Start With Why – A Summary Of Simon Sinek’s Book


The Golden Circle - Simon Sinek

If you haven’t seen Simon Sinek’s Start With Why video on YouTube – or you haven’t read the book, you are in for a treat.

When I first came across it, I didn’t really ‘get’ it, but I certainly did a little later when I re-discovered it. It’s a gem of an idea, so I decided to summarise it below.

These are ‘cliffnotes’ so bear with me and hopefully all will become clear. Watch the video first.

Why > How > What

  1. What. Every business knows what it does. And most businesses start with what. The ‘what’ is their USP if they are the only ones doing it.
  2. How. (Features) Some businesses know how they do what they do. The ‘how’ is their USP if the ‘What’ is not unique.
  3. Somewhere between the How and the Why are the Outcomes also known as Benefits. This could also be thought of as the ‘front of mind’ why.
  4. Why. Very few businesses know why they do what they do. This is their USP if how and what they do is also done by others. This is your cause, your purpose, your belief. Why you get out of bed every day.

Businesses start with what because it is the clearest thing in their minds. The why can be so fuzzy, they don’t really get it. Instead they might say they do it to make a profit. But profit is an outcome, not a why.

You can make a profit (money) in numerous ways. It doesn’t have to be in the same industry. It doesn’t even have to be a business. Making money is not a why. Being able to afford a nice house is not a why. It’s another outcome.

Apple Example if they lead with What and How instead of Why:

  1. What. We make great computers.
  2. How. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly.
  3. Wanna buy one?

This method is uninspiring. It only appeals to the ready-to-buy market. The people who are already sold. The people who are already educated about the market. The What and the How are simple reminders of what they already know.

Note that Eugene Schwartz in Breakthrough Advertising would point out that it depends on market saturation and demand as to what you lead with.

Start With Why

Apple Real Example (start with why – see their advertising ‘Think Different’)

  1. Why. Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo, we believe in thinking differently.
  2. How. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly.
  3. What. We just happen to make great computers.
  4. Wanna buy one?

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. This is why everyone who buys Apple is perfectly comfortable buying a computer (or an iPod, iPhone, iPad, iWatch) from them.

Apple are just another computer company. There’s nothing that distinguishes them from any other computer company – anyone can develop a version of Unix like they have – anyone could write great user interfaces like they have – anyone could design great looking products like they have. And there are many imitators, but they are missing that one thing. And it’s all wrapped up in the brand and its story. If it’s not ‘Apple’ then it’s not Apple.

Dell came out with an MP3 player, but no one bought one. Why? Why would you buy an MP3 player from a computer company? (Dell is known as a computer company – that is their story. Apple are known for ‘thinking different’ – that is their story).

The goal is NOT to do business with everybody who needs what you have.

The goal is to do business with people who BELIEVE what you believe.

Sinek says “here’s the good part, none of what I say is my opinion, it is all grounded in the tenets of biology, not psychology, biology”.

The Golden Circle (the codifying of Why > How > What)

Start with why - The Golden Circle - Simon Sinek

The brain is made up of a number of segments, of which the Neo-cortex and Limbic correlate with the Golden Circle.

  1. Neo-cortex. This is the ‘What’. It is responsible for all our rational and analytical thought and language.
  2. Limbic brain. This is located on either side of the Thalamus. It is responsible for all our feelings, such as trust and loyalty. It is responsible for all our behaviour and all our decision making. But it has no capacity for language.

When we start from the outside in (What and How) people can understand vast amounts of complicated information such as features and benefits, facts and figures, it just doesn’t drive behaviour.

When we start from the inside out (Why > How > What) we are talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behaviour, and then we allow people to rationalise it with the things we say and do.

When someone tells us only the what and the how, we often think (or say) “I get what you do, but it’s not for me, it just doesn’t feel right, I don’t have the the time” – and every other objection you can think of. Why?

The part of the brain that controls decision making is not the same part that controls language. And that part is the Limbic system. Facts and features (and some benefits) are language and are processed in the Neo cortex. But the Neo cortex does NOT make decisions!

So if you don’t know WHY you do what you do, how can you expect anyone else to (unless they have already made up their mind to buy in the first place and are only looking for reassuring facts and features to support their decision).

But it’s more than that. It’s about loyalty. People want to know why so they can give themselves permission to have the same why (if it makes sense for them because of the obvious EMOTION you display when you’re getting them to understand WHY you are so excited about what you do).

If someone ALREADY believes what you believe (ie. they have the same why), then you’d better make sure they hear it so you don’t get overlooked. Plus, when they do, they will make the decision very rapidly just like the people who have already decided they need what you sell anyway.

