As a young man Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” It was an inauspicious start for a man who went on to be one of America’s most innovative leaders.
In 1921, he founded his first animation company in Kansas City. It failed. He had to dissolve his company. He could not pay the rent and it is said that he was in such desperate straits that he had to eat dog food.
When Disney offered MGM studios the opportunity to distribute Mickey Mouse films in 1927, he was told that the idea would not work because a giant mouse on the screen would terrify women and children! Mickey Mouse went on to be a huge success.
In 1933 Disney created the most successful cartoon short of all time, The Three Little Pigs. It ran continuously in many theatres across America. He asked his team what they should do next. The response was more short cartoons featuring pigs – it was a formula that worked. But Disney was more ambitious. He planned something which had never been attempted before – a full length cartoon film. When the film industry learned of Disney’s plans to produce an animated feature-length version of Snow White in Technicolor they scoffed. People were sure that the project would destroy the Disney Studio and called it “Disney’s Folly”. Both Disney’s wife and brother tried to talk Walt out of the project but he persisted. Because of Disney’s demands for high quality the film took four years to make and his company nearly ran out of money. The film became the most successful motion picture of 1938 and earned over $8 million on its initial release, a huge amount in those times. Disney won 8 Oscars for the picture.
Walt Disney continued to innovate and take risks throughout his business career. His film business was remarkably successful but that was not enough. He wanted to found a theme park in Los Angeles, Disneyland. He told one of his aides ‘I want it to look like nothing else in the world.’ It is reported that his project was rejected by 300 bankers before he raised the finance he needed. Why would a banker believe that a film maker could make a success of such a huge, untried and entirely different venture? Disneyland opened in 1955 and was a great success. It was followed by Disney World in Florida which was designed by Walt Disney and opened in 1971 some five years after Disney’s death. It is now the number one vacation resort in the world with over 50 million visitors every year.
Disney was never satisfied with repeating success. He wanted to try new, different and bigger ideas. He ignored the doubters and made huge innovations happen.
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