More than a decade ago, Simon Sinek published his influential bestseller Start With Why. While Sinek didn’t anticipate the emergence of category design, with a little modification his Start With Why construct helps reinforce the category design process.
To describe his concept, Sinek sketches three concentric circles. The outer circle is labeled WHAT; the next circle in is HOW, the circle in the middle is WHY.
Most companies, he writes, present themselves to the world from the outside-in. They start with WHAT, which is what the company makes or does. You’ve heard this a zillion times. You ask a company leader about their company, and you get something like, “We make this thing,” or, “We help make such-and-such more efficient.” Most of the time, you’re left wondering why that even matters to you.
After someone explains their company’s WHAT, Sinek writes, they might move to HOW — as in how the company does what it does. By that time, your eyes might be glazing over as you try to pay attention while thinking of what you want for dinner later.
If you keep listening, maybe the person will get around to saying WHY the company does what it does — why the world needs this product or service and what motivates the company. But, as Sinek points out, many companies don’t even know their WHY. So they certainly can’t articulate it.
Sinek writes: ”If a company does not have a clear sense of WHY then it is impossible for the outside world to perceive anything more than WHAT the company does. And when that happens, manipulations that rely on pushing price, features, service or quality become the primary currency of differentiation.” In other words, the WHAT only leads to an argument that you’re better than competitors, which is just an arms race. You say your dial goes to 11 while competitors only go to 10, and the next day a competitor says its dial now goes to 12. Only WHY can separate a company as being different, new and unique.
Sinek proposes that the most effective companies present themselves from the inside-out — they start with WHY.
They know why the company must exist, what important problem it solves, and what motivates the people who work there. That approach echoes what we preach in category design: don’t sell a product — sell the need to solve a problem in a unique and effective way and why you are the one to solve it. That’s the WHY.
And as Sinek points out, WHY immediately catches people’s interest. It makes potential customers, investors, employees or partners want to know more.
Companies that start with WHY move from there to explain HOW they solve the problem, and finally get around to telling you WHAT products they sell. By then, you’re much more likely to be interested in those products.
Category design brings a new element to Sinek’s construct: a way to discover your WHY.
Discovering your WHY is at the heart of the category design process. That process begins with the question: What problem do you solve? It digs deep on that question until the company finds its reason for being — the reason the product or service it is offering must exist in the world. Once a company can articulate why it really matters, it understands it’s WHY, and that WHY influences and drives everything else — the HOW and the WHAT.
“WHAT you do brings your WHY to life,” Sinek writes. “A WHY is your core belief. HOWs are the actions and decisions you take to support the WHY. The WHAT is everything you produce. WHAT includes your products and services, but also your marketing, PR, culture and whom you hire.”
When going through the category design process, a company captures its why in a point of view, or POV. The POV is a story of the WHY. In 1,000 words or less, it should describe the problem that is going unsolved, why solving it matters, and how that problem can get solved. Only after covering all of that should a POV even mention the company’s products or brand.
In other words, the POV in category design does, in fact, begin with discovering the WHY, then helps articulate that WHY and the supporting HOW and WHAT.
A POV is a powerful way to tell the company’s story. It’s the key to a great investor deck or sales deck. It’s a guide for speeches the CEO might give. It’s vital when luring talent. And the POV story and language flows into marketing, messaging, the website and every other way the company expresses itself.
When done well, category design — and starting with WHY — separates a company from competitors and puts the company in a differentiated category.
“Companies that study their competitors in hopes of adding the features and benefits that will make their products ‘better’ are only working to entrench the company in WHAT it does,” Sinek writes. “Companies with a clear sense of WHY tend to ignore their competition, whereas those with a fuzzy sense of WHY are obsessed with what others are doing.”
Category design does more than start with WHY — it helps a company understand its WHY and how to express it. Then the company can move to HOW and WHAT, and have a far greater impact while leaving WHAT-obsessed competitors behind.