Start With Why (2011) tackles a fundamental question: What makes some organizations and people more innovative, influential, and profitable than others? Based on best-selling author Simon Sinek’s hugely influential lecture of the same name, the third most-watched TED talk of all time, this book unpacks the answer to that conundrum. As Sinek’s examples from the business world, politics, and technology show, it’s all about asking “Why?” rather than “What?”
About the author
Simon Sinek is a self-professed optimist determined to create a better and brighter future for humanity. An influential speaker and coach, Sinek has helped organizations around the world, like Microsoft, American Express, the United Nations, and the Pentagon, inspire their employees. He is also the author of Leaders Eat Last and Together is Better.
Success is the result of long-term planning, not of quick fixes:
There’s a well-known story about a group of American automakers visiting Japan to assess the country’s factories. The manufacturing lines they witnessed were nearly identical to those in their facilities, with one noteworthy exception. A line worker in the United States used a rubber mallet to tap the edges of automobile doors to verify they fit properly. This employment didn’t appear to exist in Japan.
When the American executives inquired about the plants’ ability to function without this position, their Japanese advisor shrugged and said, “We make sure it fits when we construct it.”
Unlike its American rivals, Japanese automakers didn’t start with a problem and try to find out a workaround; instead, they designed the end they desired from the start.
There are a handful of obvious advantages to this. To begin with, a well-designed door is more likely to survive longer and be structurally sound in the event of an accident. Second, if the door is properly designed, you won’t need to buy mallets or engage workers to use them. This saves a lot of money, time, and hassle by eliminating a lot of waste.
However, in many organizations, this is not the case. What the American carmakers were doing with their mallets is a metaphor for how many businesses are run worldwide. When confronted with an outcome that falls short of their expectations, executives frequently resort to perfectly efficient short-term fixes to achieve their objectives.
This may keep things moving, but it isn’t the best strategy. The most successful businesses don’t use mallets; instead, they follow a plan to create products and businesses. To put it another way, they make things fit by design rather than by default.
Every directive given by a leader, every course of action taken, and every goal set begins with the same thing: a decision. Some people start by hammering doors into place, while others start from a completely different place.
The second path will be explored in these paragraphs. This, as we’ll see, is what ensures long-term success. It all starts with a straightforward but powerful question: Why?
Manipulation of consumers provides short-term gains but jeopardizes a company’s long-term existence:
Between 1990 and 2007, General Motors’ (GM) market share in the United States fell from 35 percent to 24 percent. Faced with competition from Asian firms such as Toyota, GM attempted to improve sales by offering cash-back incentives to customers. It started selling more cars, but there was a catch: by 2008, it was losing $729 on every car sold. This wasn’t going to last, and that’s the main point here.
Manipulation can take many forms. In general, it’s anything that encourages people to buy something — think of clearance sales, two-for-one deals, advertising hype, or boasts like “Four out of five dentists prefer Trident.” It’s a popular tactic, and it’s very effective in the short run.
Unfortunately, it rarely pays off in the long run for companies like GM. Take, for example, one of the most popular types of deception: the “price game.” People will buy your stuff if your pricing is low enough. For sellers, this is like catnip. There is a great short-term reward, but it quickly becomes a difficult habit to break. Customers will be less willing to spend more if your pricing is lower. As a result, profit margins are shrinking, which can only be compensated by more sales, requiring even lower prices.
Even companies that keep their profits while lowering their prices suffer. Walmart, for example, has a high-profit margin. Its reputation, on the other hand, is in shambles. Cutting expenses elsewhere is the only way to make money while offering consumers regular deals. Walmart is now well-known in the United States for its poor treatment of underpaid and overworked staff.
Worse, while manipulation may be able to boost individual sales, it does not foster loyalty. When you consider how rewards operate, you can see why. When you lose your kitten and offer a prize to whoever finds it, you’re not seeking to form a relationship with the finder; you want your kitty back.
That is not a sustainable business model. Customers abandoned GM after it abandoned its financially catastrophic habit of offering cash-back agreements instead of cheaper Asian autos. A transactional compensation was the only thing that had tilted the scales in GM’s favor. There was nothing to fall back on after that was removed.
So, what’s the other option? Let’s see what we can find out!
Apple does more than merely sell stuff. They reaffirm their clients’ ideals and views:
Apple is just another computer firm when you come right down to it. Like Dell, HP, and Toshiba, Apple has some systems that operate and others that don’t. All four companies have equal access to resources, talent, and media platforms to market their commodities. In terms of logic, it makes little difference which company’s product you choose – they’re all fairly good.
But that isn’t the case. In reality, people pay more for Apple products and wait in long lines for the next iPhone. What is the reason for this?
Here’s an example of how Apple is different. It isn’t associated with a single product category, unlike its competitors. This is a unique situation. Customers are typically expected to purchase PCs from one manufacturer, cell phones from another, and MP3 players from a third. In all three market segments, Apple has been a big success.
This is for a good reason: the why is more important than the what. Let’s dissect that.
The majority of businesses have a simple pitch. They explain what they do, why they’re better than the competition and conclude with a call to action. If Apple were like most other businesses, its pitch would be straightforward: “We create fantastic computers that are beautifully designed and easy to use — want to purchase one?”
Apple, on the other hand, denies this. Here’s the real message — the one that’s made it one of the most successful businesses in history:
“We challenge the status quo in all we do.” We believe in thinking outside the box, and we demonstrate this by creating stunning, user-friendly goods. Oh, and we also build fantastic computers. “Do you want to buy one?”
Have you noticed the difference? There are no gimmicks or freebies here. In reality, there isn’t much of a focus on products. Apple isn’t telling us what they create; it’s telling us why they do what they do.
This is a wonderful example of why you should start with why. Apple isn’t advocating that we buy a Mac or an iPhone because they’re better and less expensive than competing gadgets or because celebrities have endorsed them. It’s telling us that Apple is the appropriate firm for us if we believe in innovation and thinking outside the box. To put it another way, it “gets us” — it recognizes us as individuals with opinions and values, not just as customers.
So, what makes a message like this so persuasive? To find a solution, we must look at human biology.
Our reasoning brain has no control over our choices:
Here’s a tough one: Why do you adore your partner? “Well, I don’t know – she’s amusing and brilliant,” we’ll comment frequently. However, there are millions, if not billions, of amusing and intelligent people with whom we do not wish to share our lives. “He completes me,” we could remark. But how do you go about finding someone who does that?
These aren’t the genuine reasons we fall in love; they’re just efforts to convey something nearly impossible to put into words. That’s because there’s a reason for it.
A cross-section of the human brain reveals three distinct sections. The neocortex, the most recently evolved component, is on the exterior. This is where rational cognition and language come from. The limbic brain is made up of two regions in the middle. They are in charge of emotions such as loyalty and trust, as well as decision-making. Importantly, these older parts cannot communicate. That’s why it’s so difficult to put into words why you love someone.
It also explains why businesses are unable to connect with their clients. Assume you’re trying to sell a television. You describe its cost, specifications, and features. All of this information is a fantastic method to engage the neocortex, but here’s the catch: People can process large amounts of complex data, yet information does not drive conduct.
You must gain access to the limbic brain if you wish to change your behavior. Take the laundry detergent industry as an example.
For years, adverts claiming that their detergents made people’s whites whiter and their brights brighter aired on American television. On the surface, this seemed like a good deal – after all, that’s what market research had revealed people wanted from their detergent. Researchers spent all of their time explaining how their product functioned because they had asked consumers what they wanted. Others said their unique color enhancers were the miraculous component, while others claimed protein was the miracle element.
But that isn’t the reason we wash our clothes. We presume that all detergents clean our clothes since that’s what they’re designed to do. As anthropological research later discovered, when we take our clothes out of the dryer, we don’t hold them up to the light to see how white or dazzling they are. We get a whiff of them. It’s more important to feel cleaner than it is to be clean.
The detergent business as a whole was operating under a mistaken assumption. That goes to illustrate how important it is to start with why!
When a small group of true believers champions an idea, it spreads quickly:
Can you picture investing $40,000 on a new sort of television that has the potential to be the next big thing but could also be a flop? No? You’re not the only one who feels this way. Only a small percentage of the population is open to new products and ideas. Yet, this population segment is critical to the success of businesses and organizations seeking to reach a broad audience.
The law of diffusion is a concept developed by communications theorist Everett M. Rogers in a 1962 book. According to his thesis, any population may be divided into five parts, each responding to innovation differently.
The first to embrace novelty are innovators, who make up 2.5 percent of the population. Early adopters make up the remaining 13.5 percent. Then there’s the early majority, which is more risk-averse, and the late majority, which is more risk-averse. They make up 68 percent of the total population. The remaining 16% are laggards, which only acquire touch-tone phones because rotary phones are no longer available.
Innovators and early adopters are willing to pay a higher price or endure inconveniences to possess a product or support a concept that feels right. This has little to do with the product’s or idea’s genuine merits and everything to do with their self-perception. Most people, on the other hand, do not make such obvious selections. They don’t want a phone or television that reflects their views; they want something that works and isn’t too expensive.
