Start With Why: Notes & Review

start with why book cover

Start With Why (2009) explains how clarity of WHY you do what you do is the driving force for charisma, happiness, leadership, best in class marketing. and personal success.

start with why quote

Bullet Summary

  • Find a WHY -a purpose or belief- for your company and stay consistent to it in all you do 
  • Find a WHY in your life and never forget about it for true happiness and passion
  • People buy WHY (what you stand for), not WHATs (products)

Start With Why – Summary

Simon Sinek says that people and organizations who can inspire us gives us a sense of purpose or belonging that has little to do with external incentives and benefits.

These inspired organizations appeal to us at a deeper level (also read Drive by Daniel Pink for more on internal motivation).

Learning how to inspire with your WHY is a win-win for everyone.
The more people and organization communicate correctly, the more we will be fulfilled.
Starting with why, then, is a way to improve lives.

Chapter 1 – Assume You Know

Sinek starts with the example of car manufacturers.

In America, employees apply the final fixes on the doors with a rubber mallet, while in Japan the doors simply fit perfectly.

He says that’s also a metaphor for leadership: there are those who decide to manipulate to get to the end result, and there are those who start with the end result in mind and let everything else naturally fall into place.

Also read:

Manipulation: Techniques, Strategies, & Ethics

Chapter 2 – Carrots and Sticks

Simon Sinek says there are two ways to companies attract customers:

  1. Inspiring -the carrots-
  2. Manipulating -the sticks-.

Manipulations are not actual “sticks” but sales, promotions, customer programs and similar.

Manipulations do work, says the author.

As a matter of fact, when you need a behavior to happen once only, then manipulations are the best way to go.
But when you want more than a single transaction, when you want a loyal, lasting relationship, then you are better served with inspiration.

WHATs and Price Wars

When you are defined by WHAT you do, your product becomes a commodity.

At that point, price, quality, service, and features are the primary ways to motivate a purchase decision.

It becomes very hard to differentiate and build loyalty, and that’s why most companies resort to what Sinek calls “manipulations”: sales, promotions, influencing tricks, etc.

Chapter 3 – The Golden Circle

But how do you inspire? What does “Start With WHY” even mean?
Simon Sinek explains it with the Golden Circle.

the golden circle of start with why
Photo by Gavin Llewellyn

WHATs, HOWs And WHYs

  • WHAT is what you physically produce or offer as a service.
  • HOW is the culture and systems in which you produce your WHATs
  • WHY is the purpose behind it all, the reason why you get out of bed

Every company knows WHAT they do because everyone can easily describe the products or the function they have within that organization.

HOWs are values and principles guiding how you bring your cause to life. HOW shapes the systems and culture within a company (also read: The Culture Code).

Understanding HOW you do things and holding the whole company and workforce accountable gives companies great strength.
For example, it gives companies greater ability to hire people who will thrive in the organization.

HOWs are most effective when they are verbs. So Sinek says it’s not “integrity”, it’s “do the right thing”; It’s not “innovation”, it’s “look at the problem from a different angle”

WHY, says Simon Sinek, is ironically rather simple to discover -WHY do you do what you do?-
However most companies say WHAT they do, sometimes HOW they do it, but rarely WHY they do what they do.

That’s not the case for inspired companies and inspired leaders though. Simon Sinek says that every single inspired company or leader thinks, acts and communicates from the inside out. They “start from WHY”.

That’s key to build a following and even to sell because, as Sinek stresses many times, people buy WHYs, not WHATs.

Inspired Companies and Leaders

When we start with WHY we go from the inside out of the circle.

WHY is the reason to buy and the WHATs merely represent the tangible products as a proof of that belief.
WHATs are the reasons we can point to rationalize why we so much like a company over another.

Simon Sinek heavily cites Apple all across the book.

He says there is nothing technically special about Apple, it’s just a company like another.
There’s no real difference with its competitors.

But Apple communicates from the WHY.
Apple’s WHY is to challenge the status quo and empower the individual. And their challenging the status quo is a pattern repeating in all they say and do, which is the reason why people perceive Apple as authentic.

