Leadership lessons from the founders of Disney Pixar, Reebok and ESPN

According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, founder-led businesses come out tops in the success stakes. So, who better to share the leadership qualities that entrepreneurs need than the founders of world-beating brands, which have long pushed the envelope of what most people thought was possible?

1. Dr. Alvy Ray Smith, co-founder of Disney Pixar: Dream big (and be determined to make it come true)

The mid-1970s saw Dr. Alvy Ray Smith as one-half of the Pixar duo (the other was Edwin Catmull) who dared to dream – and dream big. Their grand plan? To make the world’s first computer-animated feature film.

Many people remember Pixar’s Toy Story, which was an instant hit that went on to break Box Office records as the highest grossing film of 1995, but this wasn’t the first computer-animated feature film. This distinction belongs to Tin Toy, which won an Academy Award for Best Short Animated Film in 1989 – the first computer-generated imagery (CGI) 3D film to win an Oscar and the first of Pixar’s collection.

Founder’s tip: For Smith, entrepreneurial leadership isn’t just about dreaming big and sharing a vision for others to follow. It’s about having the determination to realise a dream – even against all odds.

As globally successful as it is today, Pixar faced more than its fair share of rejection in its early years. “Thirty-five venture capitalists and 10 large corporations turned us down, but we got lots of training presenting the company and ‘talking the talk,’” says Smith.

He recalls that their determination eventually paid dividends for the then little-known animation film studio: “[Steve] Jobs financed us when 45 other organisations had said no.” 

Jobs' initial investment in Pixar came in 1986, after he was ousted from Apple the year before. Having decided to pursue other ventures, he used the money he'd made selling all but one of his shares in Apple to invest $10 million in Pixar, a spinout from Lucasfilm. Even after that initial investment though, Pixar faced numerous problems and Smith tells how every time they ran out of money, "Jobs would always write [them] another cheque in exchange for equity".

2. Joe Foster, co-founder of Reebok: Innovate (before it’s too late)

In 1982, Reebok – the British footwear and apparel manufacturer – revolutionised the fitness industry by creating the world’s first athletic shoe specially designed for women exercising to music – a phenomenon known as the aerobics movement.

As co-founders of Reebok, Joe Foster and his late brother, Jeff, are the pioneers of the Freestyle athletic shoe, which saw the aerobics fitness craze kick-start in California, sweep across North America and eventually around the world.

Founder’s tip: Foster knows all too well that entrepreneurial innovation can never arrive too early. So, he encourages entrepreneurs to strike while the iron is hot.

When he was at the helm of Reebok, Foster constantly straddled the present and the future. In terms of footwear design and manufacturing techniques, he was light years ahead of his father and uncle who worked alongside him in the family footwear business. Foster quickly acknowledged the unfortunate reality that his family business would soon perish if it didn’t embrace modern practices, which included cutting-edge design, sales and marketing. “We [Jeff and I] knew the prospects for the family business looked grim and, if the business didn’t change, it would die,” says Foster.

Foster’s timely innovation not only helped birth the aerobics movement, it also prevented the untimely demise of his family’s business, which has a series of notable accolades dating back to when its doors first opened in 1895. For instance, in the 1924 Summer Olympic Games in Paris, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell sprinted to victory wearing running shoes made by Foster’s grandfather. (Both sprinters were depicted in the 1981 Oscar-winning film, Chariots of Fire.)

3. Bill Rasmussen, co-founder of ESPN: Adopt a ‘challenger’ spirit (and be in it to win it)

In the late 1970’s, households didn’t have 24-hour sports TV programming. At that time, it was just a pipe dream at best. Not for Bill Rasmussen though. Along with his son, Scott, and insurance agent, Ed Eagan, Rasmussen came up with the idea of a dedicated 24/7 sports network. After being fired from his job, Rasmussen made it his life’s work to introduce it to a global audience.

Today, ESPN is widely recognised as the “The worldwide leader in sports” (which just so happens to be the company’s original slogan). The network is staple viewing in more than 109 million U.S. homes and 200 countries worldwide.

Founder’s tip: Rasmussen believes that entrepreneurs should nurture a ‘challenger’ spirit by adopting a David mindset when going into battle against bigger, stronger corporate Goliaths.

To do this, Rasmussen says entrepreneurs need to identify their unique business weapon of choice – their “slingshot.” (In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David used a slingshot to defeat the mighty giant, Goliath.) ESPN was competing against three TV network giants – ABC, CBS and NBC. To topple them, the fledgling company had to offer consumers a service that its rival networks did not.

“The slingshot we provided was 24-hour sports coverage,” says Rasmussen. “We told the world we would cover 8,760 hours of sports every year compared to the 1,300 hours of sports that were spread across the three major networks.”

With big dreams, determination, innovation and a challenger spirit, the founders of Pixar, Reebok and ESPN have shown that entrepreneurs can not only lead their businesses successfully, but they can also build brands that lead the world.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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