Lessons from a Leader: 6 Business Tips from Pixar Animation Studios

Rewind to 1995. Pixar was a small and struggling technology company mostly known for its innovations in software and hardware. But for Edwin Catmull, a computer scientist and now the president of Pixar, the dream was always to make animated films. And so, after a few successful animated shorts, the animation team at Pixar released Toy Story, the first completely computer animated feature length film.

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Toy Story was an unequivocal success, and remains to this day one of the best animated films on every list that monitors that sort of thing. Since that first success, Pixar has become a hugely respected name in the animation business, consistently turning out award-winning animated films. They’ve produced 14 full length animated films in the past 19 years, 12 of which were nominated for and 8 of which won at least 1 Academy Award.

What’s Pixar’s secret? How did the struggling tech company morph into what is now the frontrunner in animated films? Let’s take a look at a few business lessons we can learn from Pixar’s success.

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Lesson #1: Embrace Technology and Take Risks

Up until 1995, Pixar had only made animated shorts in order to show investors what their technology was capable of. Ed Catmull and his team of about 40 animators and computer scientists decided to do something with their technology that had never been done before. In fact, they sought to do what no one else had ever attempted: make a feature length film using only computers.

Toy Story was the end product of a lot of hard work, ingenuity, and creativity on the part of a very small group of people. It showed what was possible when a company was willing to take risks and try something new. If businesses, no matter the size, are willing to push the limits and embrace or develop new technology, there is no telling what might be possible.

Lesson #2: Seek New Talent

Pixar has built a reputation of hiring young talent. The average age of a Pixar employee in 2004 was 35, and most animators are younger. While they do not shy away from hiring older experienced talent—celebrated animator Bud Luckey joined Pixar at the age of 55—they certainly don’t worry much about a prospective employee’s extensive job experience.

Lesson #3: Use Mistakes as Learning Tools

Pixar has seen how hiring young and creative animators who think outside the box pays off, a string of box-office successes under its belt. Ed Catmull attends every new hire orientation to speak about Pixar’s past mistakes. The goal is to encourage new hires to put forth their ideas, even if they don’t think they are qualified.

Never discount the ideas of younger and less experienced employees. After all, some of the greatest leaps in technology have come from young minds.

Lesson #4: Break the Mold and Deliver Something New

Pixar has become synonymous with originality. It has yet to make a typical animated romance or fairytale film, with 2013’s Brave being the only princess film in their canon. Pixar has disproved early doubters by eschewing the well-worn paths of classic romantic Disney films and instead exploring a wide variety of relationships.

Toy Story is a film about the relationship between rivals who become friends, as well as about the relationship between a boy and his toys. Finding Nemo featured a father’s love for his son, The Incredibles explored familial relationships, and Ratatouille featured the unlikely friendship and trust between a man and a rat.

By breaking the mold and producing movies with unexpected themes, Pixar has set its own standard in animated films. The takeaway? Deliver something new, and you will set your business on a new path, and do more than simply follow in the footsteps of those who came before you.

Lesson #5: Nurture Your Employees

Providing an environment that fosters fun and creativity is one of Pixar’s well-known characteristics, a trait that has been copied by Google and Apple. Employees are encouraged to decorate their workspaces however they wish, which has led to some impressive designs. Pixar also provides a 24-hour cereal bar, a pizza room, and even an actual bar. It strives to make the workplace as enjoyable as possible so that employees will genuinely love spending time at work.

Pixar also gained fame for the way it protects its employees. A story that has gone down in Pixar lore is that of Edwin Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith putting their jobs on the line to prevent the firing of any employees under them. This was a move that earned them the eternal respect and admiration of everyone who has worked under them since.

Protecting your employees will earn their respect and approbation far more quickly than intimidating them. Let your employees know that you care about their wellbeing – and make the job something they look forward to every day.

Lesson #6: Offer a Superior Product

Even though Toy Story was the first fully computer animated feature film, without a captivating story it would have been a bust. The quality of the story is at the heart of every Pixar movie. No matter how impressive the film’s visuals, it is always the stories that keep people wanting more.

The important lesson is this: it doesn’t particularly matter how well you sell your product or how great it looks if it is not, in essence, a good product. Focus first on creating a product that people want and need; something that is worth the time and energy you will spend making and selling it. Everything else will follow.

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Joshua Smith

Aside from work, Josh enjoys writing and coming up with creative stories, listening to and playing music, driving through the mountains of North and South Carolina, reading, and watching movies.

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