Critical Steps in the Journey to Entrepreneurship

Derrick Omollo | 29th May 2020

Critical Steps in the Journey to Entrepreneurship

Critical Steps in the Journey to Entrepreneurship

Derrick Omollo | 29th May 2020


Are you in employment and thinking about venturing into entrepreneurship? Do you lack the knowledge on how to start? Do you lack insight and motivation? Well, on 14th May 2020, Emploi held an online webinar event dubbed “Employment to Entrepreneurship” which consisted of an interview with two successful entrepreneurs. Paul Kimani is the CEO of WorkPay, a Human Resource, and payroll processing company while Maureen Amakabane is the founder of Usafi Sanitations, a Kenyan company that builds toilets for schools. Together with Sophy Mwale, the founder of Emploi, they had a sit down to discuss their journey from employment to entrepreneurship as the event was aptly named. Right below is an edited transcript of that conversation.  

Sophy: Tell us about yourself?

Paul: Hi guys. My name is Paul Kimani. I am the CEO and founder of WorkPay. WorkPay is a human resource and payroll processing company. We are a software company and what we basically do is help companies manage their employee all the way to process their payments. It’s good to be here with you today to have a discussion, to share experiences but most importantly to learn from each other.

Sophy: I picked Paul for this discussion because I know him and his journey through entrepreneurship. WorkPay is the first Kenya start-up that has ever been accepted into the prestigious white combinator accelerator. It’s among the two most prestigious accelerators in the world and therefore well-suited to give us insights into entrepreneurship.

Maureen: My name is Maureen Amakabane and I am the founder of Usafi Sanitations which is a local Kenyan company and we build a toilet for schools. So our solution for Usafi sanitations is to fill the gap of poor toilets in most of the schools. I am also the co-founder of Beyond Colours. Beyond Colours is a consulting company that works a lot with both women-led and youth-led start-ups. What we do at Beyond Colours is actually help organizations or start-ups really set up foundations for success and subsequently do targeted placement whereby we realize there’s a very big gap between entrepreneurs being able to source for the right talent who will be able to drive their vision. I am also in the category of serial entrepreneurs. I also launch ventures which keep me very busy from day to day because one of the things I’ve discovered over time is I’m a very creative person and I don’t shy away from trying out and monetizing ideas.

Sophy: Why Maureen? Maureen has a bird’s eye view on the local entrepreneurship sector because beyond her own ventures, Maureen has also coached hundreds of entrepreneurs in Kenya and her experience transcends verticals. For my second question, I’ll gladly ask, why opt for entrepreneurship?

Paul: I was working and engaging in a side hustle. I was running a software development company. I would develop software, websites, and mobile applications. I actually developed my company’s website via proxy. I spent one year trying to write several resignation letters and trashing them because I was not ready to quit. But one thing happened that pushed me out. One year down the line I lost . . . . . of course I was doing it from the house and that is how I transitioned from working to employment. It’s never a black and white answer to how you transition.

