Book Review: Start with Why by Simon Sinek

February 2021

You are probably familiar with this book or the concept of the ‘Starting with Why’. This concept is commonly popular amongst online marketers and business coaches (or so they call themselves) who would rather coach in the business mindset than give you effective marketing tools to increase your revenue or other numbers in your business. 

So, why is it so popular amongst the instagram gurus and how would you be able, or not be able to use this concept in your business? 

I read the book for you, and here is my humble yet somewhat professional opinion. 

What is in the book?
The author talks about a framework with the three main elements of what - how - why. Here, the ‘why’ acts as the most important to succeed, do business and stay on track with your business idea to prevent failure in future. 

The author shares examples of the different highly successful brands and is circling around Apple as the core example. The author claims that you can (only) achieve success when translating your inner business reasons and incentives to your audience and so to attract the audience that will resonate with your reasons as well as to retain your customers and thus create loyalty. 

My first impressions of Start with Why
Regardless of my respect for the author and a sincere love for Apple, I have a strong feeling this book is not only an advertisement for the brand, but is also financed by it. I haven’t found any proof to support this opinion, however.
Two main topics I recognized throughout the book are what we call in marketing the positioning and customer retention, translated by the author into an inspirational speech. It proposes a framework without giving concrete or applicable tools for using it. Put simply, after finishing the book, the reader still has no clue how to find their own ‘why’. The book is far from marketing and business, in general. Although it touches the topics, which can be translated into marketing jargon as positioning and customer retention, the author avoids this terminology.
A compliment to the writer, however. Sinek wrote this book implementing the finest marketing tools to reach a broad audience and is sharing an illusion that wealth and success can be achieved with this concept, without giving any specific tools. The author seems to be very well aware that this will sell, since air without theory sells much easier to most Dunning-Kruger affected individuals. (Dunning-Kruger effect suggest that when you know little, you might think you know it all, and visa versa. When reading this book, one might get the idea that this is in fact marketing).
Beautifully chosen examples of hugely successful corporations might be used in a way to inspire or educate. However, other writers have been using the same business cases to show how methods such as research, risk management or systematic marketing approach deliver successful results.

The idea of this concept is rather idealistic and nowhere near the reality of the most businesses, big and small. When talking about realistic view, we need to focus on the customer’s why since most customers don’t care about the intentions of the business they buy from.
Also, all the mentioned brands and companies have such a strong marketing with the teams using the most modern methods, research and tools that focusing on the ‘why’ to some might feel degrading and simplistic to describe their efforts towards the brand.

Does our brain actually work like that?
One of the chapters is dedicated to the limbic brain, or the part of our cognition dealing with emotions and memory. According to the author, responsible for our decision making. Somewhat inaccurate description raises questions in those, like me, who is actively learning and exploring the discipline of consumer neuroscience. Since there is plenty of research on decision making today, I can only share my knowledge that we make decisions based upon the two strongly opposed yet collaborative mechanisms: the Nucleus Accumbens, our reward center that craves for the satisfaction, and the insula and the amygdala, answering to pains and fears and telling us what something will cos us, literally or figuratively. These two systems work like a scale, constantly weighing how a certain decision might affect us. Compare it with choosing for or against a chocolate bar when you are on a diet. Here, brand memory (located in the limbic part according to the author) might play role, but the processes are mostly affected by our own intentions. Saying, that limbic brain needs a brand’s ‘why’ to make a choice in favor of the brand is too simplified. As mentioned before, I am in the wrong position to explain this process in-depth, but in no less position than the author.

Opening the world of amateurism
The framework gives an idea that a few simple mental steps will lead to success in alignment with Apple, Disney or alike. It does not share any concrete tools, nor it tells you how to find your own voice (your why). Upon examples, and a slight criticism towards complex data marketing, the author hides truths important to those who want to grow. Following advice, you will probably lack results in numbers, will have no idea what to do and will never attract investors to your business. The why the author is talking about doesn’t guarantee any resonance with your audience either. The economics theory behind supply and demand is completely left out, which, let me explain, does make up the basics of microeconomics and free market activities.

Why definitely not a business book?
This book has been used by so many aspiring marketers. However, here is a problem. This beautiful piece of writing isn't professional nor scientific literature. This framework cannot be applied as a mechanism in business. The writing is focusing on huge brands while most businesses aren’t able to become this big. It mentions billions of dollars due to working on this ‘why’ whilst the reader might not be able to get such a great market share due to market specifics (niche) or their own capabilities (explore TAM SAM SOM). Using outliers as examples can never be educational, just informative, since we cannot learn nor relate to these giants. Also, we can easily mistaken successes of big brands due to the ‘why’, while the real factors might lie in great management, process control, determination and talent.
Most businesses, too, need to rather focus on basic things such as their (systematic) marketing and the business processes. And to some business models with transactional sales, this book isn't even applicable in my humble view.

Why is the ‘why’ a guru bible?
Out of amateurism, to say the least. The Dunning-Kruger effect plays a huge role here. In other words - one reads the book because they see others praise this framework and due to the lack of knowledge and expertise, doesn’t even see the flaws and incompleteness of it. From what I have seen online, I would even dare to doubt that every single guru using this framework has actually read the book.

Without proper marketing knowledge, the contents of the book are very easy to misinterpret. The information can only be put in the right place when having a full understanding of marketing as a system rather than some elements (online marketing, social media marketing). Unfortunately, if the author had great intentions to inspire, the book has been misread by aspirant-experts.

Do I recommend?
In general, the book is a good read for entrepreneurs and perhaps smaller firms, who have been in business for a while and might have lost the sight of their motivation. It is good for those, I can imagine, who would want to get inspired by the examples of big firms, and know very little of marketing. Also, those interested in some history of big brands, with a huge emphasis on Apple, when you read it as a historical writing.

Recommending to skip this read, however, to those who would want to learn more about the discipline of marketing, and perform their skills on businesses of others. Also, in my professional opinion without any personal bias, I would not recommend to read this for individual entrepreneurs who want to use this knowledge on their business.

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