Alright, so this is not a book that is hot off the printing press. In fact, it has been around for quite a while – when it was released, Steve Jobs was still alive and the smartphone revolution had only just begun (Android was just catching on and all was well with Symbian). In fact, it was published many feel to cash in on one of the most popular TED talks of all time. So why on earth are we saying that Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action” (published in 2009) is a book that every startup CEO should NOW read?
Well, because when the book originally appeared, startups were not the rage they are today (well, in India at least). People were still wary of starting new businesses given the dot-com bust that was still a ghost in many entrepreneurial minds. Today, however, almost everyone with any sort of enterprise idea (and not too much capital) up their sleeves fancies calling themselves a startup. And they are technically right – after all, they ARE starting up a business and hope to be scaling up rapidly (the generally accepted definition of a startup, which of course is another story for another day). This being the age of presentations and lectures, almost every startup has its own theory of what works in the market and what does not. But not too many have what Sinek spotted way back in 2009 which is why there are so many crashes and burns in the startup sector right now.
In Start With Why – a slim volume spanning 246 pages – Sinek puts forward a rather simple theory: that most businesses make the mistake of focusing on WHAT they do and HOW they do it. That might seem logical to many people. After all, what’s wrong with focusing on what you make and/or do (in case of services) and the processes involved. Well, just that Sinek says that these twins while being important do not inspire people or bind them to organizations. What DOES inspire them is ‘why.’ Why are they doing what they are. In the book, he brings forward the concept of a Golden Circle, which in fact comprises three concentric circles – the outermost circle is WHAT, the one in the middle is HOW, and right at the center, at the very core is WHY. And it is this core that Sinek says makes an organization truly great.
Sounds too idealistic and fuzzy? Well, Sinek builds a compelling case for ‘why’, giving examples of leaders who built great companies and movements by focusing on the reasons for their existence rather than on the end results (the products). And it is this that makes the book a terrific read. For unlike some business pundits who get into detailed researches and charts and the like, Sinek prefers an anecdotal narration. The result is a book that is a brisk, entertaining and yet makes profound sense.
Yes, I said that. For no matter how cynical and “bottom line counts” you may be, within a few pages, Sinek starts making sense. Whether he gives the example of the Wright Brothers beating the more hyped and financed Samuel Langley to become the first to make an aircraft or of Steve Jobs driving a company purely on a passion to change the world or of Howard Schulz figuring out that Starbucks was not actually a “coffee place” but the “third place” between home and office, Sinek is clearly passionate about what he believes. And this shines right through.
Sinek says that there are two ways to influence human behavior: manipulation or inspiration. And according to him, far too many companies opt to use the manipulation path, which includes tactics like price drops, promotions, peer pressure, fear, or aspirational messages. And he concedes that they do work, but only in the short term – “Manipulations lead to transactions, not loyalty” as he points out succinctly. It is the inspiration that leads to longer-term success and for that, you need to be able to communicate Why you are doing something. One of the most quoted instances of focusing on Why rather than what from the book, is how Sinek describes Apple’s business. If Apple were a “normal” company, Sinek says that they would describe themselves in these words:
“We make great computers. They’d beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. Wanna buy one?”
The focus here is clearly on what the company makes. However, because the company focuses on Why, Sinek says it is more likely to describe itself thus:
“Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. And we happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?”
It is a goose pimple moment in the book, and to the credit of Sinek, he serves up quite a few more, giving instances of leaders who use more than simple figures and finances to build a team. Interestingly, he also gives instances of how companies lose momentum as their Why becomes less clearly defined – one of the examples given is that of Microsoft, where Steve Ballmer had taken over the reins from Bill Gates when the book was published. “There were three words missing from Bill Gates’ goodbye speech when he officially left Microsoft in 2008,” Sinek writes. “I’ll be back.” (Some might say that those are technically four words, but we will allow Sinek his arithmetic.) As per Sinek, Microsoft post-Gates was not the same company, because, in spite of being a better speaker and more aggressive and charismatic, Ballmer was more of a What than a Why guy. Interestingly the man credited with getting Microsoft ‘back’, Satya Nadella is perceived as a visionary, a Why guy in Sinek’s vocabulary (yes, we will be reviewing his book shortly – stay tuned).
You can choose to believe Sinek, or call him a sentimental crackpot as he churns out instance after instance of leaders who put themselves on the line for their teams and visions. But you would need a heart of stone (or money) not to be moved by what he proposes – a world in which people are inspired by a higher cause rather than just paycheques and procedures.
At a time when many startups are defining themselves by celebrity interviews, flashy off sites and “being super cool,” Sinek’s advice is particularly relevant. Rivals can copy your What and How, but not your Why, because that comes from your core. It is not what you make. It is not how you make it. It is what the French would call your Raison d’Etre.
The reason for your existence.
Want to launch your own business? Or have just started one? Or are looking for a job in one? Forget the figures and projections. Pack away the spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. Postpone the fancy campus recruitments and interviews. Put away your resume.
Sit down and read this book.
And start with why.