Five lessons Walt Disney and Steve Jobs can teach us about innovation

There are startling parallels in the lives of Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. Their dedication to product quality and innovation transformed industries.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Steamboat Willie was essentially a tech demo for synchronized sound.

At the time of his death, Apple founder Steve Jobs was the largest shareholder of the Walt Disney Company. When Jobs sold Pixar to Disney, he received 7.7 percent of Disney in return for his share of Pixar. But what most people don't realize is just how similar in personality and style Steve Jobs was to Walt Disney. Both were visionaries, founders, and innovators.

In fact, as Larry Dignan reported when Jobs died, there are numerous similarities, ranging from early failure to leaving physical monuments to their innovation. Because of those similarities, Walt and Steve can teach us some valuable lessons about innovation.

#1 Don't give up

Most of us are familiar with the Steve Jobs resurrection story. He lost control of the Mac team under John Sculley, wandered in the "wilderness" of NeXT (as Sculley describes it), and then returned to Apple -- building it into one of the most amazing companies in history.

Walt Disney, too, had his share of failure. Well before the Walt Disney Company (which was originally called Disney Brothers in partnership with Roy Disney), Walt founded Laugh-O-Gram studios.

Laugh-O-Gram produced animation shorts, including a series of break-even cartoons for a local theater. There were a number of business errors. Then, when a major New York City theater chain failed to pay for a series of expensive animations, Laugh-O-Gram went bankrupt. All Walt Disney had left was enough to buy a train ticket to LA.

As we well know, Jobs and Disney went on to create towering enterprises that have become integral parts of our culture. The lesson here is that even if you fail, that doesn't make you a failure. Keep trying. Even when things are at their darkest, there may be light in your future.

#2 Finding the right creative partner can be a force multiplier

No, I'm not talking about Steve Wozniak, John Sculley or Mike Markkula -- or Roy Disney for that matter. Instead, I'm talking about Jony Ive and Ub Iwerks (whose name I desperately want to spell as iWerks).

You're most likely familiar with Apple's Chief Design Officer Jony Ive, the man whose deft touch led the design of the iPod, the original iMac, and the iPhone. It's said that Ive became Jobs alter-ego. He manifested the same level of design simplicity Jobs favored, but also had the hands-on designer chops to make those designs real.

Walt Disney, too, had a design touch. In fact, he started off with an ability to draw cartoonish pictures, and made his early living as a cartoonist. In one of these first jobs, he met Ub Iwerks, the man who took Disney's visions into the stratosphere.

Walt Disney came up with the character of Mortimer Mouse (which was Mickey's original name until Disney's wife Lillian suggested a friendlier name). But it was Ub who brought Mickey to life, and it was Ub who headed up many of the animations that made Walt Disney into Walt Disney.

Partnering can be a force multiplier. The classic partnership for young innovative entrepreneurs is with folks with business skills, and both Jobs and Disney did that as well.

But don't forget that innovation takes effort all on its own, and sometimes it's necessary to bring in a person who can focus solely on the creative side, can go beyond you in your skills and abilities, and take your vision and lift it to a new level. For Disney and Jobs, that was Iwerks and Ive.

And no, your creative partner's last name doesn't need to begin with "I," although that might help.

#3 Perfectionism, if you can survive it, can create deep customer loyalty

We've all heard the aphorism, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." It's like analysis paralysis. If you spend too much time trying to get the last bits of perfection out of your work, you'll never really finish, spend too much time, and have too little to show for it.

More great project ideas

Then, of course, there was Steve Jobs. Jobs was a brutal perfectionist. He produced incredible products, and chewed up and spit out employees with nearly reckless abandon. Jobs was more polite, but no less perfectionist with employees of other companies.

Vic Gundotra, the former Google Senior VP who headed up Google+, tells the story of the Sunday afternoon when Jobs called up because the shade of yellow in the Google logo on the iPhone wasn't quite right. Other Jobs perfectionist stories abound.

Disney, too, was a perfectionist. During the three years it took to produce the 1937 masterpiece Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt went over budget numerous times in his quest for perfection of both image and motion.

He left the responsibility to his brother Roy to cajole backers at Bank of America to continue loaning the company money. Walt wound up mortgaging his home to get the film finished. But in a time when no one had seen a feature length animation, Snow White was perfect. To this day, it is watchable and entertaining.

In the case of both Disney and Jobs, the perfectionism inherent in their products catalyzed the appeal of their offerings to eager throngs of consumers. That perfectionism has driven an almost cult-like level of customer loyalty, while simultaneously creating a barrier of entry their competitors haven't been able to equal.

The lesson here isn't quite as clear cut as the previous two, because most of us are not now, and never will be, Steve Jobs or Walt Disney. Perfection can be costly and difficult to attain, so great caution should be taken before you try to bet your company or your house on that perfect shade of yellow or that ideal motion capture.

There are times it's worth throwing caution to the wind for a dream you strongly believe in -- but you damned well better be able to produce.

