💡 Founder Spotlight: Soulaima Gourani
This week is Cloudflare's Founder Spotlight on Cloudflare TV, featuring dozens entrepreneurs from across the tech industry and beyond!
This session features Soulaima Gourani, Co-Founder & CEO of Happioh, a tech company backed by some of the most prominent Silicon Valley Angels.
She is a Danish/Morrocan immigrant living in Palo Alto.
Rewarded with the prestigious YGL, WEF Young Global Leader title, Thinkers50 Ideas into Practice Award 2019 & the “Thinkers50” Radar 2020 Award. “40 under 40 Europe”, “Nordic Thinkers 20”, Entrepreneur Of The Year® Judge, TED Mentor and UN Women Ambassador Advisor.
She is a Contributor to Forbes Leadership Channel and an author of several bestseller books. She has contributed to more than 14 books on how to get success in life, life design, and the “future of work.” One of her books sold more than 350.000 copies.
Motivational speaker at Big Speak with more than 2.000 international talks under her belt.
Executive Education from ISB, INCAE, Yale, Harvard and MBA from CBS.
Visit the Founder Spotlight hub to find the rest of these featured conversations — and tune in all week for more!
Well, hi everyone. My name is Alina Ha. I am a Customer Success Manager here at Cloudflare based in London and welcome to our third day of Founder Spotlight Week.
Founder Spotlight Week is where we're featuring human stories behind the diverse startup founders, their life experience and perspective, the origin of their success stories, or maybe not, you know, like just hearing all their struggles and real raw truth.
So today we have Soulaima Gourani from HappyO. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Good morning, Alina, or good evening, because you are in UK and I'm in California, but it's so nice to be here.
Thank you for the invitation. No, pleasure is all ours and we already had such a cool, you know, like conversation, but and when I was looking at your website, I was really fascinated.
What is your startup is about?
So can you tell us what the startup is about and, you know, some brief history?
Absolutely. Yes. So I'm the co-founder and CEO of a company called HappyO.
I'm partly Moroccan and Danish and I grew up in Denmark and they're all so happy, as you know, and in average a Dane work 30, 37 hours a week.
I moved to US.
I realized that Americans, actually most, you know, people around the world work much more and I was intrigued to find out what I could do.
How could I help people get a better work-life balance?
And so I got together with a great team.
Our CTO has previous experience in building SaaS software and we got together and we discussed what can be done.
And so we came up with this little piece of software that is called HappyO and it actually captures all decisions that are being made in meetings and all the action items that people agree on.
And that actually free ups up to four hours for you weekly, because let's be honest, when you meet in meetings and you make decisions and, you know, you discuss things, we either forget what we decided, we circle back, we email, we call, we catch up.
And I've always been really fascinated about optimization and supply chain optimization and, you know, workflows and I'm a bit of a nerd.
So we have developed this software that is actually directly integrated to your Microsoft, your favorite software.
So you could say that we are freeing up people's time by taking off the workload of decisions and action item distribution.
It's just a little piece of it, but that's what we do.
This is so much cooler than I thought.
Thank you. But you know, the thing is, I like to be professional. I like to be viewed as someone who is on top of things.
I like to be able to remember people, names, what we decided.
I like to be professional, but I also have to admit that I'm in a lot of meetings.
I work globally. I forget things. I have long days.
And then sometimes I have to wing it. You know, I don't want that. And software can actually free up your time, you know, reduce the cognitive overload and why not have that piece of software?
So yeah, we decided to build it and it's really, really cool.
We just got, you know, passed. We just got through two huge security audits.
You might like that. For a company with 400,000 users and one with 10,000 users.
And I should say we focus on very large enterprises. It's not a consumer product.
It's an enterprise software. So yeah, and we are born global. We have alpha testers all over the world.
And, you know, I envision that we can become a very, very significant company within the next five to seven years.
That is really cool because like, you know, as a customer success manager, you might be in 14 meetings a day.
So like you sometimes don't have a headspace, right? Like to write follow-ups, remember everything.
So I think it's a really cool idea, like definitely.
And I can see why, you know, you see the growth and the potential.