The irony of mass-market success, as Rogers pointed out, is that it’s difficult to attain when trying to persuade the practical majority. What is the reason for this? Simple: most people will not attempt something unless it has been recommended to them by someone else. If you want to reach the middle of society, you’ll need a small group of dedicated supporters to spread the news – and they’ll only do so if they believe in your cause.
This isn’t just true in the business world. In August 1963, 250,000 people flocked to Washington, DC to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in the blazing sun. There had been no invitations sent out, and there was no website to verify, but word had spread. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t the only individual who had suffered in pre-civil rights America, nor was he the only outstanding orator in the country. Still, he never stopped speaking out for what he believed in. A tiny group of people had taken up his message and made it their own. It had finally made it to mainstream America by 1963.
When a company loses sight of its “why,” it is doomed:
Consider a little American retail establishment from the 1950s. The company’s founder grew up through the Great Depression and values honesty and hard work. He loves to say that if you look after other people, they will look after you. The company grows each time, yet it never loses sight of its basic principles. Sure, the company’s pricing is low, but that isn’t what makes it so popular. Its overall attitude of giving back to employees, customers, and the community is what people adore.
You’ve probably heard of this company before, although perhaps not in this context. Walmart is the place to be. So, where did things go wrong?
The fundamental values of Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton, did not survive. The retail behemoth lost its path after his death in 1992. It recast its aim as selling more and more at the lowest feasible price, abandoning its previous commitment to the communities in which it operated.
This shift in strategy had nothing to do with the foreign competition; in fact, Walmart was in better shape than it had ever been. One of its main competitors, Kmart, declared bankruptcy in 2002, and Walton’s stores were selling roughly six times as much as Target. Walmart’s annual sales were estimated to be around $400 billion.
This should have been Walmart’s golden age, but it didn’t seem that way within the company. This is a very common issue. Walmart’s leadership, like that of other huge organizations, has lost its sense of purpose.
It was facing 73 new class-action lawsuits for violating its employees’ rights by 2008, and it had previously settled earlier charges for millions of dollars. Towns and localities that would have welcomed the opening of new Walmart stores in the past are now fighting tooth and claw to keep the firm out. Neither labor groups nor politicians have anything positive to say about the retailer.
Walmart’s obsession with increasing turnover stems from a problem that many American firms problems: they don’t feel successful even when they’re doing well financially.
The author witnessed something astonishing while attending the Gathering of the Titans, an annual summit of America’s 50 top business titans in Boston. When asked if their companies had fulfilled their financial goals for the year, about 80% of those in attendance raised their hands. When asked if they felt successful, however, 80 percent of the participants put their hands down.
This is one of the drawbacks of having accomplished so much. Companies get increasingly confident in what they’re doing as success follows success, and they forget why they’re doing it.
Teams who focus on “what” is more likely to fail, whereas those that start with “why” are more likely to succeed:
Samuel Pierpont Langley had everything planned out: he’d be the first man to fly. He had acquaintances in high places, including Andrew Carnegie and Alexander Graham Bell, as a well-connected senior officer at the Smithsonian Institute. His connections had enabled him to secure a $50,000 research grant from the US War Department and bring together some of the country’s sharpest minds. The New York Times had reporters following him everywhere, and the public was pulling for him. Success was almost a certain conclusion.
Despite his efforts and hard work, he was unable to get his contraption off the ground. This is why.
A tiny group of onlookers observed a man – not Langley – achieve flight for the first time in human history on December 17, 1903. Wilbur and Orville Wright, along with their team, had created the “flying machine” he used. The project had been funded by revenues from the Wrights’ bicycle shop, and no one engaged had a college degree. What did they do to accomplish what Langley couldn’t?
They began by asking why. “Wilbur and Orville were serious scientists,” writes James Tobin in his biography of the Wrights, “who cared deeply and truly about the problem they were trying to solve — the challenge of flight and balance.” They also realized that if they were successful, it would transform the globe forever.
Langley, on the other hand, was preoccupied with the what. He was only interested in the acclaim and prestige of significant scientific achievement, not its application. He didn’t try to improve on the Wrights’ flying contraption when they beat him to it; instead, he gave up.
Orville and Wilbur had a third arrow in their quiver: a committed team. They motivated others to join them by practicing what they preached. Every day, this motley gang of dreamers and tinkerers returned to the field behind the Wrights’ store with five sets of parts. They shuffled in and ate dinner after five failures. They began the next day again.
Both Langley and the Wright brothers were highly driven, hardworking, and scientifically astute. On the other hand, Langley had paid for talent to help him build a name for himself. The Wrights’ determination to change the course of history enthralled and inspired many around them.
And that is the point of this lecture. People will work for your money if you hire them for what they can do for you. Hire people that believe in your cause, and they’ll give you their blood, sweat, and tears in exchange.