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Start Up

I’m starting off Podcast Roundup with a spotlight on a podcast about... start ups! It’s apropos because Smash Up is a new venture, not in the capitalist sense, but as a fledgling creation being floated out to the infinite abyss of the Interwebs. As Alex Blumberg, the creator and co-host of Start Up, realizes in the first episode, “I could do that!” Why wait for something you can figure out yourself right now?

Start Up is hosted by Alex Blumberg and Lisa Chow. Both have previous experience in radio journalism, including This American Life and NPR’s Planet Money. But as Alex describes, his favorite types of podcasts focused more on storytelling and journalism. He thought it’d be interesting to get the behind-the-scenes scoop on what exactly it takes to build a small business from the ground up. As he puts it, “This podcast is the origin story you never actually hear. Set down before the facts can fade into sunny ‘start up mythology.’”

Each beginning episode follows Alex as he documents the process of starting a business, from “How Not to Pitch a Billionaire” and “How to Name Your Company,” to “We Made a Mistake.” The reporting style is a This American Life-esque overlay of raw audio with friends and mentors couched in Alex’s exposition of the process. The result is embarrassing and endearing. You’re right there with him in moments like his first time pitching to one of the biggest names in investing. He trips over his words, grasping at a point that floats further away in his inexperience.

The second through fourth seasons follow three different businesses: four guys pursuing various social media sharing ideas before they existed--over 10 years ago; Dating Ring, a dating service meant to solve the troubles of popular apps like Tinder or Hinge; and the rise and fall of American Apparel and its founder Dov Charney. Each company is unique in its challenges. The first two start ups achieve beginning highs and lows, like the opportunity to pitch their service to a roomful of influential investors. But it also gives an honest look at the practical and emotional turmoil of building something from the ground up. Having no money, fights, and wondering why they bothered trying in the first place.

Then, co-host Lisa Chow follows American Apparel. It’s an in depth documentation of the void he was able to successfully fill in the market, not just in clothing style, but also providing jobs for minorities. But Lisa also doesn’t shy away from his volatile behavior. It’s often unavoidable as Dov switches between excitable to vicious within minutes, on tape. He’s a man emotionally driven, which brought him some of his biggest achievements but also triggered him downfall.

The great thing about this podcast is that it doesn’t have to be just about the voyeurism of others’ success and failures. Through detailed storytelling, it provides groundwork to those interested in starting their own enterprises. A key question Alex is asked in his first pitch is, “what is your unfair advantage?” Taken personally, listeners can apply this strategy to narrow their focus and sharpen their game for their own business.

You can find more Gimlet media projects, including free episode streaming of Start Up, at