Once Upon A Time

They used to work for Disney. Now they're the happiest corporate dropouts on earth.

Recently, alumni of The Walt Disney Company who've hurdled to Internet success--like Edward "Toby" Lenk, founder of eToys, and David Hodess, founder of Cooking.com--have made the entrepreneurial world wonder what Disney's putting in its water cooler. Start-up fever hasn't quite reached epidemic proportions, but the number of Disney innovators forfeiting their posts to launch solo careers is on the rise.

Jake Winebaum, former president of Walt Disney Magazine Publishing, founder of Disney Online and chairman of Disney's Buena Vista Internet Group, started and ran Disney.com, ABCNews.com, ESPN.com and Go.com for the media giant. Although already an old hand at start-ups pre-Disney (he founded FamilyFun and FamilyPC magazines and sold them to Disney in 1992), Winebaum, 40, says the company's entrepreneurial vibe reinforced his love for building companies from scratch. "The process of launching businesses within Disney is not dissimilar to the process you go through when you try to get funding on the outside," he says. From pitching an idea to influential executives to getting financial support from Disney's strategic planning group, the mechanics closely parallel creating a business plan and finding angel or venture capital.

Now Winebaum's incorporating his Disney skills and fondness of everything high-tech to help young Internet companies soar. Winebaum's start-up for start-ups: eCompanies LLC, a Santa Monica, California, incubator that offers finance, recruiting, technology, business development and marketing assistance; and eCompanies Venture Group, a $130-million fund that invests in both incubated and nonincubated companies. Winebaum and partner Sky Dayton, the 28-year-old founder of EarthLink, call the 7-month-old for-profit venture an "entrepreneur's dream come true." Their goal is to get businesses from concepts to full-blown companies with world-class Web sites and management teams within 90 to 180 days. These start-ups will have the expertise of the founders and about 50 industry veterans at their disposal.

Thanks to Disney, Winebaum can better determine what makes or breaks an Internet venture. "Disney goes about entering new businesses in a very disciplined way," he says. "`What's the brand going to mean? How will it be communicated and grown?' [That philosophy] is useful when you're looking at Internet companies at hyper-speed, because you can't throw caution to the wind. You need to analyze the opportunity a lot faster."

Although Disney has fostered countless brands, customer satisfaction has allowed all of them to thrive. That's what Laurie McCartney, 32, kept at the heart of her business plan when she resigned from Disney's strategic planning group after four years to start eStyle Inc., the Los Angeles parent company of flagship site babystyle.com.

Pregnant with her son, Jack, McCartney had no problem securing funding after expressing her oneness with the $13.5 billion maternity and baby market. Using input gathered by eStyle "ambassadors" who questioned friends in Lamaze and Mommy and Me classes, she signed up more than 300 vendors offering stylish maternity and infant wear, baby gear and nursery furnishings, and hired customer service representatives who are also moms. Since its launch last summer, babystyle.com has even added interviews with celebrity moms and advice from new parent Cindy Crawford. In short, Disney taught McCartney and her management team (some of whom are also Disney alums) how to give the people what they want.

"We learned how to build a powerful, high-quality brand that speaks to our consumers and grows with them through various stages of their lives," says McCartney. "And that everything within the organization needs to reflect the brand." With eStyle established as a multimillion-dollar company in its first year, Disney 101 seems to have served its purpose.

So how does Disney attract such minds? Says Winebaum, "Disney has historically recruited very well. That's another lesson we've applied [at eCompanies]." And when valued employees can venture off into the expanse of multimillion-dollar opportunities, it only means the company has done its job.

"Disney prides itself on training and developing its employees," says McCartney. "They build really entrepreneurial people who sometimes go and do other things. At the end of the day, it's really about building the best possible work force."

But is the post-Disney success rate due to its nurturing, creative environment, or are they slippin' employees Mickeys? You be the judge.

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This article was originally published in the February 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Once Upon A Time.

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