Image credit: How Hard Can it Be
Africa is very entrepreneurial! It not only has the highest percentage of entrepreneurs among working-age adults of any continent, but it is now witnessing an acceleration in innovation, startups, and business scaleup – four out of Africa’s seven Unicorns emerged in just the first nine months of 2021 alone! Despite this trend, failure rates for startups are high, not just in Africa but globally. Over 90%, according to California-based research firm Startup Genome. A brilliantly-written new book, ‘How Hard Can It Be – Startup Lessons Learned From Trying (And Failing) To Take Down Facebook’, by Arnaud Henneville-Wedholm, posits a compelling and exciting new way of improving the odds for startup success.
How did you arrive at the name?
‘How hard can it be’ is a phrase commonly used in the corporate world when trying something new, and it is one my co-founder and I asked throughout our business ideation and execution journey. It suddenly hit us that Facebook was annoying and that there might be a business opportunity in actually doing something about it, which led to the question, ‘how hard can it be to take down Facebook?’ It eventually turned out to be harder than we first envisaged, but this was the inspiration for the book title
Why build a business around such as gargantuan challenge?
My view has always been that any business worth pursuing should be big, relevant, and impactful and should align with your goals in life. I’ve always been super driven, perhaps too much of a dreamer, hence I went in with the so-called BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) of taking down a monster that we felt was not healthy. Though not at the scale it currently is, Facebook was starting to pick up nicely in 2012, with several hundreds of millions of users spending lots of time on the platform scrolling through kilometers of cat pictures and other nonsense. My co-founder and I saw a business opportunity in creating an alternative to Facebook that was much healthier, fun, relatable, and encouraged users to challenge themselves to more engaging activities that would help them become better at growing their skills and developing themselves
How Hard Was It?
Harder than we thought! (laugh…). There is this illusion or myth that starting a business is “easy”. Just put together a team, come up with a product design, raise money, run it for a few years, be acquired, and then summer off to Barbados. It’s actually much harder, and I think that anyone who has ever tried him/herself at the ‘startup thing’ would share this view. This book tries to capture this experience. I use my own story as the baseline, but the insights and learnings are just as applicable whether you are building a food-tech company, a gaming app, an Edutech, a rocket, or whatever. It applies whether you are in B2C or in B2B. In fact, we happened to have done both as we transformed throughout our journey – many share such fate. So, It’s really not about having a hallelujah moment, the sky suddenly opening up and the stars aligning, rather it’s the different things along the way, such as the several pivots that occur before you hit the so-called product-market fit which allows you to find – or not – scalability and profitability. Nine out of ten startups fail, so I posit that it’s probably best to discuss the nuts and bolts of why this occurs so that we are better prepared to navigate it, and can improve the odds
The African Angle
I am French, was born in Cameroon, and spent my life in France. I left France fairly quickly after my studies, moved around a bit, met my wife, and eventually moved back again with my family to Africa while driving my Startup out of Stockholm. As you will read in the book, my family moved to Mozambique because of my wife’s career but on the condition that I would not abandon my Startup to be in Africa doing nothing. So, I had to do a lot of flying back and forth. We got the opportunity to travel a lot in the continent, mostly in South, East, and Sub-Saharan Africa. I loved it all!
Was it challenging, Any Security Concerns?
Certainly not to the extent that there is today. Mozambique is a fairly stable country with its own political challenges and others in the North notably, there were a few riots, kidnappings for ransom, and things like that the years we were there, so we clearly had to watch out for that. Generally, it was a different kind of life than I was accustomed to living in Northern Europe. On the positive side, Mozambique has a rich Portuguese heritage, so the culture, language, and food have a lot of Portuguese influence. People are amazing there. There were lots of spicy food, seafood, and shrimp which were all very fantastic, but I am now a vegetarian and do not eat fish anymore, but at the time it was a blast!
The book is riveting and easy to read, what informed your writing style?
