#39 Walt Disney An American Original

Summary Notes


In the episode, the host discusses the biography "Walt Disney: An American Original" and its exploration of Walt Disney's life and entrepreneurial journey. The host emphasizes Disney's eagerness to share the lessons from his humble beginnings and how those experiences influenced his later success. Disney's tenacity and vision are highlighted, from his insistence on personal interviews for the biography to his revolutionary approach to animation with sound and color, and eventually, his ambitious creation of Disneyland. The episode also underscores Disney's financial struggles, including a significant debt to Bank of America, and his eventual triumph as Disneyland becomes a massive success, reflecting his belief in the power of innovation and his mantra, "We can lick them with product." The host also mentions the support options for the ad-free "Founders" podcast, inviting listeners to become paid members for additional content and to subscribe to "Founders Notes" for insights from other entrepreneurs.

Summary Notes

Early Life and Influences of Walt Disney

  • Walt Disney's early years were spent on a farm in Marceline, as a newspaper delivery boy in Kansas City, and as a student and mailman in Chicago.
  • Walt Disney reflected on his youth during interviews, eager to share the lessons he learned and how they influenced his later life.
  • His background shaped his work ethic and creative pursuits, notably his interest in cartooning.
  • Walt Disney did not finish high school nor receive a college education, which was not uncommon in his family.

"He dwelled on his early years on the farm in Marceline, as a newspaper delivery boy in Kansas City, and as a student and mailman in Chicago."

  • This quote highlights the humble beginnings of Walt Disney and the formative experiences that contributed to his character and success.

The Importance of Studying Biographies

  • Biographies and autobiographies of entrepreneurs provide valuable lessons for current and future generations.
  • They offer insights into the challenges and successes faced by individuals like Walt Disney, which can be applied by others in their own endeavors.

"He seemed eager to sum up the lessons he had learned as a boy and tell young people how he applied them in his later life."

  • Walt Disney wanted to impart the wisdom gained from his early experiences to help others succeed, illustrating the purpose of studying biographies.

Support for the Founders Podcast

  • The podcast is ad-free and relies on paid memberships for support.
  • Paid members receive additional content, including extra podcasts and Founders Notes, which compile key ideas from entrepreneur interviews.
  • The podcast provides lessons from historical figures and entrepreneurs to apply in listeners' lives.

"Paid members make founders possible, and they receive extra podcasts from me every week."

  • This quote explains how the podcast is supported and the benefits available to paid members, emphasizing the value of the content provided.

Walt Disney's Career Beginnings

  • Walt Disney's first jobs included selling and delivering newspapers, delivering prescriptions, and sweeping a candy store.
  • He contemplated his future while performing routine tasks and decided against becoming a doctor or lawyer, instead focusing on becoming a cartoonist.
  • His cartooning talent became recognized in his high school newspaper and through art classes at the Kansas City Art Institute.

"Work became a constant numbing routine."

  • This quote reflects on the monotony of Walt Disney's early work and the contemplation it spurred, leading to his decision to pursue a career in cartooning.

The Decision to Become a Cartoonist

  • Walt Disney's injury gave him time to think about his future, leading to his decision to become a cartoonist.
  • His talent for drawing and humor were evident from an early age, and he sought to develop his skills through formal education and practice.
  • Despite a lack of formal education, Disney's determination and self-taught efforts set the foundation for his future success.

"By the time Walt's foot healed, he had decided to become a cartoonist."

  • The quote captures the pivotal moment when Walt Disney committed to his passion for cartooning, a decision that would shape his career.

Early Work Experience and Entrepreneurship

  • Walt Disney worked various jobs, including at a post office and as an ambulance driver during World War I.
  • After returning from Europe, he rejected a stable job at his father's factory to pursue art.
  • His older brother, Roy, helped him secure a job at a commercial art studio, where he welcomed criticism and improvement.

"I want to be an artist, Walt replied."

