I think it is a good time to celebrate entrepreneurs because without them the world would be a far darker and undeveloped place. Since this month The Walt Disney Company will celebrate both Mickey Mouse’s 90th birthday and Disney World’s 55th anniversary, I thought it would be a perfect time to revisit the life of Walt Disney, arguably the world’s most creative entrepreneur.
Mickey Mouse continues to be one of the top one or two best known characters in the world and is the image most closely connected to Disney. What many people don’t know is that Disney is the largest entertainment business in the world and owns such well-known businesses as ABC, ESPN, Disneyland, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and now 21st Century Fox.
I enjoy talking about Walt Disney, the entrepreneur, because his passionate creativity never accepted “no” or “you can’t do that” as an answer. In fact, those responses often inspired him. Disney was a man who never saw “barriers”, only new opportunities.
A few years ago I read Walt Disney – An American Original by Bob Thomas. From stories in Thomas’ book I’ve noted here 10 examples of Disney’s entrepreneurial determination, optimism, and creativeness.
- When he was 20 In 1922 in Kansas Walt quit his $60 a week job (this was 3 times the average wage in America) to launch his own animation business called Laugh-O-gram Films. He raised money from investors and took a huge pay cut. By 1923 the company had failed and he had no money. Deciding to head to California he worked to raise cash for the train ride. With $40 and one suitcase he bought a first-class ticket and headed west. Who would buy a first class ticket in this situation? An optimist.
- By 1928 Disney successfully produced his first animated cartoon Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. What he didn’t know was his New York distribution company unethically hired away his animators so as to force Disney to reduce the value of his contract. It would not be the only time his “partners” would hire away Disney workers to try and gain leverage. As usually happened, Disney remained positive and sent a positive message to his brother, Roy, “Keep your chin up…we will be able to laugh last – that’s the best laugh of all.”
- On the trip back to California Disney put the finishing mental touches on what would become Mickey Mouse. He then inspired his remaining team, dealt with serious financial challenges, and created Plane Crazy, the first Mickey cartoon based on Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic. He then went against all the leaders in the movie industry and became the first animator to add voices to another Mickey film called Steamboat Willie.
- In 1932 after his chief animator had been hired away by his distribution “partner”, Disney again decided to go in new direction – add color to the cartoons at a much higher cost. Disney was the only one who saw the potential. His brother thought the cost would get no return. Walt knew that color would mean their short animations would have longer runs in theaters and they would earn more money downstream. He was right.
- In 1934 short animations were becoming unprofitable so Disney wanted to make a full feature film. The cost was at least $500,000, a huge sum for their small studio. All his advisors told him he was crazy. He held a meeting and personally acted out and told the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The team understood his vision and they made the film, which grossed $8,000,000 worldwide ($100,000,000 today.)
- In 1940 the company’s financial condition was in peril. Roy Disney had a meeting with Walt in which he started to outline the seriousness of the problem – Walt started laughing. He couldn’t believe how much they had grown from the days when they had trouble raising a few dollars and now they owed banks 4.5 million dollars. The mood shifted and the Disneys decided to go public and raise extra funds.
- World War II seriously impacted the Disney Company. Throughout the difficult period Disney stayed positive and helped the government by making many military films and even used Donald Duck to convince Americans to pay their income taxes.
- By 1952 Walt Disney knew that a high-caliber amusement park could be created using many of the Disney characters that had been created over the past 25 years. Again his family, advisors, and Board of Directors didn’t agree – the Board argued it was a different business. Disney countered with, “Disney is in the entertainment business and that is what amusement parks are.” So he created a separate business and funded it initially by borrowing on a life insurance policy.
- At the same time, Walt thought television would also provide a great extension for Disney. He then wondered if he could get television to effectively fund the development of Disneyland. Yes they would. ABC agreed to invest in Disneyland if Disney would produce a weekly show, which started as Disneyland and then became Walt Disney Presents. Around 1960 Disney switched to NBC because it would allow Disney to broadcast in color. Many years later after Walt Disney’s death Disney would buy ABC, which it still owns.
- Walt Disney knew that Disneyland was really only serving people west of the Mississippi. So he thought they needed to build another amusement park, on a much larger scale, in the east. One of his last significant entrepreneurial acts happened during a secret flight east in November 1963. During that flight he and a few other executives flew around mid-Florida, often at low altitudes, in search of land. That night they stopped in New Orleans and learned that President Kennedy had been shot. By the time they got back to California, everyone knew the vision for Disney World.
Walt Disney was a man whose optimism and “can do” attitude defines the word “entrepreneur” and inspires us still today.