I went to see "The Founder" this week, the movie about how Ray Kroc rose from selling milkshake mixers to growing the world's first fast-food empire and ultimately claiming it as his own. The title refers to the fact that he went so far as to credit himself with founding McDonald's, even though two McDonald brothers invented everything from the number of steps required in food preparation all the way up to the golden arches. They also owned and franchised the first restaurants with that name.
I am always interested in the way filmmakers portray entrepreneurs. From "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" to "The Social Network" and "Jobs," the filmmaker's re-telling of the startup's story usually is a combination of reluctant admiration mixed with the perception/dramatic hook that the only way someone in business can be successful is by stepping on someone else (although in "Tucker," the entrepreneur was the guy who got stepped on, unlike the Winkelvoss twins or Steve Wozniak).
The Founder" is no different. It is Hollywood's version of Kroc's story, and people still around from those early days say it plays fast and loose with the truth. Clearly, the film comes heavily doused in the "special sauce" of personal interpretation. But the fact that it portrays Kroc as a textbook American huckster who makes deals with the McDonald brothers only to break them -- something his former legal adviser insists never happened -- bolsters the impression that growing someone else's idea is somehow not true entrepreneurism, or a less legitimate form than that embodied by the McDonalds.
Bull-patties! Did Henry Ford invent the automobile? Did Richard Branson invent the vinyl LP?
Not surprisingly, the actual (not alternative) facts show that, rather than being a classic business bad guy, Kroc simply out-thought and out-saw two idealists whose inflexibility was limiting the potential of the franchise.
If anything, the McDonald brothers just made a classic business mistake: cashing out too soon. It seems that the McDonald brothers were financially successful even before they met Kroc. In 1954, their single restaurant in San Bernardino netted them $100,000, or $900,000 in today's dollars. When they took their $2.7 million buyout in 1961 (the equivalent of over $24 million today), they had been retired for two years, owned three homes and drove Cadillacs. The .5% franchise fee was probably earning them over $500,000 a year (assuming 350 stores and $350,000/store revenue/year). In 1961, the gravy train was continuing to roll and they could have rolled along with it had they not been so stubbornly convinced that changes to their system so compromised their ideals.
Invention is fabulous, but it's not the only mother of "successity," so to speak. You don't need to invent an app or a fidget cube to make it in this world. Real business success generally requires at least two very different kinds of expertise: a good idea or invention, and someone who sees its potential and has the ability to produce it in quantity and sell it to the world. Sometimes, the inventor and the visionary are the same person, but quite often, they are not. Each role is as essential and as authentically "entrepreneurial" as the other. And contrary to Kroc's dealings with the McDonald brothers in "The Founder," the relationship needn't be one of predator and prey.
"The Founder" may portray Kroc's methods as morally distasteful, but his form of entrepreneurship, when practiced ethically, is as genuine as the McDonald brothers' and their Speedee System, and as all-American as the all-day breakfast. And as Kroc might say, there's still a world of opportunity out there for any bright, forward-thinking person who knows a good idea when he hears it.