How I Built This
Founders need determination and flexibility, in equal measure
How I Built This is a podcast revealing the founder’s story behind Instagram, Airbnb and many other successful startups. Guy Raz’s friendly interview style teases out the fascinating moments in each journey. The origin of the idea. Early experiments. Business setup. Crazy growth. Near disasters. Pivots. Fallouts. And new ventures. The 100 or so startup interviews I listened to were akin to peering over the shoulder of giants. I hope you enjoy the view too.
Each heading is a link to the associated How I Built This podcast.
In 2009, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger built a check-in app, enabling users to share their locations, e.g. a bar or cafe. The app topped out at 100 users, but those users really liked the photo sharing feature. The founders pivoted to focus on photo sharing and in 8 weeks developed Instagram. Within 24 hours of launch, they had thousands of active users around the world which caused their server to crash multiple times. Despite a challenging start, Instagram went on the become huge.
In the early 2000s, Stewart Butterfield tried to build a weird, massive multiplayer online game, but the venture failed. Instead, he and his co-founders used the technology they had developed to create the photo-sharing site Flickr. After Flickr was acquired by Yahoo in 2005, Butterfield went back to the online game idea, only to fail again. But the office messaging platform Slack rose from the ashes of that second failure - a company which, today, is valued at over $5 billion. - NPR
In 1979, James Dyson came up with the idea for a bagless vacuum cleaner. After 5 years developing over 5,000 prototypes and near bankruptcy, he finally perfected his design. James tried to licence his design to major vacuum brands without success and so setup his own company. Dyson is one of the most successful vacuum brands in the world and has gone on to significantly expand the product range. James became a billionaire.
Housemates Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky had no income and were unclear how they would pay the monthly rent. In desperation, they offered airbeds and breakfast for a fee to three attendees of a local conference; hence, the name Airbnb. After many false starts and building up much debt, they were backed by Paul Graham who provided investment and guidance. Paul was impressed by their tenacity and creativity, and less so by the idea itself. Staying in a strangers home is no longer considered a weird idea. Now Airbnb offers more rooms than any hotel chain. Paul Graham is one of My Top 5 Startup Teachers.
In 2003, student Anthony Casalena created a website-building tool for himself. After some positive feedback from friends, he decided to put the tool online and start a business. For years, Anthony ran Squarespace almost entirely on his own but the stress took a toll and he reached the limits of what he could accomplish by himself. The journey to hiring a staff and scaling the company had its own set of growing pains, including difficulty letting go of control and learning how to manage other people. Squarespace has grown to more than 800 employees and is valued at $1.7bn. - NPR
How I Built This book by Guy Raz
Planet Money podcast by NPR
How to Launch Apps post by Phil Martin
A common theme is the founders’ resilience and openness to changing direction when necessary. Until next Sunday, I hope these stories inspire you to drive forward with that product idea you’ve been toying with.