WHY do you do what you do?

A friend recently asked for my thoughts on a digital product start-up he is working on. It is a great idea, in a receptive market, grounded in a strong business model. But something was missing from his elevator pitch.

I cannot share the details, but I can say that in addition to having a strong customer value proposition, I observed in his idea a broader social purpose; an educational element that helps kids become more creative. My thought was that this is a truly noble cause, which could help him to create something special that really connects with people, emotionally. His product’s cause could help him win investment, employ the right talent, and ultimately win the hearts of consumers.

So I excitedly suggested that he should START WITH WHY.

In an effort to explain what I was rambling on about, I pointed him to Simon Sinek’s TED Talk: ‘How great leaders inspire action’.

Sinek says that most leaders and organisations communicate from the outside in. They talk about what they do (the output), how they do it (a differentiating approach that makes the output uniquely valuable), and then finally, why they do it (their purpose, cause, belief). Sinek proposes that great leaders and organisations do the opposite; they start with why… they reverse the order of information, in order to attract people who believe what they believe.

This can have a transformative effect, as his example — Apple — demonstrates. The company is now famous for its belief in thinking differently. But remember that Apple was once just a computer company on the verge of bankruptcy. Its comeback was partly thanks to refocusing on making great products (the iMac and iPod). But this chapter also introduced its ‘Think Different’ narrative, which helped transform Apple from a computer company into a lifestyle brand and the most valuable company in the world. Apple’s ‘why’ is now embedded into its brand and culture. The brand connects with people on an emotional level, driving behaviour. And its company culture inspires continuous innovation, even in the post-Jobs era.

If Apple is not evidence enough, Sinek further supports his argument with biology. The human brain contains the ‘neocortex’ system, which supports rational thought, and the ‘limbic’ system, which supports functions including emotion and behaviour. Apparently, consumers’ purchase behaviours are often driven by emotional ‘gut’ feelings, and we use rational thought merely to validate or justify our behaviour.

In other words, “people do not buy what you do they buy why you do it”. So Sinek says.

Leaders and brands should be conscious of this kind of thinking — especially in markets where there’s little to differentiate one value proposition over another. In transportation, why is Uber so successful? Because its purpose is “to bring people and their cities closer together”? In house rentals, why is Airbnb so disruptive? Because it is “helping people to belong anywhere”?

Whatever your sector, from consumer goods to professional or financial services… What is really driving purchase behaviour? What inspires employees to get up in the morning? What is driving innovation? Sinek thinks the answers START WITH WHY.

So — why do you do what you do?