How I Built This: The Unexpected Paths to Success From the World’s Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

In a nutshell: Podcast-turned-best selling book reveals how 200-plus business owners navigated their way to business success. (Published by Houghton Mifflin, 2020; hardcover $28.)

Guy Raz is an award-winning CNN reporter and host of National Public Radio’s “TED Radio Hour” podcast. He admittedly was short on business expertise several years ago when he began work on a new NPR podcast, “How I Built This.”

Raz’s prior reporting work honed his skill for taking complicated subjects and quickly learning about them. For the “How I Built This” podcast the objective was simple: Understand how ultra-successful business owners launched their idea, persevered through the growing pains of scaling it, and if things worked out, found financial and personal success.

“How I Built This” references Joseph Campbell’s book, “The Hero’s Journey,” in that Raz’s profiles also center on a hero that seeks an adventure, is victorious in a pivotal crisis and returns home transformed.

Starting a business is a lot easier than growing it into a viable entity, which is why the book’s second section, “The Test,” is the most interesting. Similar to Campbell’s confronting crisis stage, Raz explains the difficult parts of scaling and survival when owners try to move into new markets and build processes that will create enough growth to sustain them.

The book also dispels common business myths about ownership and taking on investment. For example, Raz points out that most of the thriving companies profiled have an owner who was able to team up with someone else with a complementing skill set which also enhances investment potential.

In the book’s final part, “The Destination,” Raz discusses common signs of success, drawing upon stories of founders that fought long and hard before becoming rich. The storytelling drawn from his interviews is where Raz uncovers the common threads of a business that lead to high achievement. There are also harrowing stories of despair and loss that many of the owners endured.

Although “How I Built This” is heavy with profiles of well-known companies, Raz’s examples run the gamut of varied start-up concepts, experience levels of the founders and endings. The companies featured include accidental entrepreneurs who stumbled to find ideas for their businesses (Airbnb, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream), those whose original inspiration became something much different (Instagram, Panera Bread), and owners that saw value and fortune developing ancillary products in already growing industries (Belkin International, Allbirds).

As a devout follower of the “How I Built This” podcast since its inception in 2016, I like that the book is heavy on storytelling, which is Raz’s forte. Those who are looking for deep financial analysis maybe slightly disappointed, but that doesn’t mean the entrepreneurs interviewed don’t discuss some technical aspects of building their empires.

Translating a popular podcast into a best practice business book written by an inexperienced businessperson might seem like a stretch, yet the book version of “How I Built This” is more than a stand-alone counterpart to its podcast cousin. What we learn from the journeys of those who made it big with their businesses is that they are not that different from us. This makes their success even more intriguing and why “How I Built This” is both relatable and entertaining.

Chris Wendel is a business advisor with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette, Michigan. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.

 

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