Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard is the founder and the chairman of APO Group, a company that provides media relations consultancy and press release distribution services in Africa and in the Middle East.
1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
In 2013, I had to fire our main salesperson. She was generating more than 60% of the turnover at the time, but, unfortunately, she wasn’t generating any growth. And she was even “forgetting” to send invoices to our clients. This was partly my fault. I had wrongly assessed the profiles and skills the company needed at the time, and I had made poor choices with the first three people I brought on board. I realise that now.
A few weeks later, in a completely unrelated turn of events, I learned that our three biggest clients, representing close to 35% of our total turnover, were not renewing their contracts because of budget constraints. They were happy with our services, but their public relations budgets were being cut in the coming year.
So, there I was with no head of sales and with 35% of my turnover gone. It was December and I remember Christmas being quite bad that year. I was worried. The problem is, when turnover is starting to take off, and the company is still small and fragile, you really have to make the right choices or the dream can be over in a flash.
Within three weeks, I had hired our brand-new director of business development. She was pregnant when I hired her, and we’d only had two telephone conversations. I’d never even met her. But she stayed with us for more than five years and did an amazing job at APO Group.
I have learned a lot of things from that experience. First of all, I found some strength from the idea that, if I could survive that, I could survive anything. Also, it taught me that, in a company, nobody is irreplaceable. And that if you are able to learn from your mistakes, you will always manage to improve.
In that specific case, I was hiring somebody much more suited for the job. Lastly, it taught me that panicking is never an option, but being able to identify and acknowledge a situation as a “crisis” is extremely important, as it allows you to reassess your priorities and focus your resources on the resolution of that crisis.
2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?
To this day, I would say my greatest accomplishment is to have turned €10,000 of my own savings into a multimillion-euro business without the aid of any loans or investors. That’s what I invested to create APO Group back in 2007, and it means that, 11 years later, I’m still the 100% owner of my company.
More recently, I have been quietly proud about the fact that I made the decision to relinquish the role of chief executive, and hand[ed]over the reins to a much more experienced “professional CEO”. It was not something I did lightly, but I believe the time was right.
In December 2018, I became chairman of APO Group and I appointed Lionel Reina as CEO. Lionel is the former vice-president and general manager for Africa and the Middle East at Orange Business Service, the business-to-business division of French telecoms giant Orange. He is also the former Middle East director in the Gulf region for Accenture.
I believe he is the best person to help APO Group as we continue to thrive and grow. As chairman, my focus is now on delivering high-level counsel for APO Group clients and developing my own investment fund dedicated to Africa.
3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
When I started my company in 2007, my main and extremely debilitating weakness was my level of English. I wasn’t even able to pitch my own service to an English-speaking client over the phone, let alone in an email! I immediately realised this was a huge problem, so I started immersing myself in the English language.
I watched English cartoons for kids at first, then progressed to English news programmes and newspapers. I read everything I could on the internet and used every possible opportunity to speak English. And, 11 years later, here I am, giving speeches and presentations to journalism and public relations students in Uganda and Zambia, giving interviews in English and, sometimes, even proofreading my collaborators!
I know the question said, “Tell us about your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur,” but I don’t believe anyone is born an entrepreneur. You “become” an entrepreneur, and that means you cannot afford to be “weak” at anything related to your business. You have to improve constantly, learn and stay on top of things. So, there is no place for any weakness really.
4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
I fundamentally disagree that to be a successful entrepreneur, you only have to be good at what you are doing. I despise it when successful people say they “did it all on their own”. The truth is, you can be as good as you want, but you will still need a little bit of luck. You will still need the right encounters, the right timings and so on.
In my experience, creating and developing a company is one of the most difficult things a human being can do. So show me someone who has done it all on their own and I will show you a liar. Believe me, cemeteries are full of talented entrepreneurs who didn’t meet the right people, who faced bad timing, or who just didn’t have the right kind of support at home.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?
Not really. As I said, you’re not born an entrepreneur, you “become” an entrepreneur. It is a journey with some ups and down[s]. And every journey is unique. It has been 11 years full of surprises, suspense, good days, bad days, sad days, victories, amazing encounters, [and so forth]. It’s like a good TV series: you would not want anybody to give away the plot before watching it yourself. It would spoil everything!
So no, there is nothing I wish I knew about entrepreneurship before I started. I studied law and nothing had prepared me to be an entrepreneur. But I knew I had the main skills to be a successful, self-made entrepreneur: I was resilient and I worked hard.