How hard can it be? Lessons on failure from an entrepreneur who tried to take down Facebook
After trying to overthrow Facebook and failing, entrepreneur and Sting alumni Arnaud Henneville-Wedholm did some serious self-reflection. Why did his startup fail? What did he learn from it? We spoke to him to find out.
In 2012, inspired by the banal yet endemic craze of scrolling through Facebook, Arnaud launched a new social media platform in the hope of creating more authentic human experiences. In 2014, his business started to show traction. He closed an angel round and joined Sting’s incubator program. But shortly after, cracks began to show. For six and a half years, Arnaud and his team adapted, pivoted, and kept grinding despite multiple setbacks – but eventually called it day.
In his new book, How Hard Can It Be: Startup Lessons From Trying (And Failing) To Take Down Facebook, he explores how to launch and monetize a startup and deep dives into what went wrong for his startup so other entrepreneurs can accelerate their own journeys. We sat down with him to find out more.
So Arnaud, tell us about your failed startup.
Back in 2012 Facebook was huge (not as huge as today but still), and my co-founder and I were fed up with it. We couldn’t understand why our friends and families were scrolling through Facebook looking at pictures of cats with party hats and food on plates. Liking things on Facebook was really non-engaging to us. It was absolute nonsense. To some extent, not much has changed.
We weren’t tech guys, but we decided to build a new alternative to Facebook. At the time, we were working at a consultancy firm in Stockholm helping organizations with cultural transformation and change management. Our idea was to create a platform that would give people more tangible experiences (‘IRL’ as it is known today). Facebook was turning people into couch potatoes, and we wanted them to get off that couch and go out into the real world. The mechanism to make that happen was a challenge. People could challenge their friends to do things, from anything to 5K runs to eating the fermented fish you get in Sweden. At first, we got a lot of traction, people were signing up, and they were challenging each other and themselves to do stuff.
When did you hit your first roadblock?
We realized that although people were challenging each other, no one was following through. It’s very easy to say you’re going to do something, but eventually, you’ll find all sorts of excuses not to do it. Why? Because actually doing something is hard! It’s painful, it requires self-discipline, commitment. Humans are pleasure seekers and pain avoiders.
But I didn’t accept that in the beginning. I assumed that the platform was faulty, and the process of challenging people was poorly executed. So, we decided to make it more efficient, smoother, simpler. It didn’t work, so we decided to incentivize challenges instead. Our idea was to get influencers and celebrities to challenge people, and by doing so enhance their brand and get people more engaged.
It worked to some extent, until it didn’t. After many more variations, we concluded we had to pivot.
What did you do after you realized this?
We pivoted from a B2C business model to B2B, selling the platform to large organizations so they could challenge employees internally. At the time this made perfect sense, and to some extent, it worked. We got contracts with some of the greatest companies in the world with thousands of employees on the payroll. But it turned out this model was hard to scale. It was very project-driven and unless you can build a company with an army of salespeople that’s not really a sustainable idea.
Gradually, we moved away from a challenge-based niche product and ended up with an internal communications platform. At that point, we were competing with IBM, Slack and Facebook. And clearly, we had a hard time competing with those guys for many reasons. So, after six and half years of iterations, we realized there was not much else we could do – Facebook had ‘killed’ us. So we hung up our gloves. We had failed. Looking at it now, it’s a beautiful circle – from going after Facebook to having to stop because of Facebook.
What’s the one thing that you would like other entrepreneurs to take away from your book?
The short answer is: it’s not as easy as you think. It’s going to be hard, and you need to be ready for it. And the best way to be ready for it is to have already done the journey. And you don’t need a VR headset for that (laughs). Walk with me for 4-5hours and you’ll get a really good sense of what it takes. The roller-coaster ride is rough!
We only see people celebrating success. But no one talks about the pain, the struggle, and the impact on your personal life. My co-founder and I pushed ourselves to the brink of exhaustion. Plenty happens in 6-7 years, you know. And it’s not just you that has to endure the struggles, it’s everyone around you, but no one tells you this because it’s not as sexy as an Instagram post.
I titled my book “How hard can it be?” because most entrepreneurs I’ve met have this mindset, including myself. I see the same trend over and over, this idea that you’re going to make a dent in the universe, and that’s beautiful. Of course, you need to start there as an entrepreneur. But in the end, how many do? Irrespective of a team’s ideas, talent, funding, hard work, ambition, or achievements, nine out of 10 startups still fail. We had everything we needed to be successful. We had customers, funding, and had been through one of the best incubators in the world. We signed contracts with some of the world’s biggest companies. We were invited to talk on podcasts about the value we delivered, etc. But despite everything, in the end, we still failed.
My thesis is this: if only showcasing ‘success’ was the recipe for creating successful companies, the ratio of those who succeed to those who don’t would not be what it is today. I want to bring this to the conversation and have entrepreneurs learn from the failure of others. This way, we will reduce the casualties on the road to success.
What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs?
If you assume that you’re going to work for a couple of years and then you’re going to be acquired, or it’s going to be a walk in the park as soon as you get some traction, you’ll get taken off guard. It’s better to understand the whole process and what sort of challenges you can face at different points so that when the going gets tough, you’re more prepared and if you’re more prepared, you increase your chances of survival.
The world is about learning from failure. I open my book with a quote from Elenor Roosevelt: ‘you should learn from the failures of others, you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.’
The idea of the book is really to help people fast forward through the things that happen to all startups but no one really talks about them. So in many ways, while it’s my story as a baseline, it’s also everyone’s story. I’m hoping it won’t be yours!
I also think it’s important to keep putting yourself in uncomfortable situations to build up your resilience. I’ve always been into sports, and I deliberately push myself out of my comfort zone. This helps build resilience as a person, so when unexpected events happen, you can adapt to them better.
Do you have any regrets?
Of course not! When you fail, you lose a lot, but you gain so much. I learnt more in six years running my own startup than I did in 15 years working for a corporate company. When we stopped learning and developing as people, we knew it was time to call it a day.
How hard can it be?
In his book, Arnaud explains why his startup failed so that other startups can learn from it. He also teaches readers valuable lessons like how to pitch startup incubators like Sting, how uninformed optimism can still lead to real organic growth, and what to do when your business isn’t as scalable as you thought.
Grab your copy on Amazon. For Sting companies who buy the book, Arnaud is also offering 20-minute sessions for you to pick his brains further and bounce ideas. Just email your receipt with the subject line (STING) at firstname.lastname@example.org.