While working as an animator in London in the late 1990s, Suzanne Slatcher spent her lunch breaks at the comics shop, reading a hardcover book on the making of Pixar’s then-latest film, A Bug’s Life. “It was like 40 pounds, and it was so expensive I couldn’t possibly afford it. But at lunchtime I went and just pored over this beautiful artwork,” she says. “The craft of this thing…it wasn’t like movie effects, it was very much from a high quality tradition.” Slatcher worked at a traditional 2D studio, but was teaching herself 3D animation, a skill that eventually got her hired at Pixar itself, where she worked for nine years as a modeler and layout artist.
“I will never have a job as lovely as that,” says Slatcher, who was instrumental in creating Finding Nemo’s Sydney Opera House, the rock formations of Radiator Springs in Cars, and the wonderful house in Up. Slatcher says that in addition to the perks of working at the most respected movie studio in the world, she loved the challenge of marrying incredibly advanced technology with the nuanced needs of art. “A computer will make something perfectly square, perfectly spherical, and that’s just ugly and boring,” she says. “All of your time is spent kind of messing it up, which is the opposite of most people’s jobs…the real world is a big old mess and most people’s time is spent tidying it up.”
Eventually, Slatcher felt a growing need to pursue her own creative projects, and she left Pixar in 2010 with the idea of a short sabbatical. She never would have predicted that this would eventually lead her to, of all things, a career in health food marketing.
Today, she is the cofounder of The Good Bean, a Berkeley-based company that makes roasted chickpea snacks. The products very quickly scored national distribution in Whole Foods and other retailers, thanks not only to Slatcher’s art direction and positioning of the brand, but to close attention to the snacks’ visceral attributes like flavor and crunch. However unrelated chickpea snacks may seem to animated features, Slatcher says Pixar taught her an uncompromising attention to quality, craft, and customer that was instrumental in the success of her business.
“Business is just an idea, like a movie,” says Slatcher. “What if we did this in this place at this time, in this style of packaging, with this choice of flavors? Would it work? There’s still a back and forth between creative and the audience, and you can’t be like ‘if I build it, they will come.’ No, we’re in a democratic world where everyone has opinions. If you’re making your cartoon and your joke’s not funny, it’s just not funny, it has to go. If people don’t like a flavor, they’re right, we’re not right.”
As a brand, Pixar–with 14 consecutive No. 1 box office hits and $7 billion in worldwide ticket sales–has come to stand for consistently wondrous excellence, thanks largely to the leadership of president Ed Catmull and chief creative officer John Lasseter, and an era of oversight by longtime owner Steve Jobs. And much has been written–most recently, Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc.–about how exactly the company goes about creating lightning in a bottle time and time again. Recently, Disney has adopted some of its tactics that helped push its hit film Frozen to a $1 billion box-office smash.
But the question remains: can that kind of success be replicated anywhere?
Twitter COO and former Pixar CFO Ali Rowghani says there will “never, ever be another Pixar,” and speaking about movie studios with Pixar’s output of incredible entertainment, he’s probably right. But it’s possible to imagine “another Pixar” blossoming from any company that similarly abides by the studio’s principles of quality and management.
Pixar alums (many of whom joke that they’re a small club, because no one wants to leave) have gone on to lead in a range of fields, from entertainment to consumer technology to healthcare. Fast Company spoke with more than a dozen executives, entrepreneurs, and storytellers from all eras of Pixar’s three-decade history, all of whom have moved on but attest that Pixar’s influence over their ongoing work is invaluable and profound. Whether they’re selling healthy snacks, like Slatcher, or building potentially lifesaving technology for type 1 diabetics, like Tidepool founder and former Pixar VP of software Howard Look, these alums are applying Pixar’s values in unexpected but highly successful ways.
Our conversations revealed recurring themes about applying Pixar’s principles in other organizations: delight and storytelling as driving forces, the elimination of ego as management strategy, the idea that creativity can come from anyone, and the balance between patience and action. Each is a philosophy and approach that former employees have adopted in their new organizations to create revolutionary products and strong teams, and can be translated into any business, including yours.
EVERYBODY DESERVES QUALITY. “Delight” may be an intangible concept, but it’s a useful term to describe Pixar’s relationship with its audience, and one that any company can strive for even if they don’t make heartwarming cartoons.
