Q&A: Guy Raz of How I Built This on Doing Business in a Pandemic

Guy Raz, whose voice you know from his NPR podcast How I Built This, realized a few years ago that he was sitting on more than 500 multi-hour interviews with entrepreneurs and chief executive officers. “I was talking to a business school professor who said, ‘Wow, you have an incredible dataset.’” That conversation led to his new book, How I Built This: The Unexpected Paths to Success From the World’s Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs, which is out on Sept. 15. It collapses hundreds of stories into one, advice-filled tale that runs the business cycle, from idea to launch to exit. I asked him about these inspiring people—as well as the mundane world of working from home. Here are edited excerpts:

Is remote work the long-standing norm for entrepreneurs?

More than half of the businesses that I’ve featured started at home, if not 60% or 70%. Most of the time it’s because they don’t have another option and, in virtually every case, because they can make their product from home. Chet Pipkin, who founded [electronics company] Belkin, started in his mom and dad’s garage. Same story with Lisa Price, who started Carol’s Daughter—she started mixing creams and oils in her kitchen. And with Peter Rahal, who started RxBar and began to grind and mash up dates and nuts and egg powder.

What do you think post-pandemic remote working will look like?

I don’t think it’s a substitute for working in the office. There’s none of the hallway serendipity, nor the togetherness of the lunch table. Eventually we will probably have more hybrid models, where we will work from home but also be in the office to interact and communicate, because that’s where great ideas come from.

How are entrepreneurs doing these days?

This is the most challenging moment for any business leader or entrepreneur. Even if you’re running Slack or Zoom, those companies have challenges because they’ve had to onboard millions of people in a short period of time. 

How are CEOs of struggling companies holding up?

We’ve had some honest conversations with people like Jen Hyman of Rent the Runway [which closed its retail stores in mid-August]. We had Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, on recently, who saw his business go down 80% in a matter of weeks and had to lay off 25% of staff. And his answer was: “Well, I wake up, I put on sweatpants, and I stare at my computer for 18 hours.”

What mindset is getting them through?

They’re taking the long view. They’ve been through crises in starting a company and understand that crisis is part and parcel of any kind of startup. They understand that if they can survive this, if they can conserve cash, if they can cut costs and keep the ship afloat, they will survive and be OK.

What does success look like?

The companies that are surviving and even thriving are the ones that have taken big swings and done disruptive things that are kind of radical. It doesn’t have to be a costly decision, but it has to be radical, because a lot of these innovative decisions come out of crises. There’s a sense of radical necessity.

What do entrepreneurs need to know?

That a business is a series of problems you have to solve, one step at a time. You jump on one lily pad, you solve that problem, and then you go to the next lily pad and solve that problem. And when a business becomes sustainable is when the problems become manageable. The problems never end, but eventually they just become part of the routine.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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