Share
FacebookFacebook icon TwitterTwitter icon LinkedInLinkedIn icon Email
David vs Goliath

Leadership

I failed but emerged stronger from the experience  

Published 21 November 2022 in Leadership • 6 min read • Audio availableAudio available

Arnaud Henneville-Wedholm’s dreams of glory were crushed in a David and Goliath battle with Mark Zuckerberg, but he firmly believes that failure can be a springboard to success if managed well.

Driven by economic changes wrought by the pandemic, entrepreneurship has boomed across the world’s major economies in the past couple of years. 

There has been a cultural shift, too: society now worships at the altar of entrepreneurship — at least judging from news websites, case studies and social media, which are awash with success stories and hashtags that romanticize the life of the founder. The creators of multi-billion-dollar companies, such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the late Steve Jobs, have become the rockstars of the business world. 

Society has a success fetish. But rarely does the harsh reality of being a founder receive enough attention: the setbacks, problems, disappointments — and the inevitable failures. While Instagram and TikTok make heroes of risk-taking, the flipside of that — the high failure rate — is still taboo. The danger is that this creates a false impression that being an entrepreneur is easy. It is not. Understandably, few entrepreneurs want to shout about their failed ventures. But I do.  

I wrote my book — How Hard Can It Be. Startup Lessons from Trying (And Failing) To Take Down Facebook — I try to encourage a more honest dialogue about the trials and tribulations of the venture lifestyle. If we talk more openly about failure, we can improve the likelihood of success. Disaster can be a better learning opportunity than achievement.  

Startups cannot invent the future without taking risks. Thomas Edison carried out 9,000 experiments before coming up with a successful version of the light bulb. Henry Ford got nowhere with his first two attempts at auto-making, but he didn’t let that stop him from pioneering the assembly line technique of mass production.  

Companies that are regarded as being the most innovative — Apple, Google and Microsoft — are renowned for having cultures that tolerate failure. They recognize that if invention has negative consequences, no one would ever try anything new. Amazon founder Bezos once characterized failure and invention as “inseparable twins”.  

My own personal experience of failing in the tech industry provides lessons on how to make the most out of losses. What I have learned can help propel you forward in entrepreneurship, whether you’re an upstart looking to displace an industry, or an executive driving change within an established corporation.   

I created my company in 2012 with the aim of taking down social media giant Facebook. I was working in change management consulting at the time, and went into business with a colleague from my firm. Despite Facebook’s popularity, we saw numerous problems. Some of the platform’s inventors had spoken out about its addictive nature. Founding Facebook president Sean Parker described it as “a social-validation feedback loop … you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”. 

As has been well-documented, the endless quest for social validation may be harming our health. A survey of 1,500 young people in the UK found platforms such as Facebook stoked anxiety, depression and poor sleep in children. By exposing people to unrealistic representations of users’ lives, these sites can lead to feelings of social isolation.  

Facebook is also turning people into couch potatoes; I wanted to get them off the sofa and out of their comfort zones. Our idea was to create a platform that encouraged real-world experiences. The mechanism to make that happen was a “challenge”. On our platform, called challengesЯus.com, people would dare their friends to do things, such as running a marathon or learning a new language.  

This tapped into the innate human desire for progress. The network got strong early traction with 3,000 sign-ups soon after launch. But then cracks began to show. The problem was that few people were completing their challenges. It is very easy to say you’ll do something, but eventually people find excuses not to follow through. At first I refused to believe this; I thought the platform was the problem. So we spent months refining the sign-up process and making the platform more user-friendly.  

When that didn’t work, we decided to incentivize people to finish their challenges. We got influencers and celebrities to dare people, in order to boost their brand and engagement. The American polar explorer Eric Larsen, for example, was challenged to trek 750 miles to the South Pole by bicycle in temperatures 20-degrees below zero. He ultimately failed. The strategy had a minor impact on completion rates, but we needed greater traction.  

We decided we had to pivot, from a B2C to a B2B business model. Instead of monetizing user growth through advertising, we started selling the platform to organizations that challenged employees to solve business and HR challenges internally. We signed up major corporations with thousands of staff, including General Electric, Absolut Vodka and UPM-Kymmene Oyj. But this model was hard to scale, because each company wanted us to devise a unique challenge for their workforce. Without recruiting an army of salespeople, this process was too labor intensive for us to manage. We were becoming a consultancy firm.  

Success
“If we talk more openly about failure, we can improve the likelihood of success. Disaster can be a better learning opportunity than achievement”

So we made yet another pivot, this time to a strategy focused on creating internal social networks for companies. We signed up firms including Groupe PSA (now Stellantis, a Netherlands-based carmaker) to connect employees who are mobile without permanent desks. But it was hard to win market share in a crowded enterprise software market. We were competing against bigger players such as Salesforce, SAP and Facebook, which had just launched its first software product for businesses, Workplace by Facebook. 

With a lean team, we were outmuscled. After six-and-a-half years of pivoting, we decided to sell the business, making a loss. We set out to take down Facebook but, in the end, it was Facebook that ultimately killed us. In our story, it was Goliath who smote David. 

But through this experience, we have discovered that there is a great deal to learn from failure, so long as you manage it successfully. The first thing that you must do is accept that there’s a high likelihood of catastrophe, if not an inevitability. Despite a startup’s talent, hard work and ambition, nine in 10 will still collapse, according to a 2019 report by the Startup Genome project. We had everything we needed to be successful: customers, funding, contracts with big clients. But despite all that, in the end, we still lost. 

My point is this: the more the startup community can share stories of failure, the more entrepreneurs can learn from the mistakes of others. If you assume entrepreneurship will be a walk in the park, you will be woefully underprepared for the challenges that lie ahead.  

Most entrepreneurs I’ve met have this mindset, which is why my book’s title is, How Hard Can It Be? In reality, existential crises are regular occurrences. My co-founder and I pushed ourselves to the brink of exhaustion. By fast-forwarding to the problems that all startups face but seldom speak about, you will boost your chances of survival. 

We must also eradicate the stigma surrounding failure. What entrepreneurs are most afraid of is that they will be perceived negatively in the eyes of others. The thought of being branded a “failure” is, for many, worse than the idea of losing money and disbanding their company. But we must reframe the idea of failure and turn it into a criterion for success. We all fail our way to victory, so the more you fail, the higher the likelihood you can, eventually, succeed. 

Lastly, companies must recognize the benefits of failing slowly. The mantra in Silicon Valley is “fail fast, fail often”, but this obscures the reality that companies go through multiple iterations before they are fully formed.  

So don’t get too attached to your first attempt, and be ready to pivot your idea. And don’t give up at the first hurdle. Just try again. Often, the journey is a more important opportunity for learning and growth than the end destination.  

Authors

David vs Goliath

Arnaud Henneville-Wedholm

Business Director at Furhat Robotic

Arnaud Henneville-Wedholm is an entrepreuneur, published author, and the Business Director at Furhat Robotics. He is also the founder of multiple startups, including internalDesk, a SaaS platform for enterprise collaboration, where he served as COO.

Related

Learn Brain Circuits

Join us for daily exercises focusing on issues from team building to developing an actionable sustainability plan to personal development. Go on - they only take five minutes.
 
Read more 

Explore Leadership

What makes a great leader? Do you need charisma? How do you inspire your team? Our experts offer actionable insights through first-person narratives, behind-the-scenes interviews and The Help Desk.
 
Read more

Join Membership

Log in here to join in the conversation with the I by IMD community. Your subscription grants you access to the quarterly magazine plus daily articles, videos, podcasts and learning exercises.
 
Sign up

You have 4 of 5 articles left to read.