Walt Disney - The Khuram Dhanani Blog
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Khuram Dhanani

Walt Disney

Of all the 10 greatest entrepreneurs highlighted in this book, if anyone was motivated by the clicking point of inspiration, it would be Walt Disney. He was an artist, a creative thinker, and the original Imagineer. Walt has inspired billions of people over the last 90 years, soothing the human spirit with beauty, humor, positive energy, imagination, and the pure joy of entertainment.

The Disney franchise is one of the 21st century’s most reliable moneymakers. Consumers spend billions of dollars every year on movies, toys, and products associated with long-running brands like Star Wars, Marvel superheroes, the Muppets, and others. Disney is best known for its animated films, theme parks, and television programming. For 2020, even amid the Covid-19 pandemic that shuttered movie theaters and its theme parks, the Walt Disney Company reported a staggering $65 billion in annual revenue.

This entertainment giant began in the imagination of Walter Elias Disney, born in 1901. The Disney family spent years crisscrossing the country, from Florida to Kansas to California and Illinois, searching for opportunity and work. When Walt was five years old, his family settled on a farm in small-town Marceline, Missouri, raising crops and livestock. 

Abandoning the farm and rural lifestyle, the family moved to bustling Kansas City, Missouri where Walt’s father bought into a newspaper distribution business and put the entire family to work delivering papers. A few years later Walt’s father opened a jelly factory. Later in life, Walt credited the constant upheaval of his childhood and the wide variety of his father’s moneymaking schemes for giving him the courage to pursue his dreams and interests as an entrepreneur.

Young Walt Disney had two passions that drove him, cartooning and entertainment, but Walt had no clear plan for his future. Too young to be drafted in the First World War, he served as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Red Cross in France in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.

Returning to the States, Walt became a professional artist, working for an advertising agency. Here, he met fellow artist Ub Iwerks, who would also become an influential pioneer of early animation. Laid off, Disney and Iwerks formed a commercial art agency. They were soon hired by a company that created animated advertisements in silent movie theaters. Disney and Iwerks remained co-workers and business partners for years to come.

Disney began learning basic animation techniques and was soon innovating techniques of his own. He began working on animated cartoons in his spare time with the assistance of several young apprentices who accepted art lessons in lieu of pay.

Disney managed to sell his animated shorts and eventually produced Little Red Riding Hood, the first recognizable Walt Disney cartoon. While somewhat crude by later Disney standards, the black-and-white short was successful enough that Walt left his employer to take a risk and devote himself full time to animation.

Walt remained financially strapped for a number of years, making ends meet by providing cartoons for movie distributors and earning a modest living as a baby photographer and if educational films and other commercial productions. Walt was dedicated to his dream and knew he was on to something and would be successful if he stayed 100% committed.

Several other films earned audience appreciation and helped with Walt’s bills, but things began looking glum again so Disney moved to Los Angeles where his brother Roy lived. More business soon developed and the extra income helped Walt and Roy start a new studio.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit would become the first recurring funny animal character in the Disney stable, appearing in a run of 26 cartoons. The Oswald series featured several innovations which would become Disney trademarks. Chief among these was the development of distinctive personalities for recurring animal characters like Oswald.

The first run of Oswald cartoons was a hit with both critics and the public. Unfortunately, unlike Alice, Disney held no ownership stake in Oswald and had little leverage in negotiating a favorable contract for a second batch. Disney decided to create his own “funny animal” for a cartoon series in the wake of this embarrassment. He developed the character which would change the fortunes of his company forever—Mortimer Mouse. Fortunately, Disney’s wife hated the name, and that was how Mickey Mouse came to be.

The traumatic experience with Oswald clarified the importance of trademark and copyright protection. For the rest of his life, Disney paid close attention to both and insisted on retaining full ownership of all of his company’s work. With the help of Ub Iwerks, Disney began cranking out a stream of well-received Mickey Mouse cartoons. The Walt Disney animation brand became a recognized mark of quality to the general public.

The Disney team produced increasingly sophisticated and popular animated shorts, so Walt Disney decided to try his hand at creating a feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. This was exceedingly risky since cartoons had always been limited to five or six minutes. Nevertheless, the film was a massive hit worldwide, bringing in the equivalent of several hundred million dollars in today’s money.

Confirming a market fit, Walt Disney released a series of animated films that cemented his reputation as the premier animator in Hollywood. These included Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi, considered to be some of the greatest animated films in history.

By the early 1950s, Disney decided to take his company in an entirely new direction. Always a fan of amusement parks, but finding them littered and seedy, Walt conceived the idea of an amusement park that would be run cleanly and efficiently. Furthermore, the rides and attractions would reflect Disney characters and concepts. In short, the park would have a theme.

During the several years it took to construct the park, Disney promoted it relentlessly on a new television show on the ABC network. The park represented another leap of faith and another substantial financial risk for Disney, who mortgaged all its assets to build it. Once again, the gamble paid off. Disneyland became an iconic tourist destination when it opened in 1955, welcoming 3.6 million visitors during its first year.

Disney announced plans in 1965 to build a larger, second park in Florida called Disney World. He was deeply involved in designing the new attraction and remained active in developing his studio’s animated films and a more contemporary line of live-action features. 

If there was ever an eternal problem that needs solving, it’s the human search for healthy ways to enjoy and feel good about life. If entrepreneurial possibilities like resource extraction, transportation, manufacturing, technology, and investment don’t appeal to you, there is always laughter, music, and storytelling. There are hungry markets eager to experience the dreams and ideas swirling in your mind. 

Walt Disney leveraged his dreams, values, and imagination in ways that entertain and delight billions of people, proving that business does not need to be dry and stodgy – it can also be fun, creative, imaginative, and humorous. 

Disney was a heavy smoker and contracted lung cancer, passing away in 1966. He had created a growing entertainment empire that would eventually become one of the world’s largest-ever entertainment conglomerates. Walt’s expansive imagination and willingness to take risks, as well as his persistence through failure after failure, made his name a household word and established his imaginative creations as an enduring and delightful part of popular culture.

Khuram Dhanani
Khuram Dhanani
Khuram Dhanani
kd@softstonecapital.com