What Guy Raz Learned About Startups from Influential Entrepreneurs

The creator and host of How I Built This explains what sets the most successful entrepreneurs apart.

Guy Raz is one of the world’s most influential business podcasters, and he never saw it coming. 

“I couldn’t think of any career less suited to my temperament and my interests than talking about business all day, let alone starting one,” writes Raz in a new book inspired by his popular podcast How I Built This.  

Before launching three shows with a combined 19 million listeners, Raz was a breaking news anchor, war correspondent, and bureau chief. He felt his career stalling and wanted a change. Raz became fascinated by the heroic arc of entrepreneur stories: They rise. They fall. They go through incredible adventures. He even compares startup founders to characters like Odysseus and Gilgamesh.

In 2016, Raz began conducting in-depth interviews with entrepreneurs like Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia, Spanx’s Sarah Blakely, and Beyond Meat’s Ethan Brown — and soon became one of the world’s most popular podcasters. His new book is called How I Built This: The Unexpected Paths to Success from the World’s Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs and chronicles important lessons he has learned over the years.

In a virtual discussion with Danielle Cohn, Vice President, Strategy and Business Development, Startup Engagement at Comcast NBCUniversal, Raz offered some key takeaways for startup founders. He argued that you don’t need to wait for ‘eureka moments’ to start a business and that great ideas arise at unexpected times.

1. The best lessons come at the lowest moments

Raz has a unique ability to convince guests to talk about their toughest days when they are “lying on the bathroom floor in the fetal position crying,” as he writes in his book. Those moments are critical for listeners because they provide incredible lessons about entrepreneurship. Providing that wisdom to future entrepreneurs is a big reason guests decide to open up on his show.

“Entrepreneurs come onto the show and talk about those moments of vulnerability because they are doing it in service of something bigger than themselves and their own egos,” said Raz.

2. No one is a born entrepreneur

People may think that Richard Branson or Steve Jobs were born with specific qualities that make them great entrepreneurs. Raz, however, argues that entrepreneurship is not something you are born with. It’s a skill you must hone.

“Most of the people I’ve interviewed are almost accidental entrepreneurs who fall into it,” he said. “They begin to understand how they and their own personalities — whether they’re introverted or shy or maybe a little bit different — actually fit perfectly with their own entrepreneurial journey.”

3. Develop the ability to withstand rejection

“No” is part of the startup journey. Investors will decline to fund your business. Potential clients will challenge your ideas. It doesn’t feel good because people are wired for validation and assurance. The fear of rejection leads some people to avoid putting their ideas out into the world. A successful startup founder will take rejection and keep moving forward.

“The more you expose yourself to that rejection, the easier it becomes over time,” he said. “I found that time and again those are the founders who succeed and businesses that make it.”

4. Being from a non-traditional startup city has unexpected advantages

Starting a business outside of major startup hubs can give a founder an edge. In interviews with founders from non-traditional startup-centric cities, Raz learned that support from the city is a major help.

“There are plenty of examples of businesses that started in cities like Nashville, Seattle or Austin, which are not Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York but have other huge advantages. They are places where the community tends to rally around startups in ways that don’t happen in these huge places where there are just endless numbers of startup founders,” said Raz.

5. Get ready to be lucky

Entrepreneurs work really hard. As they grind away, they may find luck in unexpected opportunities. Maybe they chat with somebody at a party who becomes their largest client. Or they get a connection to an investor who can change their business with one check.

“If luck is like the wind, is our sail open and ready to capture that? You have to be prepared to accept a great opportunity and run with it.

6. Understand how privilege gives you an advantage

Raz makes sure that women and underrepresented founders have access to the meaningful exposure his powerful podcast platforms can provide. Not only is it the right thing to do; it helps tell a more complete story of entrepreneurial life.

“The response we receive from listeners of color is consistent and overwhelming. They say ‘I heard that person on your show. I never saw myself being able to do this, and it gave me permission to believe I can do that too.’ ”

7. Great ideas come from a spark, not necessarily a eureka moment

Many budding entrepreneurs wait for a big idea before launching a business. Instead, they should work on ideas that spark their interests. In the grind, better and bigger ideas follow.

“You may wake up one morning and have a big idea, or something really nagging at you. Then you might pursue that idea only to discover that wasn’t the idea. It was something else,” said Raz. “You have to begin with that idea to get to the other idea which is actually the great idea that people wanted or needed.”


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