It seems counterintuitive that simple pleasure would be a core principle of something as elaborate as a Pixar production, but Suzanne Slatcher says she has translated this idea directly to her new career.
“Food is a bit like cartoons,” says Slatcher. “It’s not some high-minded thing that people will make themselves like because they think they ought to. The food has to work on that very simple level of just someone is watching TV and they’re shoving it in their mouths.”
The idea that “everybody deserves quality” is a fundamental Pixar concept that Slatcher applies equally to snack foods.
“Pixar makes amazing, beautiful, hilarious, deep, wise films for kids, and adults can watch them and everybody watches them 25 times if they’ve got kids, and it’s still funny. It’s really, really great quality, where most things made for kids are made very cheaply. A lot of time and money is spent making the most accessible thing possible, and that’s such an inspiration and so not what you learn at art school,” Slatcher says. “The Good Bean could choose to be the darlings of the foodie world, using obscure, exotic spices, trying to be clever, but we’d rather make affordable, accessible food.”
Maintaining quality over the long haul can be a challenge for the best of companies. At Pixar, a laser focus on delivering something wonderful to the end user was what kept everyone on task. Jorgen Klubien, a Danish story artist and screenwriter who attended CalArts with Lasseter, helped develop some of Pixar’s most successful films from 1994 to 2003, and is now practicing this principle at the fledgling animation division of Paramount. He calls he and his 1970s CalArts cohort–which also included Brad Bird, Henry Selick, and Tim Burton–“Walt’s children,” who bonded over a feeling that the Walt Disney animation studio had lost its attention to quality. Working together on 1981’s The Fox and the Hound, says Klubien, “we were at the holy ground of Disney, but we were sort of there after the real, most excellent guys had retired and moved on. We had a sense that it could do better, and in our youth, that we could do better.” At Pixar, they were given that opportunity.
When Lasseter finally got a chance to direct his own feature animated film, it was as a Pixar animator. But the distributor was Disney, so he and his creative team had to hold their ground to serve the audience above all. “We were being driven down one road by the creative execs at Disney, one who kept saying ‘edgy, edgy, make it more edgy,'” says Alligator Planet CEO Ralph Guggenheim, one of the original members of Catmull’s NYIT group, who produced Toy Story and worked at Pixar until 1997. “We worked to bring it back to what Lasseter and the story guys really wanted, a heartfelt story about toys without this nasty, edgy, sarcastic tone.”
A JANITOR’S TALE: Before Craig Good was hired at Lucasfilm in 1982, he was unemployed after a hodgepodge of jobs including audio equipment sales and undercover work for a private investigator. He heard about an opening in the studio’s General Services department, which handled janitorial and security, and got the job based on previous security experience–though he says he primarily scrubbed toilets. “If you want to learn a lot about a company,” he says, “being a janitor is a pretty good way to do it.”
Pixar at that point was still Lucasfilm’s Graphics Group, and Ralph Guggenheim was offering an after-work programming course to anyone who worked at the company. Good signed up, and the experience turned into an entry-level position in the computer division. “I was what I called a ‘digital janitor,'” says Good, “doing backups, and varied stuff on a lot of the old industrial videos we did to sell the Pixar Image Computer.”
Even though Good didn’t consider himself a true programmer, he was given the assignment of doing some coding to help John Lasseter with an animation project. “I pulled a bunch of all-nighters, and got something that worked,” says Good. He remembers the morning that Alvy Ray Smith, who cofounded both the Graphics Group and Pixar with Ed Catmull, came into his office and said “I don’t know what you’re trying to prove, but I think you proved it.” Good went on to be a camera artist at Pixar for three decades, and was the entire layout department when they started work on Toy Story. He did voiceover work for some of the films, and is the voice of Pixar’s voicemail system. Since leaving the company last year, he has started work on a children’s book and a young adult novel, and just finished voicing the audio book for author Tom Piccirilli’s novel Hexes.
Good’s story illustrates an element of Pixar’s culture that nearly every alum we spoke with points to as central to the company’s success–that everyone in any position is valued for their potential creative contributions. For example, most mention the fact that Pixar screens each film multiple times as it’s being made for everyone in the company, and accepts comments from anyone.
