Have you listened to the NPR-produced podcast, “How I Built This”? It’s an interview-style podcast that profiles entrepreneurs and examines “how they built” successful companies. Some of the past guests include: Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (Ben & Jerry’s), Tony Hsieh (Zappos), and Sara Blakely (Spanx).
And, as with nearly all NPR-produced shows, the host has some quirks — in this case, quirks that, for me, range from mildly annoying to downright insufferable.
The host is Guy Raz (rhymes with “Oz” not “jazz”). He looks like this:
He sounds basically like he looks like he would sound, except his voice is maybe slightly higher-pitched. And sometimes it’s as if he took a drink of water and didn’t quite finish swallowing it completely before talking (or maybe he’s a prodigious saliva-producer?). More importantly and unfortunately, though, he employs a particularly cloying and exaggerated inflection when he speaks that’s a bit…much at times; it borders on the cartoonish.
Lately I’ve found Guy Raz’s voice and interview style to be dreadfully irritating. It’s like listening to a caricature of an NPR-style host. On multiple occasions, I’ve had to abandon the podcast mid-listen because I couldn’t take it anymore. I sincerely feel bad about this, because the show is otherwise quite entertaining and informative.
I’m aware that I’m being overly judgmental (I’m sorry, Guy) and I appreciate his palpable enthusiasm: He seems well-prepared and genuinely excited to host every show.
But there’s something else. He puts on this melodramatic facade during interviews wherein he seems completely shocked by nearly every facet of the current entrepreneur’s story. He has cranked up conveying-incredulity-through-vocal-intonation to a Spinal Tap-worthy eleven. I don’t know if it’s an affectation or a tic or just something they teach at NPR hosting school, but he literally cannot believe what he’s hearing, and he eagerly expresses this utter amazement multiple times over the course of each interview.
You’d think by now, after over seventy episodes, some of the universal experiences of entrepreneurship would strike the host of a show about entrepreneurship as slightly less than mind-blowing. Not so.
Every podcast involves Guy peppering the guest with leading questions while simultaneously restating the entrepreneur’s preceding answers with escalating astonishment. Then Guy unleashes his interrogatory coup de grâce: a rapid-fire barrage of tangentially unspooling questions that resembles a messy plate of verbal spaghetti.
Each “How I Built This” episode contains an overwrought exchange that goes something like:
Guy Raz: So, just to clarify, again: You were a college freshman and you just, like, decided one day to start a business!? I mean, that’s crazy! That’s an unbelievably bold decision for someone who’s only, what, eighteen years old at the time. What did your parents think? You just up and declared one day, like, “Hey, I have an interesting idea for a business” and then, I mean, how did you, like, know where to go from there? You were barely out of high school! Right? Weren’t you scared that it might not succeed, or…? I mean, lots of people try to start businesses and most of them fail. So, I guess, what I want to know is: Where did you get the courage to just…to go for it, to start a business!? Did you believe it would all work out? I mean, did you even, like, have a backup plan?
Entrepreneur of the week: Well, you’re right, I guess it was a pretty crazy time in my life. But I knew I had a good idea, and I was determined to see how far I could run with it.
Guy Raz: Wow! That’s, it’s, I mean… that’s truly incredible.
[To audience]: I’m here with the founder of Nutz In A Box, the online mixed nuts delivery service that lets you customize your weekly nut deliveries by utilizing a proprietary nut algorithm. What started out as a simple dorm-room snack idea has blossomed into a sophisticated online nut juggernaut, with $30 million in annual revenues. That’s million, with an “M” people — as in, take $100,000, and then multiply that by 300. We’re talking the number 30 followed by six zeroes…count ‘em, six! I mean, that’s a lot of money, right? To you or me, a million dollars would be, like, huge money. But Nutz In A Box now pulls in 30 million dollars in annual revenue. How is that even possible? I mean, let’s all take a moment to pinch ourselves. [pause] Still there? Phew, good, because it’s still hardly fathomable to me — especially for a mixed nuts delivery service that almost didn’t survive some challenging obstacles early on in its history.
Founder of Nutz In A Box: So I originally pitched my idea of shipping boxes of customizable nuts to 2,000 different venture capital firms and private equity funds…and I got laughed out of every meeting. But I just believed, deep down, that with the emerging dominance of the Internet and e-commerce, I could bring customizable nuts directly to people’s doorsteps.
Guy Raz: Wait, back up. 2,000 meetings — did I hear you correctly!? I mean, like, that’s a lot of meetings. And you said you were laughed at, that must have been so tough! But what about inventory? I mean, you must’ve had to keep literally thousands of nuts in inventory, right? How did you know which, like, nuts to buy — I mean how many almonds, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts, pistachios, cashews…there are just so many nuts out there. How did you know what nuts people would want? Like, what if someone in California wanted a cashew-heavy custom mixed nuts box, but someone in — I don’t know — Ohio wanted mostly macadamia nuts? That’s, like, a big difference in terms of the mixture of nuts you have to send out. Was this a challenge to figure out, or…? I mean, how did you plan for this and not get overwhelmed by people’s nut choices? Like, do you have a favorite nut? What did your investors think about your, I mean, your burgeoning expertise in combinatory nut delivery methods?
Anyway, you get the idea. Can you see how this style of questioning could potentially induce a stress headache over time?
But I don’t want to leave you with the notion that I hate the podcast or Guy Raz, because I don’t. Some episodes of “How I Built This” have been truly enlightening — they’ve left me pondering an entrepreneur’s story for days afterwards. Plus, Guy Raz seems like a legitimately smart, down-to-earth dude who really enjoys his job, and he is definitely a better choice as host than some crank who doesn’t want to be there.
So, I guess what I’ve learned from all this is: A little Guy Raz goes a long way. And a lot of Guy Raz is too much for me. I’m not asking him to phone it in, but would it kill him to dial it back a few notches? Maybe only ask a few clear questions at a time instead of the amorphous, fifty-question-stream-of-consciousness verbal bludgeoning technique currently employed?
Until then, I’ll be pacing myself when it comes to “How I Built This.” I don’t have a strong enough constitution to binge-listen to this one.