Yes, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs had a lot in common, at least in aspects of business. There were a number of other interesting parallels between their personalities too; however, the two men certainly were not just alike.
In fact, they were very different in numerous ways, each having been born in a different generation: Disney was born in Chicago in 1901, and Jobs was born in San Francisco in 1955. Disney was generally a more formal, suit-wearing, conservative businessman, while Jobs exemplified the counter-culture values of the 1960s.
I can go on with their list of differences, but what is really remarkable are all of the similarities between the two men and how they both impacted the American culture and then the world. Both Disney and Jobs built strong, successful businesses with a variety of creative products, along with unique, standout brands. What is most similar, though, is how they each went about it, what motivated them and what they saw as priorities in doing so.
During my adulthood, I have been a lifelong fan of the Macintosh, Apple and Steve Jobs, but I’ve also been a lifelong fan of Walt Disney. Since childhood, I have been a fan of many of the Disney movies and especially the theme parks, but now as an adult, I am inspired by the man. A similarity between the two men may not be obvious to many, but I came to recognize it some years ago.
I have three framed stock certificates that I purchased in 2004, which hang on the wall in my office. There is one from Apple Computer, Inc., one from The Walt Disney Company and then one from a company which doesn’t exist anymore as a stand-alone corporation: Pixar. My Pixar stock certificate is now even more of a cherished and valuable collector’s item to me.
Those three certificates make up a set that I created: “The Steve Jobs Collection.” The reason I purchased them was because of how cool I thought it was for Steve Jobs to have returned to Apple and to have saved it after funding the wildly successful Pixar, which essentially ended up saving Disney’s soul in the end. Then later in 2006, Disney purchased Pixar for approximately $7.4 billion in an all-stock deal making Steve Jobs, majority shareholder of Pixar, the new largest individual shareholder of Disney. He had a 7% stake in the company and accepted a new seat on its board of directors.The Disney company later issued me two shares of its stock for that one share of Pixar that I owned.
So where to start? I have read numerous books on both men’s lives, but in preparing for this article, I researched their stories again. As I did, I made a wall chart for the major accomplishments of each, and I narrowed these down to what I feel are their most significant career achievements. I also listed out some of their significant failures. Lastly, I started listing words or phrases which seemed to describe both men.
Here’s what I found:
Walt Disney’s Significant Contributions
- Pioneer/innovator of sound-synchronized cartoons – Steamboat Willie, 1928
- Also formally introduced Mickey Mouse
- Pioneer/innovator of full-color three-strip Technicolor cartoons – Flowers and Trees, 1932
- Pioneer/innovator of the seven-layer multiplane camera – The Old Mill (Silly Symphony) and Snow White, 1937
- First major feature-length animated film – Snow White, 1937
- Television pioneer/innovator – Disneyland, 1954 and The Mickey Mouse Club, 1955
- Pioneer / innovator of modern “Theme” Parks – Disneyland, 1955
- Full theming of buildings, attractions and lands within Disneyland
- Disneyland/Walt Disney World, etc. theming has influenced other businesses
- Other “amusement” parks
- Shopping centers
- Town centers
- Multiple/sister parks
Steve Jobs’ Significant Contributions
- Pioneer/innovator of the consumer computer (with appliance-like plastic case) – Apple ][, 1977
- Pioneer/innovator of the modern graphical user interface, with simplified mouse – Apple Lisa, 1983 then Macintosh, 1984
- Pioneer/innovator of object-oriented programming and operating system environments – NeXTSTEP, 1989
- First feature-length computer-animated film – Toy Story, 1995
- Reinvigorated the landscape of the personal computer and the start of the return of Apple – iMac, 1998 and PowerBook G4 (Titanium), 2001 plus many others
- Innovator of retail — Apple Store, 2001
- First mainstream portable digital music player – iPod, 2001
- First mainstream online music store – iTunes Music Store, 2003
- First fully-realized smartphone (with desktop quality email client and web browser) – iPhone, 2007
- First mainstream tablet – iPad, 2010
Both men were the face of their companies, as well as chief spokesperson and promoter. Yet neither man took total credit for all of the above, instead also recognizing their people. Both of these incredible business leaders had a skill for selecting top creative and business talent. Make no mistake, though, they both were the singular, driving force of their companies, pushing their will to the limit in order to realize their passionate visions.
