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Start with Why: The Importance of Finding your Purpose

The idea of running a business with a strong sense of purpose sounds like a broken record. Purpose provides meaning and as research shows, 9 out of 10 people would accept a pay cut to do more meaningful work. However, very few businesses are able to define their purpose, their true Why. Why do you get out of bed every morning, and why should anyone care for your products and services? To understand the concept of Why a must-read for every entrepreneur and small business owner should be Simon Sinek’s Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.


I was a little girl when in 1984 Apple introduced the Macintosh computer with an epic Orwellian-themed commercial. The spot did not show a product or say what it was, it only ended with the message “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like ‘1984’”. This commercial revolutionized advertising, and Apple revolutionized the world of technology. Until then, commercials were traditionally characterized by smiling individuals who happily proclaimed the features of a product while positioning it prominently in the camera. With the Macintosh advertisement, for the first time, a company told a story that was bigger than a product. It was a story with a purpose, a story that told people why they wanted the product instead of telling what they would get.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. This claim, repeatedly mentioned throughout Simon Sinek’s book, summarizes Sinek’s belief that the ultimate success of any company depends on its ability to find its Why and stay true to it. Sinek develops the Golden Circle, a concept that states that an organization should start everything it does by first asking why: “Why does your company exist, why do you get out of bed every morning, and why should anyone care?” The Why, your purpose and beliefs, should build the center of your company – your true north. It guides the actions that are expressed in How you do your business – your business practices and processes. Finally, your products and services – What your company offers – form the tangible version of your Why.

Want examples of companies that communicate from Why? Back in 1980, Steve Jobs expressed Apple’s purpose as follows: “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” Howard Schultz described Starbucks’ Why as “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” And Jeff Bezos’ purpose with Amazon is “to be earth's most customer-centric company.” No products are mentioned in any of these statements – instead, they express the aspirations of their founders and CEOs. Do these statements feel fuzzy? Maybe. Do they sound inspiring? For sure. Do they drive behavior? Read on.

Manipulate or inspire, you have the choice

So, why is it important to start with Why? Sinek argues that “there are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it”. Manipulation is the standard approach in the business world, visible in price drops, promotions, or aspirational messages. Manipulation works but it does not breed loyalty. It is inspiration that creates loyal customers – customers ready to stand in line for six hours to purchase the newly released Apple product. There is no rational justification why people prefer Apple over Lenovo or Starbucks over Dunkin Donuts. Apple computers aren’t better than Lenovo’s, and Starbucks coffee costs a fortune, but does it really taste that much better than Dunkin Donuts coffee? The answer is, it doesn’t matter. It is the experience, the lifestyle, and the story that people relate to. A Harvard Business School professor found that 95% of our purchasing decisions are subconscious. Emotions steer our decisions. And when our emotional brains are triggered, rational attributes of a product such as technical facts, price, or quality become secondary factors that no longer drive our buying decision.

Don’t try to win the masses

To explain the importance of starting with Why, Sinek introduces the bell curve, also known as the Gaussian normal distribution, and states that the human population is broken into segments that fall across a bell curve.

This model is regularly used in education or performance evaluations as a method of assigning grades to human performance. However, Sinek’s approach is a different one. He suggests that a company cannot win by targeting the masses (the majority of people who represent the middle of the bell curve) with a new product or business idea. The reason is that the mass of the population “won’t try something new until someone else has tried it first”. It needs Innovators and Early Adopters – representing a minority of the population, the left side of the curve – “who believe what you believe”. They believe in the value of a new product because they believe in your Why. Once you have convinced them with your product or services, the majority of people will likely follow.

How to find your Why

Mark Twain once said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why”. So, how can you find your Why? As an entrepreneur or small business owner, you are best positioned to find your purpose: you started your business for a reason – may it be a passion, a belief, or an aspiration. You know best what inspired you to take all your courage and jump in at the deep end of self-employment. A great starting point for finding your Why is an exercise that one of my professors at Boston College assigned to his students - a tough but purposeful one: Write your own obituary (imagine, you will die peacefully in your sleep the day you turn 103 years old).

There’s an old saying: if you want to know how to live your life, think about what you’d like people to say about you after you die – then live backwards. What will be said about you in your obituary? What would you want it to be remembered for? What legacy would you like your business to leave? Let these questions guide you, discuss your thoughts with a friend to get an outside perspective, and finally, draft your why-statement in a single sentence that is clear and actionable.

Identifying your Why is not only an exercise to inspire and attract customers. It will guide you on your journey as a business owner: It helps you to prioritize, and it gives perspective to see what you really want to accomplish - your True North.

You don’t have the time to read Sinek’s book? Listen to his key messages in this 5-minute TED Talk. Convinced of Sinek’s methods? He also offers Find Your Why, a course designed to help those inspired by his messages to find their WHY.


About the Author

Kathrin Bauer-Kohout is a Leadership and Organizational Development professional with 12+ years of experience in diverse international environments. She has worked as a Management Consultant, Project Manager, and Chief of Staff for C-Suite executives in the healthcare industry. Find her on LinkedIn: Kathrin Bauer-Kohout | LinkedIn


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