  • This quote demonstrates Walt Disney's resolve to follow his passion for art, despite the uncertainty and challenges it presented.

Founding of Disney Company

  • Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks started their own business, Earworks-Disney Commercial Artists, but it was short-lived.
  • Disney's first business venture, Laugh-O-Gram Films, failed due to a distributor's bankruptcy.
  • Despite setbacks, Disney's entrepreneurial spirit led him to Hollywood, where he established his third business, Disney Bros. Studio, which evolved into the Walt Disney Company.

"The laffogram office was an exhilarating place to work."

  • This quote conveys the energy and enthusiasm within Walt Disney's early company, setting the stage for the creativity and innovation that would define his career.

Lessons in Business and Control

  • Walt Disney learned the importance of control in the movie business, realizing that survival required not just creativity but also a "jungle toughness."
  • His experiences with distributors taught him the value of maintaining control over his creations and the direction of his company.

"Disney learned survival in the film business required a jungle toughness."

  • This quote underscores the harsh realities of the film industry and the need for resilience and strategic control, lessons that Disney took to heart in his future endeavors.

Ownership and Control of Creative Works

  • Walt Disney emphasized the importance of ownership over creative works.
  • He insisted on retaining ownership of trademarks and copyrights for Alice comedies.
  • Disney's proposition to share profits from non-motion picture exploitation of Alice was subject to his ownership rights.
  • Recognizing the value of a single name for branding, the Disney Brothers studio was renamed Walt Disney Studio.

"These are direct quotes from him, subject to my ownership of all trademarks and copyrights on Alice comedies, accepting only rights relating to the series which you purchased under past contracts."

This quote highlights Disney's insistence on maintaining control and ownership over his intellectual property, laying the groundwork for the future success of his company.

The Importance of a Strong Central Character and Storyline

  • Disney learned the importance of having a strong, attractive central character in animation.
  • He recognized that while a good storyline is necessary, too much plot can diminish humor.
  • Disney also discovered that film company committees could inhibit creativity.

"Walt Disney's first venture into the all cartoon medium provided an important lesson for the young filmmaker. He realized what he had known instinctively, that a strong, attractive central character was essential, and that a good storyline was needed. But too much plot could destroy laughter."

This quote reflects Disney's understanding of the balance required in storytelling within animation, highlighting the need for engaging characters and an appropriate amount of plot.

Overcoming Business Challenges and Betrayal

  • Disney faced a significant challenge when his animators were recruited away by Mints.
  • The Oswald contract with Universal Pictures meant Disney didn't own the character despite his hard work.
  • Disney's experience with Mints led to his resolution to never work for someone else again.

"I have all of your key men signed up."

This quote signifies the moment Disney realized the extent of Mints' betrayal, as he had secretly signed Disney's animators to work for him, undermining Disney's control over his creations.

Innovation and Embracing New Technology

  • Disney was an early adopter of new technologies in film, such as sound.
  • He believed that sound in movies was more than a novelty and would be integral to the industry's future.
  • Disney's conviction led him to invest heavily in sound technology for his productions.

"I am convinced that the sound on film is the only logical thing for the future."

This quote shows Disney's foresight and commitment to integrating sound into his films, recognizing its potential to revolutionize the industry.

The Creation of Mickey Mouse and Resilience

  • The idea for Mickey Mouse was conceived during a train ride, with the name suggested by Disney's wife, Lily.
  • Despite initial doubts about Steamboat Willie, Disney persevered, believing in the potential of his work.
  • The success of Mickey Mouse marked a turning point for Disney's company.

"Personally, I am sick of this picture, Steamboat Willie. Every time I see it, the lousy print spoils everything. Maybe it will be a different looking picture with sound. I sure hope so."

This quote illustrates Disney's self-doubt but also his hope that the addition of sound would enhance the film, which ultimately became a classic.

