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Michael Keaton on lessons startups can learn from 'The Founder'

The star of "The Founder" on how the true-life tale of a little 1950s startup called McDonald's reminded him of a certain social network.


Today, McDonald's sells billions of burgers across the globe. But in 1954, it was a humble startup.

The movie "The Founder", hitting cinemas worldwide this weekend, tells the story of its early years. Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc, the man who turned a family-run California burger stand into a vast empire. It's a tale Keaton compares to another startup success story with a somewhat contentious beginning.

"The interesting parallel is something my kid pointed out to me," Keaton said in an email interview. "This is like the [Mark] Zuckerberg Facebook story. One guy takes an idea from two other guys and blows it up."

Kroc took on the fast food idea pioneered by Dick and Mac McDonald. The brothers were hard-working and exacting, but their attempts to franchise their idea had failed. As with the story of nascent startup Facebook, when Mark Zuckerberg made a success of an idea rooted in his work with the Winklevoss brothers, it took an outsider to take the idea and build it into something huge.

Michael Keaton plays McDonald's magnate Ray Kroc in "The Founder".

Daniel McFadden

"He had a big set of balls, man," Keaton said of Kroc. "He was brave, and he was sometimes successful and sometimes not, but he took his chances. I actually admire the young, wilful, hard-working Ray Kroc. He worked hard, was driven, had a vision and went after it. He then became another thing that I don't really admire."

The film portrays Kroc's shift from driven entrepreneur to what Keaton describes as "almost sadistic" in his scheming to wrest control of McDonald's from the brothers who created it.

"This guy has worked his ass off," Keaton said. "Then he does stuff that you think, 'Oh Ray, come on! Did you really have to do that?' A lot of times people say, 'Well that's what you have to do [in business].' That's obviously not necessarily true."

Kroc may have undercut the family values he espoused to the brothers, but he sure knew how to build a business. And so, with a little help from Keaton, here's what startups can learn from "The Founder", the story of the man who didn't found McDonald's. Follow these tips to supersize your profits and you'll really be lovin' it.

He's lovin' it.

Daniel McFadden

Be tough

You can't let anyone push you around, even if you're on the same side. Especially if you're on the same side. Keaton says one of his favourite lines in the movie is when his character explains his business philosophy to the McDonald brothers with the words, "If you were drowning I'd stick a hose down your throat."

"A friend of mine had used that expression before," Keaton recalled. "When I told him I was doing the movie, I learned those were actually Ray Kroc's words. That's not a writer writing it, which made me like the line even more. I was like, 'Wow, a guy said this to someone, and now I get to relive that moment.' Ask any actor -- that's gold."

Big Macs all round.

Daniel McFadden

Know a good idea when you steal one

You may not have a revolutionary idea, but that doesn't mean you can't be a success. The film shows Kroc, a small-time milkshake-machine salesman who had tried various schemes to get rich, dumbfounded by the McDonald's dining experience, unsure where to eat his burger or even how to eat it. But he also immediately spots the potential of this faster, cheaper way of eating, and he wants in -- even if it means forcing the McDonald brothers out.

Be ready to pivot

Dick and Mac originally opened a movie theater -- just in time for the Great Depression to hit. But these hard-working Americans were undeterred. Reasoning that people will always have to eat, they pivoted to a burger stand.

Build a brand

It's essential for businesses to take root in customers' minds, and for that to happen, the business needs to communicate its values through its brand.

"When you see McDonald's, you see the golden arches, you see that big M and you don't have to think about it," Keaton said. From the main streets of middle America to the rainforests devastated by palm oil and beef production, you want people to know what they're getting.

Embrace disruption

The McDonald brothers wanted to make their business more efficient, so they started from first principles, mapping out the costs of their burger business. Iterating their production processes, they went to market with their minimal viable product, a 15-cent burger, and iterated from there. Transforming from a drive-in place to the then-unknown fast food concept, they found a new business model and put a bomb under the restaurant business.

"It was really an ingenious thing," Keaton said. "Cut costs, cut costs, cut costs. We'll just serve things that you don't need silverware for. Stick a napkin in and you're done. Napkin, bin, move on. Now cut to how we live now."

Of course, there were some casualties: The McDonald brothers had to fire their waitresses and carhops.

Focus on core products

The McDonald brothers realised that for all the varied items on their menu, people mostly just wanted burgers, fries and shakes. So they built their kitchen around making and delivering those core items quickly and consistently. They knew success lay not in trying to do everything but in finding the one thing they did really well.

Understand what it is you sell

Ray Kroc's real breakthrough came when he understood he wasn't in the burger business -- he was in the real estate business. Rather than taking a small cut from the franchisees he signed up to McDonald's, he began leasing the land on which the restaurants stood, guaranteeing a much larger ongoing income. Today, the value of the company's real estate assets amounts to more than $28 billion (more than £22bn or AU$36bn). It's an object lesson in understanding the real value of your proposition and maximising long-term profit.

Or should we say super-sizing profit.

"The Founder" opens in the UK on 17 February and widely in the US on 20 February.

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