Thursday, February 10, 2011

Start With Why

Every year I read a book that changes my life. I'm lucky this year because I found the book in February. Start With Why, written by a business consultant named Simon Sinek comes at the exact juncture in my life that I needed its message the most.


I was tuned into Simon after I saw the video of a TED talk that he did (embedded at the end). Normally I don't read books by consultants, but his talk made a lot of sense and became one of my favorite TED talks of all time. If you don't have time to read the book, at least watch the video, and if you're like me, you will probably buy the book afterwards.

The basic premise is very simple: great leaders (and companies) communicate with the outside world in the opposite way that everyone else communicates. Great leaders start with why, whereas everyone else starts with what.

This is best illustrated with a concrete example (my own).  I've always been a fan of BMW. I consider myself a loyal customer of BMW, despite the fact that I've never owned a BMW. BMW is a great company, and they communicate with why first. If BMW started with what, like everyone else, their marketing message will be something like:

Our cars are luxurious, well engineered, beautifully designed... buy our car.

But that's not how they actually communicate. This is the message that I actually hear:

If you're someone that strives for perfection, boy do we have a car for you.  It has 50/50 weight distribution, meticulously designed, and luxurious.  Want to buy one?

Sure, they don't actually say this word for word, but the message is consistent, and it's actually what I hear. Since I am someone who strives for perfection, BMW is my car company. The funny thing was, until I read this book, I couldn't tell you why I liked BMW so much. Now I can. I want a BMW orders of magnitudes more than I want a Mercedes, and what is the real difference between the two?

The real difference is that, in the words of Simon, people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Sure, you can manipulate people to buy your stuff by cutting prices, use peer pressure, or fear mongering. But those tactics don't generate loyalty. And loyalty is ultimately what you want.

This is a profound realization for me. Since I am in the process of powering up my 4th start-up, I've been struggling over the why before I even realized it. On Sunday, I finally answered the question, and suddenly everything, past, present and future became crystal clear. This is one of those head-out-of-the-cloud moment for me. Even more so, I'm trying to distill the why for me personally. Why do I wake up in the morning? Why do I do the things I do, and care about the things I care? This is a bit harder because I'm driven by many different feelings and they occur in parts of the brain with no capacity for language. But knowing what this did to my professional life, it also has the ability to profoundly influence my personal life.

Philosophical questions aside, Simon also presents very real and very practical things. For example, how does knowing why actually help you and your company? Or how do you go about finding your why?

If you don't believe me, check out the video first: