Guy Raz dives into the stories behind some of the world's best known companies. How I Built This weaves a narrative journey about innovators, entrepreneurs and idealists—and the movements they built.
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The very first time Tristan Walker shaved, he woke up the next morning with razor bumps all over his face. "I was like, what is this?" he remembers saying. "I am never shaving again—ever." He soon discovered that like him, many men of color were frustrated by the lack of shaving products for coarse or curly hair. Fifteen years after that first disastrous shave, and after countless meetings with doubtful investors, Tristan launched Bevel, a subscription shaving system built around a single-blade razor. Eventually his brand Walker & Company grew to include 36 hair and beauty products, used by millions of men and women across the U.S. In 2018, Walker & Company was sold to Proctor & Gamble, and Tristan became P&G's first black CEO. This show was recorded live at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C in September 2019.
This week, we thought we'd bring you a little bonus from another show from NPR, The Limits with Jay Williams. Years before they built the SpringHill Company—an entertainment and development brand recently valued at $725 million—Maverick Carter and LeBron James were just two kids from Akron, Ohio who loved playing basketball. Over the past two decades, their friendship and ambitions have grown stronger as they have defied assumptions of what athlete-driven business ventures can be. In this episode of The Limits, Carter—the CEO of SpringHill—sat down with Jay Williams to share how he and James succeeded on their own terms, why LeBron's mother initially doubted their vision, and what Carter really thought about LeBron's decision to return to Cleveland.
Angie and Dan Bastian weren't trying to disrupt an industry or build a massive company, they just wanted to put aside some money for their kids' college fund. In 2001, Dan stumbled across an internet ad touting kettle corn as a lucrative side-business, so he and Angie decided to take the plunge, investing $10,000 in equipment. At first, they popped kettle corn in front of local supermarkets in the Twin Cities and at Minnesota Vikings games. Eventually, they moved indoors to Trader Joe's, Target, and Costco—and got a crash course in how to run a business along the way. Angie's Kettle Corn eventually took on a bold new name: BOOMCHICKAPOP. And in 2017, the company was acquired for a reported $250 million. This show was recorded live at Ordway Concert Hall in St. Paul, Minnesota in July 2019.
As he started to gain a name as a New York fashion designer in the 2010s, Telfar Clemens often joked that he was "constantly emerging." At least, that's how the establishment fashion press saw him: a child of Liberian immigrants, building a small but devoted following with his deconstructed T-shirts and sandals made from hollowed-out Converse. But after Telfar partnered with Babak Radboy as his creative director in 2013, the brand began to reach a wider audience. There were splashy partnerships with K-Mart and White Castle; and in 2018, the wide release of the Telfar Bag, a vegan-leather shopping bag that became the "it"-accessory for everyone from A-list celebrities to the neighbors next door. Today, Telfar and Babak say they've succeeded by designing exactly what they want—and sidestepping a fashion system that was not always welcoming.
As a young programmer in the mid-2000s, Otis Chandler watched as dozens of niche web sites began to take off. When he decided to launch his own site just for book lovers, a respected colleague told him there was "probably not a very big market there." Otis figured he might prove him wrong, and in 2007, launched Goodreads, a book catalog and review site that he coded from his LA apartment. His soon-to-be-wife Elizabeth joined the project, and they slowly built a following—without an office, a business model, or a single employee. In 2013, Goodreads sold to Amazon for an undisclosed sum; and today, it's the world's largest site for readers, with 125 million users.
Most entrepreneurs expect it will take at least a few years for their businesses to gain traction. But Tim Leatherman waited 7 years to make a single, $175 sale. In the late 1970s, he had set up shop in his brother-in-law's garage, scavenged some metal from old appliances, and built a tool that he'd dreamed up a few years before: a foldable pair of pliers with several other tools tucked into the handles. Tim worked for years trying to market his design to knife and tool companies, but none of them were interested. Was it a tool? A gadget? A knife? Eventually he was able to convince mail-order catalogs to sell the tool; and within the space of a decade, he went from selling a single knife to a million every year. Today Tim's company is worth over a $100 million and his last name has become a household brand: the Leatherman.