So, and it's very interesting to see like how far along in your startup journey, like you kind of mentioned that you're constantly fundraising.
So can you tell us what's the, like at what stage of your journey you are now?
Yes. So we launched with our proof of concept customers.
I mean, when you are a early startup, it's really a balance, right?
If you grow too fast, it's not good. If you grow too slow, it's not good.
In the beginning of any startup, it's really important that you really secure product market fit.
It's very important. So we've spent the last six months making sure that the software actually does what it has to do at scale.
And so we have raised $1 million from our friends to pay for the MVP, the rollout and those things to securing us the next big milestone besides having the right team, getting, you know, the early testers to love you.
Then the next big thing is monthly recurring revenue.
We all know that, right? You need to show some traction.
So from the new year, we will be at our $50,000 monthly recurring revenue milestone.
That's very important. And it all has to happen, you know, quickly, because if you grow too slow, investors might not think that you're onto something.
So our journey is our next big milestone after new year is monthly recurring revenue.
And we are just a team of nine people. 80% of those are, of course, developers, engineers, technical people.
I'm not a technical founder.
I'm more like a sales distribution expert because I've been in global sales of software since the 90s.
But that's our milestone. And what's really important is for any startup, and this I cannot say enough, it's fine that you fall in love with your product.
That's great. But really what you have to do is to make sure all the time, ideally, like we do, we meet with our proof of concept customers, partners, every week, bi -weekly.
We don't do anything unless we really sit down and talk to our customers about it.
And product development, your product roadmap should be developed fully with a handful or 10 very, very perfectly picked screen scanned customers.
One of the biggest challenges as an early startup is to actually screen the market for those companies who are willing to take a bet on you, right?
I mean, imagine this for a moment. So one of our proof of concept customers have 400,000 employees.
That's a great deal of people. Those people will make the decision to go with us.
Why would they risk their careers on choosing us? They could just choose software that is already out there or just don't solve the problem.
So you really have to screen and scan those very early believers, make them commit with you and go with you the entire way.
For that to happen, you have to be very visionary and keep repeating to your customers why we're doing this.
Why should they spend time, money, energy, and resources on building a product with you?
So storytelling, that journey that you're on is so, so important.
It's not just about the product.
It's really about building something together and doing something together.
Companies love that. And large organizations actually do like to help small startups if you understand their environment.
And for enterprise software, number one challenge, number one, cyber security.
I mean, hands down, if you don't understand security, you're never, never going to succeed in the enterprise segment.
We spoke about your views on Cloudflare and how we found it. And also, all your thoughts resonate definitely with what I hear from our customers.
Most of them are going with us because we're also shipping so many cool new products.
And a lot of them are trusting us to say like, hey, yes, there might be a more mature product, but we know that you're constantly working on it.
So I definitely, I mean, I work in Cloudflare and I hope that you will have the same passion throughout the years, right?
And you will have the customers who will be trusting you, like say, okay, we'll jump with you in this unknown but really exciting thing moving forward.
I mean, Cloudflare has been, and still is one of my, you know, go-to cases when I need comfort because being a founder, let's just be honest, it's a very long, lonely journey, even though that it might seem like we are really on the roll and the data points show that we are growing and we are doing all the right things and we are on the path of really fast growth.
And so, then I will say though that Cloudflare, Michiel and Matthew, when they founded the company, I remember that they raised, I think it was something like $100 ,000 in the very beginning, nothing.
And I remember Michiel saying somewhere in an interview or saying that, well, you know, raising such a tiny amount of money forced us to, every time we encountered a problem, we couldn't just throw money at the problem, hire someone to fix it, we actually had to find out ourselves.
So, the very foundation of Cloudflare is innovation, figuring it out, right?
Make it work.
It's very founder-driven still. And that's why Cloudflare is, and you chose to work in Cloudflare at the very right time in history, but it's just a fascinating story.
And I don't know, of course, the full product roadmap of Cloudflare, no one knows, but if you look carefully, they just keep innovating.
And yeah, so it's really fascinating.
So, back to the founder story, every time I think about money and funding, I always think about the fact money is never only the answer.