The Power of Licensing and Merchandising

  • Disney recognized the financial potential of licensing Mickey Mouse for merchandise.
  • Licensing deals with companies like Lionel Corporation and Ingersoll Waterbury Company proved extremely successful.
  • Mickey Mouse merchandise played a significant role in saving companies from bankruptcy during the depression.

"The salesmanship of Mickey Mouse produced seemingly miraculous results."

This quote underlines the impact of Mickey Mouse's popularity on merchandise sales and the financial success it brought to Disney and its partners.

Walt Disney's Personality and Work Ethic

  • Disney was known for his focus and dedication to his work, often at the expense of casual social interactions.
  • He had the ability to recognize and maximize an individual's creative potential.
  • Disney's leadership style was characterized by high expectations and a demanding nature.

"Walt was developing one of his most valuable traits, the ability to recognize a man's creative potential and force him to achieve it."

This quote captures the essence of Disney's leadership and his knack for pushing his employees to realize their full potential.

Advice from Charlie Chaplin and Pushing Technological Boundaries

  • Disney received advice from Charlie Chaplin, whom he admired and emulated in Mickey Mouse's character.
  • He was always looking to push technological boundaries and was approached by United Artists for a partnership.
  • Disney's drive to innovate and improve was a constant throughout his career.

"We thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin, a little fellow trying to do the best he could."

This quote reflects Disney's approach to character development, drawing inspiration from successful figures like Chaplin to create relatable and endearing characters.

Association with United Artists and Chaplin's Advice

  • Walt Disney was excited about the prospect of working with United Artists, particularly because of his admiration for Charlie Chaplin.
  • Chaplin, a part of United Artists, was a fan of Disney's work and encouraged Walt to maintain independence by owning every picture he made.
  • Walt agreed with Chaplin's advice and saw the association with United Artists as an opportunity to innovate in animation, particularly with the use of color.

"You're going to develop more, you're going to get a hold of your medium, Chaplin told Walt, but to protect your independence, you've got to do as I have done. Own every picture you make."

The quote emphasizes the importance of owning one's creative work to maintain independence, as advised by Chaplin to Disney.

Introduction of Color to Cartoons

  • Walt Disney had been interested in adding color to his cartoons for years, encouraging his technicians to experiment with various methods.
  • Technicolor developed a three-color process that was suitable for cartoons but not yet perfected for live-action by the early 1930s.
  • Despite his brother Roy's conservative approach, Walt was convinced of the potential for color to revolutionize animation, believing that the investment would pay off with greater excitement and higher rentals.

"Then we'll develop paints that will stick and won't chip. For every problem, there's a solution."

This quote demonstrates Walt Disney's problem-solving mindset and his determination to overcome technical challenges in animation.

Exclusive Deal with Technicolor

  • Walt Disney used Roy's concerns about the cost of color to negotiate an exclusive two-year deal with Technicolor, ensuring that Disney cartoons would be the only ones using the three-color process for that period.
  • Despite initial reluctance, Roy consented to the contract after Walt's persuasive argument about the long-term financial benefits.

"Roy says color is going to cost us a lot of money that we'll never get back, Walt argued. So if we take a chance on it, you've got to assure us that every other cartoon producer isn't going to rush into theaters with Technicolor."

This quote illustrates Walt Disney's strategic thinking in securing an exclusive advantage for his company in the use of color technology.

Criticism and the Success of "Three Little Pigs"

  • Disney's work faced criticism, as exemplified by the initial reception of "Three Little Pigs" by United Artists salesmen who compared it unfavorably to previous works with more characters.
  • Despite the skepticism, "Three Little Pigs" became a massive success, leading to demands for more similar content.
  • Walt Disney's philosophy was to avoid repetition, as captured in his saying "You can't top pigs with pigs."

"You can't top pigs with pigs."

The quote captures Disney's belief in the importance of innovation and not relying on past successes.

Walt Disney's Creative Process and Dedication

  • Walt Disney respected the creative process of his animators, avoiding direct interference but meticulously reviewing their work after hours.
  • He was known for salvaging discarded ideas and encouraging his team to keep pursuing creativity.
  • Disney's dedication to excellence was evident in his hands-on approach to nurturing talent and content.