Products Represent People

Some marketing professionals will tell you Apple sells a lifestyle.

Well, Simon Sinek disagrees and puts it the other way around: Apple doesn’t sell a lifestyle, Apple is simply one of those brands that people with a certain lifestyle are attracted to.

The products they choose become proof of WHY they do the things they do. And they can use Apple’s products because Apple’s WHY is so clear.

It’s the same for other brands who managed to build a following: Harley Davidson fits into a well-defined group and Prada fits the lifestyle of another group.
It is the cause that these companies represent that inspire loyalty.

The loyalists and cheerleaders for each brand will tell you they choose them based on features and benefits, but in truth, the bond is deeper: it’s about who they are.

Chapter 4 – This is Not Opinion, This is Biology

Simon Sinek says that’s not just his opinion but it’s rooted in biology and the drive to belong.

We want to be around people -and organizations- who are like us and share our beliefs.

When companies start with WHY, with what they believe, they will tap into our innate drive to include those products as symbols of our values and beliefs.
They make us feel special like we belong to something bigger, and we feel a sense of tribe affiliation with all the others buying the same products.

Look at the Apple’s commercial of “I’m a MAC and I’m a PC” and you will get an idea of who a Mac user is:

The Mac type is a young guy, dressed casual, relaxed and with a sense of humor making fun of “the system”.

The PC is in a suit and looks grey and boring.

Neither are better, Simon Sinek says, it’s about where you feel like you belong.
Are you with the majority or are you a contrarian? Apple defines itself as a contrarian.

And the opposite is true: that same drive to belong also make us feel what does not belong.
It’s something deep inside that we can’t verbalize often, but it’s what makes us queasy about buying an mp3 player from Dell: it doesn’t feel right because Dell only belongs to computers.

WHY Talks to Limbic Brain

When organizations and leaders start from why they are talking directly to the part of the brain controlling decisions (“gut decisions”).

People make decisions that just “feel right”, cannot explain why they did it and will rationalize it and verbalize it with something else.

So, says Sinek, they won’t tell you they choose Apple because they see themselves as someone who likes to challenge the status quo and Apple serves him to prove to the world who he is and what he believes in.

That’s what actually happened in the non-rational part of the brain that controls behavior, but people don’t have a rational understanding of that. So they will tell you they chose Apple because of the screen resolution, or because there are no viruses.

And, funny enough, Simon Sinek adds that if people made only rational decisions, and did all the research before making a purchase, no one would ever buy a mac :).

WHATs speak to the rational

When organizations and leaders communicate from their WHATs instead they engage the rational part of our brain.

They force us to take the more stressful and laborious route to decision making.

Rational decisions indeed take longer, and your WHATs will be pitched against a bunch of other WHATs.
It’s in these conditions that manipulative strategies leveraging desires, fantasies or fears work.

Why Companies Focus on WHAT

Companies start with WHATs and HOWs because that’s what their customers ask for.
They ask for great quality, low price, 24h service and lots of features.
And it’s all scientifically sounding because it’s based on data.

But Simon Sinek says that’s all baloney: the part of the brain controlling decision making is different from the part of the brain reporting back WHY that decision happened.

So all those focus groups and questionnaires are actually of little value.

And Sinek says there is more evidence that sales don’t improve and loyalty is not formed when companies do what their customers say they want.

And then Sinek quotes a famous Henry Ford annotation: “if I had asked people what they wanted they would have said a faster horse”.

If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said a faster horse

Manipulation VS Inspiration

Just to be clear, Simon Sinek says that manipulations also reach the limbic brain when they deploy fear, social pressure or aspirational messages.

However, it’s only when the message goes deeper that it aligns with our sense of self and our behavior moves from motivated to inspired.
And it’s only then that it “feels right” and we are willing to pay a premium.

Chapter 5: Clarity, Discipline &Consistency

Simon Sinek says that a WHY is just a belief, it’s not readily touchable and visible. The clarity of your WHY is then more clearly shown through your HOWs and, even more visibly, through your WHATs.

