Start with Why

Posted by Andrew Savikas on March 7, 2017
Great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them.

— Simon Sinek

I spent much of my career at O’Reilly Media, where, as happens at many companies, there are quarterly “all-hands” meetings. My favorite thing about those—especially early on when I was still pretty low on the proverbial totem pole—was hearing Tim O’Reilly talk about what the plans were for the months and years ahead. There aren’t many people out there who get more excited talking about the future than Tim O’Reilly, and I usually left those meetings incredibly inspired and feeling like I was part of something that really was helping to change the world.

At one of those meetings, Tim shared a story that I remembered quite vividly, so much so that I smiled when I saw it show up in Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why”:

Consider the story of two stonemasons. You walk up to the first stonemason and ask, “Do you like your job?” He looks up at you and replies, “I’ve been building this wall for as long as I can remember. The work is monotonous. I work in the scorching hot sun all day. The stones are heavy and lifting them day after day can be backbreaking. I’m not even sure if this project will be completed in my lifetime. But it’s a job. It pays the bills.” You thank him for his time and walk on. About thirty feet away, you walk up to a second stonemason. You ask him the same question, “Do you like your job?” He looks up and replies, “I love my job. I’m building a cathedral. Sure, I’ve been working on this wall for as long as I can remember, and yes, the work is sometimes monotonous. I work in the scorching hot sun all day. The stones are heavy and lifting them day after day can be backbreaking. I’m not even sure if this project will be completed in my lifetime. But I’m building a cathedral.”

While I’m sure some of it was natural talent, Tim has become a master at showing people those cathedrals, and convincing them to bring their tools and get to work. But for the rest of us who could use some help in the Inspiration department, Sinek’s book is a must-read.

It’s true that you can get a lot of value just by watching his TED talk of the same name, but I still recommend reading the book as a way to really help the message sink in, and make sure that your subconscious brain has a chance to spend more than 12 minutes absorbing the underlying principles. That’s because once you appreciate the distinction between messages that communicate why you should care about a company or product or organization compared with those that just talk about what they do or how they do it, you’ll start noticing it everywhere, because, as Sinek puts it:

We’re forced to make … less-than-inspiring decisions for one simple reason—companies don’t offer us anything else besides the facts and figures, features and benefits upon which to base our decisions. Companies don’t tell us WHY.

It’s something that comes up constantly in a Marketing and Sales context, where there’s a natural inclination to focus on a product’s features and functionality (what it does and how it does it). Think about the last commercial you saw for laundry detergent or pet food — it was probably full of flattering photos of the product with lots of smiling people using it, voiced over with a laundry list (no pun intended) of all the high-tech features that make this the best darned detergent (or pet food) ever made. Sinek points out that this kind of approach misses an opportunity to connect with customers on a much more important level:

If you are curious as to how Colgate finds itself with thirty-two different types of toothpaste today, it is because every day its people come to work to develop a better toothpaste and not, for example, to look for ways to help people feel more confident about themselves.

As the people making the products, we of course care quite deeply about its quality and performance, and how well it stacks up against the competition. Yet all of those things are far, far less important to our customers than their own needs and interests. Here Sinek is complementing some of the themes behind Clay Christensen’s “Jobs to be Done” thesis:

It is a false assumption that differentiation happens in HOW and WHAT you do. Simply offering a high-quality product with more features or better service or a better price does not create difference. Doing so guarantees no success. Differentiation happens in WHY and HOW you do it.

Sinek also underscores the strong emotional connection that comes from shared beliefs, and how that can shape the way you find and connect with customers:

The goal of business should not be to do business with anyone who simply wants what you have. It should be to focus on the people who believe what you believe. When we are selective about doing business only with those who believe in our WHY, trust emerges.

There’s echoes of similar “tribal” approaches to finding an audience, like Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 True Fans” or Seth Godin’s “Tribes we Lead” talk, but where I think Sinek distinguishes himself is emphasizing that while a powerful “Why” message of shared belief inherently excludes certain customers, that doesn’t mean it’s not important for a company or product that already reaches (or aspires to reach) a very large market:

The clarity we have for what Apple believes comes from one place and one place only: Apple. People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it, and Apple says and does only the things they believe. If WHAT you do doesn’t prove what you believe, then no one will know what your WHY is and you’ll be forced to compete on price, service, quality, features and benefits; the stuff of commodities. Apple has a clear and loud megaphone and is exceptionally good at communicating its story.

As with the Cathedral story, Sinek shares a few other stories of inspiration that have certainly appeared in business books before, but by framing them through his Why/What/How model, I think he adds new value even to examples that may be familiar to many readers, like Sir Ernest Shackleton’s famous ad for a crew to join his Antarctic expedition:

Shackleton’s ad for crew members was different. His did not say WHAT he was looking for. His ad did not say: “Men needed for expedition. Minimum five years’ experience. Must know how to hoist mainsail. Come work for a fantastic captain.” Rather, Shackleton was looking for those with something more. He was looking for a crew that belonged on such an expedition. His actual ad ran like this: “Men wanted for Hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

Overall, the book is an easy and inspiring read, a good companion for a cross-country flight.

The two areas I’ve found its themes most useful are ones that you’ll encounter time and again as a leader:

  1. Reviewing company or product marketing. From landing pages to email subject lines to conference booth banners, fight the tendency to pitch features and functionality, and make sure that you’re communicating why the customer should care, not just what you do and how you do it.
  2. Giving speeches to your staff. This is especially the case during any times of significant transition, like rolling out a new strategy or announcing an acquisition (or breaking the news about a bad quarter). Make sure you lead with why you come to work every day, and why the team should join you on the next stage of the journey.

Near the end of the book, Sinek gives a useful example tying together the value of clarifying “Why” both internally and externally (albeit one whose phrasing I found a bit difficult to follow):

And what if the next time someone asks, “Well why should I do business with you then?” we answer with confidence, “Because the work we’re doing now is better than the work we were doing six months ago. And the work we’ll be doing six months from now will be better than the work we’re doing today. Because we wake up every day with a sense of WHY we come to work. We come to work to inspire people to do the things that inspire them. Are we better than our competition? If you believe what we believe and you believe that the things we do can help you, then we’re better. If you don’t believe what we believe and you don’t believe the things we can do will help you, then we’re not better. Our goal is to find customers who believe what we believe and work together so that we can all succeed. We’re looking for people to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us in pursuit of the same goal. We’re not interested in sitting across a table from each other in pursuit of a sweeter deal. And here are the things we’re doing to advance our cause . . .” And then the details of HOW and WHAT you do follow. But this time, it started with WHY.

Start with Why is available from Kobo.

Book cover image for Start with Why