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Start with ‘why’ you want to build something vs ‘what’ you want to build

When you are starting out, it is important for you to define and document why you are building this product. There are some standard ways to write a proper why statement, but I encourage you to take your own stab at it. Write down why you are building something in a place you can visit often and share with other members of your team. Start with your why. This why will serve as your longest companion and will help you answer several difficult questions along your journey.

This is the why of Spotify, as defined by their founder, Daniel Ek: “to unlock the potential of human creativity by giving a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their art and billions of fans the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired by these creators.[1]

If you have used Spotify, do you think the way the product features are present is centered around this why?

Having a high-level vision of where you want to be is the most important step to start with. If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, you need to know what your vision is. In other words, why you are doing what you are doing.

I was consulting an early-stage start-up that had created a comprehensive marketplace for the beauty and wellness industry. They had launched their minimum viable products (MVP) in the app store and were tracking the progress of their adoption and simultaneously prioritizing the next set of features to build. Even though their initial numbers seemed promising, they were having issues with determining the next set of features to build as they could see that the market was heavily saturated, and with the current growth of customers, they would not be able to scale users to make a meaningful impact. Their competitors, backed by heavy funding, were boasting close to a million-plus users, whereas they had around a thousand. No amount of “innovative features” were going to make a big difference, as they knew that the customers were hardly investing enough time to discover the features that made them stand out in the first place.

That is when their vision, their why, came into play. When I asked them why they had invested their time and money into building this specific marketplace, of course the first answer was money. Digging a bit deeper, they wanted to gather data and help the beauty and wellness industry make data-driven decisions regarding their customers. They wanted the vendors to know who their customers actually were, which was a pain point for their vendors.

Things got simpler then. They could still solve their why of enabling data-driven decisions, but in a different niche. Their why was to help their clients learn more about their customers. So, we mapped out all their possible customers and finally found a niche where the market was not saturated, and the founders were able to stay true to their why. They started focusing on skin care treatment centers and salons instead of the initial mom-and-pop barber shops and wellness centers. Now, instead of spending more money and trying to push their way into an already saturated market, they were able to find a better product-market fit. Their product pitch also changed. Initially, they would introduce themselves as a marketplace that would help salon owners acquire more customers, and as a result, get customer data. This shifted to a data company that was interested in giving more profile information per customer to the owner of the establishment.

As it turned out, it was more profitable for skin care centers to learn more about their customers, as they had more customized features to offer. Here, having identified a why enabled the founders to improve their product offerings and achieve a much higher acceptance of their product.

Having a well-thought-out why will not only help you steer your company during the course of selling your product but will also help you attract the right customers to your brand.

In one of the most coveted TED Talks, Simon Sinek presented the Golden Circle Theory, which is divided into three simple parts: why, how, and what.[2]

This theory shows how organizations can stand out from their competition by communicating their differences. According to Sinek, humans respond best when messages are communicated with their limbic brain — the part that controls emotions, behavior, and decision-making. While most corporations work their way inward, starting with the what, in the Golden Circle, the key lies in working outward — that is, starting with the why.


Sinek explains that communicating the reason you exist and behave as you do — your why — is the best way to inspire people to action. Successfully communicating the passion behind the why is a way to communicate with listeners’ limbic systems, which process feelings like trust and loyalty. When the listeners have the same passion as you, they work for results with their blood and sweat because they aren’t doing it for the paychecks; they are doing it for themselves.

People do not buy what you do, people buy why you do it. To give an example, Sinek explains how Dell, a major computer company, launched MP3 players that flopped in the market because they told their customers what they were offering but not why they were offering it. Another major computer company, Apple, designed MP3 players that sold as soon as they landed in the market because Apple communicated why it did what it did. In their words, “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo, we believe in thinking differently.” This powerful statement is why people stand in lines for hours whenever a new Apple product is launched, even now.


An organization’s how includes their strengths and capabilities to create a product and differentiate themselves from their competitors. According to Sinek, how also communicates with people’s limbic brains, but companies should work out how to present their why with their how for the best results.


It is easy for anyone to communicate what they do. It is how most people, leaders, and organizations in the world function. The what can be the products a company sells or the services they offer. Sinek explains that what only engages with the neocortex — the part of our brain that is analytical and rational. But the neocortex plays a smaller role in decision-making, and therefore, the organizations that focus on communicating why and how instead of what are more successful.

Now, within a corporate setting, it is even more important to understand the why or the vision of the company because it is easy to get lost in the world of new cool features and lose track of the why. As an employee, you want to create a great product, but you also want to ensure that you are aligned with management and that your products are enabling the vision of the company.

Ideally, you should know the company’s vision and be aligned with that. However, understanding and aligning with a single vision in a large matrix organization is often quite complicated. I have never been able to resonate on a personal level with any of the vision statements of the large organizations I have worked with. If you don’t have a set company vision that you can use, finding out your boss’s why is a good place to start. You will often find that they have not defined it themselves. In that case, you can propose a vision and get it vetted by them.

[1] Garcia, “Spotify’s Corporate Mission”

[2] Sinek, Start with Why

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