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Late-Stage Fairytales

NPR’s popular How I Built This is a techno-optimist anachronism

A little over two months after the now notorious investment app Robinhood committed one of the largest stock market manipulations in recent memory, its cofounder, thirty-four-year-old Vladimir Tenev, appeared on the hit NPR business show How I Built This. Like every interview in the series—the brainchild of public radio mega-star Guy Raz—the episode starts at the beginning: the call to adventure. (In his best-selling book, Raz explains his adherence to the “hero’s journey” view of business). The GameStop trading debacle would have been top of mind for most listeners, but given Raz’s rinse, wash, and repeat narrative template, before he presses Tenev for answers, you first have to hear about the humble ramen-to-riches story, his scrappy beginnings as a Stanford graduate and PhD dropout, working from dingy apartments and Palo Alto garages with his best friend and cofounder; you have to hear about the countless rejections and pivots he faced along the way, from friends and investors, regulators and competitors. Only after Tenev recounts his full epic journey, in the final stretch of the eighty-five-minute interview, does Raz finally lob a question about the “unintended consequences” of the mobile app, and why exactly Robinhood abruptly halted the trading of GameStop shares on January 28, just as retail traders were pumping the price, a fairly routine tactic that goes unnoticed when hedge funds do it.

But even in this fleeting moment of interrogation, Raz is mostly feeding Tenev an out. “From what I understand, there were regulations that required you to have enough cash in the bank to back up these trades, and you didn’t have that cash. Is that more or less the explanation?” he asks leadingly. Then, a couple minutes later, regarding the massive price swings across meme stocks led by online investors, he asks, “And there’s no way to prevent it, I guess, unless there’s some kind of regulatory regime here, right?” Just as swiftly, Raz scurries away to the next subject, the next emerging market or growth opportunity.

Raz’s original hit franchise feels like an anachronism, a stale gust of techno-optimism propping up a disruption-rules-all worldview that much of the culture has since left behind.

How I Built This is one of the more puzzling corners of the current tech media landscape. Since its launch in 2016, Raz has churned out new episodes nearly every week, amassing a library of more than three hundred interviews with what he calls “the world’s most inspiring entrepreneurs.” Most of them sell consumer goods, and whether it’s Spanx underwear or Dyson vacuums, Dippin’ Dots ice cream or Ring surveillance doorbells, Raz approaches every product with the same perpetual astonishment. The show has spawned an annual conference for would-be disruptors, and millions of listeners regularly download episodes of these enterprising fairy tales, or what the Times once called “origin stories of late capitalism,” an oddly insightful anomaly in an otherwise glowing 2018 profile about the program. The piece anoints Raz, who was also the host and co-creator of the TED Radio Hour, as “one of the most popular podcasters in history.” And yet, in 2021, as we emerge from a devastating pandemic that saw Big Tech and billionaire moguls further strengthen their hold on the global economy, Raz’s original hit franchise feels like an anachronism, a stale gust of techno-optimism propping up a disruption-rules-all worldview that much of the culture—on both the right and left—has since left behind.

For all its talk of fostering an entrepreneurial community, How I Built This seems to primarily attract a general listenership. Browse its catalog of episodes and you’ll notice a clear preference for marquee consumer brands, an exceedingly narrow segment of the economy that nonetheless appeals to the widest possible audience. When I queried a former teacher of mine who recently published a book on entrepreneurship, drawing on a hundred interviews with women and non-binary founders and their fraught paths to launching new companies, she said not one of them mentioned listening to the podcast. (Several did name-drop Gimlet’s StartUp, on the other hand.) Perhaps many listeners, like myself, find the program inadvertently, tuning into NPR while cleaning, or doing laundry, or driving long distances. Raz’s perky voice is an admittedly welcome companion for such industrious tasks, and each episode is structured as a series of snackable anecdotes; you can pop in at any time to hear an amusing backstory behind the familiar brands and labels entwined in our daily lives.

However anodyne it may sound, there is something insidious about the show’s myopic worldview and its enduring cultural foothold. Consider the glaring oversight of its very title: How I Built This, that singular pronoun perpetuating an individualistic myth. Supporting characters and communities are oddly absent from these interviews, which unfold more like memoirs, or diary entries, sometimes therapy sessions. If a co-founder or investor or spouse briefly enters the picture, it is only to validate this personal story. Rather than grapple with the sprawling web of stakeholders inherently tied up in any venture, Raz’s inquiries portray the startup world as a vacuum of inventors, suppliers, and distributors, all scrambling to continuously reassess and fulfill rapidly changing consumer tastes, as if there is no more urgent mission on the planet than gratification. Rare are the How I Built This conversations that grapple with labor, equity, or environmental concerns, unless they somehow figure into a breakthrough brand marketing strategy: Buy a shoe, plant a tree.

Raz believes he’s doing us a service by elevating these tales of capitalist ambition and resilience. As he tells it in his book, How I Built This was inspired by his experience as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he attended business school classes and debated the canonical HBS case studies. These documents present lengthy written narratives that valorize the viewpoint of a chief executive confronting a strategic crisis, whose decisions are then viciously dissected by combative MBA students; many stories begin and end within corner offices or aboard private jets, the complex world reduced to a hierarchical game-board. Between the lines of these ur-texts of modern capitalism, Raz discerned what he felt was a hidden insight. “Time and again I found classic heroic journeys embedded in these case studies,” he writes. In addition to those aforementioned calls to adventure, there were “trials and errors, all-is-lost moments, the ultimate boon—all told through the prism of business.” In fact, Raz seemed to be repeating the pre-imposed template that has defined business memoirs since time immemorial. The lesser the odds, the more heart-wrenching the moments of near collapse, the more powerful the illusion of individual agency in shaping our shared destiny. Did he ever think to ask about who is writing these case studies? What elements of the story are they incentivized to emphasize—or leave out?

