“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”
– Simon Sinek

We’ve heard it before: find your “why.” But what does it really mean, and why does it matter now more than ever? 

We know Simon Sinek from his ridiculously popular TED Talk: “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” Let’s start there, and continue below on why moving from “what” to “why” might be your business’s most important strategic move.



You know what you do. You build houses. You make widgets. You fix teeth. If you didn’t know what you do, you wouldn’t be in business.

Chances are, your business started with “what.” “What” can be:

Sinek’s thesis is that we start with “what,” and only seek the “why” once we’ve become established. By then, finding our “why” is often an exercise that we don’t take seriously, even though our “why” exists to serve the pre-existing “what.”



“How” comes from the big team meetings: the ones where you get out of the office and try to achieve the 30,000-foot view. The “how” is:

Our businesses mature when we define our “how.” These are valuable tools to achieve a higher market share. 

But don’t be fooled; this is not your “why.” Your “how” may have been driven by vision, but it’s still ultimately about money and making more of it.

We’re surrounded by efforts to sell us things. Millennials especially have been so inundated with “features and benefits” chatter since the crib that they’re immune to it. Whether you give them the “what” (“We sell cheap widgets, wanna buy some?”) or your “how” (“We have better widgets than the competition, because we have a process they don’t have!”), your pitch will usually fall flat. 

If you want to engage with your customers on a more meaningful level than winning a purchase from them, you need to change the conversation. Stop talking about your widgets and how they’re special, and start talking about what matters. 



Purpose matters. Millennials have taken over the buying-power throne, and the idea of a “purpose-driven customer” will become less of a buzzword and more of a reality as we go forward. 

Very few businesses have articulated their “why” in an honest way. Even fewer, with exceptions like Apple, started with it.

I say “honest way” because if you define your “why” to serve the interests of a pre-existing “what,” it’s an illusion that your customers will see right through. Your “why” should exist autonomously of your product, with the “what” just happening to serve that vision. 

You can identify a “why” statement when it follows a formula that goes something like this; “To [blank] so that [blank].” The statement should resonate with your customers on an emotional level. 

Sinek articulates his “why” statement as “To inspire people to do the things that inspire them so that, together, we can change our world.” Perhaps for our widget company, our “why” would look something like this: “To create time-saving widgets so that our customers can focus on the things that matter most.”

His thesis is that the “why” biologically speaks to us. Not being about a “what” means that it’s not about money, and so it’s not the message people expect to hear from a business. 

“Why” is the only thing that will build trust and, ultimately, loyalty. Build a business on “what” or “how,” and there will always be a cheaper widget with a better process. Put the vision first and make the widget a detail, then you’re competing in a space that your competition can’t reach.

So, I invite you to think about the spark driving your business. Forget your products, and forget what makes you unique. Clear the slate and ask yourself what unites all that you do. It’s the biggest question you can ask in business, and arguably the most important.