You may already be familiar with Simon Sinek’s perspective on the fundamental reason why some companies succeed and some companies fail. If you are not, you’re missing an important business thought and I’m here to help…here is a link to a 5-minute abridged version of his TEDTalk, though I encourage you to view his fuller 18-minute version.
He suggests, in short, that great companies are able to find, understand and communicate the fundamental reason for their existence…their “Why” of existence. The problem for all the not-great companies is that articulating this “Why” becomes muddled when companies become more internally focused and get all wrapped around the axles of their internal operating processes (their “how”) and too focused on product configurations and extensions (their product “what”). If that doesn’t make sense, you probably didn’t pause to watch the 5:00 minute video, did you? It’s worth it…I’m just sayin’. If you didn’t, the graphic above helps boil the idea down even further.
This imagery gives those of us who work with startups a new way of explaining why “market-focused” founders beat “technology-focused” founders pretty much every time. What Sinek doesn’t suggest, but I will, is that most startups must start with a “why”. Most founders I meet and work with have a passion and a vision for solving a big hairy market problem. The best founders start with this market problem and devise a product or solution to solve it. They already have, or go out and get, primary customer understanding. They may rough-draft some solution (the “what”) so they can probe around a bit, but their venture starts with a big, passionate why: “We’re going to change the way college students get jobs after college”; “We’re going to improve heart valve repair for thousands”; “We think we can help cancer patients receive better outcomes.” And so on. They need these easy-to-convey messages because their constituents, (i.e., investors, customers, partners, employees, etc.) are in a chaotic mess. As a startup grows, especially if growth is rapid, organizational and operational issues can add layers of complication to an otherwise clear and passionate “why”. Whereas Sinek encourages companies to get back to their “why”, I encourage startups to begin with and keep centered on their “why” from the beginning. Bake it into the culture and organization DNA. Revisit it frequently…make sure every new hire expresses it.
Some founders we meet do not start with a “why”. Instead, some invent their way to some cool technology and then decide that they have a problem to solve…after trying to find one. Those founders are not starting with the “why”. They are starting with the “what” of their technology and work their way to the “how do we improve this technology” before even figuring out how the chaos of some marketplace will perceive their reason for existence. When they try to describe their business plan to me, it is usually a disorganized series of statements that is more than bad storytelling…it is a lack of the “why” that is at the center of Sinek’s golden circle that keeps you from organizing your company and team for success.
It is one thing when a company loses it’s “why” in a surrounding pool of how’s and what’s. A large company with resources at its disposal at least has a chance to re-find it’s center and core mission…think Apple here. Sinek points out that Steve Jobs was able to continually communicate Apple’s “why” through the products they developed. As they got big, needed to compete in multiple markets and lost Jobs to cancer, they found themselves in the wide open space of head-to-head product competition. However, with the right people, Apple could find it’s way back. A startup with 3 people and a founder focused on their technology “what” hasn’t got a chance to find their market “why”. (Interestingly, while drafting this post, this article popped up in which Jobs complained that his staff was doing “too much stuff”…aka, not focusing on the “why”!)
Clarity of message follows clarity of thought, and clarity of message makes it easier land investors, attract top employees and secure customers. So, always remember that wise founders should start, and remain, “why’s guys”.