It can actually be very dangerous for a very early startup to raise too much money at a too high valuation, because then you have to burn that cash.
It's much better to really make sure that you have product, market, message fit, and then you scale, then you go out and raise your 10, 20, 30, $80 million, right?
But not too early.
So, that's also why we have been having an ongoing round. Every time we meet with our investors, we have new data, and I think we de-risk that way.
And as a founder, I really care about making sure that if an investor takes a risk and bet on us, it has to be a calculated risk, right?
So, I feel very good about the journey of HAPU.
Yeah. That's great. And you mentioned that it took six months to put together the software that will work.
And during this six months, I suppose it was 2021, sometime in 2020, and we already were in pandemic, right?
How did you manage?
Personally, did you need to adjust? I know, first of all, kudos to your setup, and I already said, it's amazing.
Thank you. That's one. But professionally as well, right?
For your team, for yourself, how did you manage this last two years?
Well, let's be honest. The pandemic has been hard on everyone.
Some people have coped with it better, and some have been challenged more.
Let me just say a few things about the good things. I've been online and hybrid for many years.
When I was working at HP, MERSC, those very big organizations, I already was part of global teams.
So, working remotely, video meetings was not something I was unfamiliar with.
I actually like it a lot.
And I think it's a great way to work together. It makes me productive. I find it as easy to build a connection remotely online than in person.
But I will say, though, that's not the case for most people.
Our brains are very challenged. It's a really weird way to work, and you very often end up working too much, actually.
That's the crazy part. You work too much. That's why people are burning out.
Some people are even suicidal. And that's why our software is relevant for a lot of companies who work in very competitive or challenged nations like Japan, and parts of Asia, and Middle East, and long story short.
So, what is really difficult, I would say, and I think everyone who sees this can agree with the fact that not being with a person in the room, it can sometimes be difficult to actually read, how are you doing?
How are you? And so, you as a manager or a colleague, well, there are different ways of making sure that you can check in on one another, but I think it's important to build a culture where you can be vulnerable, where you can actually share your struggle.
And another thing is that can be difficult is culture.
How can you build a culture if you're not together? But I will argue that culture is what you breathe, what you say, what you do, and we are only nine people.
So, the culture is very straightforward. But it really does matter in the very beginning of your company to hire the right people and keep the wrong people away from your team, because those at the founding team are really those who will define the culture going on.
And you have to make sure that that culture you have is that a scalable model, is that a culture other people wants to work within and be part of.
So, you really have to pay a lot of attention to the culture.
And I think that's a challenge online and remote. And then another thing that's a challenge is that some organizations have chosen to be hybrid, meaning a combination of being online and in office.
And that is what we will see going forward.
If you don't get that right, very right, you will end up in your office with empty nesters and singles, while those who stay at home are mostly women or caregivers, those who have children or older parents to take care of or live very remote or cannot afford to go to the office because driving your car has become incredibly expensive for some people.
So, you end up with a not as diverse office culture as you would like to.
So, we have to bear in mind that we are experimenting with something we've never been through.
But I will say I am a huge fan of hybrid and remote work.
I'm a huge fan. And I think it's a revolution. And I will never, ever return to an ever again.
Wow. I personally, I think I'm me too.
Before, you know, like, we had the stricter rules again, I would go in office once a week, you know, just to socialize and see my, you know, work friends.
And it was really useful.
And I think being, having an opportunity to decide which day is your day to go was really helpful, like, and making it much mentally also easy to take the workload.
And you started to talk about culture, I think. And also, you mentioned that, and I agree with you, because as I told you before, my parents are, like, they're business people.
And the founder's journey is quite lonely. But I know you have co-founders.
And I wanted to ask you, who are you, you know, like, sharing this loneliness together, right?
Because they must be going through the same thing.
How did you meet? How did you start together? Well, you can start a company by yourself, but I don't recommend it, especially if you're thinking about raising money from VCs.
Having a co -founder is good for you, right? Because, and ideally, you should choose someone who's very different from yourself, so that you can complement each other.
So, we are two co-founders, right? We're a founding team.
And then we have a, then we have relatively large shareholders in our tech team.
So, I consider them as co -founders as well. So, my co-founder, I've known him for 25 years.
