How I Built This by Guy Raz – Here are my six lessons and takeaways

How I Built This• My hope in structuring the book in this way is to show anyone who has the courage to pursue an idea but is struggling with the fear of failure, that every mistake that could be made in business has been made, that solutions to your problems have already been found—many of them by the founders you will meet in the pages to come—and that to learn from other people’s mistakes instead of going through them yourself is, perhaps, the only shortcut that exists in all of entrepreneurship.
• It is the product of in-depth interviews with hundreds of the most successful and inspiring entrepreneurs from across the business landscape — it is structured to follow the path we took as we traced their entrepreneurial hero’s journeys from the call to found their businesses (part I), through the tests and trials of their growth phases (part II), and finally to their destination as the mature, global brands we know today (part III).
• I just hope you’re able to find something in these pages that leaves you with a sense of both possibility and relief, since almost every story in the book describes a real problem that needed to be solved and an entrepreneur who found a way to solve it.
Guy Raz, How I Built This

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Guy Raz, in his current career as a podcast host and author, has a regular podcast called How I Built This. He profiles and interviews entrepreneurs who have done a good job building their entrepreneurial dream.

In February, at our First Friday Book Synopsis event in Dallas, I presented my synopsis of his book How I Built This: The Unexpected Paths to Success from the World’s Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs, which he wrote with Nils Parker.  It is not just a re-hash of his podcast, but it was clearly prompted by the interviews he has conducted and the lessons he learned.  It is quite a readable, and good and useful book.

The book is filled with stories, from the Michael Dell/Dell Computer success story, to Away luggage, to Netflix, to Ben and Jerry’s, to Samuel Adams, to Airbnb, to Bumble, and many others.  He tells these stories, and then pulls from them all sorts of useful points and principles.

In my synopses, I always begin with What is the point?  Here is my take for this book:
• Entrepreneurs build something from scratch; with great passion; a great ability to provide a workable solution to a problem that people actually have; and a serious work ethic.

 And I ask “Why is this book worth our time?” Here are my three reasons for this book.
#1 – This book is a gold mine of successful entrepreneurial stories.
#2 – This book takes an honest look at the struggles that (most) entrepreneurs face.
#3 – This book provides a formula for pursuing a successful entrepreneurial dream.  But even this formula does not provide a guarantee; just a path that might make success possible. 

In my synopses, I include quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages. Here are a few of the ones I included in this synopsis

• the “hero’s journey,” the concept—identified by the author and philosopher Joseph Campbell— …a hero has a crazy idea; people doubt her; she leaves the village to pursue her vision, faces untold obstacles, falls into an abyss, barely escapes death, but manages to come out the other side with whatever she was looking for and continues on her journey to an eventual triumphant return. They’re also the key elements of many great business stories.
• For most of history we have called that kind of person an explorer. But in the twenty-first century, with the frontiers that are still open for exploration no longer physical, but technological, social, intellectual, and economic, we have given that person a new name: entrepreneur.
• The entrepreneur is a person who strikes out on their own to reach these frontiers of progress,
• They feel the call to make something out of what they find—something new, better, faster, more efficient—and to make it accessible to the rest of us in a way that we can use.
• This is where so many aspiring entrepreneurs get tripped up when thinking about startup ideas. They forget about igniting this kind of passion in their customers and instead use only their own passion as the North Star for their search. Passion is important—you will never hear me say otherwise—but the trouble with passion by itself is that it can lead you down rabbit holes that only you care about, or to problems that only you have.  …customers don’t pay for passion. They pay for things they can use.
• Paul Graham, co-founder of the startup accelerator Y Combinator and a kind of entrepreneurial Confucius, wrote a long essay titled “How to Get Startup Ideas” for his blog. “The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas,” Graham wrote. “It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself . . . It sounds obvious to say you should only work on problems that exist. And yet by far the most common mistake startups make is to solve problems no one has.”
• There is a name for a person who creates something purely out of passion: hobbyist. There is a name for a person who creates something out of passion that solves a problem only they have: tinkerer. There is a name for a person who creates something out of passion that also solves a problem they share with lots of other people: entrepreneur.
• Having a fallback plan does not mean you are building an escape hatch from your dream. It just means you’ve given yourself a cushion at the bottom of your entrepreneurial leap of faith so that if you do crash, you can bounce back to fight another day.
• But just as often, it is a consequence of curiosity and coincidence. …Someone goes looking for something that they are sure already exists—a product, a service, a TV show, even a video game, it doesn’t really matter—only to discover that it is nowhere to be found.
You can never discount the importance of luck—even dumb luck—in the success of any new idea.
• Partnerships are a hallmark in the history of innovation, regardless of the industry.  Ben and Jerry. Hewlett and Packard. Harley and Davidson. Wells and Fargo. Procter and Gamble.
Adam and Eric were childhood friends. Gates and Allen went to high school together. Steve Wozniak lived across the street from Steve Jobs’s only friend at the Cupertino, California, high school Jobs attended. Jen Rubio and Steph Korey worked together. Charlie Munger worked in Warren Buffett’s grandfather’s store. There are also countless marriages at the center of the founding of great brands. …find someone to partner with because starting a business is lonely.
• Ron Conway, the “Godfather of Silicon Valley,” once advised entrepreneurs that “bootstrapping as long as you can is the best thing for the company because you own the entire company. …“In our experience at YC,” he wrote, “the best companies do amazing things on small amounts of money.”
• Although our access to money differs, the process for securing it is the same. In every case, a conversation takes place in which a founder has to describe what they’re trying to do and then ask another person for some amount of money—in the form of investment, loan, gift, whatever—to help them get there. To a person, all of these entrepreneurs will tell you that fundraising is brutally hard at every level.
• Most of the entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed have a healthy fear of failure. They know it’s possible at any moment. Even likely. …that never stops them. Good entrepreneurs—successful ones—have a way of not letting their fear of failure slow them down. …They are defined instead by a seemingly inextinguishable belief in their idea—the idea that has pulled them out of their comfort zone and driven them across the unknown to explore new possibilities.
• First, Horowitz told him, “what usually look like good ideas are bad ideas, and what look like bad ideas are good ideas, because the problem with good ideas is that everyone tries to do them, and as a result, there’s no value to be created there.” Second, he said, “you need to do the thing that you believe you are the best person in the world to do, where you have a unique proposition, given your story, to solve a problem.”
• Whatever your choices as founder, a robust set of ethics should sit at their foundation. Beyond that, only two things are truly necessary when it comes to building a kind, long-lasting company. One, that the things you do advance your mission and match your values. And two, that you do them from the beginning, precisely because mission, values, and culture generally are so hard to change.

