Pixar have enthralled an entire generation of children with their modern take on the traditional fairy-tale. From Finding Nemo to Toy Story, these magical fables all have certain commonalities: a character is landed in a situation in which nobody expects him to achieve yet, against all odds, the character manages to do so, leaving all his doubters in the dust.
Although these 21st century fairy-tales are outlandish and bear little resemblance to our everyday realities, they can teach us more then you may think. Animated entrepreneurs can inadvertently educate us and our children, and instil in us both business morals and an entrepreneurial spirit. Although they may seem shallow on the surface, there is depth and complexity to be found in their simplicity.
I have carefully hand selected three examples of animated heroes whose characteristics and phraseologies resonate with me. I hope these snippets show you that we can sometimes find entrepreneurial inspiration in places that outwardly bare no resemblance to business and enterprise...if only we open up our minds and look beyond the bright colours and whizzy animation on the surface:
When Marlin loses his son Nemo on the Great Barrier Reef, he is rife with despair. The father embarks on what seems like an impossible mission to find Nemo after he is ruthlessly snatched by humans and taken to Sydney. Marlin, a timid clown-fish, goes on a ‘mission-impossible’ to rescue his son and bring him back to his natural habitat. Understandably, he doubts his ability to achieve this mighty task on every step of the journey. When he is feeling down and seems to have given up hope, Dory gives Marlin some valuable words of advice: “just keep swimming”.
Lesson:When a business is going through a tough patch, the entrepreneur can often become over-analytical. As entrepreneurs, it is in our nature to look at ourselves as masters of our own fate. We can become consumed with the thought that we have made poor business decisions during a time of difficulty. In Finding Nemo, Marlin frequently comes close to giving up hope, as he realises the enormity of the task ahead. When he reaches his lowest point, his “advisor” Dory tells him to “just keep swimming”. Similarly, if you have embarked on an ambitious business venture, there may be uncontrollable currents that you will have to brave on the journey. It helps to have partners and advisors like Dory around who complement you not only in skills sets but also, importantly, in temperament.
An early stage business journey is pitted with unplanned events and uncontrollable circumstances. It is very difficult to strategise for this. Marlin survived an attack from a shiver of sharks and a journey through Sydney on the way to achieving his goal. If someone had told him at the start of his journey that he would accomplish this, would he have believed them? I am a big believer of "emergent strategy" for early stage ventures, where a set of actions form an unintended pattern that was not initially anticipated or intended in the initial planning phase. Although unintended, adopting an emergent strategy might help a business (or a fish!) adapt more flexibly to the practicalities of changing currents.
Entrepreneurs need to break their long-term goals into smaller, manageable, short term tasks. Focusing on the short term is often looked down at by management strategists, but short term thinking is often exactly what an early stage business needs to rapidly gain traction by trialling, pivoting, and iterating. The most suitable plan sometimes is to scrap the long term plan and to "just keep swimming".
The Incredibles, led by father-figure Bob Parr, have been put into the Superhero Protection Programme as the so-called "Supers" have fallen out of favour with society ( but they still scratch their superhero itch by fighting small-time crime). However, the gifted-family are finding normal society a mundane experience.
The Parr family come in contact with Edna "E" Mode, a successful fashion designer who has sewn up the superhero outfit-manufacturing niche. She is a creative business-person who uses her flair and savvy to design practical garments for superheroes. Paradoxically, her style is substance as every garment she designs has practicality in mind. She revolutionises the Incredibles by redesigning their “superhero/family brand”. Edna Mode is an entrepreneur through and through. The phrase “I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now” is a lesson in living in the present moment: something that she does with attitude and zest.
Lesson:Life coaches often advise that you can't let your work consume you. What they don't realise is that getting a new business off the ground or launching a challenger product are monumental tasks that require complete consumption. Psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi names this mind-state “the flow”. When Edna gets into "the flow", she comes up with daring new fashion designs such as the removal of the cape from the superhero costume (a disruptive trend for her sector). When you are in the flow you may feel unaware of time, and your mind will not veer, even momentarily, away from the task at hand. This is exactly the state of mind entrepreneurs need to be in during the early days of their business.
Buzz Light-year is a brave and courageous Intergalactic Alliance space ranger stationed in the Gamma Quadrant of Sector 4. After Andy receives Buzz as a gift, he soon becomes his favourite toy due to Buzz's fancy gear and tech-gadgets. This annoys the others toys in Andy's toy-box who feel betrayed by Andy's lack of loyalty. Highly skilled in hand-to-hand combat, Lightyear's catchphrase “to infinity and beyond” perfectly captures the limitless mind-state that any successful entrepreneur possesses. He never shies away from responsibility, and always remains brave and courageous in the face of danger. He gets frustrated at other characters who do not share his visions and ambitions. Many entrepreneurs struggle with the same issue as their energy, work ethic, and passion is rarely matched by their team members.
Lesson: When you establish an ambitious business, it is important that your employees' personal ambitions run at a similarly aspirational trajectory. If your employees have limited beliefs, this can stunt your businesses growth. If the people within the business don’t share your ambitious vision then maybe you either need to realign your business plans or hire people who can keep up. Average staff equate to an average business whilst extraordinary people, with the correct chemistry, will form an exceptional business. Although simplistic, this is a golden rule in human capital management for high growth businesses. In Toy Story, Buzz Light-year often expresses his frustration with the other characters' lack of achievement and ambition. He believes he should be admired and respected by toys and humans alike. He has a high opinion of himself, even if other people do not share his enthusiasm. It is this almost unbreakable self-belief that runs through the DNA of entrepreneurs and is the intangible power and charisma that enables them to lead teams. In the case of Buzz, while at the end of the day, he accomplishes his mission, his frustration is reminiscent of an ambitious entrepreneur that hasn't surrounded himself with the right people.
The definition of animated is "to be full of excitement, lively". These are also words I would use if asked to describe an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur must be excited and ardent about his ventures and go about his work in a lively, enthused manner. He must be energetic, engaging, and emotionally intelligent. He must have a solid understanding of the psychological process that each of his employees and colleagues go through on a daily basis. While entrepreneurs are often lauded for their commercial acumen and financial prowess, it is often the "soft skills" like passion, talent recognition, and emotional intelligence that empowers them to build and retain great teams. And it is these "A teams" that go on to build billion dollar businesses.
Next time you watch a cartoon or a children's movie, try not to view it as a pointless exercise in which no lessons can be learnt. Instead, peel back the layers and analyse the traits of the characters and you will learn more from them than you may think.
Now to take a phrase from another set of cartoon stars:
Dennis Waitley, the American best-selling author, once said 'failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end…' Failure is often misunderstood, a dirty word, only to be whispered in hushed tones. Some of those closest to me have yet to achieve their full potential because of their subconscious fear of the ‘F’ word. In certain cultures, failing is taboo and carries individual and familial shame, like a metaphorical scarlet letter burning on one’s forehead.
In high school, I was a sprinter. Metaphorically that is. I took on way too much. I wanted to make it big, and do it fast. My ambition and enthusiasm for education, sports and extracurricular activities exceeded my output levels, mainly because I was spread too thin. ‘The fruit of patience is very sweet,’ my father repeated reassuringly over breakfast as I gulped down my hot chocolate, but the Urdu proverb didn’t resonate at all with a young man eager to take on the world.