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Guy Raz, host of NPR's "How I built this," on entrepreneurship and business
January 26, 2017

By: Leigh Hartman

Guy Raz is the host of the NPR podcast “How I Built This,” where he interviews entrepreneurs, innovators, and executives from all over the world about the companies they’ve built and the stories behind their success.

We were lucky enough to talk with Raz about his own career, his experience hosting the show, and what he has learned from talking to so many innovators and business leaders. The conversation is below. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

You started as foreign correspondent. Did you always want to interview entrepreneurs and leading thinkers? How much of the arc of your career was planned and how much happened organically?

It’s probably, in my case, more unplanned. I got into journalism to make a difference. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent from when I was in college. And the reason why I wanted to do that was because I wanted to see the world and illuminate problems and challenges in the world, with the hope that that would make the world a better place. So I covered some of the most depressing stories of the past 15 years, some of the most difficult stories, Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, even the Balkans, and I really saw the effects of human cruelty.

News reporters by training and tradition, I think, identify problems without talking about solutions, and in general the profession frowns on solutions-based reporting. So journalists don’t see it as their job to solve problems, or at least to encourage a conversation around problem solving, and I think over time that frustrated me. I don’t like the idea of leaving listeners or readers or viewers feeling disempowered. I wanted to be part of something different, and over time I really came to the conclusion that I wanted to be part of a world of optimism and awe and wonder and I wanted to offer that to listeners, and all of those things are kind of viewed with cynicism and skepticism in the news business.

I think for me the real turning point was in 2012, it was an election year; there was a lot of division in the US. I was hosting a news magazine on NPR and then the year culminated with the Newtown shootings, and for me that was it. I was done with the news at that point.

And that is really how I shifted into hosting the TED radio hour, which is a show I helped to create and we launched in 2013, and that was really the beginning of moving into a different kind of journalism. Through hosting the Ted Radio Hour, which I still do, over time I was coming across these amazing stories of entrepreneurs, of people who were really creating really incredible things and ideas and services and products that were designed to improve lives. And what was amazing was that, for the most part, virtually every person that I came across was motivated by everything other than money. I mean, with very few exceptions, they were motivated by making a difference in the world, and they were having a real world impact. So that was how that transition began.

That optimism you talk about in your own life, do you see it in the entrepreneurs you interview? Do you have to be optimistic to be an entrepreneur?

I think the short answer is yes. But, it’s also cultivated. I think optimism comes easy for some people, there’s no question. I mean, if you are somebody like Marc Cuban, he is just optimistic. He thought from the beginning that he was going to make it. He never had a doubt. He had a book on his shelf called “how to retire as a millionaire at age 35” that he bought when he was 17, so it was always his intention and expectation that he would be wealthy and successful. But I think for the most part most entrepreneurs have to work at it. They have to remind themselves that things will work out and that they will somehow figure it out. But there is no doubt that for many of the entrepreneurs that I’ve talked to there are crisis periods, there are troths, and times when they really aren’t sure whether it is going to work.

There seems to be a theme that runs through your episodes about entrepreneurs confronting the difficulties of starting or running their business. And your guests often talk stories of crisis and doubt.

Normally, we only see the end result of a successful business, what draws you to the hardship?

What I found to be interesting is that some entrepreneurs that I talked to, they’re reluctant to talk about failure and I have to push it out and tease it out of them. And explain to them that it’s really important and it’s actually a real act of generosity to talk about failures, especially when you are not successful yet, because you are essentially saying, look, failure is a natural part of any process, and if you don’t fail you can’t learn how to succeed. I really think that to a person they all believe that.

In my own career and life I’ve experienced so much failure and I think that when I meet younger journalists or interns at NPR, people who are just getting into the profession they see me where I’m at now at this vantage point. People make the assumption that you skate from success to success and it all happened very smoothly and without friction. And the reality is that for much of my career, and I’m sure in the future as well it will happen time and again, it has sort of been failure-success-failure-failure-success-success-failure-failure-success. And that doesn’t mean that they were easy. Those failures were really difficult and those periods of rejection were really hard. But I think without those failures or periods of rejection I wouldn’t have been able to figure out a) what I wanted to do, and b) how to do it better.

So would you say it is a necessary step to building a successful business or career?

I think so, absolutely.

You’ve said in other interviews that you think we’re going through a renaissance of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking. Can you expand on that?

