Everyone knows Walt Disney. Almost everyone has been to a Disney park somewhere, seen a Disney movie (live action or a cartoon), or knows some Disney character. Some people even go on Disney cruises. I think in some ways people know more about Disney, but fewer people about Disney the man. Walt was a visionary, an entrepreneur, and a creative genius. There are some invaluable lessons every entrepreneur can learn from what he was able to accomplish in his life.
Lesson #1 – Never give up. Many people don’t know that Walt Disney was not an overnight success. He started several companies that went bankrupt. He started a commercial art studio, and it tanked. He tried to create advertisements, and they also failed due to lack of revenue. Instead of giving in or giving up, Walt always just tried the next thing. As Walt said, “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.”
Lesson #2 – Be a problem solver. Walt Disney was the consummate problem solver. He was very observant and was always looking for ways to solve a problem and thinking of how it could be an opportunity in the marketplace. He took his daughter to a park to ride some rides, and he noticed the rides were dirty and in bad shape, and the people operating the rides were rude. This problem that he thought about became Disneyland. He wanted a place that was safe and clean, where parents could take their kids. As Jason Kilar once said, “When I was 10, we drove to Disney World. When we arrived, what impressed me most was the meticulous attention to detail; there wasn't a gum wrapper anyplace.”
Lesson #3 – Be willing to reinvent yourself. Many people don’t know that Disney’s first major cartoon star was not Mickey Mouse but Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. He had signed a contract with a distributor for the short cartoons and was thrilled with their success. When he went to renew the contract, they fired Walt and said that they legally owned Oswald, not Walt Disney, as outlined in the contract. Even worse, all of Walt’s animators left Walt and went to work for the other company. Walt went home having lost his biggest success. He had to start over. As he said: “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.”
Lesson #4 – Surround yourself with talent. Walt Disney admitted that he was not the most talented at drawing or animation. As he once said, “I started, actually, to make my first animated cartoon in 1920. Of course, they were very crude things then and I used sort of little puppet things.” He was brilliant at knowing what he did best and was able to hire the best artists and animators in the world. The person who animated Mickey in the early was not Walt but an animator named Ub Iwerks. Walt didn’t have to have the talent for drawing, but he had the vision. It’s like being an architect—you don’t have to be the general contractor; you just have to know what you want the project to look like when it is done.
Lesson #5 – Be curious. Walt was an inquisitive soul and always wanted to learn new things. In animation, this led to some stunning developments in the early years. He is famous for making the first sound cartoon, the first live action and animation mix film, and the first full-length cartoon movie. Until Walt, cartoons were fluffy, short, mindless clips that came on before the main feature. Here is the point, and don’t miss it—he didn’t know how to do any of those things, but his curiosity led him to investigate and figure it out. Walt said: “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
Lesson #6 – Diversify. Walt was smart enough after building a successful animation studio to get into live action movies, documentaries, television, amusement parks, and tons of products. He could have just run an animation studio, but that would not have created the kind of success his company had. I think Walt said it best: “Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future.” Every business needs to keep looking at ways to grow and diversify.
This article originally appeared in Entrepreneur and has been slightly modified for republication. For more business and personal development insight from Shawn Doyle, CSP, check out his titles from Sound Wisdom, including his Jumpstart Series, The Sun Still Rises, The Leadership Manifesto, and Two Months to Motivation.