A Website Should Start With “WHY” And “HOW” Before “WHAT.” (Part Two)

For Indie-Creatives & For Small Businesses interested in & .

Good looking websites with slick user interfaces are a dime-a-dozen.

Effective websites, on the other hand–websites that transform frazzled strangers into interested prospects, prospects into customers, and finally, customers into raving fans–websites like these are far more rare. And as for effective websites built on impossibly small budgets?

They’re only slightly more common than four-leaf clovers growing on the dark side of a blue moon.

But not due to a lack of funds.

The fact is, most websites, regardless of budget, fail to perform because the people who created them skipped the three important tasks covered in this article, and instead, jumped straight into defining how they want their website to look.

Unfortunately, as most people end up learning the hard way, appearance isn’t nearly as crucial to your website’s success as:

  • WHY the website needs to exist in the first place,
  • HOW the message transmitted by the website differs from similar companies and providers in the market (e.g. the values, principles, and culture unique to your business), and
  • WHAT functionality the website needs to perform on behalf of your business and the people who visit it.

Only after answering these questions should you concern yourself with details like appearance or navigation. While these components are very important (and we’ll be addressing them at length in future articles), they are layers comprising your website which should serve to amplify the core purpose and message of your business. Otherwise they are merely decoration without substance.

Understanding WHY?

Simon Sinek, in the TED-talk “Start With Why?” (named after his book of the same title) says that:

People don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it. ~Simon Sinek

This “WHY” is your business’s reason for being. And since your website is a digitized representation of your business–an online avatar representing you and your team–your WHY? validates the existence of your website, too.

Defining HOW?

To Simon’s insightful quote above, I would only add that:

People don’t come back for what you do, they come back for HOW you do it.

Today customers want your business to do more than just solve their problem. They want to feel a connection with the people behind your business. They want to feel like their values and principles are reflected in the people who make the products they purchase and who deliver the services they enjoy. Your customers want their lifestyle and their possessions to affirm their identity and to validate what they believe about the world.

This requires that your products and/or services are consciously created in response to your business’s WHY? and that these products / services are shaped by your business’s HOW? Only then will the WHAT? even matter to potential customers.

Which means the creation of your website must also be guided by your unique WHY?, HOW?, and (only then) WHAT?

Tools & Resources

I created the tool below to guide you through the process of identifying your WHY? HOW? and WHAT? The WHY? and the HOW? are by far the most important. The WHAT? is meant to be very generic at this stage; it’s purpose is to ensure that the software we use to manage the website (covered in later articles) is adequate for the required functionality.

There’s a mind-map version in iThoughtsHD format for those of you who (like me) enjoy working on an iPad. I’ve also included a version for the popular XMind mind-mapping software, which runs on any platform and is free of charge. There’s also a plain-text, Markdown formatted version suitable for opening in a text editor or word processor, and finally, an OPML version for use in outlining software, or the many productivity tools that can import OPML:

Download The WHY? HOW? & WHAT? of Your Website

Below you’ll find an example of the results of this exercise, as provided by a small businesses owner in the koi pond & aquarium installation and maintenance business.

(Note: the responses have been edited for clarity and style, while preserving all the meaning and intent of the original. Also, the exercise is best carried out via a mind-mapping tool running on an iPad or other touch-screen devise. Pen and paper work fine, too, but mind-maps, unlike the backs of napkins, allow for easier manipulation of the prompts and answers–as well as the ability to export in multiple formats automatically.)

A Guided Questionnaire For Defining Your Website’s WHY? HOW? & WHAT?


Q: Who and what does your business care about and why?

A: As a koi pond installation and maintenance business owner, I care about koi and other species of domesticated fish, and the homeowners who are drawn to take care of them and who want to incorporate koi in the surroundings. I care about koi and koi ponds because, not only are they beautiful, but they introduce a living, breathing, moving animal into an otherwise static yard or landscape. These fish also depend on their owners for food and protection, and so they are more than just a static “water feature,” but also, companions that remind us of the preciousness of life. Having derived so much enjoyment from koi, as well as having reaped the calming effects and serenity of koi ponds, it is natural for me to want to share this pastime with others of like mind. I also want to provide the happiest, healthiest environments possible for these special, long-lived fish and to do that I need to assist as many koi pond owners as possible with the cleanliness and maintenance of the ponds where their water loving pets live.

Q: What human endeavor or aspect of modern life matters to you / your business so much that it’s worth supporting in favor of other alternatives? Why?

A: Of all the labor intensive businesses that cater to homeowners that I feel qualified to run and manage, I chose a landscaping niche because I enjoy working outdoors and working with my hands. I chose to work with koi and koi ponds in favor of other landscaping work because I’ve enjoyed keeping fish since I was a child. I find it very satisfying when, over time, fish, lilies, and the other fauna and flora growing in a pond start to mature and to become a part of the landscape and local ecosystem. When plants die, they are simply dug out, composted, and replanted. But when a fish passes, especially a large koi, there’s a true sense of loss. Conversely, when it’s alive there’s also a real sense of responsibility experience by the owner, and me, the caretaker.


Q: Among the people / businesses who provide products / services / experiences similar to yours, what values / principles do you prioritize more than they do? and how do these values / principles influence your product / service / customer experience in a meaningful way?

A: Among other landscaping and koi pond installation and maintenance businesses, we pride ourselves in prioritizing cleanliness above all else: a clean pond, clear equipment, clean workers, and a clean appearance. When everything inside a pond and that comes into contact with a pond is clean, it helps to ensure that everything is, and stays, healthy and beautiful. In addition to cleanliness, and as a way of promoting it, my business values hard work and communication. By communicating effectively with homeowners by business builds relationships, which makes it easier to share essential koi care and feeding knowledge, to recommend supplies, and to work together to provide a beautiful and healthy home for their wonderful fish who depend on us.


Q: What kinds of functions will the website need to perform?

  • website will act primarily as a personal bio / business brochure that encourages visitor / prospect initiated contact or request for more information
  • website will collect contact information for later follow up
  • website will feature a portfolio showcasing past work / completed projects / successful events
  • website will collect email addresses for an auto-responder series or newsletter
  • website will collect phone numbers for individual callback by a human being / company representative
  • website will feature content written specifically to rank for niche-relevant search phrases / keywords
  • website will feature temporally relevant, frequently updated, newsworthy articles / blog posts
  • website will feature educational, inspirational, or entertaining content
  • website will feature text based articles / resources
  • website will feature image based content
  • website will feature mixed-media content

While these answers won’t necessarily end up on his business’s website verbatim, it shouldn’t be difficult to see how they will influence and shape every single piece of content and functionality that does.

Stay tuned for Part Three of this series! We’ll learn how to align the objectives of a customer with the objectives of a business in order to generate, prioritize, and sequence the content that will form the backbone of an effective website.


About Jeremy Lee James
I believe that stories and storytellers, matter. That's why I'm writing a novel called THE LAST NAPHIL. And why I founded Write Click Media & Hosting: a one-stop website solution for authors & indie-creatives who want to grow their audience, nurture their community, & sell to their fans. Entertaining readers and empowering my peers—that's the goal—and I share the journey here on Wordslinger.