When I was a kid there was this feeling that high design and quality products came from Japan and Germany, that they were designed there and even manufactured there. I think what’s been remarkable over the course of my lifetime has been to see this transition from the idea of quality more often than not being products that are designed and created in the US. So for example, the iPhone, the Tesla, Warby Parker glasses, for example, Patagonia, Sam Adams beer, which ignited this whole craft beer revolution in the US and then ignited a craft beer revolution overseas. I mean up until Sam Adams really became a popular beer in the U.S. American beer was though of as a joke in most of the world, in Europe. I mean I remember being in Europe in the 90s and even then people just though it was a joke.

But what Jim Cook did with that beer, and it wasn’t necessarily his intention but the result of that beer, was that it ignited this huge craft-brewed revolution in the US. And now you’ve got American beers winning awards all over Europe and all over the world, and exporting Dogfish Ale and all these beers to the Netherlands and all these countries where we think beer is like a religion.

And also the other big consumer products we use like Instagram or Airbnb or Uber, I mean that to me is a really big shift in how we think about consumer products and how we as consumers interact with the world. Not all of them are American, there are some incredible products that are made overseas, but to me there is a feeling that we’re living at a time when there is a lot of really exciting creativity that’s coming out of the US, and I think it’s been happening, certainly, for about 20 years.

It seems like there is a real spirit around the idea of entrepreneurship. It’s something that younger people coming out of college want to do. I graduated college in the late 1990s and everyone I know, with very few exceptions, either went to graduate school or when to go look for a job with a company. And that was their career. And that still happens today, but I think many, many, many more young people finish college and think, “Alright, what can I start? What can I try out? What can I build?” And that to me is a big difference.

Are there themes that you can pick out, that you think run through successful entrepreneurs lives? Are there traits that you can pick out, that unite entrepreneurs?

I think if there is one meta-characteristic, one overarching characteristic that unites all of them it is optimism and the unshakeable belief in the thing that they are working on or the thing that they’re doing. And it may not ultimately be the thing that they succeed in, but there is an unshakeable belief in it.

The other thing is, whether its’ Vice Magazine, or Spanx, or Sam Adams beer, or Southwest airlines or Patagonia, every person who is involved in creating those things loved the actual thing. I mean, any other person other than Herb Kelleher would have given up on Southwest airlines. It took them 4 years since the time the company was founded to launch the first airline because they were challenged every step of the way by the major air carriers. Herb Kelleher fought a lonely battle. He was a lawyer and he basically fought and fought for four years. They ran out of money, he was doing it for free for a while, but he really believed that people should have this option of flying for much cheaper than was available, that the monopoly should be broken. He wanted to create this airline. He had this unshakable confidence and optimism in it. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments where some of these people have doubts. I mean with Vice Mag they basically had their peaks and troughs as well. They were a clothing company, and they went bankrupt right after 9/11. In many other cases, whoever was behind a company like that would have just walked away. They would have said this is done, that was fun. They sort of swept up the ashes and rebuilt it, I mean Suroosh Alvi and Shane Smith, and turned it into what it is today.

As you note, many of the people you talk to are very driven about their specific ideas. Do you think there is a divide between people like that (with one idea) and serial entrepreneurs?

I’m not really sure. I think that serial entrepreneurs are people who have a lot of pent up energy. They start something, they love it, its successful and then they want a new challenge and then they move on. I think there is definitely an element of that with all the people I’ve interviewed, in the sense that even though they may have one company that they stick with they are constantly innovating and thinking of ways to innovate or at least to introduce innovations within the core brand.

So, you don’t want to, for example, want to mess with what Instagram is. Instagram is a social network it is a site where people can share images. But, Instaram has innovated by allowing you to share in different ways, and has offered video and animations, and so there are tools that allow you to change the way you use it a little bit, but the basic concept is the same. So I think all of the entrepreneurs on the show are really committed to the core values of the company, and the core identify of the company, and the core brand, but they’re still innovating and creating new streams within their brands.

Spanx is a great example. They’re making undergarments for women, that’s their bread and butter, but they also make them for men now, and they also have branched out. They started with undergarments for women’s lower half and then they moved to the upper half. So there are all kinds of innovations that happen within these big companies all the time. Which I think sort of creates that serial entrepreneur dynamic within the company.

A common thread among the people you interview is that they all have hustle. Do you think that hustle is a necessary component of starting a business?

I think it is the most important part of starting a business. I think it is a really hard part, because the hustle component tends to favor extroverts over introverts, but many of the people who are have been featured on the show are introverts. I mean, Angie Hicks is a great example of that, you know, she co-founded Angie’s list. You know, Neil Blumenthal of Warby-Parker isn’t super extroverted. Melissa Bernstein from Melissa and Doug, she’s super introverted. But what they’re able to do is focus on product development and on other kinds of innovations and partner with a cofounder who has the skills to make the deals and make the sales but ultimately everyone is hustling, everyone is trying to prove that what they have to offer is worth considering, is worth looking at.

