The Power of Storytelling
How I Built This

The Power of Storytelling

Starting a business is tough, and the road to success is rocky, yet many have successfully traveled it. In How I Built This, journalist and – according to the New York Times – the biggest name in business podcasts, Guy Raz dives into the stories of successful entrepreneurs to show you how to navigate and overcome the challenges of starting your own business.

Guy Raz believes in the power of story learning, so stories are at the heart of his book. How I Built This is based on hundreds of interviews Raz conducted for his NPR podcast of the same title. In it, he gives entrepreneurial advice by narrating the coming-of-age stories of numerous companies. In his podcast, which boasts millions of weekly listeners and consistently appears on the top podcast charts, Raz aims to extract what motivated the founders of companies such as Airbnb, Instagram, Five Guys or Spanx.

Raz dedicates his book to “dreamers whose lack of experience is inversely proportional to the force of their ambition and the momentum of their desire to bring something new into the world and to make the world a better place.” His stellar writing is highly engaging as he presents nuggets of wisdom and sound advice gleaned from the experiences of successful entrepreneurs.

Raz divides his book into three parts corresponding to three stages of founding a company: coming up with ideas and the early start-up phase, and moving via the growth phase to a mature enterprise. Budding entrepreneurs will probably find the first two parts most relevant. However, the chapters about running and selling a mature business add a valuable long-term perspective.

Venturing Out 

Some entrepreneurs actively search for business ideas, such as Jose Andres, founder of the restaurant chain Jaleo. Others simply stumble on them, such as Lisa Price, founder of the beauty brand Carol’s Daughter. Yet they all originate from personal passion and a desire to solve real-world problems. 

No matter how brilliant a business idea might seem, you have to do your market research, Raz stresses. He recounts how Jen Rubio  – the founder of the luggage company Away – and her business partner Steph Korey worked systematically to find out what they could about luggage pricing and varieties. They visited manufacturers and researched ways to market to consumers directly. They also surveyed friends, observed people’s packing habits and asked travelers a host of open-ended questions about how they used their luggage in different travel scenarios.

Failing is scary. Wasting your life is dangerous.Guy Raz

Raising the funds to get a new business off the ground is often a clinch point for aspiring entrepreneurs. Raz shows that no single approach works for everyone: Financing will depend on your context and environment. Many entrepreneurs survive their first few years through bootstrapping, that is, using their own money, time and skills to keep the business afloat and improve their product. Others might try to get resources from people they know, such as family, friends and acquaintances, before going out to investors. Some people shy away from this idea, but it worked for Jeff Bezos: The Amazon founder contacted 60 friends and family members to ask for investments in his online book store. Most of them declined, but some did invest and have since become billionaires.

Growth and Trials

As Raz proves with both his podcast and his book, a good story catches people’s attention, and he assures you: It’ll also get your product to market. Through stories, people understand the solution you provide to problems they didn’t realize they had. A well-told narrative makes people root for a company and its founders, creates customer loyalty and helps set a new enterprise apart from its competitors.

Really knowing your story – and knowing the why – is often the bridge between founding and funding.Guy Raz

In the midst of all the success stories featured in Raz’s book, he never glosses over the crushing defeats, headwinds and adversity the entrepreneurs faced on their road to success. Airbnb founders Joe Gebbia, Brian Chesky and Nate Blecharczyk had to deal with investor skepticism. Stonyfield Farm’s Gary Hirshberg and Samuel Kaymen faced bankruptcy. And, Splendid Ice Creams’ Jeni Britton Bauer had to manage a major food poisoning crisis. At some point, every founder will encounter obstacles that seem insurmountable. Yet it is in recounting these struggles that Raz’s book manages to impart some of its most valuable advice as it highlights the sheer tenacity and dedication entrepreneurialism requires. Some readers and future founders will likely remember the setbacks the most successful entrepreneurs from Raz’s book encountered. 

Letting Go

In the last part of the book, Raz turns his attention to the challenges entrepreneurs face once their business turns from a one- or two-man show into a scalable and sustainable enterprise with offices and staff, and potential buyers knocking at the door. While living, sleeping and breathing a business is natural at the point of starting out, once an idea has taken off, founders need to let go of the notion that they’re the only ones who know what’s best for the business. A clearly articulated mission and set of values will build a foundation for enduring success and create a business culture that will outlast the founders.

It can’t be about you, because “you don’t scale.” Only your idea, and your story, and your values do.Guy Raz

 

The decision about whether to sell a business often boils down to a choice between money and control, which can pose a serious dilemma for many founders. Either option is valid as Raz shows by juxtaposing the examples of Gary Erickson – founder of organic food company Clif Bar – ​​​​​​and Angie and Dan Bastian – owners of popcorn brand Boomchickapop. By staying, Erickson managed to turn his business into a billion-dollar enterprise; by selling, the Bastians were able to give back to all those people who had supported and stuck with them over the years.

Inspiration over Instruction

How I Built This has found its home among the top business books for entrepreneurs, alongside such bestsellers as Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup or Simon Sinek’s Start With Why. Some reviewers criticize that Raz’s book offers scant applicable advice. However, that’s in keeping with the message of his book: There’s no single path to success. Instead, by using the stories of those who have successfully navigated the rough terrain of entrepreneurship, Raz offers his readers two of the most helpful tools for their journey: Inspiration and the motivation to keep going even through the tough times.

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