How I Built This reflects the tired idolatry of technology and innovation, the neurotic worldview that the work that matters most is that which influences our lives as consumers.

At times, Raz’s blind faith in such capitalist gospel is almost baffling. He continues: “What matters is that anyone can be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs aren’t chosen, they are made. Self-made.” (Emphasis his!) Apparently, all it takes is grit, as well as some clever “bootstrapping,” to overcome the odds, even the structural barriers or advantages that in many cases dictate a venture’s success or failure. Both the podcast interviews and book chapters dutifully acknowledge the unique obstacles faced by female or minority entrepreneurs, but these are box-checking exercises with little sustained inquiry. Any hope of nuance is also flattened by Raz’s affinity for feel-good axioms. Here’s another: “The only difference between [these founders] and you, at this moment, is that when opportunity presented itself, they went into the phone booth and put on the cape.” In other words, success equals opportunity plus preparation, full-stop, a sentiment that’s hard to accept when we also know about the overrepresentation of Ivy League grads in tech and finance, or the fact that women receive less than 3 percent of the country’s venture capital funding each year.

These conversations about entrepreneurship not only ignore the gross imbalance of opportunity across the population; they also perpetuate a narrow view of success that has already been hyped up many times over. How I Built This is a callback to the rhapsodic praise and access fetishism that propelled tech media like TechCrunch, Gizmodo, and Mashable into the spotlight in the mid-2000s. It celebrates only the winners, primarily in consumer markets, and particularly those that follow the VC playbook: scale to infinity or rot on the vine. Of course, this aggressive obsession with growth nearly guarantees the destruction of what makes a “disruptive” business valuable or briefly revelatory. Consider the example of Airbnb, which in a few short years transformed from a peer-to-peer platform in which host-guest interaction was expected, to yet another depersonalized, global hospitality franchise that is exacerbating multiple affordable housing crises around the world.

For a program about doers supposedly creating things that matter, How I Built This overlooks vast swathes of the economy and society where more vital work is taking place. Education, health care, conservation, public service—realms where ambition isn’t necessarily tied to some capitalist hero’s journey or jackpot-sized payout. Contra Raz, the world doesn’t automatically become better when young people are encouraged to treat every little habit or product as a market to be disrupted. We don’t need another hard seltzer beverage, or a better granola bar, or a marginally softer t-shirt. In fact, as heavy industry and consumption strangle our planet, we arguably need less building and more caring. If there is any clear lesson from the still unfolding pandemic, it’s the fact that our most essential workers—nurses, teachers, drivers, caregivers—are still overlooked and underpaid. How I Built This reflects the tired idolatry of technology and innovation, the neurotic worldview that the work that matters most is that which influences our lives as consumers.

The Covid-19 pandemic is just the latest reminder that we have departed the age of high-growth, expansive capitalism, and entered a new era defined by dependency and risk. Whether it’s rising seas and superstorms, novel viruses and pandemics, industrial-scale cyberattacks or freak accidents like the wayward Ever Given container ship that clogged the Suez Canal for days, it seems clear that catastrophe is imminent; some level of harm and collateral damage is already and continuously transpiring. The mission then is to understand and mitigate the fallout of our growth- and consumption-stoked crises, which may require a paradigm shift in what it means to be a “builder.”

Tragically, Silicon Valley is still predisposed to believe the opposite. Last April, as lockdowns were beginning to feel indefinite and hospitals and grocery stores were reporting supply shortages, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen published a blog titled, “It’s time to build,” a fairly one-dimensional rant about our lack of societal willpower to create more of everything: not just hospitals and ventilators, but factories, skyscrapers, drones, monorails. The piece promptly went viral.

It portrays even the most dumb-luck, jackpot-winning founder as an oracle whose ideas deserve to be taken seriously.

Despite the growing scrutiny around Big Tech, across the political spectrum, and even and especially within the Bay Area—where it’s now trendy to call Amazon “evil”—much of the culture is still susceptible to false messiahs and their move-fast-and-break-things approach to entrepreneurship. Raz is their current myth-maker, and when a founder appears on How I Built This, they know the second-order effects and long-term consequences of their actions will be nothing more than an afterthought, a brief reflection tacked on at the tail end of the interview, as with Robinhood’s Tenev earlier this year. They also know their most mundane breakthroughs will be treated with cinematic flair, a formula present from the show’s first episode, when Sara Blakely’s discovery of the name Spanx—its hint of naughty humor, the unconventional “x” spelling—is dressed up with climactic music suggestive of an earth-shaking discovery.

We can fantasize that Raz might do better, that he could capitalize on the access to Silicon Valley’s best and brightest which in reality requires his restraint. I like to envision a version of How I Built This that  unravels the solitary hero’s journey, surfacing the public externalities and stakeholders swept up in any private venture. But the program is not built to be educational, or interrogative. It is quasi-sponsored entertainment, not unlike the TV franchises Shark Tank and Undercover Boss: a well-oiled PR machine that exalts successful CEOs as society’s primary success stories worthy of emulation. The show captures carefully curated moments of vulnerability, always tinged with the assurance of a happy ending (otherwise you wouldn’t be hearing about it). It portrays even the most dumb-luck, jackpot-winning founder as an oracle whose ideas deserve to be taken seriously, no matter how far outside their area of expertise they stray. Worst of all, How I Built This perpetuates the devaluation of our most essential workers and flatters our shallowest acquisitive impulses, placating an increasingly indignant yet inert public with an old tune—that as long as there are copious new goods and services to occupy our days, we must be part of a grand adventure headed somewhere exciting.