So, no surprises there. We built several companies together.
So, and he's an introvert, very detailed person. So, he's a COO and very good with those things.
He's also driving the design, the UX design experience with the customers, with our project manager, and our head of product.
Very calm, optimistic, but detail-orientated person.
I am the extrovert, a little bit more energized, a little bit more all over the place kind of person, but you need those energizers as well.
And I'm extremely, extremely good at establishing relationships, long-term relationship with those big customers, and you really need that.
So, I share the journey with him, but I also have the founding tech team. So, head of security, head of product, CTO, product manager.
So, we are a founding team that has been doing this several times.
All our team members have either done IPOs or exits or things like that.
So, they're very experienced. They are all very senior.
I believe I'm actually the second youngest on our team. So, they've all done this before and over and over again.
So, as a CEO, my job is easy because they know what to do.
The good thing about when you build a startup, the foundation of those who you build a company with, you really need to make sure, I cannot say this enough, really make sure that those people are startup people, because they have to be comfortable flying a small flight, right?
If they have been used to private jets and corporate setups and HR and whatnot, and that kind of, when you work in a big organization, you get spoiled, right?
There are routines and work process for everything.
When you build a company, it's a mess.
Of course, it's a mess, especially if you're growing fast. So, the right mindset really matters.
Make sure that they have this, we'll get this done, the hustle, start small.
I would almost say like people with, this is weird, but you want people to have an ego because that drives them to create big things, but they cannot be too focused on their ego and status and whatnot, because you need people who can work really well together in a team, unselfishly, just work really hard.
So, anyway, I have lots of people to share my journey with, and then I have great, great advisors.
That's also a piece of advice I will give. When you start a company and you find your co-founder, you find someone you work really well with, you can also search for co-founders.
A lot of VCs have databases and whatnot, but I will say this though, everyone I work with in this team, I've known most of them for more than 10 years.
So, it's no surprise. We know exactly how we work together, what are our good sides and bad sides, because we all have stuff, right?
And because 90%, I think it's something like that, 90% of the reason why companies fail is actually not because of competition.
It's because partners don't work it out with one another.
So, if you can de-risk that and take that away from the table and just be mature and build this company, then you're already halfway through surviving, right?
But I have good advisors as well.
We have good advisors. People who've been this innovation officers from Mozilla, VP at MasterCard, co-chair of Volvo and many others, they have been through those processes many times in their life.
So, I always have people I can call and I'm on their speed dial and vice versa.
So, sometimes I call, I don't even make an introduction, just saying, hey, I need your help.
What do I do? And then I get an advice and then I move on. So, I have a library of experts that I can call because I don't know how to solve everything, right?
And when you have a startup, things happens, right? And you just have to solve with it.
You cannot give up, right? You just have to figure it out. That's why you need very smart people on your team and very smart people as your advisors.
That's very insightful.
And thank you for sharing that. And that's what made me think, first of all, I think something that we always talk internally that although maybe in Cloudflare, it's not such a problem, but everywhere else is that we need to root for more female leaders, right?
More female anything in the business and anywhere.
And it's so cool to hear that you have the support. And I think what I want to ask you is, where did you start?
Where did this journey start? Because obviously, hopefully you will have your book sometime about how you started, but if you just give us a glimpse of where did you grow up?
How did your journey started and began?
Oh, Alina, I enjoy this conversation so much. I almost forget that we're live.
It's just a great conversation. So, how did it start? So, just like you yourself, my parents was entrepreneurs.
My dad was an engineer. He died a few years ago, but he was an engineer, but he went into hospitality industry with my mom.
They rent hotels and restaurants and those kinds of things. And growing up in hospitality industry is actually very good for you because you get to know people.
You have to work on your emotional intelligence. I was hardworking in the kitchen from the age of nine.
I mean, we just worked, right? That was what we did.
And then how did it start? Well, I got into the tech industry in 99. I was quickly given responsibility for a very new piece of software.
And within four years, we went from being only in one country to 44 country, 44 country with no marketing budget, no marketing budget.
And I was later interviewed, how did you do? And I'm like, yeah, how did I do that?
