I don’t know how I happened to stumble upon “How I Built This” with Guy Raz, but I do know that I am glad to have found it. As the title indicates, NPR produces this podcast hosted by Guy Raz, where he interviews people who created and founded companies worldwide. The companies he focuses on are well-known internationally, with a shorter segment at the end about an up-and-coming company.
What originally drew me in was my interest in the inspiration behind some of these companies that are commonplace in today’s society. The first episode I listened to was about Instagram and I was blown away by how the company started from chaos. After that, I was hooked and continued to listen to episodes on companies that I am interested in or whose products or services I use.
After listening to over 10 episodes, I was concerned they would begin to get repetitive and boring, but each start-up story is different. Some are more complex, while others started from a simple idea that someone had confidence in. TOMS, which was started by Blake Mycoskie after a trip to Argentina where he saw kids who needed shoes to attend school, is one of the more complex stories. Before he started TOMS, Mycoskie had already founded and sold four businesses. The episode went through each one, finally culminating with the explanation of how TOMS was created.
The episode doesn’t just end when the company becomes successful either. In the TOMS episode, Raz asked questions about the negative commentary TOMS has received about whether it is actually helping the communities it intends to, or if it makes them more reliant on others. Giving the founder the opportunity to discuss controversy such as this makes it so much more than a start-up story. It tells the story of a company from the very beginning to where it is now.
Many of the companies almost didn’t make it to where they are now, but it was thanks to someone with a goal and the support of others that they were able to create lasting companies. Hearing many of these stories, it seems unfathomable how a pipe dream could become a business used by millions. One example of this was Lonely Planet and how the founders, Maureen and Tony Wheeler, started the company as a way to raise money while living in Australia. They put the first books together on their kitchen table, folding and stapling them together to sell them to local bookstores for $1.80. Today, Lonely Planet is the largest travel guide book publisher in the world.
The versatility of the podcast makes it approachable for people with all different interests. It is one of those podcasts where I like to pick and choose my episodes instead of subscribing to them all. Some of my favorites have been on Clif Bar, Airbnb, Lonely Planet and Teach for America. One that surprised me was the episode on Bumble, which was a company I was not familiar with, but I was nevertheless still intrigued by the story of how it began. And Raz did not leave me hanging, telling the story from beginning to end.
Like a true journalist, Raz asks questions while the founders tell their stories, adding in statistics and commentary as needed. At the end, he talks about the net worth and current status of the companies to tie up the show. Sometimes he will end on a quote from the founder if it fits the story.
When I first stumbled across this, I was concerned it would be too business-minded for me to understand, but any jargon used on the show is understandable to the non-business minded listener thanks to the explanations provided. There is no previous knowledge needed to listen and appreciate the stories that are shared.
If you are curious about how some of your favorite companies began, or just want to get more background on how entrepreneurs work, “How I Built This” with Guy Raz might be for you. The episodes average around 45 minutes so they are perfect for listening in the car or in between classes. Sometimes they are even lively enough to keep me entertained at the gym.