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Everybody knows who Walt Disney is. He disrupted the animation and entertainment industry in the 20th century and left behind an everlasting legacy that has shaped the childhoods of billions of people thanks to his impressive pool of movies, theme parks and merchandise. The Walt Disney Company was created in 1923, and today it's the world's second largest entertainment conglomerate, with more than $55 billion in revenue, and has built 14 (and counting) theme parks all over the world. Nevertheless, what most people don't know about Disney is that he started with no money, living in his office, surviving on a diet of cold beans and living failure after failure.
People who knew him describe him as an optimist despite everything he went through. When he was a little boy, his father beat him and his mother regularly, and he started drawing as a way to escape the bad situation he had at home. He was a good student but wasn't very interested in anything besides doodling in the corner of his notes and working as a cartoonist for the high school paper. He dropped out at 16 and faked his birth certificate to join the Red Cross, who shipped him to France to work as an ambulance driver during WWI. But even then, he remained optimistic.
He wanted to do something to cheer up the wounded soldiers so he drew cartoons and sketches of happy creatures all over the ambulance, making him very well known in the area. That's when he decided that he wanted to follow his passion and he returned to the US to become an animator. In 1923, he went to Hollywood and created the Disney Brothers Studio with his brother, setting the first stone of the massive empire he would end up creating.
Walt Disney was a true entrepreneur, someone who fought and struggled through his life until he finally made it. Here are some of the most important lessons we can draw from his experience:
1. Embrace failure
One of the biggest clichés in the entrepreneur's book but still true. Disney failed a lot: his first studio never succeeded and when he finally managed to make a profitable character (Oswald the Lucky Rabbit), he lost everything to his distributor, who betrayed him and kept the studio, the animators and the intellectual property of the character. His most infamous creation, Mickey Mouse (formerly known as Mortimer Mouse), was a real flop until the introduction of sound in films, and Academy Award-winning Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was dubbed "vulgar" and "the worst Disney creation in history" when it first came out. But Disney never let any of that stop him. He actually believed failure changed his life for the best: "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."
2. Never give up
One of Disney's most infamous quotes is "The difference in winning and losing is most often not quitting," and he definitely lived by those words. He failed with his first two studios but he kept going. When he lost everything after the Lucky Rabbit fiasco, he got inspired to create Mickey Mouse after befriending one of the mice who lived with him in his office. He went 100% over budget while he was making Snow White and he had to act out the scenes in front of the bankers to get funding. His family and friends begged him to stop but he kept working on the movie for more three years, until it was released in 1937. He was turned down more than 300 times when he was looking for investors to create Disneyland, and spent 16 years convincing author P.L. Travers to give him the rights to make Mary Poppins. Disney believed in doing whatever it took to get the job done, and in the end he got results that exceeded everybody's expectations.
3. Create fan culture
Disney was a true pioneer in many ways, especially in the marketing department. He was smart enough to create all kinds of related industries surrounding his movies, not only with the parks but also with merchandise. He made sure to promote both his characters and himself in any way he could, and in doing so he created a huge culture that has made people feel deeply involved for generations. He was the first filmmaker to use merchandise not only as a marketing tool but as one of the main sources of income as well, something the company still does in the present, as The Walt Disney Company makes almost $4 billion every year just in consumer products.
4. Money isn't everything
According to Walt Disney, you shouldn't worship money. He believed money can make things easier for you and your business but it can also ruin everything you've fought for by making you overconfident. Money should be used wisely and in an effective manner, he used to say you shouldn't work to amass wealth but to keep investing in your business in order to make it better and more diverse.
5. Get your team onboard first
There are conflicting stories about what kind of boss Disney was, but there's one thing everybody who worked with him agrees on: he was very clear about what he visualized and expected from his team. He was a fantastic storyteller and he inspired his people into action by sharing his passion and going into extreme detail and making everybody part of the story. He went through the entire story, acting out the characters and even doing different movements and voices to make his team feel involved from the very beginning because they felt part of the process. Getting your team on board is the key to any great product, like Disney himself said: "You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality."
6. Invest in knowledge
The first thing Disney did when he got a little bit of money was put all his artists back in school: "The art schools that existed then didn't quite have enough for what we needed, so we set up our own art school. I wanted my animators to go beyond what they were getting in art school where they work with static figures. We were dealing with motion, movement, the flow of things." Every time he started experimenting with a new technique, he made his employees take classes to master it to perfection.
Disney was an innovator and everything he did was completely new and revolutionary at the time. He was the first one to include sound in animated pictures and was the mastermind behind the first feature length animated film of all times (Snow White). He also experimented a lot with colors, sounds and all kinds of techniques, including bringing real animals to the studio so the animators could catch the essence of their movements, actions and expressions.
Disney felt like he couldn't waste all the talent he had employed just in animation, so, as the company grew, he decided to diversify his production beyond cartoons and animated movies. In 1050 he released Treasure Island, his first live-action film, and soon after he created his own in-house distribution company, Buena Vista Distribution. He started creating TV programs in the 50s too, including a show called Disneyland where he talked about the future plans he had for the company and the evolution of the parks. He opened his first park in California in 1955, and by 1960 he had acquired land in Florida to create what later would be known as Walt Disney World.
Walt Disney died in 1966 but his dream lives on. He's a cultural icon who remains one of the main personalities in the history of animation. He transformed a small animation studio – what was a marginal form of art at the time – into a multinational entertainment giant. Despite all the critics, he shaped the odds in his favor to make his vision of a modern and utopic corporation a reality.
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