When each died — Disney in 1966 and Jobs in 2011 — it almost seemed impossible to imagine either of their companies without them. Ironically, in their last meeting, Steve Jobs himself famously told current Apple CEO Tim Cook to, “Never ask what he would do, just do what's right." Jobs then spoke of what happened to Walt Disney's company after he died and to specifically not focus on any “what would Steve do” kind of thinking.
So now let’s take a look at the many shared personality traits, values, actions and attitudes that I listed for both Disney and Jobs:
Quality and a desire for perfection – Both men wanted to make great products for a great experience. Whether cartoon shorts for Disney, or dealing with documents on a computer screen for Jobs, they both wanted their customers to have better than good, and way better than average. Both often held back from releasing products if everything was not just right.
Innovation – Innovation was one of the partners in each man's drive for quality. In creating the best products, both men often pushed their teams to come up with new solutions to problems and new ways to fulfill the customer’s needs. Both leaders often wanted to create something that hadn’t been seen before.
Attention to detail – This was the third partner to quality and innovation. Disney and Jobs both had incredible attention to detail, while still being able to see the “big picture.” Often thought of as micro-managers, they didn’t micro-manage the process, just the final approval of what was good enough. No detail was too small, like Disney moving a tree five feet over at Disneyland, or Jobs’ concern for what the insides looked like in the Macintosh. Both men were the final arbiters of taste.
Not just driven by money – Neither leader was driven by money alone. Both men cared more about a customer’s experience with their products than the money a product generated. They each enjoyed their financial success, and felt that they had earned it, but their general attitude was that if they created superior products, then customers would buy them and the profit would manifest itself.
Visionary and future-focused – In Disney’s case, he was an eternal optimist in that society itself would continually get better. Many attractions at the Disney parks reflect this. He also loved technology, and felt that technology could always be used to improve the human condition. Jobs was well known for “never looking back” at products or mistakes, as he only focused on what was next and how products could either be improved, or what new products could be innovated. This is one characteristic where it’s interesting to note that the men were also different; Disney was extremely nostalgic. The Main Street USA in all Disney parks represents the idealized main street of Walt Disney’s childhood in Marceline, Missouri, where he lived for four years.
Recreation of entire industries – Disney was first with a modern feature-length animated film. He brought a motion picture quality to productions on television and he changed everything in regard to family oriented resorts. Jobs knew when he first saw the graphical user interface, that it represented the future of personal computing. He later changed the music industry, the cellphone industry and then the personal computing landscape again with the iPad.
Showmen and master pitchmen – Both Disney and Jobs had a flair for an audience and the storyline. Many of Walt Disney’s films and the Disney parks touched people on a personal level, while Apple devices often inspire emotional connections with their users.
Each charismatic leader had a partner – Later in his career, Jobs may not have worked with Steve Wozniak, but they started off as partners. Steve Jobs was the product design and marketing lead, while Steve Wozniak was the master engineer. The “Woz” single-handedly created the Apple 1, then Apple ][, then the crucial Apple Disk ][ floppy drive which elevated the Apple system ahead of competition. Walt Disney was joined early on by his brother Roy. Walt was the product visionary, while Roy was the business and accounting manager behind the scenes. After Walt died, Roy spearheaded the construction of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Florida. The park opened in October 1971; Roy died just two months later.
They both knew failure and took risks – Disney’s first venture into animation ended up going bankrupt and he lost the rights to his first successful cartoon character. Then, after gaining success in Hollywood, he risked his reputation and the entire company on making Snow White. After proving that it would not end up being “Disney’s Folly,” he did it again with both television and Disneyland. Jobs similarly met failure with two flopped computer launches, the Apple /// and the Lisa. Then, after a seemingly big success in launching the Macintosh, sales were weak and the Apple board felt that he was disruptive at the company. Running the Mac division, most of his authority at the company was taken away from him and he later quit. That was in 1985, and Steve Jobs was 30 years old. He then turned his focus to two risky startups and invested a lot of his own money into them. One was NeXT Computer and the other Pixar. It took about nine years of patience before Jobs saw the huge success of Toy Story in 1995, and NeXT almost went bankrupt before being purchased by Apple in 1996. Both men persevered after failure and, most admirably, neither man stopped taking calculated risks after achieving success.
