Before Walt Disney created one of the best-known motion-picture production companies in the world, his editor fired him from the newspaper because he “lacked creativity.”
Now, Disney is worth $122.18 billion (Source: Global Rankings) and has 12 amusement parks around the world, including Florida, California, Paris, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo. The Magic Kingdom is the most visited theme park in the entire world and is estimated to have welcomed nearly 30 million guests in 2019 (Source: Blog Mickey).
Disney also has more than 25 Resort Hotels in the world (Source: Disney World) and the Disney Cruise Line currently operates four ships, with three more planned to come within the next couple of years (Source: Disney Cruise).
In today’s episode, we’re going to discuss Walt Disney’s entrepreneurial journey and a couple of his secrets to success he used to create one of the largest media companies in the world.
Early Life and Career
As a boy, Walt Disney took art classes, drew for his high school’s newspaper, and played with photography (Source: Britannica). He got his first job at 18 years old as a commercial illustrator, and in 1919, Walt Disney was fired from a Missouri newspaper, his editor claiming it was because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” (Source: Business Insider).
Afterwards, Disney began experimenting with a camera and hand-drawn animation. In 1922, he started his first company, an animation business, called Laugh-O-Gram. With his partner, they made a deal with a local theater to screen their cartoons, and due to popularity, they opened their own studio. They hired additional employees and did a series of fairy tales including “Alice in Cartoonland.” However, one year later they were forced to declare bankruptcy (Source: Biography).
Disney didn’t let this setback stop him from pursuing his dream. He and his brother, Roy, moved to Hollywood in 1923 and started producing a cartoon series, including the most well-known, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. It immediately became successful. They got help from a distributor in New York, and this became the start of the Disney Company. Originally, they named their studio the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, but it eventually changed to the Walt Disney Studio at Roy’s suggestion (Source: Walt Disney Archives).
Unfortunately, Disney discovered that their distributor had gone behind his back and signed up all of his animators, hoping to create his own studio. When Disney re-read the contract, he realized he didn’t own the rights to Oswald, and so he had to start from scratch again (Source: Walt Disney Archives).
With the loss of Oswald, Disney was forced to use his imagination to create a new character, and Mickey Mouse was born.
“Mickey Mouse popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad 20 years ago on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb and disaster seemed right around the corner,” Disney said.
Once again, his cartoon was instantly popular. The Walt Disney Studio took off, and in 1932, they won the Academy Award for Best Cartoon (Source: Walt Disney Archives). They began producing feature films, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, which became the highest-grossing film of all time until 1939 (Source: Hollywood Reporter). Since then, Walt Disney and his staff won 48 Academy Awards, 7 Emmys, and more than 950 honors and citations in his lifetime (Source: Walt Disney Archives), and Disney eventually founded Disneyland and Disney World (Source: Biography).
“All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me. . . . You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you,” he said.
Tectonic Shifts Disney Leveraged
The film industry underwent incredible and historic changes during the time Disney began creating his animations.
One of the biggest tectonic shifts Disney leveraged was the introduction to sound in films.
The Jazz Singer, the first talking film, premiered in 1927 (Source: ContentTime). It was a major hit and the film industry was quick to adapt. Disney was even faster. In 1928, Disney created the first animated work with synchronized sound on picture, Steamboat Willie (Source: LiveAbout). Steamboat Willie was first released as a silent film in July 1928, but was re-released with sound in November 1928 as Disney adapted to the tectonic shifts in the industry (Source: Filmsite).
However, in the 1920s and 1930s, recording equipment was heavy, making it impossible to take outside of a studio and extremely difficult to capture real world sounds. People were forced to find creative ways to make sound effects for animation (Source: BoomBox Post).
In 1935, Disney hired Jimmy MacDonald to create custom sound effect machines he could record inside the studio, and in 1941, Walt Disney Studios became the first to implement vocal processing with its film Dumbo (Source: BoomBox Post).
Another revolutionary shift in the film industry was that of colored films. Colored films were extremely new when Disney began animating and quite a bit more difficult to create. His first cartoons were created in black and white such as Steamboat Willie and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Color was seen as a novelty, especially as the United States entered the Great Depression. The extra expense of color was impractical as there was only a two-color process (red and green). In 1932, Technicolor completed work on a new three-color process (red, green, and blue) which eventually led to a full range of color (Source: Variety).
Disney understood the power in being fast to adapt to the tectonic shifts happening around him and his cartoon, Flowers and Trees, was the first commercially released film in the new three-color process (Source: Variety).