And then I started explaining how I built relationships with decision-makers.
I actually wrote a few big books about it. Actually, I've written and co-written 16 books now on how to do these things.
So, I have a pretty good understanding of people and how to motivate them to work with you, how to turn them into raving fans.
And then I was recruited by HP. I worked with Microsoft.
I worked with Musk. So, I worked in those big, big organizations. And I was, at a very early age, responsible for 45 business consultants.
And I was the youngest, but I was still the manager of this team.
And I just fall in love with the tech industry, really.
Because if you're hardworking, if you like learning new stuff, working with smart people, then this is your industry.
I cannot come up with any industry that is as rewarding to work in than tech.
And tech is not even an industry anymore.
Tech is in everything, right? So, I guess everyone works in the tech industry, but you know what I mean.
And then in 2007, I became a mom.
I finished my MBA from Copenhagen Business School. And I decided to start my first company.
And I started doing what I'm good at, global trade. And I helped organizations build relationships with clients and build supply chain advisory.
And I worked with many hundreds of the biggest companies in the world and did really well.
And then I started, yeah, seven, eight years ago, I saw that communities, online subscription communities would be the next big thing.
So, I built a few of those.
Now it's a mainstream, but it wasn't at that time. And that actually financed me being able to move to US and start this company.
So, I'm a serial entrepreneur, I guess.
And I'm very good in reading the trends and tendencies.
My latest book is about what are the jobs in 2030 and 40 and how to get there.
So, I think I'm very good in spotting trends and tendencies and work with smart people.
And for me, it was an easy choice to then leave Denmark, even though Danes are so happy.
It was an easy choice for me to build a SaaS startup. And to do so, it would be a natural place to do that out of California, Palo Alto.
So, that's where I am right now.
Okay. The next book should be about yourself only, not about how to, the work.
You need to write the book about yourself. Because we had 20 minutes before the live session.
And honestly, I hope my career would be as bright and as exciting as yours.
Because it's definitely so encouraging that if you're putting your work somewhere and you see the seeds, right?
Like you put the seeds and you see how it's nourishing and you nourish it with your hard work and enthusiasm and ambitions as well.
It will eventually give you some really great results.
And I think, as I said, especially for women, it's very refreshing to hear that, right?
That you can be successful, you can write books, you can run the world and do all these kinds of things.
I don't know if I run the world though, but I don't know about that.
But if I should write a book about my journey, it would be a book about a lot of people because I was helped a lot.
So many people gave me that one chance.
They bet on me. Because being a female founder, I don't even know if I have the statistics somewhere, but I believe somewhere because I'm a woman of color, I'm Moroccan, I'm a mom, I'm over 45.
All the things that goes into that, I think 0.2% of all funding goes to my segment, 0.2, not even 1.2, 0 .2.
But I never wake up in the morning thinking, oh, that's really horrible. What can I do?
I don't put them aside. I don't think about it. I just go with my vision and I know what to do.
So I'm very clear and I'm very focused. Because as an entrepreneur, let's be honest, as an entrepreneur, you get ideas, you execute, you do stuff.
That's why you are an entrepreneur. What really matters is stay focused.
Just don't do anything else than build this company, please. And that's probably a big challenge for a lot of entrepreneurs because, and for a lot of people, because going through this journey, oh my God, it is so hard.
And you almost want to give up several times, I'm sure, right?
Oh, it's too hard. Why am I doing this?
Remind me again, why did I do this? Because let's be honest, I could make one, two, maybe even $3 million a year if I just took a sales distribution job in one of those big organizations.
Because people like me are worth a lot for companies because we can open doors, we close the deals, we get the deal, we bring it home, it's money in the bank, it's revenue.
Revenue generating positions are very loved.
But you have to distinguish between what makes a happy life, but really what not only happy, but what makes you truly happy.
And I didn't ask for an easy life, right?
I asked for a meaningful, exciting life. And that fits very well with being an entrepreneur.
But entrepreneurs can be depressed, suicidal even, it's very hard.
I'm really sorry, we only have five minutes, it's time to go, bye.
Thank you so much. Thank you, Alina, thank you so much.