“Start with Why” by Simon Sinek is another book that introduces a concept so powerful it can completely change the way you think and communicate about building products and companies. At least that’s what it did for me when I first saw Simon Sinek’s TED talk in which he explains the concepts behind “Start with Why”.
I saw the video almost a decade ago and the concept immediately resonated with me. I finally got around to reading the book just recently. Although it is a bit older, the concept is still very applicable. Thus, I will summarize the main ideas and explain in what situations outside the obvious I apply it personally.
FIrst, what is at the heart of Sinek’s book?
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The heart of Start with Why
Sinek mentions two ways for a company to sell products, through manipulation and through inspiration. With manipulation he is referring to the carrots and sticks, the incentives used to convince a customer to purchase a product.
Examples of manipulation are pricing, advertisements that appeal to fear or ambition, and using peer pressure to sell products. These are all tactics that work in the short term. However, it is very hard to achieve sustained success relying on those tactics. Companies that have long term success inspire their customers and employees.
In order to truly inspire a company must focus on the Why of its existence. The problem is that most companies do not know this. They do not know why their customers are their customers and why their employees (don´t) stay with them. To elaborate Sinek introduces the concept of the golden circle.
The golden circle
All companies know their What. It is what they are offering, the services and products they are selling. Some companies know their How. It is how they are building and offering their products and services, their values and principles, their culture. Only the rarest of companies are able to actually say Why they are doing what they are doing, what their real motivation is, what their purpose is
In order to be successful, we need to start from the inside and work our way to the outside. We need to Start with Why and only then define the how and what. Unfortunately, many work from the outside in. They start with a product and only sometimes define why they are actually building this.
In fact, many companies lose their why along the way. They become successful by focusing on the why. Over time they start defining themselves through the what, through their products. Their products become commodities that are sold not through inspiration but through manipulation.
Companies focused on the what are often looking at the competition. They hope to learn something to improve their product. Companies focused on the why ignore the competition. After all, they already know why they exist. This is sufficient inspiration to decide what the product should be.
Emotions, not facts lead to purchase decisions
Companies that focus on the what are easily identified through the types of advertisements they create. The ads will be very focused on facts and features. Sinek mentions car companies that tout the mileage of the cars or computer companies that highlight the storage capacity of an mp3 player (the book is a bit older😀) as examples of these types of companies.
However, a purchase decision is a very emotional, almost subconscious act that we try to rationalize afterwards with facts. Thus, highlighting the facts and features of a product is not what is needed to create passionate customers. Instead, companies need to convey emotions and feelings, their Why, in order to deeply resonate with customers.
Sinek frequently mentions Apple as an example of a company focused on the Why. I am not entirely sure if this still holds up in 2022. Nevertheless, looking at Apple´s Here´s to the Crazy Ones commercial from 1997, you can see what Sinek is referring to. Not once is a product mentioned. It is all about emotions and feelings.
Start with Why and shape the How
I think we have now established that the most important thing for a company is to know and communicate the why.
However, Sinek states that the hardest thing for a company is to live the how. How the company is doing business essentially defines the values and principles. It is in essence the culture of the company. Deliberately shaping it is hard (especially in times of remote companies).
People who live the why of a company are often visionaries and inspiring founders. They can successfully build a billion dollar business. They do need help on the way, however. Those visionaries need people who are inspired by the why and who are able to shape the how by implementing the vision. Why people are often not successful without how people at their side. Without them they will end up a starving visionary.
Interestingly, how people can be very successful in many business contexts. However, they will rarely build a billion dollar business.
Situations where I apply the concept
“Start with Why” had a profound impact on my life. It proposes a way of thinking that can be applied in so many circumstances.
The concept obviously applies to creating a business or building a product. I frequently apply it in my daily work as Product Owner (PO) when thinking about the vision for the team and the product. Since “Start with Why” is very focused on business and products, I will not dive deeper here.
Instead, I will focus on other, not so obvious circumstances where this mindset can be applied. I have found the concept introduced in the book to be a great guiding principle in many situations. I am not always able to apply the structure in full. Nevertheless, it always helps to start with why.
Presentations and Meetings
Close to 100% of the presentations I create and hold are according to the structure why → how → what. It’s so simple but so powerful. I use it in the macro and micro of presentations whenever applicable. In the Macro, I tend to structure the overall presentation according to the framework. Frequently, the individual slides I create first explain why I am showing what I am showing, how we will address the problem and then what it is that we are actually doing.
Even when we have mundane meetings to come up with some sort of concept for a business problem, I generally use this approach. First, we clarify why we are even here, then how we want to work, and in the end we come up with what we actually want to do.
My writing is often according to the same structure. Whenever I am unsure how to structure an article I usually start with a basic why → how → what structure. In the process of writing I may adapt the structure depending on the current topic. A good example is my post on writing user stories. I also created three articles on the Product Owner Role according to the schema:
- Why: Why do you need a PO?
- How: What are the skills of a good PO? (Granted, I am being a bit lose with the definition of how here)
- What: What does a PO do?
It’s such a simple schema but such a great help. Whenever I am sitting in front of a blank page, I simply start with why, add the how and what, and go from there.
This is work in progress. 😉 I have some ideas about what my why in life is. I do not know for certain, though. Nevertheless, I believe finding your personal why is a journey that, in itself, is already a rewarding exercise. I have a feeling that the personal why may change over time but I am convinced that finding it – even for a time – is one key to a fulfilled life.
What all of us can do without knowing the why is defining the How. In essence, this is defining the values and principles that guide your actions. It is in accordance with what Stephen Covey advocates for in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a book that I will surely dive into at some point as well. For me, there are four principles that guide my daily working live and a few more that shape my personal life. Those are my how.
Start with why is universally applicable
Above I mention three situations where it benefits me to Start with Why. Many more exist. The concept introduced in the book is so powerful. Once you start thinking about it, you will see it in many situations. And – to state the obvious – in case you are building a company or are responsible for a product, you will be able to inspire others only if you are clear about the Why.
As great as the concept is, I honestly didn’t enjoy the book itself that much. It felt a bit repetitive at times and outdated (I had an older version, though). Luckily, Simon Sinek held the excellent TED talk introducing the golden circle and the concept of starting with Why. I recommend this without hesitation. If you take nothing else from this edition of The Backlog but watched this video for the first time, it was already worth it.