Sunday, May 16, 2010

Week 20: What makes Apple so great?

Distribution Source:
Content Source: Simon Sinek
Format: Video
Length: 18 minutes, 5 seconds
Link: Simon Sinek on

What makes Apple so great?

I'm sure many of you are rolling your eyes, especially given that I've already posted indirectly about the company once before.

I'm sorry, I can't help myself - I believe strongly that companies like Apple are our only hope for getting out of the current mess. But really, even if you hate the company, either for its success, its products, or its fanatic followers, the question still stands: how has one company managed to become so synonymous with what hundreds of companies strive for - innovation?

For me, Apple has always been intuitive. Not necessarily their products - although you can make that argument as well - but their ethos. Marketing words like "sleek" or "revolutionary" are projected onto the company's products, but its success is rooted in something deeper - a connection with people who innately desire what its products provide. The iPhone of course has had resounding commercial success, but at it's core it came from a fundamental belief: given the technological capacity that exists in the world today, there is no reason we should not have a device that seamlessly combines a phone with a music player with a gaming platform with an email server. And the tireless efforts to realize and perfect the product of this belief have revolutionized the world.

But this post is about more than Apple. It is about the way in which leaders, at an individual and an institutional level, inspire and mold our lives. I use Apple as an example because it is something we can all relate to, a case study in successful institutional leadership. This week's video really struck a chord. It describes why very different leaders are able to be so successful - to resonate with us.

Simply, the argument made by Simon Sinek is that people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it. He says - and I agree - that the true innovators are those whose message comes from the inside-out, not the outside-in. Yes, I admit this sounds hokey, but his framework for explaining this makes a lot of sense. He starts by drawing concentric circles, with the outermost circle saying "what", followed by "how", and finally the bulls-eye, "why." Everyone knows what he or she is selling, from the Girls Scout who is hawking those delicious thin mints to the beer vendor at a baseball game. Fewer people know how their product or concept creates value or meaning. How in this case refers to both the mechanics and the actual value proposition of a concept or product. And fewer still have the answer to the elusive question of why...

In this case "why" is not something obvious; the answer is not "to make money." The why is much more about the core of an idea. The why is ultimately why you subscribe to an idea or buy a product. As much as we'd like to believe otherwise, this is not based exclusively on rigorous, rational analysis. How many times have you heard a completely logical argument for purchasing something, and then decided not to because it didn't "feel" right? Conversely, how many times have you seen someone buy into something - an idea, product, whatever - based purely on "intuition"?

It turns out there is some cognitive science underlying all of this. The brain's neocortex is what controls rational thoughts (ie, "what"), while the lymbic brain is focused on the feelings ("how"/"why"), and also on the decision making - with no capacity for language. When we communicate from the outside-in people can understand the words and the logic but it does not drive behavior. But when we communicate from the inside out it speaks directly to this part of the brain and allows people to then rationalize the message using the neocortex.

To bring it back to Apple using Sinek's example, if Apple were like everyone else, their marketing might sound like this: "We make great computers, they’re beautifully designed, and they’re easy to use… want to buy one?” This is how most people operate - they say what we want and expect some behavior. But guess what? This approach is neither inspiring nor successful. What if instead Apple starts with the why: "In everything we do we believe in challenging the status quo… we believe in thinking differently.. the way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautiful and simply designed. They just so happen to be great computers. Want to buy one?" Anyone who has seen the Apple iPhone or iPad commercials will recognize the company's approach as the latter as opposed to the former.

Again, why harp on Apple? To me, it's obvious: where others have had the same opportunity with as many or more resources, they have fallen short. As Sinek points out, Gateway made a flat screen computer and nobody bought it. Dell made mp3 players and PDAs and I challenge any of you to find someone who owns one. Why would you buy an mp3 player or PDA from a computer manufacturer? It doesn't make sense... But in Apple's case, it does. From Apple, people are more than willing to buy a music player, or a phone, or a computer. Apple's genius has been its ability to be defined by its ingenuity and not by a product category.

Of course the underlying message goes beyond Apple. Consider Sinek's examples of the Wright Brothers, or Martin Luther King Jr. MLK had no internet or mass media through which he could invite people to hear his speech at the Lincoln Memorial. So why did 250,000 people come? Instead of talking about what was needed to change America, Dr. King had made a name for himself speaking about what he believed - the "why." People who heard his beliefs and believed in his beliefs told others... and others... and people showed up. A lot of them. They showed up not for him, but for themselves, in the same way that the buyers of Apple's products do so for themselves and not for the company's profit margins.

It is the capacity to create something so instinctively purposeful that also happens to make the company one of the most profitable on the planet. There is a fantastic lesson here for individual leaders: the difference between Apple and other companies is the difference between leaders and those who lead. To paraphrase Sinek, leaders have a position of power or authority, while those who lead - those who start with "why" - are the ones who inspire us. We follow those who lead because we have to and because we want to. Those who truly lead help us by reflecting a piece of ourselves back to us. This reflexivity develops our self-awareness, fosters our growth, and hopefully over time builds in us the capacity to lead others.


  1. Couple points to just open up some debate...Obama got elected on hope and beliefs but is failing at executing on the "what." Does one without the other lead to failure / falling short of greatness. I would argue yes. That's why most people hate politicians.

    So, assuming you have both the "what" and "why", does that mean success? No. You have to use the "why" to sell your ideas and products? Take Apple's nemesis google and its phone. Superior product, yes. Mission and why...yes. Why did it fail? Horrible marketing and sales campaign without explaining the why to anyone not in silicon valley or motivated enough to click on their ads to research why they should buy their product...ultimately they severely f*ed up the business model and pissed off all their partners in the process = failure. Ultimately it comes down to execution.

    Also, with Apple, the real success is in the business model innovation, not the product innovation. As you pointed out, mp3 players existed well before the ipod...what made the ipod successful was the iTunes business model. What most people fail to realize is that most value is created from superior business model innovation, not product innovation. Just ask Sony...

  2. Ted Talks is a really great place. (website)

    Three years ago I watched this discussion of the brain (and mind) as seen through the filter of observable, quantifiable and replicatable phenomena.

    Ramachandran's treatment for "phantom limb" was so compelling it was incorporated into a recent episode of the pop culture TV show "House" (in a highly Hollywoodized fashion, of course)


  3. Ahhhh! Here is the link!!!