Formats Unpacked: How I Built This

How an interview format uses storytelling to make entrepreneur interviews relatable

Hi all,

Just a couple of Storythings things before we get into today’s format.

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OK. On to the unpacking. Today I’m unpacking a much loved format that very quickly managed to carve out a huge audience in a very busy space.

What’s it called?

How I Built This (podcast)

What’s the format?

How I Built This is an interview format that focuses on the stories behind successful companies and the journeys of their founders. Hosted by the brilliant Guy Raz, the podcast delves deep into the personal and professional experiences that shaped these entrepreneurs.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

If you’re going to launch a new business podcast you need to be prepared to fight for attention. It’s a busy space. Tim Ferris, StartUp, HBR IdeasCast, and Masters of Scale are just a few of the business podcasts that were competing for listeners in 2016, when How I Built This was born. But right from the very beginning, Guy had a plan to make the show appeal to a much wider audience. He wanted to make a show about millionaires not aspirational, but relatable.

The first episode they released featured an interview with Spanx founder Sarah Blakely. It was a brave choice. The team had already recorded many episodes, and could have chosen a bigger name to launch with. It would’ve made a lot of sense. But starting with Sarah was a signal that this would be a different kind of business show. 

Of course, How I Built This would include titans of industry, but it wasn’t going to be defined by them. It wasn’t going to be just about the biggest guests. It wasn’t going to be mostly men. It wasn’t going to be a tech show either, which was a big focus for many of its competitors. Instead, it was going to be about people the audience could identify with. A show about the products and services the audience could pick up at Walmart. And it was all going to be based around stories.

Yes, each show was an interview format. But to make people really care, it needed stories. Stories that moved people. Talking at Google in 2020, Guy said: “I never thought about it as a business show. I always thought about it as a show about human journeys. Because that’s how we learn. We learn through stories. Through other people’s mistakes.”

To make a show about human journeys, Guy returned to a classic PBS documentary series on Joseph Campell’s Hero’s Journey that he watched in his college days. It’s a framework that has been used in Hollywood for years. Having listened to many interviews with entrepreneurs, he recognised that a lot of their stories could be mapped to a similar journey. So he took this framework and used it to shape his questions.  

For the uninitiated, the framework typically involves a protagonist embarking on an adventure, facing challenges, undergoing transformation, and ultimately achieving some form of success or enlightenment. The entrepreneur is the protagonist, and their journey of building a successful business becomes the adventure. 

The Call to Adventure is the initial spark or idea that inspired them to start their businesses. Just as the hero in the Hero's Journey, the entrepreneur receives guidance and support from mentors and allies. This leads to transformation and (professional) growth which shapes the entrepreneur's character and influences the trajectory of their business. And finally, Raz concludes the interviews by discussing the entrepreneur's achievements, impact, and lessons learned. This segment reflects the "return" phase of the Hero's Journey, where the hero brings back insights, knowledge, and success to benefit their community or society.

But the Hero’s Journey is not without its faults. It reduces the world to simple binaries such as good and evil, victory and failure, and was shaped around more traditional masculine values. This is why the magic of this format isn’t the Hero’s Journey but Guy’s criteria for choosing guests. His guest choices allow him to bend the framework in way that ensures episodes contain nuance and diverse perspectives. 

Business stories inherently must contain failure stories. But Guy is not interested in the one-size-fits-all failure porn that Silicon Valley loves. He tries to include stories of failure from people who had no safety net - people for whom failure could be catastrophic. Is there any real jeopardy if the protagonist comes from money and has enough to fall back on if things go wrong?

Guy also talks about vulnerability being a must-have for every guest. He carries out a pre-interview with everyone and makes it clear that if they want to be on the show nothing is off limits. To appear on the show you have to be generous and open to sharing your vulnerability. 

And finally, you have to be nice. You have to be a good person, because in his opinion kindness and goodness are key. Guy admits that they’ve not always got this right, and cites his interview with Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner as an episode in which he got it wrong. 

The show might use the Hero’s journey structure, but it doesnt portray founders as heroes. It bypasses egos and focuses on stories and journeys that feel real - and that is the magic that makes this show so enduring to a wider audience. When Guy appeared on The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon described it as “One of the best out there”, and went on to say that he often looks at episodes and thinks: “This is going to be a boring interview. Do I care about how they make Stacy’s Chips? It turns out that I do. I really do!”

Favourite Episode

Sarah Blakely’s episode is really good. You don’t have to be interested in ‘hosiery that eliminates panty lines’ to love this story of how she saved $5000 from her job selling fax machines, and worked in her evenings on her new business idea. I loved the stoires of how she convinced Neiman Marcus to stock her first products and how they sold out. As first episodes go it’s spot on!

Patagonia’s Yves Chouinard is also a great story about slow growth from someone who never planned to start their own business but had an itch he couldn't help scratching. 

Similar formats?

If you like narrative podcast and want follow the journey of an entrepreneur, I think StartUp is one of the best.

Thanks for reading,

If you’d like to unpack a favourite format get in touch. Or if you’d like to talk to us about content strategy and production, we’d love to hear from you.

See you all next time,Hugh

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