SocEnt Mom: Lessons on Business from Disney

Small Business Lessons from Walt Disney

Because this is a mom blogger column, there’s got to be SOMETHING on Disney, right? But instead of talking about Moana and Cars 3, or how to save money on your Disneyworld visit, we’ll take a different tack: 5 lessons on business that Mompreneurs can learn from Walt Disney, the man behind the brand.

Photo courtesy Orange County Archives

First off, let me highly recommend the recent American Experience documentary, Walt Disney. I initially began watching the film as a time killer. It wasn’t long though before I was taking notes, thoroughly fascinated by the life of this amazing, innovative man. The film is as valuable as any business tome, in my opinion and I’d highly recommend it. (Plus, there are enough clips from old Disney films that your kids might sit there with you!)

Here are five lessons I walked away with:

  1. Innovation means doing the “impossible”. Walt Disney pioneered the use of sound as a plot device. He created the first full length animated film. He designed the theme park experience we know today. We now recognize the incredible success of each of these ventures. But when he first brought up his ideas, there was a lot of pushback. “The technology isn’t available.” “People will hate it.” “It’s not going to work.” Few people initially recognized the power of Disney’s ideas. Yet he didn’t let this deter him. He forged ahead anyway…and made history.

    As social entrepreneurs, we need to recognize that innovation is going to be hard. There’s not going to be “How To” manual to smooth the way. Not everyone is going to rally to our vision. We’re creating a new path…and that requires embracing what others might term “impossible.”

  2. Know Your Field. One reason Walt’s ideas were successful was because he knew the market. When he was first launching Disney Brother Studios, he exhaustively studied his competition. He delved deep into current animation & sound technology. He collaborated with others in the field. In other words, he was constantly learning about the arena in which he was operating. He was a visionary, yes. Ultimately, though, that vision was grounded in his understanding of the market.

    This was a good reminder to me not to slack off in self-education. While there are lots of day to day details which require time and energy, I also need to be carving out time to learn. And since I’m involved in a social venture, part of that learning needs to be focused on my target population, refugees. And not just statistics and numbers. I need to be spending ample time with my refugee friends, learning from them about their culture, community,  needs, aspirations, struggles. If I design a program without really understanding their needs, it’s doomed to failure. Innovation is only useful when anchored in real world realities.

  3. Success Can be Your Enemy. Disney’s films, especially Snow White, rocked the film industry. His reputation shot through the roof and Disney Studios began to grow like crazy. And this growth laid the foundations for future personnel and business problems for Walt.By necessity, growth means delegation. It means handing off certain responsibilities so that you don’t go crazy. And this is good and important. But for Disney, he lost his personal connection with the people who worked for him. He became the distant boss man, no longer the inspiring leader.

    For social entrepreneurs, the logistics of growth can cause us to become overly busy in managing the overhead stuff and separate us from those whom we’re seeking to serve. Yes, we want to scale our work so as to impact as many as possible, but growing too fast too quickly may end up sabotaging your ultimate mission.

  4. It’s Not All Great. I recently took stock of where we were as an organization. We’ve grown. We’ve got a lot of exciting initiatives. Many amazing things happening. And yet, it’s not all roses. There are new struggles. There are failures. There are miscalculations and ideas that just don’t work like we expected. Some stuff is harder than I ever thought it would be.

    The American Experience documentary showed me that Walt’s career trajectory was likewise filled with ups and downs, sometimes simultaneously.  There was very notable success, but that was often followed by just as notable failure. For example, Walt’s second full-length film was Fantasia. This movie was as ambitious and groundbreaking as Snow White, but didn’t do as well critically. In fact, Disney received a lot of flak for it. So lesson learned: troubles don’t mean long-term failure. Expect ’em and keep on going.

  5. It Takes Many.  Walt Disney may have been the creative genius behind the studio’s meteoric rise, but he wouldn’t have gone anywhere without the behind the scene labors of his brother, Roy Disney. Roy and Walt were partners from the beginning, with Walt handling production and Roy providing the business sense and financial management. Walt’s ideas would have gone nowhere without his brother consistently finding investors, raising funds, managing money.

    Likewise, there are a variety of gifts and skills needed to make a socially conscious business succeed. You need creative. You need pragmatic. You need introverts. You need extroverts.  The various perspectives and skills provide a well-rounded outlook. And just because one skill set is more backseat and less flashy doesn’t mean it is any less important. Hmmm – seems like the Bible has something to say about that, right?

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