There are many principles and lessons to draw from in this book.  This is a longer list of bullet points than I usually include in my blog posts, but I encourage you to read through these carefully:

  • The book reveals the entrepreneur’s journey – (the entrepreneur’s version of the Hero’s Journey)
  • Be open to ideas…
  • Some people want to improve on something that seems obsolete, and others want to reinvent an entire industry.
  • at some point you are going to need an idea. Something specific. Something concrete and unique and new.
  • (and; find a problem to solve!) – the intersection of personal passion and problem solving is where good ideas are born and lasting businesses are built.
  • Is it dangerous or just scary? – differentiating between things that terrify us and things that present a real hazard
  • rappelling off a mountain (that feels dangerous) vs. walking through snow (that feels safe; where there could be an avalanche); one looks and feels safe; the other looks and feels dangerous. Guess which is which.
  • Do your research.
  • if there is a characteristic they share that continually grabs me, it’s that all of them have done their homework—about their product, their business, their customers, their industry as a whole—and it has imbued them with a deep confidence in the viability of their ideas. I can probably count on one hand the number of times they doubted the things they’d built. They knew their ideas would work, because they knew their stuff.
  • Find Your Co-founder – (you need someone to do what you can’t do; what you don’t know how to do).
  • In my experience, it seems that partnerships have been the rule, not the exception; and as Paul Graham wrote in his famous 2006 essay about the mistakes that kill startups (“single founder” being number one), “It seems unlikely this is a coincidence.”
  • Indeed, the truth is that virtually no company is the creation of a single individual.
  • Fund the business – 3 ways: bootstrapping; other people’s money; professional money.
  • everyone has intangible advantages of one kind or another that they can leverage in pursuit of success.
  • Kickstarter is how Tim Brown first launched Allbirds and how several other companies, such as Oculus, Brooklinen, and the card game Exploding Kittens, initially raised their money.
  • Because this chapter isn’t actually about how to raise professional money; it’s about how to think about raising professional money once you’ve determined that you might need it.
  • Get your story straight — Ben Horowitz: He described in 2010 how his company evaluates CEOs, whose main job, he contends, is to be “the keeper of the vision and the story.”
  •  Iterate, Iterate, Iterate
  • Every idea, no matter how great, has a shelf life. If you don’t get it off that shelf and out into the world in time, no amount of feedback you get during the second phase of the iterative process can overcome a lack of interest or mitigate first-mover advantage if someone beats you to the punch.
  • Moving to phase two can be tough for people who don’t handle criticism well — Like asking friends and family for money, exposing your idea and all your hard work to feedback can be very uncomfortable
  • Go In Through the Side Door
  • Find your niche
  • It’s all about location
  • “Where you live matters,” Drew said in his address. “Whatever you’re doing, there’s usually only one place where the top people go. You should go there. Don’t settle for anything else . . . If the real action is happening somewhere else, move.”
  • Get Attention: Building Buzz; Engineering Word of Mouth
  • This is the tricky part about buzz. There’s the good kind and the bad kind. The kind that can build you up or the kind that can burn you down. That’s why demonstration and explanation are so important…
  • what Jen Rubio took from that experience, and what she applied to the launch of her own business a few years later, was an understanding that “nobody cares what a brand has to say about itself.” “We knew one of the big things that would set us apart was if we got these other outlets that people trusted, whether it was press or influencers, to tell our story for us,” Jen explained. …“all of our efforts in the beginning were trying to get other people to simply talk about us—so that we didn’t have to talk about ourselves as much.”
  • Engineering word of mouth is about converting all that wonderful name recognition you’ve just achieved from the buzz into sales. …Because word of mouth is not a billboard or an article or an interview. It’s a dialogue. A conversation.