HOWs are the actions you take to realize that belief. And WHATs are the results of those actions –everything you say and do: your products, services…-.

And they all have to prove what you believe. When everything proves your WHY, that’s authenticity. You are authentic when your Golden Circle is in balance.

Chapter 6: The Emergency of Trust

Trust, says Simon Sinek, begins to emerge when we see that people and organizations are driven by reasons that go beyond the self-serving.

Aligning WHY, HOWS and WHATs is a way to build that trust.

WHATs and Differentiation

Simon Sinek says that only companies acting like commodity producers have the constant challenge of differentiating.

And, looking at competitors to add features and benefits, only entrenches the WHAT culture.

In stark contrast companies with a clear sense of WHY tend to ignore their competitors and don’t worry about “differentiating”. They simply ARE different and don’t need to convince anyone about it: everyone knows it.

My Note:
This part reminded of Tim Grover when he says that unstoppable individuals let the competition study them, not the other way around.

WHY and Flexibility

Since people are inspired and buy WHY you do it, companies that communicate from the WHY have huge flexibility in what they market: a company communicating from the WHY indeed never gets labeled by the WHATs.

Take Apple again, you can buy a computer from Apple of course, but also an mp3 player or a cellphone.

It’s not the case for Dell.
Dell defined itself by WHAT they do.

They do computers, so people don’t feel comfortable buying anything else from them, like an mp3 player or a PDA.
They tried expanding into different verticals, but quickly retreated to “focus on their core business”.

Simon Sinek also calls into question the first mover advantage when WHY is part of the picture.

Creative was more qualified than Apple to produce a digital music product, and they went there first. They marketed it though as a “5GB mp3 player”, like a WHAT. Apple marketed the iPod instead as “1.000 songs in your pocket”: WHY we needed.

WHY & Hiring

Simon Sinek also expands on the benefit of starting with WHY in the hiring process.

He says that most companies write their job description all about WHAT and not WHY. When you start with WHY instead you exponentially increase your ability to attract people who are passionate for what you stand for.

Sinek mentions Shackleton and his search for crewmen in a dangerous expedition.
His job description ran:

men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

You can rest assured that people applying for such a JD would be ready for anything.

Sinek also says that great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them, they are motivated people and inspire them.

Steve Jobs didn’t come up with any revolutionary idea, but Apple has a strong WHY to attract passionate people.
And Apple gives them a purpose around which to develop great ideas. Simon Sinek says Apple employees, similarly to Apple customers, all love a good revolution.

Great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them, they are motivated people and inspire them.

Chapter 7: How a Tipping Point Tips

Simon Sinek also speaks about the ways new ideas and products spread.

The question, he says, isn’t much how do you get influencers to talk about you, but how do you get enough influencers to reach the tipping point.

Sinek then introduces the diffusion curve.
The people waiting for 6h to get the iPhone were all early adopters, on the left of the curve.

The people on the far right instead are never content and never loyal. Sinek says you should know who the people on the far right are so you don’t waste money trying to convert them.
After all, these guys will do business with you anyway if you meet their requirements (and will switch at the drop of a hat when you won’t).

The goal of a business then is to be crystal clear about their WHY and find people who believe what you believe.
Once you get enough of the 15-18% on the left side of the bell curve, they will encourage the rest to follow.

My Note: I invite you to check out The Tipping Point

Chapter 8: Start with Why but Know How

Simon Sinek says that energy motivates and can put people in a frenzy. But it’s charisma which inspires, and people with a clear WHY are charismatic people.

His example is Bill Gates as compared to Steve Ballmer.
Sinek says energy is easy to recognize, measure, and even copy. Steve Ballmer was energetic.

Charisma instead is difficult to define, measure and copy.
Bill Gates, in spite of being shy and awkward, is charismatic. Charisma commands loyalty while energy doesn’t.

When Steve Ballmer speaks people are energized and maybe excited, but that states tend to dissipate quickly.
When Bill Gates speaks people listen with bated breath and inspires people. They will remember those lessons for weeks, months or years.