Maureen: Actually it’s been a very interesting journey for me. I went to a university that told us unemployment . . . . If a job never comes along. So I was fortunate enough to really go into the workforce. The company I was interning for hired me. Over time, I applied for other jobs and in some instances, people identified the skills that I had offered me jobs. My last employer was very hostile. Hostile to mean, the work environment was really toxic and at the time I was handling the Marketing Department. I’m a sales and marketing person plus a “relationships’ person. SO I’m the kind of person who builds internal and external relationships. That is how I sell. I am also a collaborative leader and that didn’t sit well with the organization where I was working.  So they felt that I was a bit soft with my approach to people. So I consistently used to feel a conflict of value – a value set where they were the authoritative kind of leaders. They were very assertive and aggressive and even at some point bordering on insults. A specific incident happened where we needed to lay off two members of staff from my department because they got pregnant. Indeed the company had that policy. However, I didn’t agree with it because I felt it was a little bit discriminative. So I stood up and didn’t give my consent as the head of the department to get the people fired. So I think that really didn’t really sit well with the management and two weeks later I got a firing letter. Fortunately, I was running my side hustle in consulting. I had people I was interacting within my personal space who were running side hustles and they were struggling with sales and marketing and that was a specialty. At the time I was serving two people. Both were senior officers in leading institutions. So I quickly realized a lot of people who are working in influential positions were running side hustles but they didn’t have time to sell their products. Combined, I was earning around 150,000/= from these two contracts. So when I got fired, I thought, “Why don’t I do this as a full-time job?” and that’s really how I started. I like saying that there are a lot of perceptions around the things you need to do for you to sell and I was able to really be authentic even in that space like for example a lot of people say. . . oh you know . . . you must wear make-up . . .you must wear lipstick . . .  you must have this kind of presentation. But that’s not my sales approach you know. People always say that when you’re a marketing person, people expect you to even sexualize the career. So you’ll find people doing random things like... .for example I’ll wear a short skirt when I’m going for this meeting because it’s men who are the decision-makers. I don’t do that. So I consistently used to feel like I can maintain my value set and still create value in the sales system. I packed my skills, I packed my confidence and I began my consulting business.

Sophy: What would you advise as the right way to start?

Paul: I think the best way to do it or rather the best way I did it is: number one you need to look for a big problem. The first thing you need to do is identify a problem before building a solution around that. You could build it yourself using the skillset that you have. You could also sell your idea to people then build the enterprise together. The business idea is worthless if you cannot execute it. So execution to me is 100% a requirement. The finances to me come last. Like in my case, when we began WorkPay a few years ago, we started by building a consulting business. The reason why I started by building a consulting business is that I could do it without necessarily needing someone else. Actually, I did it at my house and I started it with my wife. From building software for other companies to add more personnel to eventually building Workpay, I had the first existing clientele and secondly, I had a team. But if I wanted to build Workpay the day I began, I would not have had that money to hire people, and building it alone would have taken me a long time. But I started with what I had. I looked for people who would buy into my vision, gave them shares in my company and we were able to build and consult clients together.

So I think it’s very important that you identify a real problem and then you build a solution on top of that. Lastly, look for people you could build the solution with. You’ll also have to be very quick in the way you execute solving the problem.

Sophy: Oh thank you! I think what I find interesting about both your feedback and Maureen’s is that you’ve already answered a question that I had about raising initial capital and what is uniform about both your responses is the fact that you used your actual current skill set to actually try and get money organically from the market. You know you offered a service; you fulfilled a need and someone made the need for the service that you are offering and that is you built the capital base to now launch the large scale business that you’re actually currently running. That’s actually a very important point because I think the most significant question I get when I talk to young people and everyone is “we don’t have capital.” So my question is, how do we get capital? Then there’s another twist, Paul you’ve spoken about solving a real problem. That’s one lesson we don’t get a lot when we’re being told about entrepreneurship. Over to you Maureen, how did you go on to raise capital?

