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Happy Birthday Mickey!

“I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.” – Walt Disney

On November 18th, 2018, one of the world’s most iconic characters turned 90 years old. That character? The one and only Mickey Mouse!

Mickey looks great for his age, wouldn’t you say?

From a sketch of a mouse to a worldwide empire, The Walt Disney Company has become one of the most iconic companies of all time, along the way redefining imagination, creativity, and of course, happiness for billions across the globe. In fact, one could make the argument that Walt Disney is responsible for more happy memories than any person in human history!

And it was all started by a mouse…

While Mickey Mouse has become one of the most recognizable and well-known characters in history, few know the true story behind the creation of Mickey. The fact that we came to know and love Mickey Mouse at all was a tremendous long shot. If it weren’t for the amazing persistence and dedication of Walt Disney and a close-knit group of innovators around him, the icon that is Mickey might have never seen the light of day.

As Walt famously said: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” There’s no better example of this sentiment than his creation of the world’s most beloved mouse.

The year was 1928. Walt Disney was hard at work producing an animated series of short features under a contract with Universal Studios. Pre-Mickey Mouse, this show featured Disney’s character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. With the series going strong, Disney sought a budget increase for the show. Not only was his request denied, but Disney was actually forced to cut his budget by 20% and was not-so-subtly reminded that his employees – and his beloved Oswald the Lucky Rabbit – were the property of Universal Studios.

Needless to say, Universal Studios held all the power, and Disney was crushed. He realized the mistake he had made in giving up the contractual rights to his character – a mistake he vowed not to make twice.

Once Walt finished his contractual obligation, he left Universal Studios with a small handful of loyal animators ready to start over. Leaving behind the glamour of Universal Studios, the team set up shop in Walt’s garage, and began designing their new character. Ideas flowed freely, and included a dog, a cat, a cow, a horse, and even a frog. However, Walt wasn’t quite satisfied with any of these creations. That is, until the team eventually crafted a small black mouse in shorts!

Immediately, Walt Disney knew this mouse was destined to be a star, and promptly gave him a name we’d all soon know by heart: Mortimer Mouse.

That’s right…Mortimer. Doesn’t exactly have the same ring as Mickey, does it? Thankfully, Disney’s wife Lillian convinced him to change it, and in the spring of 1928, Mickey Mouse was born.

The lean Disney team got to work creating their first short feature starring Mickey Mouse: Plane Crazy. Walt was thrilled to be introducing his new character to the world. But there was just one problem: No one agreed to distribute the film! Undeterred, Walt and the team went back to the drawing board and returned with the second act of Mickey’s career: The Gallopin’ Gaucho. But again, they were left high and dry with zero distribution, and thus the film remained in the can.

Walt was understandably growing frustrated with the movie business (years later this frustration would eventually be the catalyst that led to his creation of Disneyland – but that’s a story for another day). Thankfully for us, Walt wouldn’t give up. He knew the world was going to fall in love with Mickey Mouse…if they could just have the chance to meet him.

The Disney team went back to the well one last time. Walt, having been inspired by the 1927 film The Jazz Singer – which was the first major film to have both a synchronized music score and synchronized singing by on-screen actors – decided that they should sync up the sound with Mickey’s on-screen animation, something that had never been attempted in an animated film before. This was accomplished through the use of a “click-track,”, which allowed the musicians scoring the piece to stay precisely on cue. Walt himself even lent a hand in the recording sessions, voicing the various tones and laughs made by Mickey throughout the film. It was a laborious process, but one that Disney knew deep down would be worth it in the end.

The result? A brilliant 7 ½ minute piece titled Steamboat Willie.

With its unique style and innovative sound production, Steamboat Willie was finally able to land a distributor for Mickey Mouse. The film debuted in New York City on November 18th, 1928 and was a smash hit with critics and audiences alike!

Walt had done it. He had finally introduced the world to his fun, friendly little mouse named Mickey.

The rest is history. The Walt Disney Company grew into a massive entertainment and media empire, with TV shows, TV channels, movies, music, books, theme parks, merchandise, video games, cruises and so much more. 

And our friend Mickey Mouse? Well, he’s gone on to international fame, appearing in hundreds of movies and TV shows. He even won himself an Academy Award and was the first animated character to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In fact, Mickey Mouse has become so popular that studies show a whopping 98% of children worldwide recognize him.

And it was all started by a mouse…

There are a lot of lessons to be learned in the creation of Mickey Mouse, and a lot of questions that, if answered differently, could have changed the course of history:

  • What if Walt had simply given in to Universal Studios–Swallowed his pride, cut his budget, and continued on with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?
  • What if Walt had settled for the horse, the cow, the frog, or any of the other initial pre-Mickey concepts, even though he knew they weren’t quite right?
  • What if Walt had let his ego get in the way of creative innovation, rejecting his wife’s suggestion to call the mouse Mickey instead of Mortimer?
  • What if Walt had given up after both the first and second Mickey Mouse film failed to find distribution?
  • What if Walt suppressed his creative instincts, and gave Steamboat Willie the same old music treatment that was standard of the time? What if he never pushed for the innovative, synchronized music and sound score?

As you can see, there were any number of challenges in the creation of Mickey Mouse that many would have used as an excuse to turn around, to give up and put out the flames of their creative fire. But not Walt Disney. Walt knew that if he could just hang on, if he could creatively solve the challenges that came his way, he would emerge victorious.

It’s important to note that not only did Walt overcome all these challenges, but he did so without deep pockets or major investors–quite the opposite: While the small Disney team was creating the mouse that would change the world, they were doing so while bankrupt, working out of Walt’s garage. There was no R&D budget. No “New Character Exploratory Committee.”. It was just a small, passionate group of individuals with a dream.

Why is this important? One of the most common objections to innovation is budget. “We don’t have the money to invest in new innovations” is a phrase heard inside organizations around the world. But history has proven time and time again that innovation is not dependent on money. Henry Ford first engineered gas-powered engines at home in his spare time, using his own meagre savings to fund the experiments. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created the Apple I computer out of their garage, selling personal possessions every time they needed to place an order for parts. The Steves of course had no idea that this would eventually morph into the most valuable and innovative company in the world. They, like Disney and Ford, were operating exclusively on a dream, their passion guiding the way for what would eventually become mass innovation.

If Disney, Ford, and Apple can all change the world working from a garage with little to no money, what can your organization do? If necessity is the mother of all invention, then creativity is most certainly the father.

As we celebrate Mickey Mouse’s 90+ year legacy, it’s a great time to stop and think about your own creative challenges. Are you facing any hurdles that feel “impossible”? If so, could a little creative problem solving be the answer? Could you take a lesson from Walt Disney’s playbook, remembering all the obstacles he overcame in launching the world’s most beloved character?

No matter how difficult things may seem, it’s always worth remembering: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

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