There are many ways to tell Walt Disney’s story and it has been written many times because he was a wild success as a businessman and as a entrepreneur. Walt Disney was a dynamic entrepreneur and business magnate. He helped pioneer animation in film making and had talents in screenwriting, producing, acting, theme park design, and directing. He is what many think about as entrepreneurs because he did not come from money and yet had such impressive results in his endeavors. He founded Walt Disney Productions with his brother Roy Disney, which is now The Walt Disney Company with revenues in the billions. He had many skills and approaches that he used to be successful regardless of setbacks. Let’s rewind back and think about before any of that was true.
Walt was born in 1901 in Chicago and enjoyed creating art as a young boy. When he was 16 he enlisted in the Red Cross serving in World War I. When he returned he worked as an advertising cartoonist in Kansas City, Missouri. He was laid off when the company’s business that he was working for lagged.
Walt and Ub Iwerks, a laid off friend from his old company, then started their own business called Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. They had trouble attracting customers and so agreed that Walt should temporarily leave to work at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, run by A. V. Cauger. A month later Iwerks joined him there as he was not able to make the business work alone. This failure did not stop him forever, he went on to try again.
The company was doing animation, but it was cutout animation, which was exactly what it sounds like. Walt Disney became interested in animation but mainly in drawn animation. He began experimenting with a borrowed book and camera concluding that it was a promising direction. He could not persuade Cauger so once again he opened a business. This persistent and resiliency is what ended up leading him to become successful. He began the business Film Ad Co with Fred Harman. They made short cartoons sold as Newman’s Laugh-O-Grams and the first six were inspired by Walt’s readings of Aesop’s Fables. He had some success but not enough to keep the company solvent and the company went bankrupt in 1923. But, even two failures did not deter Walt Disney.
He then chose to move to California when Walt and his brother Roy began to work together. Walt was the creative part while Roy was the business and financial part. He was looking sell an animation he had made previously called Alice and Wonderland and eventually signed a contract with Margaret Winkler for six Alice comedies. The company they created then is now known as The Walt Disney Company.
The very first thing they created was a series of black and white cartoons about a rabbit named Oswald made for Universal Studios. They refused the raise Walt requested so he then quit drawing Oswald. Many of the animators he was working with left to continue the series. This action of knowing what you want and are worth is vital to not be undervalued and underpaid and Walt did just that.
Next, Walt made a silent cartoon called Plane Crazy including the now much-loved character named Mickey Mouse to replace Oswald. There was a screening of it and another Mickey Mouse animation called Gallopin' Gaucho but no one was interested. Talkies or talking pictures were a craze after the Jazz Singer came out in 1927. So, he made a Mickey Mouse cartoon, but this time with sound. This film was called Steam Boat Willie and it was an international success. He took a risk and improved what he made and it was a good decision. Cinephone became the distributor for their early sound animations.
Walt hired the professional composer and arranger Carl Stalling to improve the music quality spurring the creation of the Silly Symphony animation piece. Several more animators were also hired. And then again there was a disagreement over pay because Walt and Roy did not feel that they were getting their full share of the revenue from Cinephone or Pat Powers. This led to the loss of Powers as a distributor and them signing a contract with Columbia Pictures as their new distributor. He filmed Flowers and Trees in 1932 in full color winning an Academy award for it. And he made The Three Little Pigs animation winning another academy award. At each step he demanded improvements and kept increasing what the word best meant. Another improvement like this was the creation of a story department for artists to specifically detail the plot and emotions of their films.
They then released several animated films and had some wild successes such as their first feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He specifically had his staff trained by Chouinard Art Institute professor Don Graham to ensure the art was excellent when creating it. Pinocchio and other films soon followed. They eventually diversified into live action movies as well with Treasure Island in 1950 being the first. Perhaps the early struggles with distribution companies are what motivated them to move that in house. They also expanded into TV and eventually the Disneyland theme park. For all their success they did do government films, salary cuts as well as opening the company to the public.
The truth is no entrepreneur or business person can truly copy what the other did to make them so successful. But, consider why the decisions he made were successful. He was able to keep trying and become a success because he was skilled and used each insight he gained to make the films and products he made better diversifying and growing from a tiny business into a vast one. Let's continue that legacy.