A corporate head with fans? – In Disney’s case, it’s a little easier to understand: He became a TV star in 1954 as host of the Disneyland program, something he didn’t really want to do, but proved so good at it that he became known as “Uncle Walt” to many viewers. With Jobs, it was a combination of his pure charisma and stage presence with product introductions that captured the attention of the media and customers alike. He brought some of the most exciting electronic products to the people in the last 10 years of his life. He became a bit of a rock star, as consumers became admirers for the visionary innovation that he represented.
Both died relatively young – Walt Disney was 65 when he died in 1966, and Steve Jobs was 56 when he passed in 2011.
In closing, I would like to speak to the original picture that is presented at the top of this article. Near the very end of each man’s life, they both masterminded large civil engineering projects. In the picture, Disney is standing in front of his EPCOT project — The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow — and Jobs is seen with a depiction of the Apple Campus 2. The original concept for EPCOT was not the current theme park that now exists, but rather an entire city with a central commercial core to include restaurants, shopping and high-volume residential. It was to then move outward from the center to suburban residential, and then further outward to industrial areas. The city would have incorporated moving sidewalks, PeopleMover tram-like cars and monorails. Unlike his feature films, Disney felt that Disneyland could always be changed and improved, and that it could always be made better. EPCOT would be the city equivalent to the park, always evolving, growing and improving, while the world observed and took notes.
Steve Jobs’ Apple Campus 2 ideas were not quite as lofty as Disney’s idea for an entire city, but in terms of office buildings, it’s certainly spectacular! Its design instantly stands out because of its resemblance to a flying saucer or ring, but this design has a foundational purpose: to flip the more common 80% building and 20% landscaping ratio into a 20% building and 80% landscaping ratio. The office structure will be a massive 2.8-million square feet and house about 12,000 employees. The plans call for a four-story circular design with 40-foot, floor-to-ceiling panes of concave glass imported from Germany. It also features green technology like a huge rooftop solar array. Parking will be in both underground garages and a parking structure. Originally announced to open sometime in late 2015, recent reports now have it pushed back to 2016. Also, where it was originally estimated to cost a little under $3 billion, now estimates are putting it at closer to $5 billion, which is a cool $1 billion more than the new World Trade Center being constructed in New York City. When originally presenting the plans for the new campus to the City of Cupertino’s council, Steve Jobs stated, “We have a shot at building the best office building in the world. I really do think that architecture students will come here to see it.” In later plan updates, Apple added as one of its primary objectives: “Achieve the security and privacy required for the invention of new products by eliminating any public access through the site, and protecting the perimeters against trespassers.”
Recorded in October 1966, Walt Disney made a 25-minute film about his plans for the “Florida Project.” Ironically, it wouldn’t be seen until after his death, less than two months later. The leadership at The Walt Disney Company later decided that only Walt Disney himself could have been capable of bringing such a project to fruition, and that they did not want to be in the business of running a city. The current EPCOT, while still emulating some of Walt Disney’s ideas, is not a city, but closer to that of a classic world’s fair. It balances a focus around technology and the future in the Future World area, while the World Showcase is the world exposition and an embellished version of the EPCOT downtown shopping area.
Steve Jobs made his presentation to the Cupertino City Council in June 2011, and died just four months later. Though Apple has $137 billion in cash reserves, its stock market price has fallen 38% since September amid rising competition, especially in the smartphone arena. Though the $5 billion Apple Campus 2 price tag only represents less than 4% of cash reserves, shareholders are questioning the enormous cost versus issuing much higher dividends. Will Apple executives change plans, or will they do what Steve would do?
David Greelish has studied computer history and collected old computers for over 20 years now. He is a computer historian, writer, podcaster and speaker. He was the founder of the original Historical Computer Society, publisher of the zine Historically Brewed and is currently the founder of the Atlanta Historical Computing Society. He has published all of his computer history zines along with his own story in the book, The Complete Historically Brewed. He is currently the director of the Vintage Computer Festival Southeast 1.0 being held the weekend of April 20-21 in the greater Atlanta area.