Walt Disney’s 16 unconventional rules for getting clients
Written by Robert Williams
Most people don’t know that Walt Disney started out as a freelance cartoonist. He carried those lessons throughout the rest of his career, continuing to meet with distributors and clients in one-on-one sales situations. He began his career in a different era but the principles he used work just as well today. Authenticity and delight will never go out of style. If you can make others believe in your vision like Walt could, you can sell them a better version of themselves. The version only you can see. That’s something that made Walt’s approach seem like magic. Here’s his rules for finding and selling clients:
- Never feel sorry for yourself and don’t be afraid to fail.
One thing about Walt was he carried himself with conviction. Even though he had numerous failures early on, he continued to dream big. “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”Make sure tonever shy away from dreaming big.
- Work out a deal.
Walt’s first office (at age 18) was rent-free. He arranged this by offering to do a restaurant publication’s artwork in exchange for office space. It can be tempting to write off any situation where you’re not getting paid top-dollar, but don’t forget to look for other arrangements that can benefit you.
- Do something unique.
One of the ways Walt sold his ideas was by creating something people had never seen before. “In order to crack the field, I said, I’ve got to get something a little unique. They had the clown out of the inkwell who played with the live people. So I reversed it. I took the live person and put her into the cartoon. I said “That’s a new twist” And it sold. I was surprised myself.” Try surprising yourself in your work too. When you can bring something fresh you’ll be more excited about what you’re doing.
- Be a salesman that does what you promise and you’ll stand out.One thing everyone knew about Walt was: you could always count on his word. He never lied to his clients, even in tough situations. This takes courage. Be honest about your short-comings instead of trying to hide them.
- Sell simply.
Walt didn’t use slick-talk or flashy sales methods. He sold his ideas with his honesty and sincerity. That made his clients trust him and those trusting relationships made him a great salesman.
- Do the selling yourself.
When it came to big deals like selling to a corporation or a financial backer on a project, Walt’s staff would plead with him to go himself. They knew their best chance of winning the project was if Walt delivered the idea. You are your company’s best shot at winning the client. Selling is your duty.
- Be enthusiastic about what you’re selling.
During a board meeting with the company now known as Arco, Walt presented the possibility of a sponsorship for Autopia, an attraction at Disneyland. Walt made his pitch, using mostly the enthusiasm in his voice. “We’ll put the Richfield name on all the billboards in the attraction!” Walt said with earnest belief. The client picked up on his enthusiasm and ended up writing a check for twenty-five thousand dollars on the spot. Later one of the people who was in the meeting asked: “I have a question… What did we just buy?”
- Learn on someone else’s dime and invest in yourself.
Early on, Walt could have gotten a job in a hollywood studio but instead chose to hang around film lots to watch and learn. He would often end up studying details of the film industry all day, then go home and put what he learned to use in his own company.
- Stop planning so much and just do it.Walt would just jump into things head first and figure out the rest on the way down. He would take on clients before having any experience producing what he promised. He would start film projects and take payments with no staff or equipment. He knew that the most important thing was getting business. Worrying about the result can happen later. Each time you do this you’re guaranteed to improve your skills anyway.“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”
- Get excited about ideas. Not the paycheck.Walt made a lot of money — but his excitement came from something else.“Money — or rather the lack of it to carry out my ideas — may worry me, but it does not excite me. Ideas excite me.”
- Don’t make the mistake of working for someone else.
Walt’s first real success was Oswald the rabbit. He was Mikey Mouse’s predecessor. But due to a legal fight, he lost the rights to Oswald. Worse, he also lost his entire animation staff. This was a lesson Walt never forgot.He committed to working for himself from that day forward. Just because you don’t work for anyone, doesn’t make you your own boss. You have to go out and take it.
- Surround yourself with the best — then push them even further.Walt pushed his animators to deliver both speed and quality. “Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.” Walt’s legendary leadership pushed his team to over-achieve in every area. He never settled for anything less than their best and yet they loved him for it.
- Observe your clients.
During the screen-testing for the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Walt sat in the back of the theater and observed the audience. He continued this habit for the rest of his career — especially at Disneyland — where he built a personal apartment and had all employees stand in line for lunch instead of going out. He asked them to listen to the customers, get to know what they wanted then improve on their behalf. How well do you truly understand your clients? Do you know what they truly want?
- Beat the competition by offering something different.Walt was in New York trying to sell the Mickey Mouse series to distributors but all of them kept turning him down. Walt decided Mickey needed something extra to set him apart from other cartoons. He decided Mickey would talk. Nobody had ever seen a drawing making noise before. Are you offering your clients something that nobody else has ever seen before?Probably not. Can you?
- Close the deal by building a reputation.
Walt had to pay his own money to show the film at a theatre in New York. Once the public started talking about it, it created such a huge buzz that he had no problem finding a distributor. Are you making an investment in yourself that makes people talk about you? There’s a ton of ways to put great work out there but it takes investing in this process.
- Stick to your dreams.
Many people claimed Walt was the most stubborn person they ever met. He wouldn’t give up if he thought he was right. Tenacity is one of the few traits you have complete control over. Refuse to fail, no matter what. “Get a good idea and stay with it. Dog it and work at it until it’s done, and done right.”
Find this list helpful? Awesome! But there’s one thing I didn’t include.
When I was doing research for this article at the Walt Disney museum in San Francisco I came across Walt’s freelance cartoonist business card and realized he once needed to find his first client just like everyone else.
That’s something most freelancers and design firms struggle with, so I’ve put a new service that helps designers find clients — even if you don’t have a portfolio or strong network. It’s the same system I use daily.
I help underwater design agencies fix staff shortages quickly and come back up for air. I run Folyo, a private referral community of product designers, and I host Freelance, a podcast about how to work independently.
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