MacGuffin: Trapping Lions in the Scottish Highlands

The year was 1939, the place, a lecture hall at Columbia University in New York. A young, somewhat unknown and definitely obscure British filmmaker told the following story:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin’.

The first one asks, ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’

The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers, ‘Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!’

So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

This seemingly unknown speaker spooling gibberish (at least he was at the time in the US) would go to become one of Hollywood’s most successful directors/producers and become widely regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. I am talking about “the Master of Suspense”, Sir Alfred J. Hitchcock KBE, director of over 50 feature films, including four often ranked among the greatest of all time: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960)and two that are often regarded as undisputed masterpieces; The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), in a career spanning six decades.

What is your MacGuffin Mr. Entrepreneur? What are you teasing your investors with? Is it the same as that MacGuffin promised to your customers? Your vendors? Your partners? Do you use vanity metrics for one and TAM for others? (YNWYA)

Regardless of your MacGuffin, all entrepreneurs need to be able to carefully cultivate a strong startup story, so who better to turn to that our notorious MC. Like any true savant, many of Hitchcock’s filmmaking techniques have gone on to become essential parts of the cinematic language. Most are relatively simple, and can even be distilled down into easy-to-remember rules. Perhaps his most important has become known simply as “Hitchcock’s Rule.” It states:

Indeed, “Hitchcock’s Rule” has a much broader, perhaps even deeper and more philosophical, application across the world of business. For example, when it comes to a simple presentation deck, entrepreneurs and executives should be quick to heed to Hitchcock’s Rule and make sure that whatever traction, metrics, sales figures, DAUs/MAUs, achievements, reds flags, etc should be clearly visible to all, taking up the lion’s share of the slide. No hiding the MacGuffin there!

As any private equity turn around specialist will swear by, when it comes to turning around a distressed company, you should start with (you guessed it) Hitchcock’s Rule. The larger the stress of a particular line item on the companies P&L, the more important it should be to your turn around story. Only then will the PE Prince and Princess live happily ever after.

An employee just broke the company’s monthly sales target record? Hitchcock! Simply zoom-in with a tight close-up shot and provide said employee with a large proportion of the company’s compensation frame. Another employee just fumbled and cost the firm a chance at its MacGuffin? Medium shot that sucker next to their fumble for all other employees to learn from his/her mistake. Now cue wide shot of all employees reaction.

Towards the end of his career, Hitchcock would also add, “the MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after but the audience doesn’t care.” Indeed, the smartest entrepreneurs are those that build a business that creates true value, eschewing the temptations put forth by multiple MacGuffins echoed forth by economic sirenes and girly men ventures capitalists. For these noble few, there is no Hitchcock ending.

Trust your instincts and give the world “the stuff that dreams are made of.

Not Your Hitchcock Ending

On the 13th of August 1962, Hitchcock’s 63rd birthday, French director François Truffaut began a 50-hour interview of our now world-famous director, filmed over eight days at Universal Studios, during which Hitch agreed to answer 500 questions. It took four years to transcribe the tapes and organize the images; it was published as a book in 1967, Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock (the “Hitchbook”, as Truffaut called it). Highly recommended reading. The footage was eventually released as a documentary in 2015.

Truffaut sought the interview because it was clear to him that Hitchcock was not simply the entertainer the American media made him out to be. It was obvious from his films, Truffaut wrote, that Hitchcock had “given more thought to the potential of his art than any of his colleagues,” as any great entrepreneur must. Truffaut would go on to compare the interview to “Oedipus’ consultation of the Oracle.”

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