unsustainable and they eventually went bankrupt. Despite this, Walt maintained this highly aggressive stance in business and almost always had more staff then he could afford. Although the company remained in debt for the first 25 years the excessive spending they invested in their work ensured their work was the best in the world, ground-breaking and this reputation eventually led them to world-wide acclaim and enormous fortune.
8. Be the best at what you do.
To be an innovator will inevitably cost more, there are greater risks, delays, mishaps and it will inevitably take far longer to create something original then to copy something that already exists. But this makes you the leader in your field and if you have a culture for excellence hopefully you will also be the best. Your prices will ultimately be more then your competitors but people are willing to pay more for the best. If you build a reputation for having work of high integrity, this will rub off on your employees morale and on all of your other products and services. To be the best is now particularly important in our global economy, because one cannot compete on price with developing countries. Quality must be the aspect you compete on.
9. Be at the forefront of Technology
Creative people who tend to become famous are those are at the forefront of technological innovation. This is because they are the ones who influence and shape the industry, which others will follow. The Disneys were the first to do many things – the first animation with sound, the first animation with colour and the first full-length animation film. By being the first to do something means at that point you have no competitors. Creating a successful business is all about finding a niche. If you’re creating new niche’s you gain enormous benefits – from public enthusiasm, the media and other businesses who want to partner with an innovative leader and company. In more recent years, many years after Walt Disney had passed away, Disney were caught off-foot when Pixar revolutionised animation and Disney failed to see the opportunities and failed to create a hit for a number of years with their traditional animation. Fortunately Disney was big enough by this stage to buy Pixar, but one can never be complacent in business.
There were a number of years during the War, when Disney movie ticket sales declined steadily. Walt knew that their creations were as good as ever, but the circumstances were effecting people’s desire for animations. The business was going under, the overheads were larger then ever and they were producing more films then ever before. Walt knew he needed to look elsewhere to generate revenue and what he realised was that their company is fundamentally an expert at telling stories and communicating information. Whether as animations for kids or explainer videos for the army, Walt knew it was in many ways irrelevant. So you guessed it, the Walt Disney company made explainer videos for the army and so Walt turned their curse into their ally and sailed the company through tumultuous times.
11. Connect the Dots. Think outside the square.
Despite being in debt for the first 25 years of the company, Walt appreciated that his characters had a timeless charm. The full-length films he made in the times of War, which at the time flunked, were again released in cinemas at a later date where they became raging successes. The Disney’s were masters at seeing peripheral opportunities such as merchandise, video, TV, using their characters in advertising and later the creation of Disneyland California and Florida. All of these aspects not only generated revenue but they allowed their characters to gain more publicity and remain in the hearts of their fans. The Walt Disney Company is now a multi-billion dollar business and loved around the world and all of this started with the vision of just Walt and Roy Disney.
I hope you enjoyed these lessons I took from researching the life of Walt Disney.
Author: Josh O’Meara
Josh O’Meara is the Creative Director and Owner of Beetle Creative, a leading Design Studio that offers animation & video, Graphic Design and Web and App Design. Every year Beetle Creative partners with a Start Up to become their Design Partner.
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