Vincent Kitirattragarn grew up in a Thai-Chinese-American household, which meant eating congee and lemongrass chicken, while also ordering chicken McNuggets with his younger brothers. He dreamed of opening his own Thai restaurant, but an exhausting stint working at one convinced him that his entrepreneurial path would never be in the restaurant industry. Instead Vincent's Asian-inspired snack food brand, Dang Foods, was born in 2011 when a delicious home-cooking experiment led him to start importing coconut chips from Thailand. Vincent's brother Andrew joined a few years later to help grow the brand through a series of snack product successes—and some tasty but colossal flops. Today, the company sells their brightly-packaged coconut chips, rice crackers, and energy bars in over 10,000 stores across the country.
In the 1980s—the early days of cable television—John Hendricks got stuck on an idea he couldn't shake: to create a channel that would teach people cool things in an entertaining way. In college he had seen hours of documentaries on history, science, and outer space; and he figured if he was interested in them, others would be too. So around the age of 30, he left a comfortable consulting business to begin a delicate juggling act: leasing a satellite, licensing content, and wooing cable distributors, all the while pounding the pavement to finance it all. Today, Discovery reaches more than 400 million homes around the world, and John is still in the content business, having launched Curiosity Stream in 2015.
When she was working corporate jobs in New York City, Sarah LaFleur hated getting dressed in the morning; the choices in her closet felt overwhelming, many items didn't fit right or wore out too quickly. So in 2011 she launched a line of clothing for working women that would be simple, elegant, and well-tailored. She had no experience in fashion but partnered with a top-line designer, Miyako Nakamura, to create M.M.LaFleur. Today it's a multi-million dollar company with loyal customers from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley.
Andy Puddicombe is not your typical entrepreneur—in his early twenties, he gave away everything he owned to train as a Buddhist monk. But after ten years, he decided he wanted to bring the benefits of his meditation techniques to more people. While running a meditation clinic in London, Andy met Rich Pierson, who had burned out on his job at a high-powered London ad agency. Together, they founded Headspace in 2010. Over ten years later, Headspace's guided meditation app has users in 190 countries and an annual revenue of over $100 million.
This week, we thought we'd bring you a little bonus from another show that Guy hosts called Wisdom From The Top. In 2012, to say there was a crisis at Best Buy—is an understatement. In January, Forbes published an article with the headline: WHY BEST BUY IS GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. And then, in March, the company reported a loss of $1.7 billion dollars. In April, the CEO resigned because of an "inappropriate relationship" with an employee. Hubert Joly stepped in, determined to fix Best Buy, and he started by valuing the people who work there.
Kathleen King was 11 years old when she started baking cookies to sell at her family's farm stand on Long Island. After college, she opened a small bake shop, and eventually started selling her cookies to gourmet grocery stores in Manhattan. But after twenty years of running a small business, she wanted more time for herself. She brought in two partners to grow sales, but the partnership was a disaster—and after bitter lawsuits, Kathleen was forced to start over from scratch. 18 years later, Tate's Bake Shop—the second cookie brand that she built out of the crumbs of the first—sold for $500 million.
What makes a good How I Built This story? Why do our episodes take weeks to produce? How does Guy prepare for an interview? As a bonus this week, Guy wanted to take some time and answer a bunch of your questions! If you have other burning questions about the show, our process, or even just about Guy, you can Ask Guy Anything by submitting a question at guyraz.com.
Ronnen Harary built a 4 billion dollar toy company without relying on market research or focus groups. Instead, he believed wholeheartedly in intuition: the "ah-hah" moment that comes from thinking like a 7-year old. Over a 25-year period, he and his Spin Master partners launched innumerable hit toys and amusements, including Air Hogs, Bakugan, and the smash hit franchise PAW Patrol. Spin Master's journey began in the mid-1990s, when Ronnen and his friend Anton Rabie began selling the Earth Buddy, a chia-pet-like novelty gift made of pantyhose, sawdust, and grass seed. Today, it's a publicly traded company with a portfolio that includes TV shows, video games, and toys ranging from puzzles to plush.
In 2010, rocket scientists Robbie Schingler and Will Marshall set an ambitious goal for themselves: to launch an aerospace mission with the speed and agility of a Silicon Valley startup. They set up shop in their garage, left their NASA jobs, and began pursuing their vision of building small, relatively inexpensive satellites to take daily images of the earth. Today, their company Planet has a fleet of roughly 200 satellites that capture millions of pictures daily, tracking everything from forest fires and oil spills to the health of coral reefs and crops. The company now has hundreds of clients around the world, and just went public on the NYSE.
