Innovation: The True Spirit of American Capitalism

Say what you want about corporate America: as a business major, Sam Walton and Walt Disney are two of my personal heroes.

I know what you’re all thinking, now. Corporate scum. Corporate sellout. Shameless merchandising. Wage disparities. Inter-departmental drama. Racism, sexism, all the -isms, because capitalism is the devil.

I get all that, such are the times we live in. The American landscape is frustratingly dependent on corporations, producing the products which make our lives so comfortable. It’s a difficult box to break out of, when nearly everything we need to live at barest level we can accept is mass produced.

But Sam Walton and Walt Disney have always stood apart in my mind, mainly because you don’t really see a moxie like theirs in big business anymore. These men were just getting started after the excesses of the roaring 20’s, but long before the decadence of the 80’s — times by which a president by which “we had always done it this way” had been set.

Of course, quickly following these eras, things changed. Stock markets crashed. Housing bubbles burst. Ridiculous inflation, famine, and wars rocked the nation. Technology and medicine began to advance and evolve ever more rapidly. Doing things the way we always had meant being left behind to fizzle out in the night.

If you study business in America, you will find that Walton and Disney’s work pop up often in texts, as case studies. As examples of what you should do if you want your business to run right. What made these two pillars of American consumerism so successful comes down to something simple. Fundamental. And it has nothing to do with finances, marketing, or actual management.

What made Sam Walton and Walt Disney so successful was a combination of intense passion for their craft, and a hunger for innovation.

If you owned the Snow White and the Seven Dwarves VHS tape back in the 90’s, you may remember Roy Disney’s short preface before the feature, explaining how one of the Disney brand’s greatest missions is to use the newest, latest technological advances to turn stories into feature films. If you own Fantasia 2000, you may remember a similar prologue, showing how far the company had come and all the techniques and styles they had incorporated over the years.

These short pre-film prologues were fitting in both these instances. At last, Snow White (which has aged like fine wine) had stepped off the silver screen and come to VHS, a groundbreaking leap for film at the time. At last, Fantasia not only had a true sequel, but was full of flowing CGI, and came out not only on VHS, but DVD, as well. Both were momentous milestones, and would have made Disney proud.

The point was, Walt was a story teller, with a medium he loved. But he was always looking for new ways to tell those stories, and helping other mediums with their advancements in the process. He took risks in the way he animated his characters, and how he marketed them, and the styles he chose to pick up or leave behind. Sometimes, other studios thought those risks were foolish. Sometimes, they were right.

In the end, though, look whose name we remember, and why. Walt Disney was a pioneer in his craft, and an industry disruptor. His legacy lives on not in Frozen merchandise sales, but in the creative and adaptive new ways his successors continue to tell stories.

And then there’s Sam Walton, a man whose eagerness to try new things has inspired me for years. You may or may not hate Walmart, but there’s a reason its founder is studied so often by American business students. Frankly, all he had was an idea. He simply had the passion to form reachable goals around that idea and implement them, until he had an empire on his hands.

I had the chance to visit the Walmart Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas last year, and had a blast. It was neat to see how the company which America practically runs on started, and how it came to where it is now. Walton’s original department store was similar to most in the country, but it was really set apart from others by how it didn’t just supply the typical stuff in a department. It supplied stuff people specifically wanted, as well as a unique service — customer service.

By many flagship accounts, Walton’s requirements for sales associates were military. They were cross-trained to be skilled in every department, including unloading trucks and stocking shelves. The hours were long and rigorous, especially in the beginning when employees were still few. Shelves were never allowed to be empty, and customers were to always be greeted by smiling faces and helpful attitudes.

Its unheard of now, but this focus on the customer was part of what made the brand prosperous. Customers went back to the store where they got the best service, and before you knew it, the Waltons were buying out other department stores in Arkansas, then the tri-state area, then the whole world.

Sam Walton didn’t put the focus on the stuff he was selling. He recognized those items as replaceable. He knew that if he wanted to be truly successful, the focus had to shift to the loyalty of the customer, who could pick and chose where to spend their money. And he delivered something all customers want as much as the goods on their shopping list: undivided attention to their wants and needs.

The company has added services. Its added brands. Its added whole departments. Because the company listens to its customers and delivers the products they want.

This is another factor in what make Disney and Walmart so successful and so timeless. I see other companies in this country spastically adopting modern trends and bleeding them dry, but then still laboring over them when their consumers have moved on. And then these companies get frustrated when this gravy train they thought they could coast on forever has derailed.

You see, innovating takes time and money, and personal interest in the venture beyond raking in cash. These people can make those investments, but don’t want to. They don’t want to work hard, play hard, and enjoy the fruits of their labor. They don’t want to be successful. They just want a free pass to all the money in the world, and that’s it.

Disney and Walmart produce stuff based on market trends, certainly. As businesses, they’d be foolish not to. But they understand, as businesses, they trends rise and fall, and what the people value and want will change in a few short years. Adapting to those changes, to make those offerings when the desire arises takes effort. But when the public began to grow wary of artificial additives and GMO’s, Walmart noticed. Before its customers could think too hard about shopping at Whole Foods from now on, Great Value Organic appeared on the shelves. When the public was visibly annoyed that there were no strong female icons in film for their daughters to look to, Disney noticed. And before we could whine too much about the Marvel and DC movies, we had swashbuckling Rapunzel, industrious Tiana, Judy the cop, Elsa the queen, and all around fabulous Moanna. (I’m a little biased, if you can’t tell.)

All these offerings follow an obvious pattern, but they will certainly change as the hopes, desires, and values of our country do. That’s what innovation is all about, and its part of what makes these two companies so great, in spite of their flaws. Their creators didn’t jump into these industries because they were the trending new thing, guaranteed to make a lot of money real fast. Quite the opposite! Animation and mom and pop stores could earn a humble living for a humble man at the time; but no one on earth expected anyone to forge an empire out of either.

But they both had dreams, and goals, and plans, and the passion to drive them. And they were willing to take crazy risks on untried ideas. Because of that, they prospered. That is the true spirit of American capitalism, and an ideal everyone who owns a business should look to for inspiration.

Love them, hate them, call them what you will. But Sam Walton and Walt Disney did something very right in the beginning, and set the tone for the whole future of their companies, long after their deaths. And everyone could learn a thing or two from that.

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