Maureen: That’s a very interesting question and I’ll answer it in two ways. And also just to throw it out there, men are also victims of sexualization in the workspace and I think it’s because they don’t know that it’s happening to them. But that’s a story for another day. I just wanted to demystify that. Back to the question on capital, innovation can happen in different processes including fund-raising. There are different ways you can innovatively fund-raise. I had such a good experience working for my former boss who was also running a start-up and he’s the one who convinced me that if you have a real problem to solve, the money will come. Solving a problem is one thing and organizing your company to be capital ready is another thing. In my tenure working for this particular organization, we were still at the fund-raising process and it was a grant that we were being given to start a project in sanitation. It was a very new process because a lot of funding or grants are given to sanitation are only given to NGOs. The only reason we were able to get money is that the start-up was ready for it. We had our books in place right from day one.  The guy had his sales records; the guy had his information. He knew all this, he knew all that. Then all this was being run at the time from an excel sheet. You know so something as simple as just documenting and putting down all these processes is one of the things that can make you investor ready.  Also attached to it, what skill set do you have? Capital is not only money. Human Resources is also capital. So what skillset do you have? What skillset can you borrow? What skillset can you on board as a co-founder? That’s a strategic thing that you need to know as an entrepreneur. For example, right now am innovating something to deal with COVID-19 and am not a scientist. In my Usafi sanitation business, there’s a product that we’re innovating. So I’ve quickly been able to partner with a licensed scientist. But back to the question on capital, I have friends and family who are at certain high paying jobs and I know their disposable income. So I usually just pitch to them and they either ask for money in terms of capital, the debtor in terms of shareholding. I also have most of my friends who are employed – the ones we started our business journey with like senior managers at organizations. These are people with six-figure salaries. Most of them are either looking for an extra source of income or they want something else to do because they have extra money hanging around somewhere. So employed friends can be an option for fund-raising if you start your business in an effective way. You need to be able to know if you’re asking the money in the form of debt or shareholding. I’ve been able to use both approaches. When I relaunched Usafi Sanitation, I approached a friend of mine who was able to give me unsecured money at 20% interest. Remember I didn’t get assets to get money. So friends and family are good options. You can also get to venture capitalists for example or philanthropists. The common thing Sophy and I share is that we went through a program that is sponsored by a Nigerian Philanthropist. Every year he sponsors a thousand start-ups in Africa. Those are some of the places where you can start looking for capital. You must also understand the field that you’re in and how venture capitalists work. How do philanthropists work? What kind of projects do they fund? Some venture capitalists fund ideas as long as you understand your business and what level it is. You need to be able to pack your idea to be able to understand simple things like” what problem are you solving?” Those are the questions they have.  The next is “what is the potential market size?” Once you package your idea in that space then you can start exploring either investors, venture capitalists, friends, or family. You should be able to put your story in numbers.  Like for example, what is the population of Kenyans who don’t have toilets?

Sophy: That is true and those are very powerful lessons. I hope you’re all taking notes. Anyway, I want to talk about regulations. Paul, given that you’re in the fintech space, regulations can be a bit costly for founders. Not just in fintech but there are huge licensing fees, business permit fees, and company registration everywhere. There’s a lot of costs beforehand. How do you advise entrepreneurs who really have the passion and all that but do not really have the cash? What can they do?

Paul: Simply put, you have to be innovative in the way you approach it. For example, if you’re in the fintech space, your question will be: are you able to have a partnership with a bank where you can be able to use their services as opposed to you borrowing for licenses. You have to remember that to get these licenses, you have to spend a lot of money upfront and remember you’re probably executing an idea just to see if it works. You can even work with another start-up that you think is probably in the same space and ask yourself if you can ride on the licenses that they have. The key thing is how are you able to operate and be on the good side of the government and still be able to do your business without necessarily having to be affected by legal problems. So honestly speaking, in my opinion I don’t think the legal bit of it should be a worry so much when you’re looking to start in the fintech space. I think there is enough leeway for people to be able to test things. So I think you have to be innovative as Maureen has put it. Innovation does not have to be only in the way you do your product. When you talk about innovation someone might maybe be thinking how do I tweak my situation to look awesome and those things. You have to be innovative even in the way you handle your expenses; how you handle raising capital which Maureen has talked about extensively.  You also have to be innovative with the way you handle regulations. There’s just a way to do it. Can you get someone who already has a license that you could ride on as you wait to get your own rather than spend a lot of money for a trial phase? You don’t have to waste a lot of time trying to get these regulations and licenses because it’s also not an element of money. It’s an element of time. The gist of it is that you need to be able to move very fast.  So you think that is what you need, get that certificate, come back, pivot or wait a bit and then test again. So I don’t see anything in Kenya that can have regulations as an impediment.