“One of the characteristics that made Pixar, and is very rare and important, is that the corporate culture recognized that contributions can come from everybody, anybody,” says Pam Kerwin, who served as Pixar’s vice president and general manager from 1989 to 1998. Now the COO of tablet periodical developer Luminous Publishing, Kerwin has spent most of her post-Pixar life at tech startups. “You have to consider that everyone can make contributions–that’s important both in the growth of a company, and also in the motivation of everybody involved.”
According to Gabriel Schlumberger, Disney Publishing Worldwide’s director of digital creative, who worked as a layout artist and technical director at Pixar from 2000 to 2005, this practice has an even deeper purpose than making everyone feel valued. “They threw you into a lot of different things to try and eliminate fear from the creative process,” he says. This meant improv classes, drawing classes, learning from people who were the best in their field–all in the interest of attaining confidence in your own artistic ideas. “Fear is the biggest killer of creativity,” Schlumberger says. “In order to cultivate a strong creative environment, you need to make people comfortable in expressing their ideas.”
A big part of this means not putting people into creative versus non-creative boxes. “Whether your job was coding, or drawing, or painting, or sculpting, nobody had a monopoly on creativity,” says Schlumberger. “As I transition more into management, I try to cultivate that.”
…OR AT LEAST NEVER ACT LIKE IT. “Pixar was the exotic zoo of exotic zoo animals,” says Ty Roberts, who worked as Pixar’s first Macintosh developer in 1988, and eventually co-founded pioneering music data and technology company Gracenote. “Like, the guy who wrote my college textbook on computer graphics was in the next office.”
Craig Good says that after working with people like Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith, and Pixar cofounder Loren Carpenter, “I sometimes tell people, I feel like I got to know Og and Grog, the guys who invented the wheel and axle.”
But Good also says he didn’t know until years later that “Ed” and “Loren” were groundbreaking Ph.D.s who were inventing a whole new world. “The thing about Ed is, he’s one of the most brilliant guys you’ll ever meet,” says Good. “In the world of mathematics he’s a demigod. The Catmull-Rom spline (a smooth polynomial function in mathematics) is named after him. He built this place–yet his philosophy was always to hire people smarter than he is. He’s this really rare combination of incredible intelligence and zero ego.”
“Ed likes to joke about how he’s the dumbest person at Pixar, which is funny given how brilliant the guy is,” says Jeffrey “JJ” Jay, a technical director and engineering manager at Pixar from 1995 to 1999 who spent 11 years as a character technical director at Dreamworks, a job he left just last month to work full time at the Petaluma Hills Brewing Company in Sonoma, which he founded as a labor of beer love in 2012. “It was a great lesson to learn about giving up your ego when you work with other people.”
In practice, the value of this philosophy is empowering others to exercise their unique strengths and serve as each other’s checks and balances.
As Pixar’s CFO, Ali Rowghani’s job was often to set practical parameters around the extraordinary imaginations at work. “The way I thought of my role was to define the rules of the game for the creative leadership, and to help them understand that those rules are really in place to afford them as much latitude and permanence in making films as possible,” says Rowghani. “It helped that Ed Catmull believes and would say vocally that all great art needs constraints.”
Craig Good tells the ultimate story of Pixar leadership’s humility and faith in its staff, one he also shared with The No Asshole Rule author Robert Sutton for his blog in 2011, but is worth retelling.
In 1985, says Good, “Lucasfilm had ballooned to like 550 people. George (Lucas) thought that was unmanageable…He hired a guy named Doug Norby, who’s kind of a real-life version of the George Clooney guy from Up in the Air. He kept hounding on Ed and Alvy to come up with names to lay off from the graphics group. They kept blowing him off. Finally, they got ‘You will be in my office tomorrow morning with a list of names.’ They went to his office, 9 the next morning. They handed him a list that had two names on it: Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith.”
“We only heard about that because Ed’s now wife, then girlfriend, Susan Anderson, who worked with us, blabbed to us,” says Good. “Everybody, including me, the low guy on the totem pole, was saved.”
TECHNOLOGY IS JUST A BETTER PENCIL. In 1979, the group that would become Pixar was the computer graphics research division of Lucasfilm, founded by Catmull with members of his group from the New York Institute of Technology. When George Lucas sold the group to Steve Jobs in 1986 and the company incorporated as Pixar, it evolved into a company that sold hardware (a $135,000 workstation that was not a success) and software to manage graphics (one key client: Disney).
