Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Finding Pixar

I recently finished the book The Pixar Touch by David A. Price, an engagingly written corporate biography of Pixar Animation Studios and the passionate people that brought it to life.

Unusually, as an entrepreneur, I seldomly browse biographies of other tech companies. I have found that startups all have very different stories, and every successful startup succeeds differently. Sometimes you just have to blaze your own path and forget what everyone else has done, is doing, and will do. But somehow, the Pixar story appealed to me on a deeper level, much like the beloved movies they pour soul and heart into, this story looks like a fairy tale.

Pixar started almost two decades before their first feature film release, Toy Story. It was tenuously held together by a handful of people who had a single, identical dream: to make movies... computer animated movies. It was a wild and fantastical dream at the time. They had all the odds stacked against them. Of the three risks face by entrepreneurs, they had them all. There are plenty of technology risks because no one has done it before them and most doubted it could be done at all. Then there were huge business risks; at the time Disney is the 800 pound gorilla and unchallenged in arena of animated movies. Lastly, there were financial risks. In the entire early life of Pixar, up until the release of the Toy Story, the company lost money every year like clockwork.

But a few things saved them.

They had talent and passion. The people who founded Pixar are the heavyweight intellectuals and when you get a roomful of these guys and they work themselves day and night doing what they love, miracles do happen.

They found a great animator in John Lasseter. Lasseter understood that making a computer animated movie takes more than technical perfection. He added that human touch that connected the audiences' hearts with the souls of the characters and story on the screen. A very telling quote from the book says it all:
Ironically, though, several of [Disney's] senior execs admitted to [Ralph Guggenheim] by the end of the Toy Story production that Pixar had made a film that contained more of the "heart" of traditional Disney animated films than they themselves were making at that time. They grudgingly admired Pixar and Lasseter for this.

Lastly, they were lucky. No denying this one. Sometimes even the most humble of entrepreneurs underestimate the importance of luck in their successes. Pixar got lucky many times over its existence. And they capitalized on their luck because the men calling the shots, knew exactly what they wanted.

And at the end, all that looked like a fairy tale in a lot of ways isn't. This is a story of passion and will triumphing after decades of hard work.

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