Start with Your 'Why' to Inspire Customers to Buy

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What are some of the most powerful stories you can tell to attract the capital, customers, and employees you need to grow your business?

Your "WHY" stories.

  • Why did you start your business? (Origin story)
  • Why are you launching this new product? (Product story)
  • Why do customers buy from you? (Customer story)

A WHY story has the power to connect with people on a deeper, more emotional level than if you were to only talk about WHAT your product does or HOW it works. As Simon Sinek puts it in his best-selling book "Start with WHY": "People don't buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it."

And this idea has huge implications for entrepreneurship—from sales and marketing to recruiting to raising capital.

But the challenge is that when we talk about our company, product or service, we tend to start with the WHAT and HOW, while barely touching on the WHY, which undermines the effectiveness of our pitch. 

That's because “when the WHY is absent, imbalance is produced and manipulations thrive. And when manipulations thrive, uncertainty increases for buyers, instability increases for sellers and stress increases for all," says Sinek.

You should read "Start with Why" if you want to learn how to craft your own WHY stories that attract and inspire the best people to buy from you, invest in you, and work for you.

Here's a roundup of my notes, favorite quotes, and takeaways from each chapter of "Start with Why."

Introduction: Why Start with Why?

Sinek presents his case as to WHY we should read this book.

“With a little discipline, any leader or organization can inspire others, both inside and outside their organization, to help advance their ideas and their vision. We can all learn to lead."

  • The story of Samuel Pierpont Langley and the Wright Brothers. Langley had all the advantages—money, contacts, position—but the Wright Brothers beat him to the first flight…“They were pursuing the same goal, but only the Wright brothers were able to inspire those around them and truly lead their team to develop a technology that would change the world. Only the Wright brothers started with Why."

  • The founding of Apple, it’s resurgence, and its continued relevance: “Unlike any of their competitors, Apple has successfully challenged conventional thinking within the computer industry, the small electronics industry, the music industry and the broader entertainment industry. And the reason is simple. Apple inspires. Apple starts with Why.

  • On Martin Luther King: “The ability to attract so many people from across the country, of all colors and races, to join together on the right day, at the right time, took something special. Though others knew what had to change in America to bring about civil rights for all, it was Martin Luther King who was able to inspire a country to change not just for the good of a minority, but for the good of everyone. Martin Luther King started with Why."

  • “What if we could all learn to think, act and communicate like those who inspire? I imagine a world in which the ability to inspire is practiced not just by a chosen few, but by the majority. Studies show that over 80 percent of Americans do not have their dream job. If more knew how to build organizations that inspire, we could live in which that statistic was the reverse — a world in which over 80 percent of people loved their jobs. People who love going to work are more productive and more creative. They go home happier and have happier families. They treat their colleagues and clients and customers better. Inspired employees make for stronger companies and stronger economies. That is why I wrote this book.


Chapter 1: Assume You Know

  • The story of an American car executive who visited Japanese assembly line. “At the end of the line, the doors were put on hinges, the same as in America. But something was missing. In the United States, a line worker would take a rubber mallet and tap the edges of the door to ensure that it fits perfectly. In Japan, that job didn’t seem to exist. Confused, the American auto executives asked at what point they made sure the door fit perfectly. Their Japanese guide looked at them and smiled sheepishly. 'We make sure it fits when we design it.’ In the Japanese auto plant, they didn’t examine the problem and accumulate data to figure out the best solution — they engineered the outcome they wanted from the beginning. If they didn’t achieve their desired outcome, they understood it was because of a decision they made at the start of the process."

  • “What the American automakers did with their rubber mallets is a metaphor for how so many people and organizations lead. When faced with a result that doesn’t go according to plan, a series of perfectly effective short-term tactics are used until the desired outcome is achieved. But how structurally sound are those solutions?"

  • “The [organizations] that achieve more, the ones that get more out of fewer people and fewer resources, the ones with an outsized amount of influence, however, build products and companies and even recruit people that all fit based on the original intention."

Chapter 2: Carrots and Sticks

  • "If companies don’t know why their customers are their customers, odds are good that they don’t know why their employees are employees either."

  • “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it."

  • “Typical manipulations include: dropping the price; running a promotion; using fear, peer pressure or aspirational messages; and promising innovation to influence behavior—be it a purchase, a vote or support. When companies or organizations do not have a clear sense of why their customers are their customers, they tend to rely on a disproportionate number of manipulations to get what they need."

