I first heard of Simon Sinek at a meeting for a campaign I was helping run. The campaign manager referenced a TED talk by him and said that his talk would be the basis for our ticket and platform. The statement was simple: people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it. Sinek’s TED talk fundamentally changed the way I viewed marketing and advertising. No longer was selling the WHAT my goal, but it was selling the WHY.
If you haven’t watched the video, I would strongly recommend it before reading any further. It is the best 15-minute synopsis of a concept that is simple yet complex. The concept caught fire and the talk became the most viewed talk on the TED website to date. Because of the concept’s success, Sinek penned a book that expounded on the idea, and, thus, Start with Why was born.
Start with Why centers around the idea of the Golden Circle (pictured below).
He argues that most companies start outside and work their way inside when selling, marketing, or advertising. They start with the WHAT: the price, the new features, the differences between their product and a competitor. Then, they move to the HOW: the reasons their WHAT is superior or better based on their systems, processes, or outcomes. Then, if they are lucky, they land on the WHY they do what they do, but often it’s fuzzy and unclear what exactly the WHY is.
Sinek suggests that the great companies of the day actually do the process backwards. They start with WHY, then their HOW proves their WHY, and the WHAT is tangible product or service that is the natural result of the process.
One of the examples he uses over and over again is Apple. He puts forth that Apple’s WHY is to “Think Different.” It embodies the culture and mindset of what Apple is. Apple wants to be the company that challenges the status quo and inspires others to do so as well. How do they do that? By a list of values and standards that is seen in every single product: beautifully designed, simplistic in nature, and friendly for everyone. So now the WHAT? Apple started with computers, but over the years have expanded their WHAT to include phones, mp3 players, and TV components. The reason they can do this while still maintaining such a cohesive brand is because all of their products flow from their WHY: to challenge the status quo and inspire others to do the same. The Apple II did just that. So did the Macintosh. So did the iPod. So did the iPhone. Each product is infused with their WHY.
Sinek argues that if you filter everything through your WHY you will begin connect on a deeper level with customers beyond just a transaction. It creates a deep sense of brand loyalty not just repeat customers. You begin to get customers who tattoo your logo on their body, collect untold amounts of merchandise, and become unofficial brand representatives to all of their friends. Why? Because your brand is more than just the WHAT they buy; it resonates with something deeper in their being and WHY that matters.
But he doesn’t stop at the customer. He goes as far as to say that companies should hire based on very similar principles. Gone are the days where the hiring process needs to just fill an open slot. Companies should be on the look out for people who naturally line up with their WHY. If you can find someone who connects with your WHY, they become natural ambassadors because they love the WHAT for the same reasons you love the WHAT: the WHY.
But it continues to higher levels of the company as well. Sinek proposes the CEOs of the greatest companies embody their brands. Steve Jobs was the incarnation of Apple’s WHY. Bill Gates personified the early WHY of Microsoft. Howard Schultz was the DNA of what made Starbucks Starbucks. A CEO has to embody the WHY and cast vision for others to follow. If they do not, no matter how financially successful they might be in the short-term, they will not be a long-term fit in that company culture (example: John Sculley as CEO of Apple after Steve Jobs).
What Simon Sinek methodically lays out chapter after chapter is that great companies have their WHY touch everything they do. From the way their CEO leads meetings to product packaging on store shelves, it all reflects their WHY clearly and concisely. No matter where you are in the process, you are consciously or subconsciously exposed to the WHY. Some of those WHYs resonate at a deeper level with us which is why some develop a cult-like following of fans.
The difficult part of this whole process is the WHY for most companies is fuzzy. It was once clear, but it no longer is. Maybe it was clear for you when your business was still in “start-up” mode. Maybe it was easy to define while the founder was still alive. Maybe it was simpler when shareholders didn’t dictate the important decisions. If it is not closely guarded and strategically positioned in everything you do, the WHY can slowly fade and disappear. Without noticing, you begin to focus on all the WHATs (price, upgrades, features, sales, etc.) rather than the WHY you began in the first place.
Because if you start with WHY, and trust the process, people start to take notice and somehow things just seem to fall into place.