John Lasseter led an animation division that created short films to demonstrate what the technology could do. For a short time, the division even made animated commercials for the likes of Listerine and Tropicana. From the very first film, the endearing and quirky Adventures of André and Wally B, it was clear that Pixar’s creative application of its technology had storytelling potential far beyond stunning visuals.
“John Lasseter understood that this was a new medium, but the fundamental medium was storytelling, not technology,” says Ralph Guggenheim. “The technology helped, but it was just a better pencil–it was marrying the artists and storytellers with the technology in a way that they both really understood and appreciated. That was the key to Pixar’s creative success, and it still is.”
If anyone outside of Pixar is evolving the company’s storytelling tradition in new ways, it’s Oren Jacob, a technical director and eventually CTO at Pixar for 20 years. Recently, his company ToyTalk launched the Winston Show, a speech recognition-powered iPad app whose characters have conversations with children. The Winston Show is developed with ToyTalk’s PullString technology, which allows writers to create branching dialogue based on children’s potential responses. The system also collects kids’ replies in the cloud for the writers to study and use in story development.
Jacob is eager to clarify that perfecting the technology is not ToyTalk’s mission. Writers spend endless hours reading transcripts from children’s interactions with Winston and other characters, assessing the audience’s thoughts, imaginations, and emotional needs to create a more entertaining and engaging world. “Our vision is less about honing the technology than the craft of conversation,” says Jacob.
The application of storytelling in the movie and game businesses is clear, but it can be harnessed for the creation or growth of any product or organization. Tidepool is a nonprofit startup dedicated to helping people with life-threatening type I diabetes. Founded by Howard Look, Pixar’s former VP of software, after his daughter was diagnosed with the disease, the organization is building a platform to collect medical, diet, and wellness data to help patients track and manage their health. Their product, Blip, even connects all relevant parties, like parents and doctors, and notifies them when the data requires attention.
Look and his colleagues designed the platform, which is still in pre-market testing, with each user’s story in mind. “What is a day in the life of a kid with type 1 like? What is a day in the life of their parents like?,” says Look. “We actually have some of our user profiles or personas hanging on the walls of our office; they help guide us. It is absolutely the case that this is not about the technology for us. It’s about reducing the burden of people with type 1 diabetes, and our ability to tell that story and deeply understand it is what drives us.”
Resonant storytelling relies on effective storyboarding, and Pixar developed processes that help them efficiently refine and iterate. “Because Pixar started in the ’70s and the technology they needed didn’t exist at the time, they needed to invent it,” says Brendan Donohoe, a design lead at Twitter who worked for nine years as a senior user interface designer at Pixar, where his projects included a storyboarding tool that cuts rough art together and projects it.
“The idea was to see ideas as a movie as quickly as you can, because that’s the medium it will be consumed in,” says Donohoe. “The same principle applies to any project where you’re trying to figure something out, like software design.”
At Twitter, this means creating a working version of new consumer features in the medium they’re consumed, even if they’re crude. “What I want to understand is the story…do I understand what to do with this and how it works? If I can get it on my phone, even if it’s not real, even if it’s a picture that I can poke at, that’s way more telling than looking at a static screenshot,” he says. “It’s night and day different in how you can tell what’s working and what’s not.”
However advanced a project’s visuals and features, the most important element is “sitting down around the campfire,” says Jorgen Klubien. “Here’s a story, here’s a moral tale, here’s something with a point of view. You’re going to falter if you just have a bunch of animals running around.”
UNDERSTANDING WHEN TO STAY THE COURSE. Shortly after Toy Story was released in 1995, Pam Kerwin was put in charge of a new interactive division at Pixar to create two CD-ROM games based on the movie. The project was challenging, not only because the company wanted to time one of the products with the video release, but because it was a technical challenge–no one would want to play Toy Story games with lower quality graphics than the film, and home computers couldn’t handle the resolution.
“Everybody really rose to the occasion,” says Kerwin. The games sold over a million copies–but Steve Jobs wanted more. Specifically, to sell 10 million.
“I said ‘You can’t sell 10 million, there aren’t 10 million people who have little kids with computers. These usually sell 250,000 to 500,000, and we’re on top with a million.’ Steve said ‘Well, if that’s all we can sell, we should take these people and let them make another movie’” instead of another game.
