PIXAR SUCCESS — FIVE-PLUS-ONE LESSONS FOR ENTREPRENEURS

What can a studio making films about toys, bugs, robots, cooking rats, cars teach entrepreneurs?

Photo by Michael Marais on Unsplash

Have you ever wondered how Pixar can reach to its position today? How can a company making films about toys, clown fishes, bugs, robots, cooking rats make history in IPO and entertainment industry?

Some people might hear about the book ‘To Pixar and Beyond — My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to make entertainment history’ by Lawrence Levy. I completed this book a few days ago. The author was a former Chief Financial Officer and directors of Pixar. He told the story from the inside angle to give readers an in-depth view of how Pixar turned from a nearly-failed company of Steve Jobs into a giant in the entertainment industry.

The success of Pixar, through the narratives of Lawrence Levy, delivered several lessons for entrepreneurs and startups to learn from this success. I am not a fan of history. But sometimes, history teaches us valuable lessons that we don’t notice.

Here are the five-plus-one lessons I take away from the success of Pixar.

Lesson 1: Ambitious but Realistic

Sometimes in the book, I could see how ambitious Steve was. He desired to increase the value of Pixar, to lead the company to be a big company, to compete with the giant animation company Disney at that time. He would like to quick success.

Many entrepreneurs want to be successful. They may want to start big and grow fast. They can evaluate their companies at an exorbitant price. That is understandable how eager they are. But they should keep their feet on the ground.

Sometimes, a slow start is better, for the startup to experiment their products, to test the market’s reaction. Their primary focus at the early stage is to focus on what they give to the market, how the market welcomes those companies’ products or services.

Not everyone is Steve Jobs.

Lesson 2: Building company culture

The culture inside a company plays a pivotal role in the success of such a company. Building the culture can keep the company’s staffs to stay with the company for a long time. That was why crews of Pixar stayed even when the company had not made any success in their first nine years.

Even when Pixar offered Disney to acquire it, the executives of Pixar mentioned that Disney must not change the culture of Pixar. That point was a deal-breaker, and nothing could change it.

In specific circumstances, money is not the most essential part. What matters is that the company find its culture and, sometimes, fight to maintain it. Culture of the company will keep talents stay, even the company may be in a challenging time.

Lesson 3: How much executives should intervene in the creative process

For Pixar, they decided to believe their creative team. During the negotiation with Disney about the new co-distribution agreement, Steve Jobs and executives team chose to keep their distance with the creative process. They let the creative team to freely do what they thought it would make the film become a blockbuster.

Leaving the creative process is gambling. Not all companies can do. But intervening into everything will kill the company, or, on a smaller scale, a product. The reason can be that executives do not understand most of the process, or they do not want to spend too much money on a product. Steve Jobs and other executives team made an excellent choice to stay outside the cycle of creativity. Some members of the executives’ team (including Steve Jobs) were a newbie in the entertainment industry. They decided not to be involved in the film making process to keep the idea as much fresh and fabulous as possible. They also try to keep this custom when Pixar negotiated the agreement (and later the acquisition) with Disney.

The way executives intervene the creativity will be a contributing factor in maintaining the company’s culture. You build the culture of your company, but you need to know how to keep it. Too much intervention in creativity can be a substance for the death of a product, service or even company.

Lesson 4: Even the best one failed

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

Steve Jobs failed several times. His last two products at Apple were commercial failures, then he left the company. Steve Jobs set up a new company called NeXT, but it was not a success. He had Pixar, but he did not have a good relationship with the company. Pixar failed in their first nine years. What they had at that time was new technology for making films. Steve Jobs had to use his money to keep the company surviving. That, in contrast, caused him to the risk of personal bankruptcy.

Failure is the mother of success. Missteps we made hide the learning chance. Steve Jobs learned that from his commercial failures at Apple and NeXT. He came back and became the CEO of the most successful entertainment company. He gains knowledge of the entertainment industry, besides technology. That was the springboard for his success in Apple later.

For Pixar, they were nothing before the release of Toy Story and the IPO in 1995. Not many people noticed Pixar’s existence, or at least, they only knew that Pixar was a Steve’s company. They had the technology, but they did not have a strategy to develop. They had a one-side agreement with Disney that favored Disney. But, they knew how to bounce back. They knew which steps to be done to become the most prominent animated company.

No one should rush for success despite their thirst for that. Learning is more critical. We can learn to gain knowledge, to gain experience, to broaden our view of the market. Be patient, then we can think about the next step of success.

Lesson 5: Art of Storytelling

Each company should have someone to do this job: someone who knows the company, someone who UNDERSTANDS the culture of the company.

The way Lawrence tells the story was inspiring. When I read the book, I was impressed by how much Lawrence loves the company so that he can convey them into engaging chapters in the book. Lawrence understands the company and considers Pixar as his child. He can tell the story from the inside perspective.

Edwin Catmull — former president of Pixar — said, Pixar staffs need to know about Pixar history. Each employee should know who they are dedicating, what happens to lead to the success of the company, what forms the company culture. A storyteller, an influencer, will be the one who can deliver that story. A company needs a storyteller like that, or at least, someone can tell such a story.

Furthermore, the company should know how to narrate the story through its product or services. They can tell a story around the product, for customers to understand the company’s culture like what Pixar did. They created incredible stories about toys, clownfish, cars, or cooking rats. They made it real. They proved to the world that they could make history by creating animation films with details of the smallest thread of clothes.

Bonus Lesson: The Middle Way

It is a Buddhist philosophy. In each of us, there are two parts inside us: a bureaucrat and an artist. The bureaucrat gets things are done, such as working, paying bills, earning a salary. The artist is in charge of emotional aspects, like love, joy, happiness, or creativity. The most effective results come from the harmonization of these two parts. We can harvest our creativity, spirit, but we must be practical.

Same to a company. A company that only focus on a business discipline cannot reach to customers and dominate the market without exciting products. A company that only focus on creativity cannot achieve the expected financial outcome without a proper business strategy. What entrepreneur needs to do is to harmonize these two parts. Creativity goes along with business discipline. A business plan is the bureaucrat of a company, while creativity is the spirit. The combination of these two factors helps the company to build momentum.

The harmonization of two factors will create the success of a company, like what happened to Pixar in 1995.

Summary

Everyone can be an entrepreneur. The matter is that what an entrepreneur should do to be a successful one. It is how an entrepreneur or a startup or new-born company should do to be a star. The below five-plus-one elements are for everyone, who wants to start their business, or start a new career, to think about to get there:

  • Entrepreneurs are ambitious but should be realistic
  • Critical to building the company culture
  • Limited involvement of executives into the creativeness of company
  • The best entrepreneur failed several times, so don’t give up
  • Storytelling is the key factor to success
  • Bonus: Harmonization of business discipline and creativity.

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