 Sophy: Okay, thank you for that insight. I actually have a lot of questions to ask around challenges and lessons and all that but let’s fast track this a bit because I also know we have a lot of questions from our participants. Since we’ve only one hour, I would also like they be addressed. But before we move on to all that, what is like the best survival strategies you guys would have for start-ups that are currently running or are yet to be established during COVID? We could start with Maureen

Maureen: I attended a webinar just when COVID was starting and the presenter encouraged us and she said, “Don’t waste the crisis”.  And it got back to the fundamental things of entrepreneurship. Like what problem has the crisis created? Do you have a solution for it? Don’t try and create a solution to fight the disease. Try and identify the problem and then develop a solution to fit into the crisis. I’ll give you an example. Last year, I had started a WhatsApp group for mums within my community. And then it was only one cluster because I do remember women cook in the house, women bake, we do all those kinds of things. And then I was at a space where I’d started hearing about this COVID issue through some time in November but I didn’t know what that was. And then in December it escalated, and then in January, in some of the spaces, ‘cause am in sanitation, COVID was becoming such a reality. I sat in my house and started thinking. In the event that COVID comes, these women will be able to deliver and supply food for our homes and I live in a large gated community, and guess what? That is exactly what the WhatsApp Soko is doing. We’re currently managing 3 WhatsApp groups. Of course, all of them are full to 156. Women are trading and I’ll give an example. One woman came to the group and said, “Oh you know my mum and I have been farming chicken and because hotels are closed, now we have 300 that we don’t know where to take.” They farm in stages.  I think this week they start farming and next week they’ll be slaughtering some. So they were already panicking. I quickly called this lady aside and I said, “Do you need an opportunity? People are still eating. So if I was you, I would quickly start looking at this as a market.  Pack your products, put it in a flyer, put it on the group, and sell it as a chicken because people are buying. People will still eat chicken.” I was talking to her on Sunday morning and she was like, “I am taking orders for Tuesday” She had 300 pieces when she did the flier. By evening, she had 220 orders. So I think bottom-line is: anytime you look at business and an opportunity, don’t approach it from the place of “woiye! Or people will not buy” Solve a problem. Like this particular lady who produced solely for hotels. Again I ask, where are the people who used to eat in these hotels? When you’re at work you eat somewhere, right?  We’ re just in our homes. So if you’ re bright enough you can provide the food at home. So I think for me it’s all about how you’re-identifying and solving problems that are coming along in this COVID. Back to the basics of business, the moment you identify a problem and you solve it, the opportunities will exist. So look at opportunities from a place of what problem are you solving?   What is your solution? How are you doing it differently? That’s it.

Sophy: That’s really great advice. Paul, how about you? What would you advise?

Paul: so I agree with Maureen. With problems, there are always opportunities. So what COVID is actually doing is creating opportunities around us. There are things that are going to change fundamentally after COVID. So the question is that are you able to see this problem going past COVID? It’s based on what kind of business you’re trying to run. Are you trying to build just for COVID or are you trying to build for the long run? So I think the question is that you have to identify a problem that has been caused by what is happening right now. I think we’ve heard the news of people working from home. We’re seeing most of the companies that were either in ride-hailing or e-commerce trying to merge. If they were in commerce, they’ re now trying to do food or general delivery. Those who were in ride-hailing are now adding a little commerce element. I think that most people are going to be working from home. People are required not to move around. But people will still need these basic essentials. We still need to eat. Apart from being able to solve problems, something that I found very interesting is you find that at this time of crisis, companies are suffering the loss of employees. I think for me that’s a really good opportunity for businesses that have already started and those that are yet to start, to snap very good talent. For example, if you find someone who has left a big company, you can approach them and be able to talk them into the problem you’ re trying to solve. So you’ ll probably get a co-founder out of that. You don’t have to worry about the big brands at this time of the problem. It will take them a few weeks for them to be able to reorganize. And then I think we have enough examples of companies that were started during a recession or immediately after the recession. A company like Lyft started by carpooling. What about just offering my space in my car as I go to work and I get extra money from that? So I think it’s about being very open-minded and being very aggressive in seeing what is there around you and being very inquisitive. You also have to be able to move very fast. I think speed is very important because again you don’t know how long this is going to last. I see opportunities every day and I think if you’re keen enough you can figure out how to do it. Again you have to be very creative and innovative in how you do it.