  • “…selling based on price is like heroin. The short-term gain is fantastic, but the more you do it, the harder it becomes to kick the habit."

  • "When fear is deployed, facts are incidental. Deeply seated in our biological drive to survive, that emotion cannot be quickly wiped away with facts and figures. This is how terrorism works. It’s not a statistical probability that once could get hurt by a terrorist, but it’s the fear that it might happen that cripples a population."

  • "The peer pressure works because we believe the majority or the experts might know more than we do. Peer pressure works not because the majority or the experts are always right, but because we fear that we may be wrong."

  • “There is a big difference between repeat business and loyalty. Repeat business is when people do business with you multiple times. Loyalty is when people are willing to turn down a better product or a better price to continue doing business with you."

  • "Manipulations lead to transactions, not loyalty.” … “Manipulations are a perfectly valid strategy for driving a transaction, or for any behavior that is only required once or on rare occasions. The rewards the police use are designed to incentivize witnesses to come forward to provide tips or evidence that may lead to an arrest."


Chapter 3: The Golden Circle

  • The idea here is to inspire vs. manipulate.

  • “There are a few leaders who chose to inspire rather than manipulate in order to motivate people."

  • The Golden Circle “starts from the inside out. It all starts with Why."

  • Definitions of the terms, starting from outside and moving inward:

    • WHAT: the product or service a company sells or the job function they have within that system. Every organization knows the WHAT.
    • HOW: explains HOW something is different or better. Some companies know the HOW.
    • WHY: your purpose, cause or belief. “WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?” … Very few companies can articulate “WHY they do WHAT they do."
  • “When most organizations or people think, act, or communicate they do so from the outside in, from WHAT to WHY. And for good reason—they go from clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. We say WHAT we do, we sometimes say HOW we do it, but we rarely say WHY we do WHAT we do."

  • Sink’s example of Apple on The Golden Circle:

    • WHY: “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.
    • HOW: “The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly." 
    • WHAT: “And we happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?"

Chapter 4: This is Not Opinion, This is Biology

  • The neocortex (in the brain) “corresponds with the WHAT level. The neocortex is responsible for rational and analytical thought and language. The middle two sections [of The Golden Circle — HOW and WHY] comprise the limbic brain. The limbic brain is responsible for all of our feelings, such as trust and loyalty. It is responsible for all human behavior and all our decision-making, but it has no capacity for language."

  • “When we communicate from the inside out [on The Golden Circle, from WHY to HOW to WHAT], we’re talking directly to the part of the brain that controls decision-making, and our language part of the brain allows us to rationalize those decisions."

  • “The ability to win hearts before minds is not easy. It’s a delicate balance of art and science—another coincidental grammatical construction. Why is it that things are not a balance of science and art, but always art before science? Perhaps it is a subtle clue our language-impaired limbic brain is sending us to help us see that the art of leading is about following your heart. Perhaps our brains are trying to tell us that WHY must come first."

  • The power of the limbic brain is astounding. It not only controls our gut decisions, but it can influence us to do things that seem illogical or irrational."

Chapter 5: Clarity, Discipline, Consistency

  • “when the WHY is absent, imbalance is produced and manipulations thrive. And when manipulations thrive, uncertainty increases for buyers, instability increases for sellers and stress increases for all."

  • “If people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it, so it follows that if you don’t know WHY you do WHAT you do, how will anyone else? If the leader of the organization can’t clearly articulate WHY the organization exists in terms beyond its products or services, then how does he expect the employees to know WHY to come to work?"

  • “HOWs are your values or principles that guide HOW to bring your cause to life."

  • My note: Authenticity has to do with congruence with belief.

  • “What authenticity means is that your Golden Circle is in balance. It means that everything you say and everything you do you actually believe."

  • “When salesmen actually believe in the thing they are selling, then the words that come out of their mouths are authentic. When belief enters the equation, passion exudes from the salesman. It is this authenticity that produces the relationships upon which all the best sales organizations are based. Relationships also build trust. And with trust comes loyalty."

  • “Without WHY, any attempt at authenticity will almost always be inauthentic."

  • “Doing business is like dating."

