“Start with Why” for gaming entrepreneurs

I‘ve been in gaming for my whole career of 20 years. I’ve always wondered about the reasons that companies exist and why some companies can so magical, like Apple. After reading Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why”, I had the clarity. Here is a curation on why the purpose of the company matters so much, from the perspective of a video games entrepreneur.

Why are you starting a company

Game developers are people who want to make games. It’s a passionate industry, we do games because we love them and we have game ideas coming to our minds, and we want to put those ideas into actual products.

If we’ve worked in the industry, we’ve picked up a lot of traits from existing companies that we’ve worked with. How production works, what kind of team members you need to have for certain kinds of games.

The purpose of games companies is often that there is an idea. What is wrong with having a game idea, or a portfolio of game ideas and then building a company around them?

Purpose of the company

Simon Sinek is the author of Start With Why, a book on how companies can do better when they define the “Why” first, and then define the “How” and the “What”. The definitions can be described as follows.

  • “Why” is the reason and purpose for the company’s existence
  • “How” is to differentiate from the competition, HOWs are often given to explain how something is different or better.
  • “What” is the description of the products or services that your company produces

How are they different? “Why” is the reason to buy, and “What” is merely representing the tangible products as proof of that belief. The “What” is the reason we can point to rationalize why we so much like a company over another.

Why “what” can be wrong

When looking at things from the video games industry perspective, people are often starting games companies based on a game idea. If I’m reading Simon Sinek’s text right, this is a very “What” kind of approach to starting a company.

In the book, Sinek points out that Apple isn’t technically that different from its competitors. But Apple does all it’s communication, by relying on their “Why.” Apple’s “Why” is to challenge the status quo and to empower the individual. And their challenging the status quo is a pattern that is repeating in all of the things they say and do, which is the reason why people perceive Apple as so authentic.

Take the case of Creative versus Apple. Creative was far more capable of producing MP3 players, and they were the first to the market. But they marketed their offering as an “MP3 player with 5GB”, which is more of a “What” approach. Instead, Apple marketed it’s iPod as “1000 songs in your pocket”, giving us the “Why” we needed to make the decision.

Sinek points out that “Why” and “how” make up for our limbic brain and are responsible for all of our emotions and feelings, like trust and loyalty. This area of the brain is responsible for all human behavior and all our decision making. In addition, these emotions and feelings generate an association and relatedness towards people and organizations who are like us and share our beliefs.

Most companies generally start with “What” and “How” because that’s what their customers ask for. At the time when Simon Sinek was coming out with Start with Why, Apple was moving into the mobile space, and the companies in the market were reacting to the news of the iPhone in a very “What” oriented manner. Quoting Steve Ballmer on the iPhone in 2007, “$500 for a phone (laughs) and it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard. It’s not a very good email machine.” Watch it on Youtube by tapping here.

In 2019, Apple is selling millions of phones per year, whereas Microsoft is pretty much out of the phone’s business, after acquiring Nokia, another company with the “What” culture.

The big lesson here is that companies who act like commodity producers have a constant challenge to differentiate themselves from the competition. Chasing the competition, trying to match them feature-for-feature only deepens the “What” culture.

Why a hit game won’t be enough

Innovation in gaming has always been around, and hit games have stemmed from new gaming genres.

If the founder stumbles upon a brilliant new gaming idea, they can have a hit in their hands. But how do you build on top of the hit, when you want to have people in your growing company, replicating that hit?

Great gaming companies do not hire skilled people and motivate them; they hire already motivated people and inspire them. Companies with a strong sense of “Why” are able to inspire their employees. Such employees are more productive and innovative, and the feeling they bring to work attracts other people eager to work there as well.

How to discover the way

To discover the “why”, you need to look at possibilities on how you can help others. How you can deliver something that is for the good.

If you find something that your team can relate to, that can be a guiding mission for the whole team. When you have players, they will be able to relate to the “why” as well. It can make them feel that they are part of something great.

To help you figure out your “why” you need to ask: 

  • Why does your company exist? 
  • Why do you get out of bed in the morning? 
  • And why should anyone care?

For a games company, you can ask additional questions like:

  • How have games have been a good influence in your life?
  • Does my team have similar answers?
  • Out of the answers, can we find a “Why” that everyone can become aligned to?
  • What small steps do we need to take to align our players around this “Why”?

Leadership

In “Start with Why”, Simon Sinek points out that you can have successful leaders who are either “Why” or “How” leaders. He says that the “How” types of leaders can be very successful but they rarely build billion-dollar businesses that change the world. And while a “How” type doesn’t necessarily need a “Why” type as a partner to succeed, a “Why” type always needs a “How” type or they’ll end up as starving visionaries.

The difference between “Why” and “How” types also introduces the difference between the vision and mission statements of an organization. The vision is the founder’s intent, “Why” the company was founded. The mission is a description of “How” the company will create that future.

When both are clear, it will help the “Why” and the “How” types of leaders to have clearly defined roles in the partnership.

A famous example of this is Steve Jobs as the visionary and Tim Cook as the logistics. And you can see similarities in successful game teams, where you have two people working together with a team to build successful games. You have the visionary game creator and you have the operator who complements the visionary.

Retaining the “Why”

When companies grow, they start to lose the “why” and become more oriented with the “what”.

Volkswagen was the “Car of the people” with its inexpensive VW Beetle. But what do you think that the association with VW is nowadays when they brought out a $70,000 car?

There are similar examples in gaming, where game developers focus on the “how” and the “what” to produce hit games.

When the founders of the company start to leave, it becomes even more difficult for companies to retain any of their “why”. Think about how Apple was lost after Steve Jobs was exiled, but then how the company stood up and became the company it is today after he returned.

Competition

When looking at the competition and what they are doing, you can’t really see more than the “What”. If you compete with them, it will always be on the level of the “what”. Companies just can’t compete on the “why” level as it’s always so intrinsic and personal.

Those who forget why they were founded, will gradually start to adopt the “What” in them, and they will show up to the race every day to outdo someone else instead of outdoing themselves. You are your own best competition.

Closing words

Ask these questions, to figure out your why:

  • Why does the gaming world need my company and the games that the company produces?
  • Can I craft an identity from the “why” that is true and very personal to the founders?

If you are the founder of a company, you should start your exploration of your “Why” now. The “Why” is within you. And once you find it, the hardest part is to remain true to it.