  • the difference between buzz and word of mouth is the difference between taking a big step toward brand awareness and then making a quantum leap toward customer acquisition and long-term fandom.
  • When Catastrophe Strikes
  • Tylenol (Johnson & Johnson); Jeni’s Ice Cream; contrasted with Firestone Tires (& Ford)
  • “We raised our company as a community and with our community, slowly,” Jeni said. “There was a lot of trust built into that,” Jeni said. “And that’s what saved us.” There’s that word again: “trust.” — Regardless, it is unmistakably clear that when catastrophe strikes a business—whether it’s a storied multinational conglomerate that has been around 100 years or a scrappy upstart just getting its footing at the national level—the only reliable way through that critical “before and after” moment that Jeni Britton Bauer described is through quick, decisive, transparent action that puts people first and public perception second.
  • The Art of the Pivot
  • Gradualists (Darwin), contrasted with punctuated equilibrium
  • Stacy’s Pita Chips
  •  That seems to be the recipe for every successful pivot—not just the recognition that you can’t keep doing what you’re doing if you want to grow or survive, but also identifying something else to do and/or some other place to do it.
  • Think Small to Get Big
  • Wells Fargo, (in the 1800s); they focused on local when other banks were not thinking local
  • working on the periphery – e.g., providing cables for connecting computer and printers…
  • Manage Partnership Tensions
  • Know Thyself
  • We rarely get a chance to reflect on the journey that is life, or, in the case of my guests on How I Built This, the journey that is entrepreneurship. But those moments of reflection are crucial.
  • Be Kind
  • What I told Jimmy, the people assembled in Studio 6B, and the viewers at home across the country was to be kind; that kind leaders have kind companies; that kindness is a powerful tool; that kindness is free—it costs nothing!—and that the return on investment for kindness is bigger than that for any financial investment an entrepreneur can make.
  • I don’t know any other way to put it. So many of them are just kind! They treat their people well. They do the little things and the big things. They pay their success forward.
  • (And, be ethical!) – And with rare exceptions, they are also highly ethical. They act with an integrity that seems to come from a place of deep morality.
  •  What they believe isn’t always the same, but it always feels profoundly personal. It’s not clinical or calculated. It’s compassionate. There is an empathy present in their decisions that often extends all the way out to the customer.
  • What You Do with Your Luck
  • it’s what you do with your luck while you have it that determines whether you succeed or you fail or you even try.
  • You should keep your day job as long as possible. – Or, maybe not; maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe you should take the full leap right away.
  • Maybe pay attention to elements such as these:
  • timing and luck stories like Method’s, always feel as though they have a bit of that fatefulness to them: the right idea in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. And it is the people part of that equation that is most interesting to me about Method.
  • can you keep control of your business? Can you still “own” it?
  • the story the of the Dyson Ballbarrow…
  • funders may not grasp your idea
  • e.g., Rent the Runway; male funders (who dominate funding) did not understand… 

And here are my six lessons and takeaways:

#1 – There is always the next opportunity.
#2 – Look for the idea that solves a problem that no one else has solved.
#3 – Prepare to work very hard; to put in long, long hours…
#4 – You are going to need a partner; a partner who knows what you do not know, and can do what you cannot do.  And then you are going to need a team.
#5 – How you start – in terms of values, and culture – really, really matters.
#6 – Be kind.

I found this book to be extremely useful, and practical.  You will learn stuff you can use!  I commend it to you.

—————–How I Built This,cover

You can purchase my synopsis of this book soon on our web site, along with my synopses of many, many other books.  Each synopsis comes with my comprehensive, multi-page handout, along with the audio recording of my presentation.  Click on the buy synopses tab to do a search by title.  And click here for our newest additions.

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