How NPR’s Guy Raz Built the How I Built This Summit

How NPR’s Guy Raz Built the How I Built This Summit

By Suzy Strutner, managing editor at Grow Wire
5-minute read

In short:

  • The How I Built This Summit is an annual gathering of “How I Built This” podcast listeners now in its second year. Podcast founder Guy Raz had the event idea baked into his brand plan from the start.

  • This year’s Summit aims for differentiation with a “kindness and collaboration” theme and access to both notable speakers and complimentary tickets.

  • As the host of a sold-out event and one of the nation’s most popular podcasts, Raz’s advice to founders includes not focusing on the size of your audience.


Guy Raz has heard a lot of entrepreneurs describe a lot of business journeys. As the host of NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast, he has interviewed more than 150 founders of iconic companies like Zappos, Patagonia and Southwest Airlines about their paths to success.

And all the while, Raz continues building his own new projects. 

One of his latest is the How I Built This Summit, an annual gathering of “HIBT” aficionados now in its second year. This week’s Summit spans two days in central San Francisco, where over 800 attendees are convened for main stage speakers including Spanx’s Sarah Blakely and Slack’s Stewart Butterfield and track sessions featuring the co-founders of Allbirds and Clif Bar, among others.

👉 The How I Built This Summit is an annual gathering of “HIBT” aficionados now in its second year.


The Summit is sold out, and more than 1,000 early-stage founders applied for 60 complimentary “Fellowship” tickets. Raz -- whom the New York Times called “one of the most popular podcasters in history" -- will lead main stage discussions, bringing one of the most-downloaded podcasts in the U.S. to life. 

Though the format is familiar, Raz does not want this to feel like your average business conference, he says. And though it’s got some undeniable momentum behind it, pulling this year’s Summit off wasn’t all “wow” and “amazing.”


A mutual genesis

Raz says a live event was pretty much always part of the “HIBT” business plan.

“I wanted to do an event already when I launched the show in 2016,” he told Grow Wire. “… but [he and the ‘HIBT’ team] didn’t start to bring it all together until 2017 when we started planning the 2018 Summit.

“We wanted to bring together a group of people to not only hear from [founders] who had been on the show and get advice from them about starting a business but also connect with each other in a genuine way.”

Raz says that what was a “side project” -- upon launching “HIBT,” his main role at NPR was host of “TED Radio Hour,” from which he is soon stepping down -- quickly developed into a “community” that were “reaching out and wanted to engage more.”

Raz (below, on day one of the 2019 How I Built this Summit) envisioned a live event upon launching the "HIBT" podcast.

 

Zero-awkwardness policy

The Summit takes a fairly typical shape: Each day, main stage speakers have “intimate conversations” with Raz. Summit-goers then attend sessions in three themed tracks: Fundamentals, Leadership and Innovation. There are one-on-one mentoring sessions with notable founders and an opportunity to mock-pitch your peers. The Marketplace vends products from alum of the "How You Built That" segment at the end of each "HIBT" episode.

However, the goal is not to “collect business cards” nor find startup funding during networking breaks, Raz says. And self-conscious thumb-twiddling can see itself out.

“I’ve been to conferences in the past by myself, and I show up, and I’m sort of awkward,” he continues. “It’s not easy for me to just walk up to a stranger … so I often stand on my own and look at my iPhone and go to the main stage and at the breaks awkwardly get a cup of coffee. I know what that feels like.”


“I’ve been to conferences in the past by myself, and I show up, and I’m sort of awkward. I know what that feels like.”  


 Thus, he’s instructed members of the Summit team to “walk up and talk to” solo coffee-sippers and introduce attendees they’ve met with common interests. 

“You might be working on a cosmetics company, and you might be at the Summit and meet somebody who’s working at a food company unrelated to what you’re doing, but they’re also in the middle of a crisis,” Raz says.

Nearly 30 “HIBT”-featured founders will mill the Summit floor to aid in these crises, Raz says, from (need we name-drop more?) Birchbox to Barre3 to Boomchickapop. Anyone wearing a red lanyard is fair game for attendees to ask advice of. 

Raz is banking on this year’s event theme, “kindness and collaboration,” to stave off any time hogs.

“Of course people get really excited and will want to talk to [a founder] for a long time,” he says. “I am going to emphasize again and again on the stage to be mindful of other people who want to talk to founders and to make space for everybody.”

Summit attendees are free to approach legendary founders like Spanx's Sara Blakely (left).  

Speed bumps

Those lanyard-wearing founders are coming to the Summit unpaid, and they weren’t hard to book. They simply responded “yes” to a personal email from Raz. He cites a “spirit of generosity” and the fact that founders often hear from customers for “a long time” after their “HIBT” episode airs. 

It’s tough to find “challenges” in the production of an event from such a highly-regarded brand. “HIBT” had over 4 million monthly downloads in 2017, per NPR, and it’s been nominated for both Webby and Shorty Awards. Raz caveats that his answer to the “challenges” question is a bit like those “My greatest weakness is working too hard” interview responses (which he’s gotten, by the way).

“If anything, our challenge [in producing the Summit] is how to make it more accessible to more people,” he says.


“If anything, our challenge [in producing the Summit] is how to make it more accessible to more people."


“Mounting an event” (a phrase Raz uses both on the show and to describe the Summit) “is expensive”: There’s the venue, the food, the staff both NPR and local. Attendance fees are inevitable, he says.

“For a lot of [conference attendees], it’s a big sacrifice,” he continues. “If you’re an early-stage entrepreneur, to come to San Francisco and spend $1,300 or more to come is a big ask. And we understand that.”

In response, the Summit team this year expanded its Fellowship program, making 15% of tickets free (vs. last year’s 10%) to “promising entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities.”  

👉 The Summit team this year expanded its Fellowship program, making 15% of tickets free to “promising entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities.”  


In the quest to boost accessibility, Raz says, the team is also mulling multiple, smaller gatherings throughout the year instead of a single Summit. Like a PR pro -- or like the host of a top podcast -- his self-directed questions around this are research-based. 

“Could we make it bigger? Should we make it bigger? Does it lose some intimacy if we make it too big?” he says. “We’ve done live shows in big venues, but that’s also sort of challenging. But we’ll get there. We’ll figure it out.”

This year's Summit provided free tickets to 60 fellows with early-stage startups.

 

Advice for building it

Before the Summit starts, Raz offers parting words for entrepreneurs who want to “mount” their own events, pop-ups or other brand extensions.

“My advice is to not focus on size [of your audience] but to focus on engagement,” he says. “ … Don’t try to just grow for the sake of growing, but focus on serving the core part of your audience, the people who really love what you do.”

It’s likely that only 5-10% of your audience will show up at your first event or take part in your inaugural social media campaign or subscribe to your new newsletter, he adds, “but they’re so important. The really committed community who is engaged with what you do, they’re the ones who are going to spread the message.”