Book Review: Entrepreneurship the Disney Way by Michael G. Goldsby and Rob Mathews

Disney is one of the great American companies. Often lauded and frequently chronicled, it’s a model of how to start with a dream and wind up with an empire. Just how its founder, Walt Disney, turned his vision into an enduring media giant, and what lessons his approach offer today’s entrepreneurs, is the subject of a new book, Entrepreneurship the Disney Way (Routledge, November, 2018). The authors, Michael G. Goldsby and Rob Mathews, are eminently qualified for the task of writing it: they’re both at Ball State University’s Institute for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise, and they’re also unabashed Disney fans. They combine their enthusiasm for the entrepreneurial spirit and their acuity on effective management into a fascinating and engaging read.

The book is divided into two parts. The first focuses on Walt Disney and the story of creating the Disney Company. As the authors show, Disney was constantly operating on fast-forward: he had a restless drive to build, improve, try, and provide. He understood the essence of customer experience far ahead of his time. He also surrounded himself with very smart, gifted people, who supported his vision by focusing on the practical and financial challenges and how to most effectively, efficiently solve them. But the culture of Disney was just as important: to work at Disney was to work in the service of happiness. In this case, company and stated values were born together, grew up together, and depended on each other to thrive. And thrive they did.

The second part of the book looks at the business and discipline of running the Disney Corporation.  Mathews and Goldsby capably track Disney’s transition from small family business to international media company, showing how a firm foundation and innovative thinking steadily ushered the company through change after change. Walt Disney’s original mission and message help the company stay relevant, while an organization culture dedicated to staying agile and in front did, well, just that. But among the most compelling facets of the Disney evolution is how each of its successive leaders brought their own approach to the company. Only Walt Disney could be Walt Disney, as the authors note. But his successors were well-chosen — including today’s CEO, Bob Iger. Iger’s leadership style actually stands in contrast to Walt Disney’s — a perfect example of the best leader for the times. While everything that happened at Disney had to go through Walt Disney, Iger doesn’t try to tell every story:

“Everything started with Walt, and if he wasn’t ready to move forward, everyone else had no choice but to wait. Imagine today if Pixar couldn’t move forward with a film until current Disney CEO Bob Iger worked out a storyline.”

Still, as the authors point out, Disney was a phenomenal storyteller, and the stories he approved of were the ones that panned out and became part of the American iconography of entertainment.

By talking to many of the executives who played — and play — a key role at Disney, Mathews and Goldsby have been able to provide an extremely well-rounded look at Disney, filled with insider’s information. The art of making people happy, behind the scenes and on the ground in the Disney theme parks and resorts, is not really magic, per se. It’s hard work and extreme focus, all up and down the ranks, among hearts as well as minds. There’s a reason Disney’s employees are called cast members and customers are called guests, and it works.

Packed with helpful tools — such a comprehensive inventory and assessment tool to help readers determine their own entrepreneurial style — and filled with well-researched, solid reporting, Entrepreneurship the Disney Way is a valuable guidebook for anyone starting up a business or leading one. The authors present Disney not as a static entity coasting on its own momentum, but a vibrant, relevant organization that is endlessly seeking new ways to deliver outstanding products and unforgettably sunny service. For seasoned executives, the book presents a proven approach to draw from, and a great story of making the right decisions (mostly) at the right time. For the inexperienced and aspiring, the book lays out a clear roadmap for taking an idea from executive to enterprise, and then keeping it afloat. And of course, along the way readers get an inspiring and delightful success story to relish, in keeping with Walt Disney’s indefatigable spirit.

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