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Start With Why

By: Simon Sinek

Reviewed By: Bob Ruffolo

The art and science of motivating people to do business with us is fundamental to everything we do, right? We want people to take action, for goodness’ sake.

But do we really understand why people choose one brand or company over another? Do we understand why we choose one brand over another?

The answer lies in how we position our brand—why we do what we do rather than what we do.

Key brand differentiators, such as who we are and why we do what we do, will determine our success as marketers and business owners, and that’s why we should be familiar with the principles outlined in Start With Why by Simon Sinek.

Start With Why is a kind of window on the soul, describing the reasons why we buy things, including the reasons we prefer one brand over another. Good to know, yes?

The author offers breakthrough insights on brand differentiation and consumer buying behaviors at the intuitive level—things I’ve never been able to put into words, but which had the unmistakable ring of truth when the author points them out.

That was my experience, so, I thought I’d share a few excerpts and personal stories about the principles in this book and how they influence what we do at our agency every day. I do this in the hope that it will spur feedback on how these truths have or will influence your business and marketing efforts in the future.

Theme: Understanding the Golden Circle

As marketers and business owners, it seems natural to connect what we do—our goods and services—to the wants and needs of our customers. Our customers want a mousetrap and we’ve built a better one; therefore, they should love us, right?

Sinek, however, introduces a different paradigm in Start With Why; namely, that clients and customers choose us because of who we are, what we represent and why we do what we do. Our products and services—what we do —are merely an expression and extension of why we do it in the first place.

He calls this thinking from the inside out—starting with a clear understanding and articulation of why we do what we do, rather than thinking from the outside in, which involves trying to connect our consumers’ wants and needs to what we do.

So consumers purchase Apple computers not because there aren’t other great computers out there, but because Apple communicates the why of what they do.

What Apple would say, if they were like everyone else:

We make great computers. They are beautifully designed, simple-to-use, and user-friendly. Want to buy one?

What Apple actually communicates:

In everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making beautifully-designed products that are simple-to-use and user-friendly -- and we just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?

Apple simply doesn’t reverse the order of information; their message starts with WHY—a purpose, cause, or belief that has nothing to do with WHAT they do. What they do—the products that they make, from computers to small electronics—no longer serves as the reason to buy, but serves as the tangible proof of their cause. People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.

Organizations use the tangible features and benefits to build a rational argument for why their company, product, or idea is better than another. When communicating from the inside and out, the WHY is offered as the reason to buy and the WHAT serve as the tangible proof of that belief.

Apple’s competitors turned from companies with a cause to companies who sell products; where price, quality, service, and features become the primary currency to motivate purchasing decisions. At that point, a company and its products have become commodities. (1)

The author calls this the Golden Circle, where order and predictability are found in human behavior. Simply put, it helps us understand why we do what we do.

  • WHAT: Every single company on the planet knows what they do.

  • HOWs: Given to explain how something is different or better, like a unique selling proposition or a value proposition.

  • WHY: Very few people can clearly articulate why they do what they do—e.g., “What’s your purpose, cause, or belief?” When most companies and people think, act or communicate they do so from the outside in, from WHAT to WHY.

Conversely, marketers and business owners who Start With Why have learned to lead by inspiration, providing consumers with a sense of purpose or belonging that has little to do with any external incentive or benefit to be gained:

Those who truly lead are able to create a following of people who act not because they were swayed, but because they were inspired. For those who are inspired, the motivation to act is deeply personal. They are less likely to be swayed by incentives. Those who are inspired are willing to pay a premium or endure inconvenience, even personal suffering. Those who are able to inspire will create a following of people – supporters, voters, customers, workers – who act for the good of the whole not because they have to, but because they want to. (2)

Manipulation vs. Inspiration

Those who start with why have learned to influence human behavior through inspiration, rather than manipulation. Manipulating through price changes, fear, peer pressure, or novelty (e.g., differentiating with more features) brings nothing of lasting value to a brand or organization. Although they can drive sales, manipulations never breed loyalty, they cost more over time, and they increase the stress levels of the buyer and the seller.

Manipulations may be a perfectly valid strategy for transactions that occur once on average, but loyalty (when people are willing to turn down a better product or better price to continue doing business with you) is achieved through inspirational leadership, where the customer and company share a feeling that “we’re in this together,” Sinek says.