  • “The ability to put a WHY into words provides the emotional context for decisions. It offers greater confidence than ‘I think it’s right.’ It’s more scalable than ‘I feel it’s right.’ When you know your WHY, the highest level of confidence you can offer is, ‘I know it’s right.’"

  • “The goal of business should not be to do business with anyone who simply wants what you have. It should be to focus on the people who believe what you believe. When we are selective about doing business only with those who believe in our WHY, trust emerges."


Chapter 6: The Emergence of Trust

  • “…if a company mistreats their people, just watch how the employees treat their customers. Mud rolls down a hill, and if you’re the one standing at the bottom, you get hit with the full brunt."

  • “We trust some people and companies even when things go wrong, and we don’t trust others even though everything might have gone exactly as it should have. A completed checklist does not guarantee trust. Trust begins to emerge when we have a sense that another person or organization is driven by things other than their own self-gain."

  • “Leading is not the same as being the leader. Being the leader means you hold the highest rank, either by earning it, having good fortune or navigating internal politics. Leading, however, means that others willingly follow you—not because they have to, not because they are paid to, but because they want to."

  • “Starting with WHY when hiring dramatically increases your ability to attract those who are passionate for what you believe."

  • “Great organizations become great because of the people inside the organization feel protected. The strong sense of culture creates a sense of belonging and acts like a net. People come to work knowing that their bosses, colleagues and the organization as a whole will look out for them. This results in a reciprocal behavior. Individual decisions, efforts and behaviors that support, benefit and protect the long-term interest of the organization as a whole."

  • "Trust between the management and the employees, not dogma, is what produces the great customer service."

  • “If companies do not actively work to keep their Golden Circle in balance—clarity, discipline, consistency—then trust starts to break down."

Chapter 7: How a Tipping Point Tips

  • “[Tipping points] can’t just be an accidental phenomenon. If they exist, then we should be able to design one, and if we can design one, we should be able to design one that lasts beyond the initial tip. It’s the difference between a fad and an idea that changes an industry or society forever."

  • References "The Law of Diffusion of Innovations," based on Everett M. Rogers’ work in 1962. Geoffrey Moore expanded on Rogers’ ideas in his book "Crossing the Chasm."

    • Innovators—2.5%
    • Early adopters—13.5%

    • Early majority—34%

    • Late majority—34%

    • Laggards—16%

  • “The farther right you go on the curve, the more you will encounter the clients and customers who may need what you have, but don’t necessarily believe what you believe … Everything usually boils down to price with them. They are rarely loyal. They rarely give referrals and sometimes you may even wonder why you still do business with them."

  • “The importance of identifying this group [see previous quote] is so that you can avoid doing business with them. Why invest good money and energy to go after people who, at the end of the day, will do business with you anyway if you meet their practical requirements but will never be loyal if you don’t? It’s not too hard to recognize where people fall on the spectrum once you’re in a relationship with them; the opportunity is to figure out which is which before you decide to work with them."

  • The Tivo example … they failed to start with WHY.

  • On Martin Luther King: “Those who believed what he believed took that cause and made it their own. And they told people what they believed. And those people told others what they believed. Some organized to get that belief out more efficiently."

  • On MLK: “It wasn’t the details of his plans that earned him the right to lead. It was what he believed and his ability to communicate it clearly that people followed."

  • On MLK: “People followed him not because of his idea of a changed America. People followed him because of their idea of a changed America.


Chapter 8: Start with Why, But Know How

  • “Energy motivates but charisma inspires. Energy is easy to see, easy to measure and easy to copy. Charisma is hard to find, near impossible to measure and too elusive to copy. All great leaders have charisma because all great leaders have clarity of WHY; an undying belief in a purpose of a cause bigger than themselves."

  • “Dr. King said he had a dream, and he inspired people to make his dream their own. What Ralph Abernathy lent the movement was something else: he knew what it would take to realize that dream, and he showed people HOW to do it. He gave the dream structure."

  • “For every great leader, for every WHY-type, there is an inspired HOW-type or group of HOW-types who take the intangible cause ad build the infrastructure is what actually makes any measurable change or success possible."

  • “The leader imagines the destination and the HOW-types find the route to get there. A destination without a route leads to meandering and inefficiency, something a great many WHY-types will experience without the help of others to ground them."

  • “WHY-types have the power to change the course of industries or even the world…if only they knew HOW."