"Quit throwing the good stuff away."

This quote shows Walt Disney's attention to detail and commitment to finding value in his animators' work, even in what they might have discarded.

Financial Success of "Snow White" and Pushing Limits

  • "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was a financial triumph, quickly paying off bank loans and earning $8 million on its first release despite most theatergoers being children paying reduced admission fees.
  • Walt Disney's ambition led him to focus on full-length features, moving away from the short films that had initially built the studio's success.
  • Disney continually pushed the boundaries of his medium and sought new challenges, demonstrating a pattern of relentless pursuit of innovation.

"Within six months after the release of Snow White, they had paid off all of their bank loans."

This quote highlights the remarkable financial success of "Snow White," underscoring Disney's willingness to take calculated risks that paid off significantly.

Response to Financial Challenges

  • Walt Disney faced financial difficulties with the costs of "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," and "Bambi," as well as the impact of World War II on theater revenues.
  • Despite a significant debt of $4.5 million, Walt's reaction to financial adversity was laughter, reflecting on the progress they had made from struggling to borrow $1,000.
  • The Disney brothers' optimistic outlook and confidence in their studio's ability to overcome challenges are evident in their response to financial strain.

"And now we own four and a half million dollars. Walt remarked, I think that's pretty damn good."

This quote captures Walt Disney's positive perspective on the company's growth and debt as a sign of progress rather than a setback.

Stock Offering and Military Use of Disney Studio

  • To alleviate financial pressures, the Disney studio conducted its first stock offering, raising $3.5 million in capital.
  • During World War II, the U.S. Army commandeered the Disney studio for military purposes, including repairs and ammunition storage.
  • The studio produced training and propaganda films during the war, which allowed them to maintain staff but did not significantly contribute to profitability.

"The army is moving in on us."

This quote conveys the sudden and dramatic shift in the studio's operations during World War II, highlighting the impact of external events on the company.

Postwar Challenges and Innovation

  • After the war, Disney faced difficulties with the profitability of their films and the constraints of frozen international revenues.
  • Walt Disney's innovative approach led to the creation of the studio's first live-action feature, "Treasure Island," using the frozen funds in England.
  • Disney continued to pursue new mediums, with live-action filming becoming a new area of interest and exploration for him.

"Walt had found a new toy, said one of the animators. We realized that as soon as Walt rode on a camera crane, we were going to lose him."

This quote reflects the animators' recognition of Walt Disney's shifting focus towards live-action filmmaking and his constant search for new creative outlets.

Development of Disneyland

  • Walt Disney's vision for an amusement park was influenced by his experiences at various outdoor attractions, with Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen serving as an inspiration for what an amusement park should be.
  • The planning for Disneyland involved meticulous research on traffic flow and visitor experiences, with Walt investing his own money into the project.
  • Despite financial concerns, Walt's determination to create Disneyland was unwavering, and he pursued the project with relentless creativity and investment.

"The vision of an amusement park grew in Walt Disney's mind."

This quote encapsulates the inception of Disneyland as a product of Walt Disney's imagination and ambition, setting the stage for one of his most significant legacies.

Walt Disney's Commitment to Disneyland

  • Walt Disney was determined to create Disneyland despite financial challenges.
  • He sold his assets and borrowed against his life insurance to fund the park.
  • Disneyland was a passion project for Walt, surpassing his previous innovations.
  • He sought a project that was alive and ever-evolving, unlike his films.

"Walt would not be discouraged. So we find out he's got this great idea, and it says, Disneyland became a crusade with Walt, more so than sound, cartoons, color, animated features, and all other innovations he had pioneered."

This quote emphasizes Walt Disney's unwavering dedication to making Disneyland a reality, even more so than his previous groundbreaking work in animation.

Walt Disney's Vision for Disneyland

  • Walt Disney envisioned Disneyland as a living entity that could be continuously improved.
  • He preferred the park's dynamic nature over the static nature of films.
  • The idea of a park growing more beautiful each year resonated with him.
  • Disneyland was about creating a live experience that could adapt based on public feedback.

"The park means a lot to me. It's something that will never be finished, something I can keep developing, keep adding to. It's alive. It will be a living, breathing thing that will need changes."

This quote captures Walt Disney's perspective on Disneyland as an ongoing project, with the ability to evolve and enhance the visitor experience over time.

Financing Disneyland through Television

  • Walt Disney conceived the idea to fund Disneyland through television while sleepless in bed.
  • Roy Disney and the board of directors were initially skeptical about entering television and amusement parks.
  • Walt argued that television would expand the audience for Disney films and provide a platform for creativity.
  • He convinced the board by highlighting the entertainment aspect of amusement parks.

"Television, Walt told his brother the next morning. That's how we'll finance the park. Television."

This quote reveals the innovative solution Walt Disney found to finance Disneyland, showcasing his ability to leverage new media for his ambitious project.

Strategic Partnership with ABC

  • Roy Disney negotiated with television networks, requiring them to invest in Disneyland for a TV show deal.
  • ABC agreed to invest $4.5 million in Disneyland.
  • The Disneyland TV special was instrumental in the park's success, reaching 90 million viewers.

"Roy began discussions with the three television networks with potential sponsorships for an hour long weekly television show. Roy stipulated that whoever wanted the television show would have to invest in Disneyland."

This quote illustrates the strategic move by Roy Disney to secure funding for Disneyland by tying it to a television deal, ensuring the park's financial backing and promotional success.

Research and Development for Disneyland

  • Walt Disney hired Stanford researchers to determine the optimal location for Disneyland and address civil engineering challenges.
  • The research team faced skepticism from amusement park owners who doubted the viability of Disney's concept.
  • Walt Disney's vision clashed with the traditional amusement park model, which prioritized revenue over customer experience.

"Stanford researchers had a memorable encounter with the owners of amusement parks at their convention in Chicago in November of 1953."

This quote indicates the challenges faced by the research team in convincing industry veterans of the feasibility of Walt Disney's innovative amusement park concept.

Walt Disney's Customer-Centric Approach

  • Walt Disney had a maniacal focus on customer satisfaction.
  • He rejected strict budgets to prioritize quality and innovation.
  • Disney encouraged his team to view the park from a child's perspective.
  • He insisted on cleanliness and direct engagement with park visitors to enhance their experience.

"You can't put a price tag on creativity, he argued."

This quote reflects Walt Disney's philosophy that investing in creativity and quality would lead to greater financial returns and customer satisfaction.

Disneyland's Success and Impact

  • Disneyland's attendance and revenue exceeded expectations within weeks of opening.
  • Walt Disney achieved financial stability and expanded his company significantly.
  • The success of Disneyland marked a shift in Walt Disney Productions' financial fortunes.
  • Walt Disney's personal philosophy was to use money as a means to build and create, not merely to accumulate wealth.

"Within seven weeks, a million visitors had come to Disneyland. Prediction of attendance had been exceeded by 50%, and customers were spending 30% more money than had been expected."

This quote highlights the immediate and overwhelming success of Disneyland, validating Walt Disney's vision and efforts.

Walt Disney's Legacy and Founders Podcast Support

  • Walt Disney's story is an example of perseverance and innovation.
  • The Founders Podcast encourages listeners to support the show and access additional content by purchasing books or becoming paid members.
  • The podcast also offers insights from various founders and entrepreneurs through additional episodes and notes.

"On April 20, 561, Walt and Roy Disney marked an historic occasion in the history of their company. The loan from the Bank of America was finally paid off."

This quote signifies the culmination of Walt Disney's hard work and the financial independence of his company, marking a significant milestone in the history of Walt Disney Productions.

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