Gut Decisions Don’t Happen In Your Stomach

When a decision just “feels right” we sometimes have difficulty explaining why we did what we did. Sinek discusses this phenomenon in connection with leaders who trust their gut. Gut decisions are made in the limbic part of the brain, which controls our feelings (like trust) and often knows the right thing to do, but our inability to verbalize the reasons may cause us to doubt ourselves or trust the empirical evidence. Great leaders—those who start with why—understand the art before science, win hearts before the minds, and trust their gut. (3)

Sinek goes on to say that it’s what you can’t see that matters, and concludes, “Products with a clear sense of WHY give people a way to tell the outside world who they are and what they believe. If a company does not have a clear sense of WHY then it is impossible for the outside world to perceive anything more than WHAT the company does. And when that happens, manipulations that rely on price, features, service ,or quality become the primary currency of differentiation.” (4)

How Trust Is Achieved

The author concludes with an explanation of how trust is achieved with our customers. Loyalty, real emotional value, exists in the brain of the buyer, not the seller. If your WHYs and theirs correspond, then they will see your products and services as tangible ways to prove what they believe. When WHY, HOW, & WHAT are in balance, authenticity is achieved and the buyer feels fulfilled. Without WHY, the buyer is easily motivated by aspiration or fear.

Another example cited is Sam Walton of Wal-Mart, who believed that if he looked after people, people would look after him. The more Wal-Mart could give to employees, customers, and the community, the more that employees, customers, and community would give back to Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart was WHAT Walton built to serve his fellow human being. Service was his higher cause.

Those with the ability to never lose sight of WHY and also achieve the milestones that keep everyone focused in the right direction are the great leaders. For great leaders, the Golden Circle is in balance. They are in a pursuit of WHY, they hold themselves accountable to HOW they do it and WHAT they do serves as the tangible proof of what they believe
- Simon Sinek

The truths of starting with why also apply to talent acquisition—to finding the right people to work for your organization. The key is finding people who believe what you believe. “The goal is to hire those who are passionate for your WHYyour purpose, cause, or belief, and who have the attitude that fits your culture. Once that is established, only then should their skill set and experience be evaluated.”

"Great companies do not hire skilled people and motivate them; they hire already motivated people and inspire them. People are either motivated or they are not. Unless you give motivated people something to believe in, something bigger than their job to work toward they will motivate themselves to find a new job and you´ll be stuck with whoever left."
- Simon Sinek

Sinek concludes with pearls of wisdom that can help all of us as marketers and business owners.

“The Golden Circle provides a way to communicate that’s consistent with how individuals receive information. That’s why organizations have to be clear about their purpose, cause, or belief and make sure that everything they say and do is consistent with and authentic with that belief. If the levels of the golden circle are in balance, those who share the organization’s view of the world will be drawn to it and to its products like a moth to a light bulb.” (7)

How To Apply The Lessons Learned

Here at IMPACT we start with why in a number of different ways. A few months ago, I posted the question WHY? like a poster behind my desk to spur all of us at IMPACT to put the truths of Start With Why into practice.

"Start With Why is a tangible reminder to give context to all we do as an inbound marketing agency with our Why—our purpose and who we are as strategic business partners who help develop our clients’ vision for growth and market dominance. This is patently different than beginning with our What—which happens to be great inbound marketing and content creation services; these are merely the proofs of our cause—an expression and validation of our Why."
- Bob Ruffolo

For example, with content creation, Starting With Why requires us to begin with the end in mind, asking the hard questions: Why would anyone care to open and read this email? Why would anyone care to interact and comment on this blog post, or share it on social media? Why would anyone want to read this whitepaper or eBook and share it with friends and colleagues? Why would anyone want to fill out this form, take time out of their day to talk to you, or take money out of their pocket to do business with your company? Why should they recommend your company to others?

Value Proposition for Subscribing

HubSpot, for example, and many other blogging platforms, use a default header above their opt-in email subscription forms: Subscribe to our blog, which provides little impetus or value that will inspire readers to take action.

To achieve a quick conversion boost, consider treating your opt-in email subscribe box like a call-to-action or value proposition. Develop headlines and supporting text for them that inspires users to subscribe to your content."
- Bob Ruffolo

Hubspot’s Sidekick does a great job of this. Their pop-up subscription form says: “Join over 70,000 professionals outperforming their peers. We'll email you twice a week with the top tips, hacks, and templates fueling business growth.”



1.- 4., Sinek, Simon. Start With Why, chapter 1-5

5. Sinek, Simon, Start With Why, chapter 13

6. Sinek, Simon, Start With Why, chapter 6

7. Sinek, Simon, Start With Why, chapter 5