This is all about the different parts of the customer journey, from early adopters to the masses to the late adopters (the dinosaurs). It is all about attracting a bigger audience than all your competitors who only ever go after the lowest hanging fruit (the converted masses).

This can be applied to the workforce too. If you hire the people who believe what you do is good instead of the people who simply want the job for money, you will get a considerably more conscientious workforce. They will give you their heart and time as well as their brain and muscle.

Why does something fail – the 3 main quoted reasons people believe

  1. Underfunded
  2. Wrong people
  3. Wrong market conditions

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. If you talk about what you believe, you attract people who believe the same thing.

The Law Of Diffusion Of Innovation

  1. 2.5% are innovators
  2. the next 13.5% are early adopters
  3. the next 34% are early majority
  4. the next 34% are late majority
  5. the final 16% are lagards

The tipping point with a new market happens at around 18% – once the innovators and early adopters have bought and got the message out. So you need to convince this audience first, otherwise you are up against ALL your competitors who already have the market on their side.

If you have 10%, then you can argue that these people simply ‘get’ you. You didn’t have to explain the why because they already picked up the fact that your product was what they wanted. It’s the next 8% that is the hardest part. The gap that takes you ahead of everyone else also struggling to dominate the market. That gap that finds you the new audience who may or may not already know what they believe, but that would discover this if they only found you and got your message. Your why.

The Early Majority won’t try your new thing until they see that someone else (the early adopters) have got it and have said they are happy with it. This is why they wait. The product may be new and they may already be using a competitor’s product or the current market leader. They have no reason to change. You may show them some new features and benefits, but they would have to add extraordinary advantages to get them to drop their loyalty and move towards you.

The early adopters and innovators are happy to make gut decisions. They love new things and don’t need much pushing to adopt them PROVIDED their why is aligned with yours. So you need to find out WHY they do what they do too. What do they believe about the market you are in? Hence ‘start with why’.

These are the people who wait in a queue for the latest Apple product when they could have waited a week and bought one off the shelf. They are the people pay way over the odds to get their hands on a new product first. Who are these people in YOUR market?

And it doesn’t matter if what they are buying is flawed in some way. They are quick to forgive. This is because they are doing this for themselves. They want to be first. They want to own this thing for selfish reasons. It may be to boost their self-esteem. It may be to boost their status. It may be because they are hungry to find out what happens next.

They want to do something that proves they are right. Something that bolsters their belief. Something that makes them feel good.

Example of Failure – TIVO

Tivo were fully funded. They had a great team and a great product. They IPO’d at $40 a share. They marketed their product with a whole bunch of killer features:

  1. Records TV
  2. Rewinds TV
  3. Pauses live TV
  4. Skips commercials
  5. Memorises your favourites without even asking.

Within a short period of time the share price had dropped to $6 and never recovered. The early majority said:

  1. We don’t believe you (no product could be that good)
  2. We don’t need it
  3. We don’t like it
  4. Stop scaring us with your bullshit weird innovation

If they had marketed with ‘why’ first, they may have said: “If you’re the kind of person who wants total control over every aspect of your life, do we have a product for you! It pauses TV, skips commercials, records live TV. etc.”.

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. What you do serves as the PROOF only after you have explained WHY you do it. Explain the WHY and get the decision that they believe what you believe, then add the proof, and finally the offer “wanna buy it?”.

Successful Example – Martin Luther King 1963 I have a dream speech

250,000 people show up to hear Dr King speak. No invitations were sent. He didn’t tell people what, he told them what he believed. And his audience grew. The people showed up because they believed the same thing. They showed up for themselves. They showed up to be counted. They showed up for the same reason that Dr King showed up – to show the world they cared. To be seen by the world for what they believed. To be able to show up with pride. To display their integrity. They knew WHY. They didn’t care about what or how. The why was all that mattered. The what and the how merely the detail.

He gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.

On Leadership

There are leaders, and there are those who lead. Leaders hold positions of power. They are authorities. Those who lead do so not to become leaders, but to follow their dream. Those who follow ‘those who lead’ do so for themselves. not because they are forced to, but because they want to. They understand the why. Leaders lay out plans. Those who lead show why the plans are good.

About the author 

Quentin Pain

Quentin Pain started his first business, a courier company aged 23. He sold it 4 years later and used the profits to start a recording studio. A couple of albums later, he started two software companies, the last one being Accountz, which he grew from zero to 36,000 customers and retired from in January 2013. He is a director of ProofMEDIA, a specialist digital consulting business. He's also a published author (including a Dummies title), and has won many awards including the IAB Small Business Mentor of the Year. Copywriting is his speciality and he runs 3 groups on Facebook under the Science of Copywriting brand, which combined has well over 100,000 members. Quentin is also Founder of the International Copywriters Association and SEO Lead for the UK's largest private hospital group.

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