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Getting to Why

November 21, 2010

Earlier this year, a TED talk by Simon Sinek made its rounds on the internet. In it, Simon compares the marketing strategy of companies like Apple to the rest of the industry. Niki and I saw the video if the talk right after we’d closed the acquisition deal selling AgileZen to Rally, and it codified a lot of the ideas that we’d had while launching the business.

Simon argues that most companies approach marketing in an entirely backwards fashion – focusing on describing what they are in business to sell. Companies like Apple instead focus on understanding and explaining why they exist. In so doing, Simon argues, Apple speaks to the more primal nature of their customers, appealing directly to their emotions rather than convincing them with logical arguments.

The same effect can be seen in the rise of Audi, whose car line was once considered an afterthought to BMW and Mercedes-Benz, but is now one of the fastest growing luxury car brands worldwide. Their marketing certainly talks about the quality and performance of their cars, but they mostly focus on their company’s way of thinking versus the other German luxury brands.

When I first saw Simon’s talk, I immediately recognized that the same motivation can be found not just in marketing techniques, but also in product development and the creation of a startup.

We didn’t do it deliberately, but I think this is the reason we’ve seen a good deal of success with Zen. When we first started talking about the idea that would eventually become Zen, we were primarily motivated by the idea that all of our competitors’ products were too complex to serve a the massive small-to-midsize business market. We decided at a very early stage that we were in business to convince others that less software is better. It was this idea that led us to creating a simple, approachable tool for managing work – the what resulted from the why, rather than the other way around.

Since features inevitably lead to complexity, we actually focused on implementing as few features as possible. In a feature-to-feature comparison, we’d lose against many of our competitors, but we don’t want to sell a product. We want to sell an idea – that most software is much too complex, and the majority of features simply add noise to the signal. Our customers may not realize it, but this is why they buy Zen. Being less of a product has given us double-digit revenue growth every month since we launched without a sales staff and without much of a marketing budget.

Simplicity, of course, is not always the how that successful companies strive for. Apple’s how is more about its aesthetic and challenging the status quo of computers as chunky black boxes that are hard to use and understand. The iPad is an unbelievably complex device, with a custom processor and operating system – but Apple owns 90% of the tablet market share because it’s a beautiful product that challenges the status quo. Audi’s cars are likewise complex, powerful performance machines.

Apple has been so successful in selling this idea that ownership of an Apple product is often a source of pride and an indication of success. Of course, this is also due to the price point at which they sell their products, but if they weren’t able to offer a compelling differentiator against their competitors, they wouldn’t be able to sell their products for the prices they do.

We’ve seen similar behavior in Zen’s uses – not necessarily the pride of ownership, but definitely the desire to tell others about the product. We simply wouldn’t still be in business without our customers selling our product by word of mouth.

The same effect can be seen in other fields as well, with one of the best examples being politics. Many intellectuals lament that the majority of modern political discourse doesn’t come anywhere near discussing the actual issues that affect us, with politicians instead just making pleas at the basic emotional nature of their constituency. If you live in America, this idea is almost certainly burned into your short term memory from the recent barrage of campaign commercials, most of which just slung mud and invoked bogeymen, without offering any actual solutions.

Is it that politicians don’t have ideas? Of course not – they’ve simply realized that by appealing to emotions, they can optimize the incredibly small amount of time they have to can grab the attention of the most people possible.

At the risk of proselytizing, I’d also argue that this is why the GOP was so wildly successful in the most recent elections, as well as in 2000 and 2004. As a group, they understand and agree upon how to deliver a unified message concerning why they exist, at least much more so than do the Democrats. This is the reason Republicans can convince so many people to vote against their own economic interests. It’s also why people buy and love Apple products, even if they understand and disagree with the closed nature of OS X and the iOS ecosystem.

Understanding the base reasons for actions can be used for good and evil. Most everything worth doing requires convincing others that it’s worthwhile – whether it’s launching a business, selling a product, running for office, or applying for a job. By taking a moment to develop a cohesive message of why you’re doing what you’re doing, you can turn humankind’s emotional nature into a powerful megaphone that will amplify your message.

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