John Lasseter: A Success Story of Passion, Purpose and Perseverance

John Lasseter
John Lasseter - The Early Years

Pixar is batting 100. They are 11 for 11. Eleven feature animated films that all have achieved both massive commercial as well as critical success. Their films have garnered 26 Oscars, 7 Golden Globes, 3 Grammys and over $6 billion in worldwide sales. Every sequel they make is better than its predecessor. Their record is spotless. Who would have ever thought that there was a time when this “little animation studio that could,” almost disappeared before even getting a chance to make their first feature, “Toy Story.”

But Pixar co-founder and visionary John Lasseter had a dream, one he was willing to sacrifice for. His is a great lesson in pursuing the impossible, and getting it.

Here are some highlights of John’s career (as told in the Emmy-nominated documentary “The Pixar Story” by Leslie Iwerks) that we can apply to our own entrepreneurial endeavors:

  • Dream big. During the 70s when John was a student at CalArts (along with follow future filmmaker icons Brad “The Incredibles” Bird and Tim “Gotta Have Johnny Depp in Every Film” Burton) he took a summer job at Disneyland sweeping the grounds of Tomorrowland. He was evenually promoted to a guide on “The Jungle Cruise” ride. During that summer he dreamed of one day working at Walt Disney. Eventually he achieved that dream and was hired by the animation stuio.
  • Recognize the Future. After seeing Disney’s “Tron” in 1980, John knew this was the future of animation. He got a team at Disney to start working on CGI animation.
  • Bounce Back. After presenting his plans for a CGI animated film to a Disney exec, the exec scrapped the plan because he felt a CGI movie should cost less and take a shorter amount of time than a traditional 2D animated film. Shortly after that meeting, John was fired. He persevered and was hired by George Lucas’ ILM.
  • Bounce Back…Again. After working at ILM for a while and helping them develop technology used in films like “Beauty and the Beast” as well as “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn,” he and his technology wiz partner Ed Catmull presented Lucasfilm with the idea of making a full length CGI animated film. The investment was going to cost way more than Lucas was willing to invest. Pixar was spun off from ILM. Luckily, they came across a visionary young millionaire who has made a fortune with a computer named after a fruit. The visionary was none other than Steve Jobs. He invested $10 million to acquire Pixar and get it going.
  • Persevere. Pixar was losing about $1 million a year for five years before they changed the industry forever with “Toy Story,” released in 1995.
  • Trust Your Gut. The original storyline of “Toy Story” was not that great. Woody was an annoying boob no one could sympathize with. It was like they because at first, Pixar was succumbing to the wills of Disney execs. They pushed for another shot, and decided to make the story the way they envisioned it. The rest is history.
  • Know When It’s Time to Start Over. “Toy Story 2” (which was originally meant to be direct-to-video) had a similar start. A terrible story. Only this time actual work had been put into it. John recognized it was no good, scrapped what they had, then started from scratch.
  • Surround Yourself with the Best. John hired and collaborated with amazing artists and storytellers. People like Brad Bird (“The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille”), Pete Doctor (“Monsters Inc”) and Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”). He then trusted them to bring their vision to life.
  • Don’t Forget What’s Most Important. With Pixar skyrocketing to success, demands on his time grew. His family life was threatened. He and his wife made hard decisions to arrange his life so that he could still give quality time to his wife and kids. That led to his cross country RV trip, which was ironically the inspiration for “Cars.”
John Lasseter Today

Since that summer when he swept the streets of Tomorrowland, John has become the Chief Creative Officer at Disney. As for Steve Jobs’ $10 million investment? It’s now worth billions as he’s the single largest shareholder of Disney stock as a result of their 2006 acquisition of Pixar. (Just the dividends Steve earns on his Disney stock is close to $50 million/year).

Think Different

The video below is one you no doubt have seen countless times. But I want you to look at it…different. Imagine YOUR face as one of the people admired. Before any of these icons became icons, they were just “regular” folk. A classmate. A colleague at work. But, like John, they saw the world differently and were not afraid to take risks to move the world closer to their vision. Is there any reason you can’t be the next John Lasseter?

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Today I have the incredible honor of sitting in a room with a small group of artists who I believe are the next “John Lasseters” of the world. I hope to gain inspiration from them. I hope together we can conceive of ideas that will move the world. Whether or not we achieve our goals, I know the ride will be worth it. But what I hope most is that we get a chance to bring you along for the ride.

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