For different types of charisma read:

Energy motivates but charisma inspires

WHY and HOW Types

Simon Sinek says that behind most WHY-type leader there’s a HOW-type who builds the infrastructure which brings the WHY to life.

WHY types are the visionaries with overactive imaginations.
They tend to be optimists who believe that everything they can imagine can be accomplished and they tend to be focused on things most people can’t see, like the future.

HOW types are more practical and more realist and tend to be focused on the things most people can see -and tend to be better at building them-.

Interestingly Simon Sinek says that HOW types can be very successful and make millions but rarely they build billion dollar businesses that change the world.
And while HOW types don’t need WHY types to do well, WHY types do need HOW types or they’ll end up starving visionaries.
And while most successful entrepreneurs fancy themselves as visionaries they’re HOW types.

Billion dollar companies are usually born when a good WHY type meets a good HOW type (example of Walt Disney and Roy).

Vision and Mission Statement

The difference between WHY and HOW types also introduces the difference between the vision and mission statement in an organization.

The vision is the founder’s intent, WHY the company was founded.
The mission is a description of HOW  the company will create that future.

When both are clear, it will help the WHY and HOW type to have a clear role in the partnership.

Chapter 9: Know WHY, Know HOW, Then WHAT?

Simon Sinek says that in the early stages of a company it’s easier to keep the Golden Circle working well because the founders make most of the decisions and have the most contact with the outside world.

To keep a healthy Golden Circle as the company grows the leader at the top should represent the emotional limbic brain while WHAT the company says and does represent the rational thought and language of the neocortex. And both have to keep in line at any stage.

Logo, Stories, Symbols & WHY

Simon Sinek then dwells on a very important topic: since the WHY sits deeply in the limbic brain, it can be difficult to clearly articulate it.

Just imagine you had to explain love to someone. It’s impossible because the part of the brain controlling feelings is different than the one controlling language.

This why, Simon Sinek says, we use stories and symbols to create a more tangible expression of our WHY. The more clear they can be, the better the communication to the outside world.

Chapter 10: Communication is About Listening

Sinek says that symbols mean nothing until we give them a meaning.
And it will still have little meaning if it only identifies a company.

But it’s when a company’s WHY is clear that a logo will start having a life of its own.

A logo can then become a symbol when it will inspire people to use it to say something about who they are.

Simon Sinek says that high fashion label are logos to show status, albeit many are generic in what they symbolize.

Harley Davidson is a more profound example of a significant logo: Harley Davidson embodies the values and lifestyle of the people wearing it.

The Celery Test

What’s good for your competitors is not necessarily good for you. What matters is that your WHATs and HOWs are in line with your WHY.

But how do you know that?
Simon Sinek proposes what he calls the “Celery Test”.

Imagine if people told you that to grow you need cookies, Nutella, celery, fruits, and ice cream.
Should you get them all?
No, because it’s time-consuming, expensive and scatterbrained.

What you do is to filter everything through your WHY.
So if your WHY is to live a healthy life you only pick the fruits and the celery.

When you filter your decisions through your WHY you save money, time and, most importantly, you stay true to your cause for everyone else to see.

And Simon Sinek adds: sure, you might get some Nutella every once in a while, but you know it’s a short term fix and not part of your WHY.

Chapter 11: When WHY Goes Fuzzy

Simon Sinek here talks about examples of a company who lost their WHY, either in a mishap -Volkswagen- or more seriously in their core values -Walmart-.

Volkswagen for example literally means “car of the people” and its image has always been that of reliable cars for everyone, for the average citizens.

And the most famous Volkswagen model was a hippy symbol of freedom and simple life. So when they introduced a super expensive model, that flew against their own WHY and sold nothing.

Walmart Losing Its WHY

Walmart is a more serious case. It started with the idea of helping people and communities and providing products at low prices.

However, after the death of its founders, the company focused only on low prices, forgetting about helping people and the communities they entered. So it became a cutthroat business towards its suppliers, employees and the communities it joined.

Walmart got into serious troubles when it lost its initial WHY.

Achievement (WHAT) VS Success (WHY)

Simon Sinek says that achievement comes when you pursue and attain WHAT you want but success only comes when you are clear in pursuit of WHY you want it.

Simon Sinek wording is just too beautiful that I will quote him verbatim here:

Success comes when we wake up every day in that never-ending pursuit of WHY we do WHAT we do.

Which brings me again to Viktor Frankl when he says that success, like happiness, cannot be pursued, it can only ensue. Ensuing from a cause bigger than yourself (your WHY).

Simon Sinek says that of those successful, rich entrepreneurs, few are actually happy. The ones who are, tend to never have lost sight of their WHY.
Simon Sinek also says that gaining a clarity of WHY is not the hardest part. The hardest part is the discipline to trust one’s gut over outside advice (Steve Job’s example), and to stay true to your cause or belief.

Success comes when we wake up every day in that never-ending pursuit of WHY we do WHAT we do.

Chapter 12: Split Happens

Simon Sinek says that a company always starts fueled by passion. But for passion to thrive and survive, it also needs structures and HOWs. Most companies fail, says the author, because both HOWs and WHYs need each other.

Chapter 13: The Origin of a WHY

You have probably read that before starting any business endeavor you should do market research, know your customer and find your niche.

No, says Simon Sinek.
The WHY starts within you.

And once you find and know your WHY, the hardest part is to remain authentic to it.

My Note: if you need help in finding your why, I highly recommend taking a look here at Grit by Angela Duckworth.

WHY starts within you, not with market research

Chapter 14: The New Competition

Simon Sinek says that when you compete with others, nobody wants to help you, but when you compete with yourself, people take a liking on you. But what everyone does? We’re all engaged racing against our competitors.
People with a strong WHY instead aren’t interested in competition, they’re in a race with themselves.

start with why book coverReal Life Applications

Find a WHY..
For yourself and for your company.

..Stick to it..
And stick to it, even when other options seem to give you more benefits or revenues. It will pay you in the long run and you’ll be more confident, more genuine and, chances are, happier.

.. And Start with WHY
Always keep in mind all your communication, actions and decision will Start with WHY and will be filtered by your WHY. Then you will become a genuine man and lead a genuine company.

CONS

  • Repetitive

The concepts in Start with WHY are awe-inspiring and groundbreaking, yet they’re also rather simple and the book could have done with fewer repetitions.

  • Dogmatic

I find Simon Sinek to be quite dogmatic.

He describes things as rather black and white, leaves few doors open to doubts and seem to deal with the world as if there were one single right answer.

And while that’s charismatic for most and it’s a skill you should learn to deploy when needed, I find it jarring when it becomes a modus operandi (and opposite to a learner’s mindset as presented by Maxwell).

  • Naive view of “WHY’s” genuineness

I find Simon Sinek view that the “WHY” is genuine to be quite either naive or disingenuous.

Most WHYs are built by marketing departments and are nothing but professional corporate manipulations.

Start With Why – Review

Start With Why is a fantastic book about the importance of a bigger WHY in life (overarching cause).

While this is not a new concept and we’ve already seen its power in Man’s Search For Meaning, Simon Sinek delves into the importance of WHY in the business world.

But make no mistake, this is also psychology and social-psychology as it deals with identities and social identities.

With tons of examples and real-life stories Start With Why will most likely open new doors of understanding for you both in psychology and in business.

What I disagree on:

WHY doesn’t have to stay the same
Sinek seems to imply that a WHY is fixed for all your life. I strongly disagree with that. Viktor Frankl tells us that finding a WHY was the best way to survive in concentration camp and Angela Duckworth explains that we find our passions. And different life events can also change your WHY.

What I loved:

I love the whole book. If I had to pick one single element I believe too often goes unnoticed is this:

  • Differentiating is for mid pack

Companies desperate on “differentiating” are entrenching their status as mid-pack, average businesses.

Of course, you should know your competitors, but companies with a strong sense of WHY don’t obsess with “being different”, they focus on their thing and just are different.

Check my book summaries page. and get the book on Amazon.

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