Sophy: Okay thank you for the insight, Paul. That is really great. Now the final question I have for both of you. I want to get your perspective of entrepreneurship over the next 10 years or so. The reason why I ask this is that Maureen has mentioned the support that we as founders have gotten from a philanthropist in Nigeria. Personally, I’ve gotten support from a good number of Nigerians and stuff. So I wanted to see like do we need the ecosystem also in Kenya maturing to that level or even surpassing it. Why am asking that is that just recently when COVID broke out there was a list of funds that are there for COVID solutions and I went through that list and saw that our country had only one fund available and it was by USAID who was also giving every other country. So Nigeria had like 9, South Africa had really a lot from just individuals, foundations and it was really aggressive. So I was just wondering where do you see the vision for Africa and specifically Kenya. I’m more interested in my mother country – Kenyan entrepreneurship in the next 10 years. We’ll start with you, Paul.

Paul: I think you just have to know what has happened in the last 10 years for you to know what is ongoing happen in the next 10 years. So I think a lot has happened. You look at the start-ups that are coming up right now. I think they are way better in the way they execute. We still might have some ground to catch up but I think we’re moving in the right direction especially from a start-up funding bit of view. A few years ago we only used to hear of big tickets going to Nigerians and probably start-ups in South Africa but right now I think Kenya companies are getting the big-ticket service. So that is a challenge to us what we call local entrepreneurs. If you look at a place like Nigeria, you find all those startups have very successful entrepreneurs who are really doing amazing things and they don’t have a problem. They’re actually doing it but if you come back here you’re able to find very few startups that are 100% locally-led and that is really really successful. You interact with Nigerians and you see that they actually speak their mind. They go for whatever they want to go for. I think we need to borrow a leaf from them. You even saw the issue of Africans being harassed in China. They are the people that spoke first... .their officials going head-on with the Chinese yet our leadership was just . . . I think that’s a story for another day. They were just cozying around with them. So I think we need to be more aggressive. We need to go for those opportunities that present themselves. As Maureen said if you have a functional business, money is going to come your way and you’re going to make it at the end of the day. I’m very optimistic about the next ten years I think we’re going to have a few Kenyan startups exiting. But I am very optimistic in regards to Kenyans maybe in the next 5 years are going to be really interesting as far as the start-ups eco-system are concerned.

Sophy: That is true. Thank you for that perspective, Maureen. How about you? What’s your vision for the continent?

Maureen: I think my vision is very two-folded. Number one: The moment I got funding from Tony Dumello, they bought into the African capitalism idea. Tony Dumeru’s idea is that the next liberation from Africa will come from the private sector. And I believe that. So I plugged into that vision and I’ll tell you how I translate it. Platforms like this should continue happening because the mainstream media will not tell our stories. So it’s by telling the true and authentic stories of entrepreneurship that we can encourage our people to get in. I never find local people wanting to invest in the business but I’ll tell you for one, I had friends who invested in my business. I had family in my business. Those are the stories. I think the stories exist but they are not documented. I think for me it’s just a formal process of documenting and saying family and friends are places where you can get money and these are the people who supported my business. We have to go back to our culture of giving back. Sophy, Paul, Do you loan out? Like recently I gave out my first business loan to an individual who had seen an opportunity in printing and she didn’t have 6,000/= to start the business. So I gave her a loan. I trusted her with a loan of six thousand shillings. 30 days later she paid me back at 20%. So what are you doing differently? What is 6,000/=? It’s not that I had six thousand shillings hanging around. But I had to trust this entrepreneur and check in with her. Yesterday, I was talking with her and guess what? She has an office, she’s making money, she already paid me back and now she’s doing her thing. So even us Sophy and Paul, let’s not wait for Barclays. Let us also start having small funds within either our personal spaces or personal life. 10% of the business proceeds would go towards funding small businesses. So I think for me, those are some of the unique things we need to start doing as entrepreneurs. Because we can’t keep lamenting that banks are not giving us money. It’s true a bank would not give you money because their lending process is different.  But after you’ve gone through that experience, what would you do differently? And I think that‘s what is different about Nigeria. Nigerians have multiple families that donate to entrepreneurs or are philanthropists. So for me, I think that’s one trait we can borrow from Nigerians.   I am heavily borrowing and implementing it.  So not only did I give this lady 6000/=, am consistently following up with her. Like how many books have you sold? What challenges are you going through?