Whether it’s hustling for investment funds or hustling to convince people that this idea will work, I mean, to me a classic example of that is Jim Cook. He was working for Boston consulting company and he quit, he just left, and he started to brew beer based on a great-great grandfather’s recipe. And he literally walked around the south end of Boston with a small cooler. And he would walk into bars at 4:00 in the afternoon, before the dinner rush after the lunch-time crowd left, and he would chat up bar backs and bartenders and say, “hey, will you try this beer.” And they would often say, well, just leave me a couple of bottles and I’ll try it later. But he would have a cooler, so the beer was cold and he would have chilled glasses in the cooler, and he would say “no, you have to try it with me, come on, one drink.” He knew that when you offer a bartender a drink, it’s rude to decline. So that’s how he got them to try Sam Adams. So he would just walk from bar to bar. He would literally bang on doors, and you know some of them would say “no, not interested,” they’d say “thanks but no thanks,” but over time he convinced enough people that this was worth trying. And that to me is sort of the classic kind of hustle.

Or Melissa and Doug Bernstein who started this incredibly successful toy company driving from toy store to toy store throughout New England to pitch their products. They had to do that, they had to make their case and prove that it was worth carrying their wooden puzzles at a time when parents were focused on battery powered toys.

I’ve read that you describe yourself as an introvert, do you think that the hustle necessary to succeed in a career is similar to the hustle needed to be an entrepreneur? Or are they different kinds of hustle?

I think there are a lot of similarities, and I think that in my case, the way I was able to hustle my way into doing what I do was by basically using a psychological trick. Because, I am not naturally extroverted. I am not the kind of person who goes to a party and talks to everybody in that room. I might talk to one person all night and feel a little bit awkward. But what I was able to discover, when I was a student journalist and then later when I was trying to become a professional journalist, was that I could just go up to somebody and talk to them, but If I had a note pad in my hand or a microphone in my hand and I knew that there was a chance that what I wrote in that notebook or what I recorded into that microphone was going to get into a newspaper or get onto the air it was much easier for me to talk to people.

It was almost a disembodied experience. It was Guy Raz talking to them, it was Guy Raz doing a job as a journalist for an organization. And so, when I first started out as a freelance reporter writing for the Washington City Paper, I was able to walk up to people because I had to write that story. So even if there was a possibility that that story wouldn’t be published, which happened many times where I would submit a story and they wouldn’t run it or it was killed and it was embarrassing and I always felt ashamed and all these things, but I was able to overcome my shyness because I had to get the information from people. And that was really helpful for me.

Getting those articles published in the City Paper gave me more and more confidence to scale up and go and try to pitch the Washington Post, and then other publications, and then NPR. After a while I was getting published in all these places, meantime I was working as Daniel Shore’s assistant at NPR and I got to a point where I had enough courage to go to my own organization and say “hey, all these other organizations are publishing my work, what do you think, can I pitch a story to you?” And that’s really what it took. You know, often times organizations are very conservative and they’re not willing to take a risk, but if they see somebody else taking a risk, and that risk works, then they’re OK, then they’ll say “OK I’ll give you a shot.”

Are you driven solely by your own curiosity, or do you see yourself as a resource for future entrepreneurs? When you host these podcasts, do you hope people will listen and learn about what it takes to start a company?

I am very, very fortunate that I get to follow my curiosity so of course I’m super motivated by asking questions because I really want to know the answer. But this show, “How I built this” to me was always about connecting with a tribe of people.

There is a really amazing writer and thinker named Seth Goden, who you probably have heard of and he talks about finding your tribe. He’s been on the TED radio hour a few times and his ideas have really inspired me to think about this notion of tribes. And to me there is a tribe of people in this country and around the world who are diverse in age and race and religion and national origin and ability and identity and they are all interested in building something. And it may not be a business but it is something and it is that they are interested in creating something that they themselves made. And my hope is that with this show that that tribe would find us and to our really overwhelming surprise they have. We are now getting many millions of downloads a month from people who are a part of this tribe.

I feel really gratified to read tweets and get emails from people who say “This show has been such a life saver because I’m in the midst of starting a business its super lonely its really scary sometime I as myself what the hell am I doing and then Monday comes around and a new episode comes out and I can hear these stories and it is such a motivator” that’s been the most incredibly gratifying response from listeners. It’s been amazing.