Start with Who

In one of the most popular TED Talks, Simon Sinek encourages people to “Start with Why”. That is, leaders should focus on articulating their organization’s purpose to move people into action.

I disagree. At least when it comes to communities.

My experience with building community across a variety of organizations such as Impact Hub, WWF and The League of Intrapreneurs has taught me that the Who is more important than the Why, especially in the beginning.

Here’s why:

1. You attract who you are

Most communities I’ve experienced are a mirror of their founders. For instance, the first Hub in Berlin was founded by a group of coaches and facilitators. Their vision was to create a diverse community of entrepreneurs, creatives and other people dedicated to building a radically better world.

In the end, however, the community was mostly comprised of coaches and fell apart as it couldn’t live up to its vision. Why? Because coaches attract coaches, not entrepreneurs. And much of the energy was spent discussing what should be rather than creating what could be. At least that was my perception of it at the time. The lesson I took for founding the Hub in Zürich is to start by building a nucleus of people that is a microcosm of the desired future from the beginning: the seed that contains the DNA for everything that is yet to come.

Consequently, we started by inviting a hand-picked group of people to our first co-creation events and asked them to become founding members. We then created a special program for social entrepreneurs since we quickly learned that they wouldn’t be able to join otherwise. And we wanted them to be at our core. This became the nucleus for attracting the 1000+ members that make up Impact Hub Zürich today. Of course there were many steps in between and we made plenty of mistakes on the way. But that’s a story for another article.

The Why sets the ambition. The Who defines the potential to deliver on this ambition.

2. It’s all about people

People often join a community because they resonate with its vision. But they will stay (or not) because of its people. I have seen many communities fail that had a beautiful Why but didn’t tend to the Who.

For example, most initiatives I know that set out to create a Teal-inspired collective haven’t gone anywhere. Many start out with a beautiful narrative of changing the world with an invitation for anyone to join — and then get stuck in endless discussions until people leave. A grand vision creates grand expectations. And if the experience doesn’t live up to those expectations, resentment, cynicism and mistrust build up and the community will disintegrate. Ultimately, it’s the quality of people and the relationships between them that keep a community together. Human connection (or lack thereof) will trump a strong mission statement any time.

A community that does this really well is Enspiral. The community is based in New Zealand and has created a new kind of collective that allows a diverse set of professionals and companies to do meaningful work together and create shared value. A key practice that binds the community together is an annual retreat where every member is invited to participate and deepen their relationship with one another. This ensures that human connections are kept intact as the community grows.

The Why is a good story. The Who is the lived experience.

3. Values > Purpose

It’s important to be aligned around a shared purpose. However, it’s even more important to have a set of shared values, especially when things go wrong. In times of darkness, it’s good to ask the question: Why do we exist? What is is the purpose that brought us together and how do we see our “raison d’être” today? The critical question, however, is the following: Who are we in this? What is it that we truly value and will defend with all our power?

For instance, when the Hub network was going through its global re-branding to Impact Hub some years ago, the conversation between founders was fairly aggressive and brought up a lot of tensions. Many people were upset and threatened to leave the network. The quality of the conversation shifted to a generative dialogue only when the community remembered and consequently acted from its core values: trust, courage and collaboration. Ultimately, the tensions were resolved and the network grew stronger than ever before. It’s what we stand for in moments of crisis that defines us.

A community that demonstrates the primacy of values over purpose is Burning Man. There are few people who can say what the purpose of Burning Man is. But almost all of its members know or are at least aware of the 10 Principles that guide how 70'000+ people come together for the week-long festival in the desert of Nevada each year. Being a “Burner” is not so much defined by having a shared vision but rather by embodying the values that the community stands for.

The Why adapts as the world changes. The Who takes a stand to change the world.

4. Boundaries matter

Many communities struggle with the question of whether to be open or closed. Most want to be inclusive and yet feel the need for some kind of boundary to protect what has been created. In other words, there’s a tension between diversity and coherence. Defining the Who can help mitigate this tension. It articulates who the community is for and what the criteria are to join.

For example, the League of Intrapreneurs only accepts people who are driving change from within powerful institutions. And it will not tolerate people who act against their core values: showing up as fully human, contributing as co-creators and practicing transparency among others. That is, the open vs closed dilemma can be transcended by defining clear criteria for the Who. That way, rather than being exclusive, the community becomes selective and sets a permeable boundary for people to join. The key is to be transparent about the criteria and then applying them rigorously.

A good example is the Ecstatic Dance community. It’s a free dance form that has become a world-wide movement that is open for anyone to join as long as they respect the guidelines on the dance floor: no talking, keeping the space safe and zero intoxication. It’s important to remove anyone from the community who is not respecting the guidelines. Otherwise it undermines the clarity of the Who and the experience of everyone involved.

The Why is an open invitation. The Who sets a healthy boundary.

The Golden Spiral

Based on these insights, I suggest evolving Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle around Why/How/What by placing the Who at its core and depicting it as a spiral rather than concentric circles to reflect its dynamic nature:

In other words, when you set out to give birth to a co-creative community, I would always start with the Who and then work my way outwards:

1. WHO are we and what do we stand for?

  • Articulate who you are and who you want to become
  • Invite a nucleus of people who embody the desired future
  • Inquire what creates value for you and how you want to be together
  • Define a coherent set of shared values & principles
  • Identify who is missing and how to weave them in

2. WHY do we exist and what is our ambition?

  • Presence the bigger context you are in
  • Explore what connects everyone
  • Inquire what wants to be born through you
  • Crystallize the world you want to build together
  • Define what success looks like

3. HOW do we work together to realize our ambition?

  • Clarify the needs to realize your ambition
  • Surface everyone’s gifts and connect with needs
  • Identify what’s missing and how to fill the gaps
  • Create a mechanism to honor everyone’s contribution
  • Agree on roles, rhythms and rules for working together

4. WHAT’s our concrete offering to the world?

  • Articulate your unique value proposition
  • Define the concrete offerings you want to make
  • Clarify the give/get relationship
  • Build prototypes and test with actual users
  • Evaluate success and adapt quickly

This is not a linear process, of course. You will continue to get back to the Who, Why, How and What at a deeper level to connect the different elements into a coherent whole. Hence the depiction as a spiral rather than a circle. And to be fair to Simon Sinek: Much of what he writes in “Start with Why” I would place within the Who. Or put differently: the deeper you go into the Why, the more you get into the Who. So you could argue it’s merely a more nuanced model. The boundaries are fluid.

Last but not least, it’s important to note that the more inwards you go, the harder it is to change things. The What changes on a regular basis as you respond to shifting needs. The How changes every so often as you learn to work together more effectively. The Why usually only changes when there is a bigger shift, internally or externally, and you need to rethink your reason for being. To change the Who is the most difficult of all and requires a deeply transformative experience, often accompanied with plenty of drama and angry people leaving the community. That’s why it’s wise to take the Who very seriously and dedicate a lot of attention to its cultivation from the beginning.

It is said you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Choose wisely.


Found this article insightful? Then please give a “clap” and share with your friends. Also, I’d love to read any comment you’d like to make — both critical and supportive. I feel I could write a whole book on this topic and have certainly many gaps to fill. Some people already gave valuable feedback that I started to integrate here. Thank you!

Curious about what I do in the world? Then check out www.michelbachmann.co