Oren Jacob remembers Jobs’s company-wide meeting announcing the shift. “He said ‘Congratulations, you have created the most popular, best-selling CD-ROM in the history of mankind. Today’s Tuesday. On Friday, we’re out of business. On Monday, you’re going to start working on Toy Story 2.’ It was like ‘What? We just won the market!’ But with the Internet on the rise, that market wouldn’t exist in a week.” Jobs knew it, and made the call.
What’s important to note is that the interactive project quit while it was ahead, not while it was struggling to come together. “At Pixar we learned that you have to have patience,” says Kerwin. “I was there in the beginning, so I know, and Ralph [Guggenheim] knows, and a couple other people know how long it took us to get there, how many pivots. That’s the kind of stuff that never comes out about Pixar, that we had a very rough beginning. (But) we were working for a common goal, and we learned to be patient until the world kind of caught up to what it was Pixar was doing.”
Ty Roberts has seen Gracenote through to the payoff of this philosophy. “I’m here now in my 15th year at Gracenote,” says Roberts. “The reality is that stuff just got really good maybe like five years ago. Get in and work on something and just keep working on it. It’s the antithesis of the normal Silicon Valley philosophy.”
Wanderful interactive storybooks CEO Mickey Mantle, whom Pixar hired in 1986 as the general manager of graphics to head up software production, says that the often-accelerated timeline of projects, particularly in technology, does no company any good if the result is an inferior product, or if it takes twice as long anyway. “The important concept that Ed taught me, and that I have repeated and used hundreds and hundreds of times, is that you have to manage projects like you’re running a marathon–you can’t sprint the whole way,” says Mantle. “You’ve got to set a pace where you can win the race and be ready to sprint for the finish line. And then you’ve got to let people recuperate.”
Stephan Bugaj, who worked as a story developer and technical director at Pixar for 11 years, says the key to Pixar’s success was its insistence on making something great, and not rushing movies just to get them out there.
“With a lot of Hollywood projects, a writer comes with a first draft and the executives are like ‘Oh my god! It’s the worst thing ever, you’re fired.’ But that’s true of every first draft,” he says. This willingness to endure the process will be a guiding principle in his new role as the creative development director at Telltale Games, where he is in charge of the writing and directing teams for all of the company’s story-driven game titles including The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.
Of course, Pixar has the luxury to make many improvements over time that companies with fewer resources may not. But that doesn’t mean the principle isn’t replicable.
Ali Rowghani, who has been given a great deal of credit for sharpening Twitter’s business model ahead of its IPO last year, says that Pixar taught him “not to be precious about the first draft of anything. Ed used to say that the first version of a movie is always bad, and it’s not how ugly the baby is, it’s how much prettier it gets each time, each iteration. It’s a concept that applies to anyone’s work.”
Most important, though, is awareness and even embrace of potential failure.
“Ed Catmull says the purpose of an organization isn’t stability, it’s balance,” says Rowghani. “Stability is when you sort of pour concrete around something and just bolt it down. Balance is a state where if you think about yoga, you’re standing on one leg and you’re swaying left and right in these tiny little movements, but you’re able to stay balanced.”
In any organization, there are various factions intent on advancing their own interests–product, marketing, communications, sales–which may or may not align. And here is where balance is essential.
“If any one function wins, we all lose. It’s the balance of these competing forces and the ability to keep them in this juxtaposed tension that really leads to great, great things being created and being done,” says Rowghani. “I try to preserve the right tension between the various functions and groups within this company. I think really great ideas come out of this sense of you could fall at any time. Innovation comes from some level of awareness that things aren’t bolted down and we don’t know exactly what’s going to come next.”
But even amid uncertainty or instability, companies can and should, like Pixar, be guided by the value they have the potential to bring to customers’ lives, says Suzanne Slatcher, the chickpea entrepreneur.
“There was a question on Quora about surprising Pixar facts, and someone estimated that if 500 people worked on a given film for however many years, like three years each, and it’s been watched by however many people, that means for every minute that each of those people worked, they created six hours of enjoyment,” says Slatcher. “So I was thinking about that–what does that mean for the Good Bean? By the end of this year I think we should be selling about 20,000 bags a day, between 10 people. That’s 2000 happy snackers a day each. That’s a really good thing to be in the world, isn’t it?”