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Mickey Mouse Needs to Eat His Vegetables

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"I write a column about small business. A question I often get is, 'What's the biggest problem facing a small business?' ... My answer always surprises people: 'Focus.'... Regardless of the size of the business, we invite trouble when we fail to eat our vegetables -- fail to recognize what ingredients make our business healthy and focus on those first."

Those words weren't originally written for this column. They first appeared in my book, Wear Clean Underwear in the chapter entitled "Eat Your Vegetables." In that book, I looked at how great companies incorporated fundamental values to build a strategy for success. The subject of that particular chapter? Michael Eisner and the Walt Disney Company.

"Whoops!" I can hear you say. The company's stock has fallen; Eisner's been given an unprecedented vote of no-confidence by shareholders. How can Eisner and Disney be an example of any positive business strategy for small businesses to emulate?

Ah, but when I wrote that chapter in 1998, I was looking backwards. After Walt Disney died, the company lost its focus and neglected its core competencies, drastically reducing the animation budget and neglecting its theme parks.

Then, Eisner was brought in to rescue the company from mediocrity. The first thing he did, his first day on the job, was re-focus on Disney's fundamentals, especially animation, which had been at the heart of the company since Walt had created Steamboat Willie.

Eisner put Roy Disney -- Walt's nephew -- in charge of animation, substantially beefed up the animation budget and staff, and put new emphasis on the theme parks, which Eisner considered "animated environments."

Eisner's appreciation of the importance of animation to Disney was so great that he commissioned a new headquarters building, with huge columns in the form of Dopey and his six fellow dwarfs, "This company is being held up by those seven dwarfs," Eisner told me during our 1998 interview, "...it's a metaphor for what animation means to this company."

But then what? Like many business leaders -- whether of big corporations or of one-person companies -- Eisner lost focus. Instead of concentrating on his company's core competencies, he became enamored of new challenges and constant growth. Disney acquired other media companies, notably ABC and ESPN, and sports teams. These added to Disney's size but detracted from its strengths. Animation became just another department in a giant media conglomerate instead of the basic nutrient keeping the heart of the company healthy. Its budget was cut and key creative staff departed.

Many of us fall into the same trap. We get bored with the stuff we do every day, even if -- especially if -- we're very good at it. We constantly need new challenges.

Even Walt Disney himself lost focus. Roy Disney told me his uncle had been neglecting animation and theme parks in the last years of his life, as he decided he wanted to build a city of tomorrow. "Walt was too overextended," said Roy. "We lost a lot of people in the animation department when Walt lost interest."

That's what happens when you lose your focus: First, you alienate your own employees. (At Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had overseen production of such Disney hits as The Lion King left; he helped start the company that produced Shrek). Even if you don't have employees, you'll lose your competitive edge. (Pixar, not Disney, has been the most innovative animation studio the last few years, creating movies such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo). Then, of course, you lose customers and deals. (Pixar just ended its distribution agreement with Disney.) The result? A battered bottom line.

It's easy to be tempted by every new opportunity you're presented or every great idea you have. But ALWAYS first pay attention to your basic business, your core competencies, the things that pay the bills. Yes, they can sometimes be boring. Just like peas and carrots. But you've got to eat your vegetables if you want to retain your vitality and stay healthy.

Just remember: While Michael Eisner was busy covering NASCAR on ESPN, saying Good Morning America on ABC, and rooting for the Mighty Ducks, he got so distracted that he -- and Disney -- lost Nemo.

Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2004


Rhonda Abrams is the author of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies and the president of The Planning Shop, publisher of books and other tools for business planning. For Rhonda's free business-planning newsletter, register at www.PlanningShop.com.




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