Simon Sinek is a British-born American author, motivational speaker, and author of five books. Start with Why (2009) and The Infinite Game (2019) are two of his more renowned books. Start with Why is without question one of my all-time favorite books on my reading list. Sinek believes our ultimate purpose, whether personally or professionally, is the key to success. The why, followed by the how, and then the what are the three essential steps to achieving personal satisfaction. Sinek also proposes that these three steps are at the core of any great leader and growing a successful business.
I’d strongly recommend that you read the full text if you have the time. However, many of us are strapped for time, so here are 9 key takeaways from Start with Why.
The Golden Circle of Why, How and What
One of the central themes that Sinek touches on throughout the text revolves around his Golden Circle concept. Many businesses have a strong of what, but struggle to establish their why. He provides many examples of companies who have strayed from the path because they’ve lost their sense of why. Two of these companies include Walmart and Dell.
Don’t base decisions on false assumptions when you start with why
Simon Sinek also points out how oftentimes we fail to take the time to analyze why something happens. Sometimes, we analyze why, but end up with completely wrong ideas. Other times, we assume that the way we’ve done things is the only way to do it right. Either way, we fail to recognize that there may be an even better way that we have yet to consider.
Sinek uses an example involving Japanese and American auto manufacturers. Near the end of the American production line, the doors didn’t fit properly. The employees in this situation simply hammered the doors into shape. Their Japanese counterparts went about the process in a totally different manner. The Japanese auto manufacturers took precise measurements before the doors were even produced. This in turn allowed them to know that their doors would fit before they ever hit the production floor.
The message here is that sometimes you might be looking for answers to the wrong questions. The Americans should have asked not ‘how can we improve the process?’ but rather, ‘why don’t our doors fit to start with?’
Is your marketing inspirational or manipulative?
Knowing why your customers are your customers is one of the most important things you could know.
If your marketing techniques are manipulative then you are not focused on building healthy, long-term relationships. This leads to customers who are not loyal to your brand. This is totally okay. However, you can’t trick yourself into thinking it’s the best way to do things because it works in the short-term. If people only do business with you based on your low price-point, they’ll leave you the moment an alternative arrives. They’ll also leave you once they find a brand that they identify with better than yours.
Start with why because people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it
Apple is Simon Sinek’s prime example of why to start with why. By pitching products by saying: “We believe in challenging the status quo and thinking differently, so we design our products to be beautiful and simple to use. Want to buy a computer from us?” the overriding impression with which Apple leaves their audience is inspirational, appealing to people who also feel they challenge the status quo.
Thus, Apple has established itself as a lifestyle brand. People who buy Apple products are not just buying a piece of technology, they buying a symbol of the kind of person they are – someone who challenges the status quo. Inspirational marketing and a clear sense of why is what establishes brand loyalty.
Sinek also connects his Golden Circle concept to the layers of the brain. The limbic brain sits in the center and is responsible for feelings and loyalty. However, it is not tasked with managing language, which is dealt with by the neocortex. Sinek states that the ‘why’ is what stimulates the limbic brain and triggers the feeling of symbiosis. People simply cannot explain this relationship in most cases. It’s an emotional bond and gut feeling that persuades people to purchase a MacBook even if its features are inferior to a Microsoft computer.
Your decisions should be consistent with your Why
Sinek does acknowledge that short term inconsistent business decisions are simply unavoidable. However, he argues that most companies must make decisions that support their why if they are truly making an effort to start with why.
Sinek uses Southwest Airlines – an everyman’s airline for short-haul flights – as an example. The larger airlines who tried to mimic this model ultimately failed. “Low-cost flights for the everyman” was Southwest’s ‘why’. The larger airlines on the other hand didn’t have the same why so their offering was at odds with their brand. People flew Southwest not just because it was cheap, but because of what it stood for at its roots.
Another great example that Sinek touches on is Sam Walton – the founder of Walmart. Walton made Walmart great by building a business that supported local communities. He avoided using executive jets for years and worked on Saturdays because his employees did. For years he wanted his actions to be consistent with his company’s why.
Often over time, whether it’s because there is a leadership change or the company just gets carried away the focus shifts towards money and the driver for decision-making shifts. This ultimately leads, as Sinek demonstrates by examples, to complete and utter failure.
The spirit of Start with Why: Building a wall versus building a cathedral
Sinek shares a story of two tradesmen, each charged with laying bricks in order to build a cathedral. It is worth noting that this cathedral would never be complete during their lifetime.
One man states that he hates his job – he simply puts bricks in line every day, every week. The other man is flat out inspired. He does exactly the same job but loves it because he knows he is building a cathedral. While the two men are doing the exact same job, one aligns with the mission and has a sense of purpose – the other does not.
Sinek’s message here is that, as a leader, you should hire motivated people and inspire them. Paying people more simply isn’t enough, just how manipulative marketing fails to develop loyal customers. What you should do instead is pul together a team of like-minded individuals and give them a why.
Tipping points: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards
Another core facet of “Start with Why” is the curve most businesses follow in their quest to gain customers. Early adopters and innovators are alike – they’ll accept a certain amount of risk and performance issues in order to use the newest products and services in the market. These are the people you need on your side and believing in your why – they can quickly evolve into brand champions.
Innovators and early adopters will recommend your product or service to their network. However, it’s only when enough innovators and early adopters join the party will you reach the tipping point you need to take your product mainstream. You need to penetrate roughly 15-18% of your target market before you can claim to be successful. This is so because most people need someone else to have tried it before they will do so themselves – this is the tipping point. Sinek also notes that the further right you progress along the curve the more likely your customers are to simply care about the what, not the why.
Even if you have a phenomenal product, you’ll struggle to reach the mass market unless you have a rock-solid why that appeals to innovators and early adopters. This is because most people refuse to try some new, untested product, no matter how amazing it truly is. Your message needs to be both loud & clear. If you reach thousands of people but fail to tell them why they need your product, the message is less likely to resonate and really ‘speak’ to them.
You need a dream, but also need a plan
While the why is powerful, Sinek points out the importance of having a how and highlights that the people to embody these aspects of a business are not one and the same. The founder and visionary (the why person) typically partners with a how person who knows how to take the vision and make it into reality. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple are a great example of this tandem in action.
Being successful versus feeling successful
“Achievement is something you reach or attain, like a goal. It is something tangible, clearly defined and measurable. Success, in contrast, is a feeling or state of being.” – Simon Sinek
This final point is truly a powerful takeaway. Achievement is what you do, but success is why.
I am hopeful that you’ve taken something useful away from this review and perhaps you can apply it to your own life, career, or business.