  • Vision vs. Mission: “The vision is the public statement of the founder’s intent, WHY the company exists. It is literally the vision of the future that does not yet exist. The mission statement is a description of the route, the guiding principles—HOW the company intends to create that future."

Chapter 9: Know Why. Know How. Then What?

  • “Apple does not embody the rebel spirit because they associated themselves with known rebels. They chose known rebels because they embody the same rebel spirit. The WHY came before the creative solution in the advertising."

  • “If people don’t buy WHAT you do, but they buy WHY you do it, and if all the things happening at the WHAT level do not clearly represent WHY the company exists, then the ability to inspire is severely complicated."

  • “As a company grows, the CEO’s job is to personify the WHY. To ooze of it. To talk about it. To preach it. To be the symbol of what the company believes."

Chapter 10: Communication is Not About Speaking, It's About Listening

  • “The flag, for example, is nothing more than a symbol of our nation’s values and beliefs. And we follow the flag into battle."

  • “Don’t forget the dictators. They understand the power of symbols, except the symbols are often of them. Likewise, so many companies act like dictators—it’s all about them and what they want. They tell us what to do, they tell us what we need, they tell us they have the answers but they do not inspire us and they do not command our loyalty."

  • “For companies to be perceived as great leaders and not dictators, all their symbols, including their logos, need to stand for something in white we can all believe. Something we can all support. That takes clarity, discipline and consistency."

  • “Filtering your decisions through your WHY, you spend less time at the supermarket and you spend less money, so there’s an efficiency advantage also. You’re guaranteed to get value out of all the products you bought."


Chapter 11: When Why Goes Fuzzy

  • “For some people, there is an irony to success. Many people who achieve great success don’t always feel it. Some who achieve fame talk about the loneliness that often goes with it. That’s because success and achievement are not the same thing, yet too often we mistake one for the other."

  • “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 a state of being."

  • “Success comes when we wake up every day in that never-ending pursuit of WHY we do WHAT we do. Our achievements, WHAT we do, serve as the milestones to indicate we are on the right path."

Chapter 12: Split Happens

  • “The reason so many small businesses fail, however, is because passion alone can’t cut it. For passion to survive, it needs structure. A WHY without the HOWs, passion without structure, has a very high probability of failure. Remember the dot-com boom? Lots of passion, but not so much structure."

  • “The School Bus Test is a simple metaphor. If a founder or leader of an organization were to be hit by a school bus, would the organization continue to thrive at the same pace without them at the helm? So many organizations are built on the force of a single personality that their departure can cause significant disruption. The question isn’t if it happens—all founders eventually leave or die—it’s just a question of when and how prepared the organization is for the inevitable departure."

  • “What’s more, a strong succession plan should aim to find a leader inspired by the founding cause and ready to lead it into the next generation."

  • “When the person who personifies the WHY without clearly articulating WHY the company was founded in the first place, they leave no clear cause for their successor to lead."


Chapter 13: The Origins of a Why

  • “Before it can gain any power or achieve any impact, an arrow must be pulled backward, 180 degrees away from the target. And that’s also where a WHY derives its power. The WHY does not come from looking ahead at what you want to achieve and figuring out an appropriate strategy to get there. It is not born out of any market research. It does not come from extensive interviews with customers or even employees. It comes from looking in the completely opposite direction from where you are now. Finding WHY is a process of discovery, not invention."

  • “My [Simon Sinek’s] WHY is to inspire people to do the things that inspire them, and if I am to be authentic to that cause there was only one decision to make—to give it away, to talk about it, to share it. These would never be any secret sauce or special formula for which only I knew the ingredients."

Chapter 14: The New Competition

  • “All organizations start with WHY, but only the great ones keep their WHY clear year after year. Those who forget WHY they were founded show up to the race every day to outdo someone else instead of to outdo themselves. The pursuit, for those who lose sight of WHY they are running the race, is for the medal or to beat someone else."

  • “Imagine if every organization started with WHY. Decisions would be simpler. Loyalties would be greater. Trust would be a common currency. If our leaders were diligent about starting with WHY, optimism would reign and innovation would thrive. As this book illustrates, there is no precedence for this standard. No matter the size of the organization, no matter the industry, no matter the product or the service, if we all take responsibility to start with WHY and inspire others to do the same, then together, we can change the world."

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, a Strategy and Storytelling consultancy that helps entrepreneurs tell their story in a way that grabs attention, garners trust, and grows their business. 

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