Mickey Mouse’s Father – An Amazing Entrepreneur

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 every 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.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 114 – Exactly What is Accountability?

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.

Chicken Feed

What do sandpaper, tiny bits of stone and gravel, a 1969 John Wayne movie and successful people – especially entrepreneurs – have in common? The one-word answer is . . . grit. I’ve written before about perseverance, but grit takes this idea a step beyond. It’s one thing to keep on keeping on, but grit adds a special dimension to the notion of resolve. But before we dive in, let’s go back to the opening sentence for some context. Sandpaper has a very rough surface that is referred to as grit. This grit can be very coarse or very fine depending upon the project at hand. Chickens eat tiny bits of stone and gravel to help them digest their food. These small particles are also called grit. And who can forget the classic John Wayne movie called True Grit, in which a young teenage girl works in tandem with a drunken U.S. marshal to track down her father’s killer.

Many of us call it quits too early when something isn’t going the way we had envisioned. As entrepreneurs we are told that we must persevere and eventually things will turn out the way we want. So we slog on and keep fighting the good fight. However, this isn’t grit. Remember the earlier mention of sandpaper. Everyone knows that if we rub sandpaper on our skin we can draw blood. Grit does this metaphorically. We invest more of ourselves in whatever we are pursuing than just time and stick-to-it-ness. In the process we may get a little bloodied. We may get a black eye or a broken nose. But in the end we win.

So just how does grit manifest in more concrete terms? Let’s look at some people who have demonstrated “true grit” in exemplary fashion. Singer/songwriter Dolly Parton grew up dirt poor as she describes it, in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Even so, she maintained a cheerful and positive mindset throughout her childhood that has served her well during her long and illustrious career. Today, at age 71, she has amassed a fortune worth more than $500 million. She claims she had more “guts than talent.” But I think it was her optimism and sunny disposition that helped her overcome the obstacles she faced along the way.

Next, there’s the amazing success of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. Bezos graduated from Princeton in 1986 and went to work on Wall Street. He enjoyed a fairly lucrative career in the investment world but he had a dream. He saw that the Internet was going to dominate the future and gave up his hedge fund job to start Amazon in 1994. The catalyst for him was his passion for that which was scientific and technological.

Finally most of us know the story of J. K. Rowling. Divorced, on welfare and struggling to provide for her baby, she was nearly out of options in 1994. In spite of these challenges she wrote the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The manuscript was rejected by 12 different publishers before finding one that would print it. And in several cases, the rejections weren’t very kind. But Rowling had no choice but to bounce back and keep trying – it was either that or she would never be able to climb out of the deep hole she was in. Her resilience made all the difference – and of course the rest is history with 400 million copies of the Potter books being sold.

There are many other elements that can be included when defining grit – courage, bravery, pluck, mettle, backbone, spirit, strength of character, strength of will, moral fiber, steel, nerve, fortitude, toughness, hardiness, determination, tenacity, guts and spunk, to name a few. I’m partial to a combination of optimism, passion and resilience that accompany persistence and endurance.

Call it what you will, grit is essential for moving beyond perseverance to the successful outcomes we desire. And yes, there will be blood, sweat and tears along the way. But they are merely proof that we have invested our heart and soul in the arduous and exhilarating process of fulfilling our vision.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 43 – Lincoln vs. Douglas.

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.