The Golden Circle
People Don't Buy What You Do, They Buy Why You Do It
Where does your story start when you tell people what you do? Do you start like most people, telling them about all the things you've worked on, or do you take a queue from some of the most influential leaders and brands in history and tell them WHY you go to work every day?
In my career, one book has had an outsized impact on my opinions on marketing and business leadership. Simon Sinek's Start With Why was like the long-awaited answer to a question I had been asking since before I knew what business was:
Why do some brands meaninglessly fade into the background, while others never seem to lose their appeal?
Start With Why sent me down a pathway of connecting dots that seemed so obvious when given the framework, but that stayed hidden until you overlaid the map.
Without Shared Purpose, Manipulation Wins
In board rooms across the world right now, executives are getting together to discuss giving discounts and promotions to try to entice a sale.
Put more directly, they're discussing what manipulations they can make to elicit a purchase decision.
That word sure does feel dirty. Nobody likes being manipulated, though we do it every day.
I use manipulations to get my son to turn off his favorite video games (If you don't listen now, no game time tomorrow!), and to get all of my kids to brush their teeth (If you don't you'll get cavities!).
We use manipulations every day, and they are such a background part of our lives that we barely notice them.
Manipulations are such a part of daily life that we often forget that there are other ways to help drive people towards a decision.
Bucking the Trend
The examples of Apple and Harley Davidson in Sinek's book give us a view into companies that sell products that can often be inferior in technical specifications, yet command a premium from the market that many will gladly pay.
Apple sells beautiful computers, no doubt, but year after year, many generations of their Mac line have been outperformed in benchmarks by the competition. They often ship slower processors, less RAM, and smaller storage options than the competition, yet their machines will often cost hundres more.
Harley Davidson sells the Low Rider for north of $14k, while the seemingly similar Honda Shadow Aero costs less than $8K and comes with a much more modern liquid-cooled engine. Despite what seems to be a technically inferior design, Harley can command a higher price for their products (Harley riders, please don't run me out of town, I own an old Honda!).
If these brands can win in their industries without being able to play the price game to get sales, how are they doing it?
Inspiration: The Other Motivator
Even though manipulation seems to reign supreme, it's not the only game in town. Inspiration is just as powerful, and given the right situation, it can be more powerful than manipulation.
Offer a Harley rider the lower price and screaming horsepower numbers offered by a CB1000R and most will probably turn you down. Owning a Harley isn't just about getting to work and back, and it isn't about posting the top time at the track. For many, it's about being a part of the family. Visit Harley's about page, and you're greeted with this quote front and center:
More than building machines, we stand for the timeless pursuit of adventure. Freedom for the soul.
Harley isn't afraid to tell you right away why they exist, and that sense of adventure and freedom is what Harley riders buy when they throw down their hard-earned cash.
Revisiting Apple for a moment, we'll see a similar story. Apple doesn't make it's purpose nearly as concrete on the website, but we have lots of historical evidence to draw from, particularly the "Think Different" campaign that marked Steve Jobs return to Apple and the start of a renaissance for their products. When distilled, Apple is about providing the tools to change the world to the everyday person. From the Wikipedia article linked above, we get this quote from Jobs:
When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your job is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.
That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is - everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.
Without such inspiration, we'd be left with comparing costs, features, and waiting for a sale to tip us to buy one brand over the other in a race to the bottom.
This Isn't Feel-Good Aspiration, This Is Chemistry
Humans are a social species, thanks to hormones like oxytocin, we feel good when we're with people who share our values and beliefs.
This doesn't work just with your friends, it also works with what coffee and sneakers you buy, and what restaurants you visit.
A Tale of Two Lunches
When you walk into a Chipotle and look across the street at the McDonalds drive-thru line, you get a smug sense of satisfaction that you're eating some organic guac in a restaurant full of fit Instagram models who volunteer for Green Peace while those other schmucks are slowly dying sitting in the drive-through line to get yet another batch of stale-grease soaked fries.
When you cross the street to the McDonalds, the folks in there are staring at schmucks wasting their hard-earned cash eating fancy food that doesn't taste any better than their big mac but costs twice as much.
It Doesn't Matter What Tribe, as Long as You Have a Tribe
What you buy, and who you support reflects on your self-image, and feeling clear in your self-image helps you feel like you belong, giving you all the titillating oxytocin and dopamine your brain is wired to crave.
Rubber, Meet Road
Getting clear about why you do what you do is only the first step. After you know who you are and why you show up every day, you need to put that information into practice before you can really reap the benefits of starting with why.
The goal is not to do business with everyone who needs what you have, the goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.
-- Simon Sinek
Turning down business that doesn't align with your inspiration isn't easy, especially when you're running on thin margins. Sometimes you are going to have to take work to keep the lights on.
To turn down work, you need to ensure the work you are doing is profitable enough to sustain you if it takes a little bit to find the next match for your company.
Getting the Right People on the Bus
Jim Sinegal of Costco is known for talking about "getting the right people on the bus", and when you're running a company, no job could be more crucial.
Starting with why should be at the root of your recruiting process. Get clear on why the business exists, and ensure every hire is excited about that purpose.
I want you to put that excitement above years of education, experience with a specific tool or language, or work experience in general. If people aren't excited about what you're trying to accomplish, you're not only shortchanging your company, but you're doing them a disservice as well.
Selling Without Selling
When all this is working, selling to the right buyers should feel a lot more service than hunting.
Both in prospecting for customers and with recruiting for employees, if the golden circle is in balance, the pursuit should feel rewarding rather than draining.
If you have to really convince someone to work with you, they probably aren't going to be a good fit long term. The work will crawl by slowly with lots of extra pit stops and detours. Conflicts will arise because the parties aren't aligned on what the best outcome looks like.
Aim for sales that leave you feeling excited and energized rather than exhausted and dirty.
Go to the Source
If the ideas in this post resonated with you at all, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Start with Why. I particularly enjoyed the audiobook version, read by Simon himself. For a bit of a taste of his delivery, check out this recording of the original talk he gave at Ted X: