I recently re-read a terrific biography by Bob Thomas called Walt Disney: An American Original. Thomas was a reporter and biographer who authored multiple biographies focusing on Hollywood celebrities. The Disney story is fascinating and is packed with incredible entrepreneurial anecdotes. As a kid in the 1950s and 1960s, I watched Walt Disney Presents and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on ABC and NBC. I remember attending the Disney movie Babes in Toyland in early 1962 at the local theater. And then of course there was Mary Poppins starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in 1964. The pièce de résistance was a visit to Disneyland in Anaheim, California, with my family. Of course, as a boy I had no idea what entrepreneurship was all about.
Roll the tape forward several decades and I find myself in awe of this amazing man. He epitomizes so many positive traits of a successful entrepreneur. For starters, he was one of the most optimistic individuals I’ve ever studied. Walt Disney was born in 1901 and began his career at age 18, and in the 1920s moved to California and launched Disney Studios with his older brother, Roy. The early days were lean – sometimes very lean. There were many weeks when the Disneys were scrounging for enough money to make the payroll. Roy took this very seriously and fretted considerably over their plight. But Walt was the eternal optimist. He would smile and say he never worried about money. He believed they would always figure out a way to survive. And he was right! Somehow the studio inevitably pulled a rabbit out of a hat and came up with the cash. Without Walt’s optimism and positive mindset, there would be no Disney legend that we know today.
Walt understood grit and perseverance better than anyone else. The Disney organization was just starting to come into its own when the Great Depression came crashing down upon the country. And yet Walt continued fine tuning his craft and creating cartoons that were well received by theater audiences everywhere. His optimism fueled this perseverance and every time he was knocked down, he was able to pick himself up, dust himself off and go back at it. This resilience combined with perseverance and a positive attitude was the key to surviving the dark days of the 1930s.
Creativity was another Disney hallmark. Walt got the idea to create a feature-length animated movie and introduced the world to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. No one in the film industry had ever produced a feature-length animated movie and everyone doubted that such a production could succeed. Walt Disney proved the skeptics wrong and followed with additional masterpieces such as Pinnochio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). When World War II took away many of his talented animators, he made movies under a contract with the federal government. While not nearly as profitable, the Disney organization was able to endure the war and remain in business. Walt’s creativity and ability to adapt to his circumstances were more entrepreneurial characteristics that led to his success.
He was a true visionary in every sense of the word. After succeeding with motion pictures, Walt foresaw the opportunity to create an amusement park that embodied the magic he had been delivering through his animated films. I can still remember that trip to Disneyland when I was five or six years old. I was overwhelmed by such an amazing experience. After Disneyland came his ideas for Disney World and Epcot in central Florida. Unfortunately, Walt Disney died from lung cancer in 1966 at the age of 65. The tragedy of this was the fact that he never witnessed the finished product of the Florida projects.
Walt was obsessed with detail and would often snoop after hours and look at the animator boards to see what his team was producing. Often the animators would arrive the next morning to find notes from Walt suggesting changes that would improve their work – and he was usually right about what he wanted. He demanded the highest level of quality for everything that bore the Disney brand. This was one of the major differentiators that enabled the Disney organization to consistently outpace the competition.
We entrepreneurs would be well-served to use Walt Disney as a role model. Wrapped into a single human being are the entrepreneurial traits of optimism and positivity; grit, perseverance, and resilience; adaptability; creativity; vision; attention to detail and demand for quality. The impact he has had on our culture is indelible. The impact he has had in blazing a trail for entrepreneurs is profound.
This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.