As college students in the late 1980s, Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan launched two projects that came to define their trajectories as entrepreneurs: the "punky but poppy" band Chunk, and the scrappy record label, Merge. For decades, the partners juggled the demands of managing their own band while negotiating record deals and recording dates for other indie artists. But the two worlds also collided in happy ways: touring in their own band was a great way for Mac and Laura to discover new talent, and they also learned that musicians tend to trust a label more if its founders play in a band. Today, Chunk is still going strong as Superchunk, and Merge has morphed into one of the most influential labels in indie music, with bands like The Mountain Goats, Spoon, and Arcade Fire.
Seth Tibbott may be the only founder in the world who grew his business while living in a barn, a teepee, and a treehouse. His off-the-grid lifestyle helped him save money as he started to sell tempeh, a protein made of fermented soybeans. Throughout the 1980s he barely scraped by, but things took a turn in 1995, when he discovered a stuffed tofu roast made in Portland, Oregon. Knowing vegetarians had few options at Thanksgiving, Seth named the roast Tofurky and started selling it at co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. Nearly 25 years later, Tofurky sells plant-based protein around the world, and has estimated sales of $40 million a year. This show was recorded live at Revolution Hall in Portland, Oregon.
As a mother of three, Kat Nouri was dismayed at the amount of single-use plastic she was using to pack her kids' school lunches. She had already launched a successful brand called Modern Twist, which sold placemats and baby bibs made of silicone. So Kat wondered: why not use silicone to make durable food storage bags, which—instead of being used once, could be used thousands of times? In 2016 she launched Stasher, and was soon persuading retailers that an $11 reusable bag was better for the planet—and ultimately, more cost-effective for the big-box shopper. Kat successfully sold the brand to S.C. Johnson just a few years after launch, but her short tenure at Stasher's helm was marked by growing pains and gnawing moments of anxiety, including an unexpected scuffle with the sharks on Shark Tank.
Brian Armstrong wanted to be a tech entrepreneur since he was in high school, but his first serious venture—a tutoring website—never quite took off. Around 2010, while looking to get a job in Silicon Valley, he stumbled across an intriguing idea for a peer-to-peer digital currency called Bitcoin, which quickly turned into his obsession. Brian's initial prototype for a hosted Bitcoin wallet got him accepted into the prestigious Y Combinator program, and he launched Coinbase soon thereafter. Many experts warned that cryptocurrency was no more reliable than Monopoly money, but the startup prevailed, surviving wild swings in the crypto market and steadily building a user base. Today, Coinbase is one of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges in the world, with 7.4 million monthly users, 2,700 employees and over 80 cryptocurrencies traded on its platform.
In 2009, Berkeley seniors Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez started to geek out over something they'd heard in a lecture: you can grow a healthy crop of mushrooms on used coffee grounds. Intrigued by the business potential, the pair set aside jobs in finance and consulting and became urban farmers: salvaging leaky bags of coffee grounds, planting mushroom spawn in an Oakland warehouse, and selling their crop to local grocers. Over time, the partners realized they could help others grow food for themselves, so they stopped farming fungus and took the leap into selling tabletop grow kits, seeds, and potting soil. Since launch, Back to the Roots has become the fastest-growing organic gardening brand in the U.S., with its products sold in 10,000 stores across the country.
Before mp3 players came along in the mid 1990's, listening to audiobooks was a pain. The number of titles was tiny, narration was dull, and if you wanted to listen on the go, you had to juggle a bunch of clunky cassettes. Don Katz faced these frustrations every day while jogging. He was an accomplished writer who thought there was something special and intimate about hearing an author's words spoken aloud. He wondered: what if audiobooks could be purchased online and downloaded onto a dedicated player? At the time, the concept was so new that few people knew what he was talking about. But in 1997, with no direct experience in tech, Don and his partners launched the first digital player for audiobooks. Audible was slow to gain traction and took a beating during the dot-com bust; but its luck changed with the release of the iPod and a timely partnership with Apple. In 2008, Amazon purchased Audible for $300 million, and today Audible has the largest audiobook catalog in the world, with over 600,000 titles.