Adjusting to the shifts of sound and color in film helped Disney increase in popularity fast. He won multiple awards for his cartoons and films, and the Walt Disney Studio hit the ground running.
Despite all of his challenges and setbacks, Walt Disney pushed forward. He adjusted to the tectonic shifts happening around him and pursued his dreams with curiosity, imagination, and courage.
One of the most famous Walt Disney quotes is, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” Walt Disney understood that being an entrepreneur requires risk and takes courage. Most successful businesses aren’t easy. They require us to jump into something even if all we have is faith and hope that it will work out.
When Walt Disney’s first animation company went bankrupt, he had courage to continue to pursue his dream and move to Hollywood. In Hollywood, when his contractor took his animators and Oswald cartoon, he had the courage to move on and create a new cartoon character—Mickey Mouse. With every single cartoon and feature film he created, there is always the possibility of failure. There is the risk of people stomping on our creative ideas, and risk in losing a lot of money.
“Courage is the main quality of leadership, in my opinion, no matter where it is exercised. Usually, it implies some risk—especially in new undertakings. Courage to initiate something and to keep it going, pioneering and adventurous spirit to blaze new ways, often, in our land of opportunity,” Disney said.
Mistakes are guaranteed when starting a new business. We won’t be perfect the first time we try something new. And that’s okay. The important thing is that we pick ourselves back up and keep moving forward. Disney said, “The difference between winning and losing is most often not quitting.”
“Ideas come from curiosity,” Walt Disney said. “When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.”
Disney was built from his curiosity. As a young boy, he was driven to explore his talents in drawing and creating cartoons. His curiosity led him to pursue different paths. He was curious about cartoons, so he took art classes in high school. Curiosity leads to learning, and the only way we can be successful is if we have the desire and willingness to learn new things.
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths,” Disney said.
When we are curious, we ask questions and search for answers. A curious mind doesn’t get defeated when they run into a roadblock, they continue to search for the reason why and look for ways to get around it.
Research shows that curiosity actually leads to higher-performing and more-adaptable firms (Source: Harvard Business Review). When we encourage curiosity in our teams, we will have higher rates of success and find more solutions to our problems.
Imagination was a key part in Disney’s success. It took imagination to create unique and relatable cartoon characters that an audience would connect with. It took imagination to write entertaining stories that resonated with everyone. We need to use our imagination in our businesses as well, even if we aren’t creating animated films.
Unexpected things happen all the time. We all know just how fast things can change. COVID-19 was a drastic change that created a crisis for many businesses. About 200,000 American establishments permanently closed in the first year of the outbreak (Source: Federal Reserve). If a business wasn’t imaginative, they were forced to shut down.To combat COVID-19, companies all around the world have had to implement new, creative, and imaginative ways to keep themselves afloat.
For example, the Chester Hotel in the United Kingdom created transparent igloos to allow diners to eat outside while social distancing and staying safe (Source: Evening Express).
Imagination has become a necessity. While many businesses may be struggling with the constant, new tectonic shifts that are happening, we can harness our imagination to find opportunity within the crisis.
Many may think imagination is only important in the creative industry, but it’s just as important in business. It allows an entrepreneur to dream up new ventures, find new growth opportunities, and discover new ways to solve problems. It takes imagination to move beyond the predictable and combat the unexpected.
Albert Einstein said, “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Disney is founded on the idea of making dreams come true. Walt Disney said, “I dream, I test my dreams against my beliefs, I dare to take risks, and I execute my vision to make those dreams come true.”
As entrepreneurs, we need to take our idea, our goal, our dream, and put in everything we’ve got. We have to be passionate about what we are doing or we’ll fall under the pressure of everything around us.
“If you can dream, you can do it. Always remember that this whole thing was started by a mouse,” Disney said.
Here are some of my key takeaways from this episode:
- Trials and obstacles are necessary for growth.
- Being an entrepreneur requires risk and takes courage.
- The difference between winning and losing is often not quitting.
- We need to be curious. When we are curious, we ask questions and search for answers. A curious mind doesn’t get defeated when they run into a roadblock.
- Curiosity leads to higher-performing and more-adaptable businesses.
- We can harness our imagination to find opportunities within the crisis.
- If we can dream it, we can do it.
Learn More About Walt Disney
If you enjoyed this episode and want to learn more about Walt Disney, you can find more information on d23.com/disney-history/.