Note: This is part of a series of Walton Insights reviews of classic books on business and leadership.
Simon Sinek’s Start With Why debuted in 2009 and made my list of classic business books worth revisiting because it took a simple, intuitive premise and sold it in a way that captured the hearts and minds of thousands of American business leaders.
Ironically, Sinek has done such a good job of promoting his message that there’s arguably not much need to buy or read the book! His main points are fairly well-known. And readers encountering it 15 years later may quickly get tired of the Apple examples and regularly find themselves thinking, Got it. Tell me something new.
But let’s say you are a college student or there’s some other reason that you’ve never heard of Sinek and have no idea what he means by Start With Why and you’d rather read the book than join the 60-plus million viewers who have watched his 2009 TED talk.
The core of Sinek’s message is found in Chapter 3, “The Golden Circle,” in which he makes his case that all great leaders and all great companies inspire long-term loyalty by starting with why, then working their way to the how and the what.
Most leaders and companies, he says, do just the opposite. They focus on (and tell you) what they do. Then they focus on (and tell you) how they do it. Eventually, they might give some thought to (and tell you) why they do what they do.
The why, Sinek argues, should always come first.
“When I say WHY, I don’t mean to make money—that’s a result,” Sinek writes. “By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?”
Sinek isn’t the first to suggest that people are driven by purpose. The message has resonated through the ages because it’s true. Human beings intuitively know that life and work are more satisfying when they somehow connect to a higher, deeper reason for existing. And focusing on what you do and how you do it without having or remembering your purpose often leads to bad decisions.
Starting with why has always been and will always be good advice.
Not everything about Sinek’s book stands up so well over time.
Perhaps my biggest push back against Start With Why is that much of the book is about sales and marketing products. This is an important part of business, of course, and it’s great to start with your customer’s why – why do they want or need what you are offering.
But Sinek suggests that a company’s why should become central to the marketing and sales strategy. With Apple in particular he points out that a heavily marketed why is the key to the company’s strong sales, profits, and customer loyalty. In fact, he directly says (multiple times), “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.”
In other words, consumers buy Apple’s products because they believe in Apple’s why. If you want them to buy your products, you had better come up with a great why and make it part of your sales pitch.
Consumers do care about a company’s why, but should a company’s purpose become just another advertising tactic? That’s the very type of manipulative approach Sinek says never creates anything more than a transactional relationship, not long-term loyalty. The why becomes a tool, not a purpose that transcends.
And, frankly, the idea that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it” does not always ring true.
Think of the last 20 items you’ve bought. In how many cases were you buying primarily because of the company’s why? A few, perhaps. Maybe you are a raving fan of Patagonia or Apple. But I suspect most of your purchases do not factor in the company’s why.
Do you pick Coke over Pepsi or Pepsi over Coke, for instance, because one has a better why than the other? Or because of the taste?
Want to know why I have a Dell laptop and not a Mac? Because my Dell laptop does everything I need it to do at a fraction of the price of the Mac. Do I agree that Apple is innovative? Yep. Does that make me want to spend hundreds of dollars with Apple that I could be putting toward a trip to Costa Rica? Nope.
The reality is, as shoppers, we typically aren’t one-issue voters. We factor in customer service. We factor in quality. We factor in convenience. We factor in quality. We factor in our resistance to change. We factor all the things that matter to us, and that might include whether the company selling the product inspires us.
Or, for that matter, that repulses us.
Why do I use Lyft rather than Uber? As those companies launched, I was appalled by what I read about some of Uber’s top leaders. Rightly or wrongly, I never got over my bias against those leaders, even though they all have long since been replaced.
Starting with why, however, still matters when it comes to personal leadership and how leaders lead their organizations. Uber’s leadership got off to a bad start, in my opinion, because they chased a bad why. Sinek is right when he argues that starting with why turns leaders into people who lead, inspires others to follow and to innovate, and generates loyalty among employees. That’s enough, even without the side benefit that for some customers it generates loyalty that outlasts promotional and pricing gimmicks.
Yes, start with why. Just don’t end there. Sinek’s golden circle includes two more rings. Don’t neglect those, because the most inspiring why in the world for your company won’t matter to consumers if you make something they don’t really want or need, if you make something they can’t afford to buy, or if your production or customer service processes are flawed.
There’s a balance. But you have to start somewhere, so start with why.