I made a strategic decision to narrate the story more as a novel than as a typical business book that covers topics like the ABC of success and the ‘5 hacks’ of how to scale (spoiler alert: there is no hack, silver bullet, magic sauce or whatnot), or the success stories of popular founders like Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson, which are all well and good, but I wanted this book to help entrepreneurs get the behind-the-scene experience of starting and running a business in a multidimensional way. I really aimed at leveling the playing field by offering the other side of the entrepreneurial journey – all the things one never hears about. It’s a more balanced approach to the whole entrepreneurial endeavor and I think it’s much more healthy. You see, with all the successes we are being fed with on Instagram, etc. people have a false sense of reality. My goal is to re-equilibrate that equation. As for the writing style, I deliberately chose to take the reader through the emotional roller-coaster of what starting up something actually means; the exhilaration, the pain, the joy, the anxiety, the stress, the hope, and every other emotion one encounters – simply because that’s the real stuff. I am also a firm believer in storytelling as a knowledge transfer mechanism. You can literally grab the book on a Friday afternoon and, by Monday, have re-arranged your worldview and be a better founder, entrepreneur, or team leader as a result of reading it
I really aimed at leveling the playing field by offering the other side of the entrepreneurial journey – all the things one never hears about
So it’s not a Michael Porter ‘5 Forces’ type book, it’s not either a glorified account of the building of a multi-billion dollar company, it’s more like ‘Born to Run’ or ‘Can’t Hurt Me’ for entrepreneurs (laugh!). It’s for you if you are in it [the startup journey], contemplating it, looking at it from the sidelines, or even if you want to have a good, engaging, read.
What are some of the lessons we should expect to learn while reading this book?
A lot of things happen that you cannot control. I mean, we, as a family, didn’t plan on moving to Africa. No one could have known that my business partner’s world would be turned upside down, it just happened. Life just hits you. We are an individual with a lot of facets and a lot of things happening, maybe you have kids or other things you are having to deal with that have nothing to do with your drive and ambition and yet you have to deal with them. It is this complex balancing act that I wanted layered on the entrepreneurial journey simply because that very fact never makes the headlines.
Importantly, you will find that it’s a human story that decouples the view of entrepreneurs as superheroes. Anyone can do it, really. The question is are you willing to go all-in to meet with your dreams? And yet, if you don’t succeed, then what? I won’t spoil it for your readers but there is an important message here that needs to make it to the mainstream narrative.
On a practical level, it’s the true, genuine, guard down, look at being an entrepreneur. I call it the no-nonsense, no-BS look at what being an entrepreneur actually means. The book describes the entrepreneurial journey of discovering and living through things like MVP, traction, scale, pricing, and how to marshal competencies. When you are a newbie, you may have no real clue what these mean and you question everything. Sometimes the answers are nowhere to be found. They are mostly not in books and it’s difficult to have a meaningful conversation with someone. I try to clarify these important concepts in a very digestible way while telling a story that hopefully resonates with people who are thinking about entrepreneurship. And if you are not new to the startup world or if you are in the midst of your own journey asking yourself questions, like I was, the book communicates these commonalities amongst startup journeys so that you may appreciate that what you are experiencing is not unique
The book describes the entrepreneurial journey of discovering and living through things like MVP, traction, scale, pricing, and how to marshal competencies
Something I also wanted to come across in this book is naturally, ‘mindset’. You have to believe in yourself and in your project. And I think the one reason that people do not succeed is that they are afraid to fail or afraid of other people’s opinions, the so-called ‘FOPO’. It can make it very hard to go all-in into the one thing that you believe is important if you are constantly limiting yourself because of the fear of being judged by others.
One last thing, I would say that even though it’s hard, it’s all worth it – whether you succeed or not. A big learning which may sound obvious from the sideline is that you only move forward as you fail. The only way to learn is through failure, no one ever does much just by succeeding.
Failing gave me a totally new perspective and got me to reflect and to write down why I believe we failed. The result is the creation of this book which I hope will help others. The whole idea of the book is to lower the probabilities of you failing in your own entrepreneurial journey. That’s really my goal with this book. I mean, I could just stack all this experience as a repository of the good stuff that I learned, but I chose instead to put it out. So I come at it from a place of humility and I share all the stuff I believe is true because I’m convinced it will help many other entrepreneurs leap their process and accelerate their own journeys by learning faster on what to do and what not to do. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself”
How can readers get a copy?
Your readers can purchase a copy of the book online on our website howhardcanitbethebook.com, and there are extra pieces of content that I have included. They can also purchase the book through regular distributors like Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Target, Rakuten, and so on. But the website is the place where I’m going to communicate with the audience going forward. And it is more than just the book really, it’s a movement, where people can share their own experiences so that we can all learn together and faster, which could be a more efficient way to get to success. And, I have the data points for that. If being successful was the result of all the success stories that are available to us today, then startup failure rates will not be what they are, nine out of ten failings. So, I invite everyone, to come and join me and other entrepreneurs on that movement and start sharing what we’ve learned as a result of trying because, clearly, that’s where the learning is. I mean, ‘how hard can it be?’.