24 Startup Lessons Learned from 24 Pixar Films

By Brent Willess

Pixar’s 24 feature films are incredible combinations of art and technology, but they also contain good lessons for startup founders.

Here is a tip from each, from Toy Story to Luca.

Embrace limitations The choice of toys as the main characters for Pixar’s first feature wasn’t accidental. The smooth, textureless surfaces were easier to animate with primitive tools. This constraint led to an outpouring of creativity.

Tasked with making a follow-up picture under incredible time pressure, the brain trust at Pixar leaned on a story that they knew would work — Aesop’s ant and grasshopper fable that had existed for thousands of years.

Creative types often have a desire to explore new ideas and to push boundaries. That’s fine, but if you’ve got a product that people want to buy, lean into it!

Pixar had to develop huge amounts of software to make the fur, scales, and slimy appendages in this film feel real. If Waternoose had followed this rule he would have learned the secret of child laughter much earlier!

Starting a company rarely goes in a linear direction — lots of ups and downs and decision points. Through it all, just keep building.

Edna Mode — Pixar’s most successful entrepreneur — knew that unnecessary ornamentation rarely leads to success — NO CAPES! Focus on your core value proposition, not designer frippery, darling.

Protagonist Lightning McQueen doesn’t win the big race — he forfeits his chance at glory to help a competitor who was hard done by. Few things are in your control as a founder, but your reputation is one of them.

Not everyone can become a great founder, but a great founder can come from anywhere.

Also, bookmark this for when you get nasty criticism and are in need of perspective.

There is no dialogue for the first 20 minutes of this movie. The protagonists only say their names. Still, the film manages to tell an emotionally resonant story. People remember how you make them feel as much as what you say.

The opening scene sketches a love story more potent than most romances in a few short scenes. Surely you can make a compelling pitch for your SaaS startup in the same period.

Prepare for the worst but also be hopeful that the claw, or a key customer, a macro shift, or a last-minute infusion of funding, can change the trajectory of your story.

This is Pixar’s lowest-rated movie, by a wide margin, but they still sold a few billion dollars worth of Lightning McQueen and Mater merch because of it. There are times when consistency is more important than excellence.

Don’t sign contracts you don’t understand under *any circumstances.* My colleague Brittany Brody, a lawyer and founder, knows this all too well.

In Monsters U, Mike and Sully discovered that their differences were what made them such an effective team. Hire people who “think different” even if it makes you uncomfortable at first.

The film captured many complex neuroscience topics and conveyed them in a fun and simple way. Build an experience that allows users to fully enjoy the product while keeping the complexity behind the curtain.

Can you name a single character from this movie?

This is Pixar’s second lowest-rated movie, but unlike Cars 2, it didn’t move billions of dollars in merch. Still, when your product launch flops, just keep on moving.

Seriously, Pixar has this reputation for creating characters and stories, but almost half their output has been sequels. I can’t say this enough — when something is working, double down on it!

There are times when you need to be the star contributor, and other times where your best returns will come from training new teammates. Learn to embrace the role of teacher and you’ll find success faster.

Coco broke Pixar tradition and had its main characters sing, usually a trademark of Disney films. It’s important to build a distinct culture, but also to break from it when the story, or your startup, requires it.

This film’s main villain brainwashes people using their personal devices. Founders must resist the temptation to engage in a multitude of unproductive distractions as they build their company.

You can only tell the same story with the same characters so many times. Enter cocksure Canadian Duke Kaboom and a pair of homicidal stuffies. Be loyal to your original team, but make space for new talent.

Onward is a perfectly competent entrant into the Pixar canon. It was also one of the first big-budget films that went direct to Disney+ in the face of COVID-19. Sometimes the best-laid plans go to pot and you’ve just got to adapt.

Startups are known for dramatic highs and lows, but take time to savor the small wins — Your first customer, landing an all-star hire, shipping a product — they’ll likely become some of your most cherished memories.

The act of starting a company puts most founders on uncertain footing. Many entrepreneurs have never managed anyone, never mind run a company. Take heart, no one knows everything, especially VCs, just learn as quickly as you can.

Thanks for sticking with this admittedly silly thread for so long. As a new dad, and an even newer VC, my media diet and perspective have been shifting a bit :)

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