Why? The one question that will change how you run your business

I’ve long been a fan of the Simon Sinek TED Talk Start with Why, but since starting to work with clients it has become central to my work.

If you’ve never seen this TED Talk, watch this summary (less than 5 minutes).

The idea is that your business operates on three levels: what you do, how you do it and why you do it.

What - the products or services you offer

How - what makes you special or sets you apart from others

Why - your core beliefs and purpose

Start with why

So when you think about the strategies you have for your business - marketing, growth, diversification - it’s likely you’ve got a good idea of the “how” and the “what”. But what about the core of the golden circle - the “why”?

Why changes everything

This is a critical question for you to answer, because while people care about the what and the how of your business, it’s the why that is the most important. When your ideal audience buys into your why - when they fall in love with you, your drive and your story - that’s when everything changes.

In his book Start with Why, Simon Sinek writes:

“We want to be around people and organizations who are like us and share our beliefs. When companies talk about WHAT they do and how advanced their products are, they may have appeal, but they do not necessarily represent something to which we want to belong. But when a company clearly communicates their WHY, what they believe, and we believe what they believe, then we will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to include those products or brands in our lives.”

Isn’t that exactly what you want for your business?

Look at it this way: if you and a competitor offer the same product, but you charge a bit more for it, who are the people that will choose you regardless? It is the ones who feel invested in your business. Who feel they get more than just a product from you. The ones who want to be a part of your story because they like being aligned with you, whether that is because they share your values or enjoy your content or simply like you and want to see you succeed.

An example

Take Starbucks for example. Their what is food and drink. Their how is through franchised and proprietary coffee shops that are easily recognised and fairly universal across the world. They have articulated their why as: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”

So this is what is (supposed to) get each Starbucks employee out of bed in the morning, and what will help ensure they go to work and deliver the dream experience to each person. It influences all Starbucks’ decisions: how they design their shops, what they put on the menu, their merchandise and the language they use in their marketing.

You can do the same, but better - because you can do it with more authenticity and heart than a global giant with a dubious approach to paying taxes. And by formulating your why clearly, you have a simple way to guide your business and marketing decisions.

How I start with why

Start with why was the topic of the first email in my January marketing bootcamp series. It is the first exercise in my Get Goodness From Your Marketing workshop. It is the first topic of conversation with my coaching clients. It is the first question I ask when I respond to a brief for content creation. Because a clear answer makes everything else is easier, better and more efficient.

Here’s a personal example. I started Goodness Marketing because I want my career to have a positive impact on the world.

This impacted my what: offering marketing services, training, consultancy and coaching (the things I’m good at and what my career is made up of), and my how: running an ethical business that works with organisations, people and businesses that make the world a better place.

Annoyingly when I first started out, while I had an idea what my why was, I never articulated or wrote it down. But a few months down the line I did, and that’s when things fell into place. I rebranded the company name to Goodness Marketing, so it would reflect my why - with “Goodness” referring both to the good work we do and that we do good in the world. My why also decided my strapline: “Marketing for goodness’ sake” and even influences decisions such as what paper I use for printing and who I picked as my accountant.

Of course I wish I’d done all this at the start. Because by taking the time to clearly articulate your why, you will find it quicker and easier to make decisions about your marketing in the future.

How to formulate your why

Consider some of the following questions to help you formulate your why.

  • What excites you about your business?

  • What sort of feedback makes you want to punch the air?

  • What do your friends and family say they like about your business and how you run it?

  • If money were no object, what would you do?

  • What are you passionate about?

  • How do you want your customers and clients to feel about you?


Start by writing down general thoughts around these questions, and see if a common theme emerges. If you get stuck, keep asking yourself “why?”. A good technique to get to the core answer is the 5 Whys - where you keep digging deeper and deeper until you uncover the truth (my three-year-old is excellent at this).

Finally, two things to bear in mind while working on uncovering your why:

  1. It isn’t easy. It’s not meant to be easy. You are shifting your thinking from your what and how - the daily running of your business and the decisions you make about products, profit and suchlike - to something deeper, more profound and harder to pin down. Don’t worry if you can’t nail your why in one day, but keep working on it, tweaking and perfecting, until you are happy with it. It will be worth it.

  2. Revisit your why from time to time. It may need updating as your business grows or as your motivations change. Do not stagnate!

If you need help uncovering your why or translating your why into your marketing, get in touch. Coaching is a great way to work through this in a systematic, mindful way, and I’d love to help. Find out more about marketing coaching with me here.