Key Takeaways: “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek

People have been telling me to read this book for a while, and I was already aware of many of the concepts being Sinek’s philosophy on life and business. Whilst sunning myself in Portugal I finally got the chance to actually read it! It left an impression on me.

Essentially, Sinek believes our sense of purpose, whether personally or professionally, is the key to success. The “why”, followed by the “how” and the “what” are the three steps to achieving personal satisfaction, as well as being a great leader and growing a successful company.

If you have time, I’d really recommend you read the book; if you don’t, then here are my key takeaways…


The Golden Circle of Why, How and What

FullSizeRender (4)One of Sinek’s recurring points in the book, which I’ve mentioned above, is that many companies have a strong sense of what they do, but a really fuzzy sense of why. He details many examples of companies who have lost their way because they’ve lost their sense of why, including WallMart and Dell Corp. This circle is his representation of the three principles.

Don’t Base Decisions on False Assumptions

Sinek points out that often when things go right or wrong for us we won’t really take the time to analyse why. Sometimes, we analyse why but come up with completely the wrong ideas, or we assume that the way we’ve done it is the only way to do it right. There may yet be an even better way that we haven’t even considered.

He uses an example about Japanese and American car manufacturers. Near the end of the American production line, the car doors didn’t fit properly, and they employed people to hammer the car doors into shape. They were looking for ways to optimise that process. When they spoke to their Japanese competitors, they saw that they took precise measurements before the doors were even made, so they already knew they would fit.

The message is that: sometimes you might be looking for answers to the wrong questions. The Americans should have asked not ‘how can we improve the door fitting process?’ but ‘why don’t our doors fit to start with?’.

Is your Marketing Inspirational or Manipulative?

You should know why your customers are your customers. It’s literally one of the most important things you could know.

If you’re using manipulative marketing techniques (low price, promotions, fear, aspirations, peer-pressure, novelty-factor) you are probably not focussed on building long-term quality relationships with your customers based on their loyalty to your brand. This could be fine! As long as you don’t trick yourself into thinking it’s the best way to do things just because it’s working at this point in time. If people only do business with you because you’re the cheapest, they’ll leave you as soon as that ceases to be the case, or they find a brand they identify with more than yours.

People Don’t Buy WHAT you Do: they Buy WHY you Do It

Apple is Sinek’s champion example of leading with why. By pitching products by saying: “We believe in challenging the status quo and thinking differently, so we design our products to be beautiful and simple to use. Want to buy a computer from us?” the overriding impression with which Apple leaves their audience is inspiration, appealing to people who also feel they challenge the status quo.

Thus, Apple has established itself as a lifestyle brand, and people who buy Apple are not just buying a laptop, they’re buying a laptop that is a symbol of the kind of person they are: somebody who challenges the status quo. Inspirational marketing and a clear sense of why is what engenders brand loyalty.

Sinek links his Golden Circle concept to the layers of the brain. The limbic brain sits in the centre and is responsible for feelings, loyalty, but not language, which is dealt with by the neocortex. Sinek says that the ‘why’ is the aspect that stimulates the limbic brain and triggers the feeling of symbiosis with a brand that people can’t always explain. It’s an emotional connection and gut feel that would persuade somebody to buy a MacBook even if its features aren’t as good as a Microsoft computer.

Your Decisions should be Consistent with your Why

Whilst Sinek acknowledges that, sometimes, short term inconsistent business decisions are unavoidable, for the most he argues companies must make decisions that support their why.

He uses the example of Southwest Airlines in America – an everyman’s airline for short-haul flights. The bigger airlines who tried to copy this model failed. “Low-Cost flights for the Everyman” was Southwest’s ‘why’, but the larger airlines didn’t have the same why and so their new offering was at odds with their brand. People used Southwest not just because it was cheap, but because of what it stood for. Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, made it great by building a business which supported local communities. He avoided using executive jets for years, he worked on Saturdays because his employees did, for years because he wanted his actions to be consistent with his company’s ‘why’.

Companies and employees will be most successful if they align their why and make sure they both believe in the same things. If companies choose partnerships or leaders who do not support the company’s why, this usually causes problems and a loss of trust from customers and employees.

FullSizeRender (2)Often over time, whether because there is a leadership change or the company just gets carried away, the focus shifts towards making money and the driver for decision making changes. This ultimately leads, as Sinek demonstrates by examples, to failure.


Building a Wall versus Building a Cathedral

Sinek talks about two tradesmen, each laying bricks for years on a project to build a cathedral, which would never be finished in their lifetime.

One man says he hates his job – he just puts bricks in line every day, every week. The other man is inspired, he does exactly the same job, but he loves it because he knows he is building a cathedral. Whilst the two men do the same job, one aligns with the mission and has a sense of purpose.

Sinek’s message is that, as a leader, you should hire motivated people and inspire them. By simply paying people more, you’re essentially doing manipulative marketing. What you should do instead is pull together a like minded team and give them a why.

The role of a leader is not to tell everybody how things should be done but, in Sinek’s words “to create an environment in which great ideas can happen”.


Tipping Points – Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards

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Sinek speaks about this curve in the quest to gain customers. Early Adopters and Innovators are alike, they’ll accept a certain amount of risk and performance issues in order to use the newest products and services in the market. These are the people you need on board, and believing in your why.

They will not only loyally recommend you to their network, but it’s only when enough early adopters come on board will you reach the tipping point you need to take your product mainstream. You need to have penetrated between 15-18% of your target market before you can be successful, because most people need someone else to have tried it before they will, and this is the tipping point. It’s noted that, the further down the curve you go, the more likely your customers are to simply care about your what, not your why.

Even if you have a product which is great, you’ll struggle to reach the mass market unless you have a strong ‘why’ that appeals to the innovators and early adopters. This is because most people won’t try a new, untested product, no matter how amazing it is. Your message needs to be both loud AND clear. If you reach thousands of people but don’t tell them why they need your product, the message is less likely to resonate and really ‘speak’ to them.


You Need a Dream, but also Have a Plan

Whilst the ‘why’ is powerful, Sinek notes the importance of having a how, and highlights that often the people to embody these aspects of a business are not one and the same.

The founder and visionary (the ‘why’ person) probably partners up with a ‘how’ person who knows how to make their vision a reality. An example would be Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple.


Being Successful versus Feeling Successful

“Achievement is something you reach or attain, like a goal. It is something tangible, clearly defined and measurable. Success, in contrast, is a feeling or state of being.” – Simon Sinek

I think this final point is something really powerful to take away. Achievement is what you do, but  success is why.

I personally have had a really varied career so far, spanning different industries, and I wondered how I could reconcile myself with enjoying doing so many different types of things. What Sinek says is that, as long as you’re doing work which is consistent with your why, then it’s very possible to have a varied and still consistent career. I love to enable people. I love to find new ways of solving problems or thinking about things which make things better and more efficient for people. These aspects were key parts of all the jobs I’ve had so far, though in wildly different industries.

I hope you’ve taken something useful away from this review, that perhaps you can apply to your own life, career or business.

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