Disneyland is celebrating its diamond anniversary this weekend with overnight parties and special events at both its U.S. theme parks. The long success of Disneyland and its expansion into a world-wide vacation empire is unparalleled in the world.
Considering Disneyland's long success as well as the success of its parent company, it's appropriate to ask what can today's entrepreneurs learn from them both.
My answer: almost nothing.
You read that right. If you're launching a new company, IMHO studying Disneyland (and Disney in general for that matter) is a utter waste of time. The same thing is true IBM, Coca-cola, GE, GM, Google, Intel, Microsoft and Apple.
The only exception might be if you plan sell services or products to these firms, in which case they'd be your customer and fall into the general rubric of "know your customer's business."
The only other reasons you'd want to study the inner workings of these firms would be to 1) imitate them or 2) compete with them. Both of those strategies are boneheaded and doomed to failure.
Sincerest Form of Stupidity
Huge companies have long and unique histories, distinctive corporate cultures and market momentum that's hard to redirect. Startups must remain nimble to survive and thus have completely different organizational and operational challenges.
The behaviors that are logical and useful inside huge companies are toxic to small firms.
For example, a colleague of mine was hired into an 8 person startup whose marketing VP was from a Fortune 500 company. Her first instruction to him was "don't talk to my boss without talking to me first."
That's normal protocol inside big companies because (so the theory goes) subverting the chain of command causes needless conflict. However, in an 8 person startup crammed into a 800 square foot office, that rule is insane. (Indeed, the startup immediately tanked.)
Similarly, it's insane for a small company to imitate a huge firm's marketing strategy.
Huge firms spend huge sums on branding, efforts that build upon decades of groundwork and pre-existing public perception. In a startup anything other than the branding basics (name, website) is flushing money down the toilet.
With that in mind, let's take the specific example of Disneyland. Long before customers so much as set foot on a Disney property, they know almost exactly what kind of experience they're going to have.
There's no question Disney puts incredible energy and money into creating, reinforcing and building on its reputation. However, a startup has neither reputation to build upon nor multiple offerings to reinforce each other.
Ergo, studying Disney is wasted effort because you'd be learning to imitate a company that you can't possibly imitate.
Ant-Man Versus Galactus
If you watch Disney movie trailers, you know who Ant-Man is: a dude who can shrink to the size of an ant (and mentally control ants). Galactus is another Disney (i.e. Marvel) character-"a god-like figure who feeds by draining living planets of their energy."
Pitting Ant-Man against Galactus isn't "disruptive innovation." It's a recipe for Ant-Man to get squashed like a teeny tiny bug. And that's what happens when a startup tries to go mano-a-mano with one of these hugely successful firms.
No matter how clever and creative you think you are, you're not going to successfully compete directly with Disneyland, Disney in general, or indeed any huge company that's been consistently successful for decades.
Am I saying that "disruptive innovation" doesn't work? Yes, I am, especially when it comes to companies, like Disney, that are unique.
IBM is a parallel case. Over the years, I've watched five companies declare that they're "#2 after IBM" and then self-destruct by trying to imitate IBM's strategy. Microsoft is sometimes cited as a disruptive innovating against IBM. And yet, IBM's still there.
I'm not saying that studying these firms isn't interesting. I'm just saying that it's not useful if you're starting your own company. Unless, of course, you're planning several decades ahead, which is itself a colossal waste of time.
There are, of course, companies from which entrepreneurs can learn something useful. How somebody built a successful startup five years ago is definitely worth studying. Ancient history of behemoths like Disney, not so much.