#4 Betting on new technologies ahead of the curve can be a strong differentiator

Jobs often brought existing, bleeding edge new technologies to consumers as a way to differentiate his products. While work on WiFi began as early as 1988, it wasn't until Apple incorporated WiFi in its clamshell-style iBook in 1999 that the standard started gaining traction.

For Apple, the company (which didn't use the term 802.11 or WiFi, but instead "AirPort") used WiFi to overcome one key limitation in previous laptop computers: the need to have a wire to connect to a network.

Today that capability may seem like nothing special, but back in 1999, the ability to use a laptop with battery power and no network cables was incredibly freeing. It gave the iBook serious legs, even though it suffered from some other design limitations.

Steamboat Willie
Wikimedia Commons

Walt Disney had been moderately successful with Oswald the Rabbit, but he didn't own the character's IP (intellectual property). As a result, Charles Mintz of Winkler Pictures was able to perform what was essentially a hostile takeover. Mintz made offers to many of Walt's animators.

Since Disney was often as abusive to his animators as Steve was to his engineers, many of the animators walked, defecting to Mintz. Disney wound up with both no character and no animators (except Ub).

In this way, Disney, like Jobs, had his creation taken away from him. Disney, like Jobs, also planned a comeback through the development of a superior product. In Disney's case, it was to be Mickey Mouse in the seven minute and 42 second film Steamboat Willie.

Disney was concerned, though, about trying to compete against his former animation team and the popular character of Oswald (as well as other popular characters of the time, like Felix the Cat).

Disney's technological advance was the use of synchronized sound. Background sound and music had long been used in cartoons. Sounds that synchronized to actions in the animation were an innovation. The steamboat horns, for example, compressed and expanded in time with the steam sounds.

This was a big risk technologically and financially, but it paid off. Steamboat Willie was a hit -- leading not only to ticket sales, but the first Disney merchandising of Mickey himself.

Neither Apple nor Disney Studios invented the technologies they popularized. Instead, what they did was find technologies that fit, augmented their offerings, and gave them a differentiated advantage.

There are lessons here for you as well. First, don't be afraid to adopt technologies you haven't invented. Second, look at whether they add real value to the offering you're providing.

In the case of WiFi, laptops became truly portable and wireless for the first time. In the case of Steamboat Willie, the new technology transformed a character into a beloved international icon.

What product are you developing that can benefit from an innovative ahead-of-your-competitors use of a burgeoning new technology?

#5 Mashing up disciplines in new ways can transform industries

It's hard to believe today, but phones didn't always have touch screens.

In fact, some of us grew up in houses where phones were wired to the wall. We found out where we were by reading street signs and a map. We played games by taking a bat and ball to the middle of the street and forming teams with our friends. We listened to music by putting a record on a record player. Some of us, if we were lucky, owned 20 or 30 records. I had two, total, growing up.

And then came the iPhone. Sure, we'd seen convergence before the iPhone, but the preeminence of the smartphone over all other technologies was far from assured. At first, the mashup of an iPod and a phone was the big draw. But once Jobs introduced the App Store to go with the iPhone 3G, there was no stopping the revolution.

Walt Disney, too, mixed disciplines. Back in the 1930s, there were cartoons and there were movies. There were not movies made from cartoons. Movies told stories. Cartoons played fun gags. Movies not only were moving images, they moved audiences to laugh -- and to cry. Cartoons were worthy of a chuckle or two.

But Walt wanted more. He loved animation and saw a future far beyond the slapstick antics of a simple cartoon. He saw the ability to tell fully realized stories far beyond anything audiences had ever seen before.

Remember that back in the 1930s, most movies were black and white. Computer animation didn't exist. And while special effects had been a part of movie making since the dawn of movies, they always required some physical representation. In other words, you had to have a physical trick or gimmick to make the effect work.

Animation didn't require that. If you wanted to suck something into a spinning vortex, you didn't have to somehow simulate it with water and dye. You drew it, frame by laborious frame. It took a tremendous amount of work with an unprecedented number of animators, but if you could imagine it, you could draw it, and audiences could watch it.

For years, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was thought of as Disney's folly. It was incredibly expensive, far over budget, and behind schedule. Besides, it was a cartoon. Who would sit through 75 minutes for a cartoon?

But Disney saw the confluence of movies and cartoons, and saw how far he could go once he mixed them together. He created a film classic, a cartoon that could make people laugh and cry. It was a film that actually scared kids, and yet made it okay to be scared. He created an entirely new art form as the outgrowth of two previous art forms.

Disney also decided to use old fairy tales and remake them in his own image. So with Snow White, he launched an empire of cartoons mixed with feature length movies mixed with rewritten classic stories. And, of course, the rest is history.

So, as we close out this discussion of two of the greatest innovators of the last 100 years, consider this: what disciplines -- not just technologies, but ideas, areas of study, and forms of art -- can you mix together to create something new, wonderful, compelling, and world-changing?

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Editorial standards