Sophy: Thank you, guys. Now, I know our speakers are extremely busy and Maureen is only with us for the next three minutes but I want us to handle a question or two. The first question is from Otieno who asks: How do you guys handle the competition?

Maureen: Competition will always be there.  What are you offering differently? Are you niching your market? For example, running a WhatsApp group. There are very many WhatsApp groups everywhere in the world but what am I doing differently? I am vetting the people who are coming in. I am consistently assuring people to continue trade and created a specific space for people to trade. That’ what I am offering differently? So it’s not a brilliant idea that I came up with. No, I just created a safe space where people can buy or sell together and generate income. So as an entrepreneur, competition is not something that you need to put at the back of your head. What are you doing differently? Who are you selling to? Just deciding that you’re going to sell to a niche market is also a way of dealing with competition.

 Sophy: The second question is from Rita Mchechera who wants to know what important skill you need as an entrepreneur. Maybe Maureen you can answer that and then Paul can answer one or two of our other questions.

Maureen: The most important thing for you as a founder is confidence and understanding your business.  I think in my case what worked is my ability to understand my business at my fingertips. Like what process am I using? What processes am I outsourcing?  You even have to know when to say no. like at times I get offers from people – “come join this accelerator program”. That is when I compare what the accelerator is doing with my business, see a different format, and say, “no.” There’s a time I got this opportunity to fundraise for my business-which am always open to.  Somebody wanted to invest in the business but they wanted to take 70% of the company. I was able to outrightly say, “No.” because that could change the vision I had for the business. So for me, it was two-folded. I think there’s a question that I am to respond to before I sign out. Somebody asked about the toxic work environment. I think there’s nothing you can do as an individual because most lies with the organizational culture. It’s very unique in the family set-up business because many people carry their drama and family issues to work. I think what is important is you’re aware of it for you to decide whether you’re in that space or not. It’s such a personal decision.

Sophy: In fact I think quite a number of people have asked about the toxic work environment. Maybe we’ll weigh the questions and opinions that have been raised. If there’s any question that we have not addressed, I think we will forward them to the speakers and they will answer the questions and then we’ll send the answers back to you. Paul, I want you to address someone here. There’s someone called Hamstone. He’s asking a question that I think you just need to answer. He says the company I previously worked for has offered both current and former employees a challenge to come up with a business proposal. Viable ideas will be funded. I am interested in participating. Can you help me come up with an idea?

Paul:  It is interesting and a hard one because coming up with ideas is not something that you sit down and start drafting. Ideas come to you during your day to day life.  It’s not like you sit down and say you want to come up with ideas.  I think the best thing would be to look at for example what does the company do? Like for example, I am in HR and Payroll service. So if you looked at how we do things, you can come up with ideas on how we can do them more efficiently-probably help employees interact with the company especially for those working remotely. These are the things that would interest me as an entrepreneur for example.  So I think it depends on whether the company is asking and theming the ideas. The ideas are all around us. I have so many ideas that I can give but do they necessarily translate to what you guys are looking at?  I think for me ideas are the smallest bit of running a business. Implementation is everything. You can start with something that is not necessarily what you intended but by the time you are finishing you find yourself with something completely different.  I am not a believer in sitting down to come up with ideas. I’m a believer in experiencing problems and turning them into solutions.


Wrapping up . . .

I hope you’re now better placed to begin your journey through entrepreneurship than before you read this. To gather more insights on burning topics, keep in touch with us on social media and we’ll keep you updated on subsequent events. Our pages are:

Facebook - EmploiTwitter - @EmploiAfricaInstagram – Emploi Ke , LinkedIn – emploi.coTelegram – emploi_co

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