How to Be a Rebel and Build a Business at the Same Time

In 2016, our CEO sat down with the authors of “Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making” for a candid conversation on what it takes to be an entrepreneur in Africa.

This is a except from the interview:

You started working for several ISPs and in 1998 decided to make the transition and start 3Mice. Why was it the right time?

By the time I left Strathmore school, the desire to become an entrepreneur – like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and like the Netscape founders – had already settled in, up to a point of no return. The basic direction, the highest level where one could go in terms of ambition as a technology person had settled. 

What did it mean for you to be an entrepreneur?

 I think I am a rebel, self-directed maybe, but a personality that likes to have their own mind about things. For me, it was never about the money. Rather the ability that you could, almost from a blank sheet, create and build something, just out of your own mind and out of your own thought and shape it into whatever it could become. That was generally a very powerful idea for me. It still, up to today, continues to drive me. It is just an innate personality trait. Seeing other entrepreneurs and looking at what their companies were doing then gave this trait a shape and a form of expression. It is just like an artist. An artist expresses themselves in a painting.  I figured that one could express their rebellion, sort of their view of the world, or their abilities in building something. I thought that one can do that with a business as well. This rebellion, or desire to build something great was deeply ingrained in me by the time I left Strathmore.

When you say rebel, what do you mean by rebel?  Rebelling against what.?

 In our society, we were socialised to go to high school, get extremely good grades, go to university and, in my case go to the top course in the university, excel in the university and then be successful. Breaking away from that mold, you know, coming to terms with the fact that, “Hang on, this particular path that has been prescribed just does not actually make sense and it is not for me either and does not fit with what my interests and my passions”, that was quite a clear departure from the norm and the culturalisation of our society at the time.

Of course, dropping out of university was a very difficult decision for my mom because that is not what people do.  But the ability to just take a look at things and say, “Well this does not make sense; I am going to do something different,” is a stripe of rebellion.  And the way you then express it – and it is not rebellion for rebellion’s sake – it is a very specific view for why this was not going to work for me and why there ought to have been a much better, much more exciting path, to pursue my career.

ken-n-may-2016What were some of the major learnings that you took with you from 3Mice?

3Mice was a fantastic learning opportunity because it was the first business that I set up. The first and most important thing that I took out of 3Mice is that one can actually do it. I think the fact that from nothing, we set up a business that became reasonably well known in the country was a very powerful motivation that one can do this and can do it well. The other lesson unfolded when we became an Africa online company, it was to witness a Pan-African business in the making very early on in my career and to see that it can actually be done.

The other more practical lessons were on the “how-to” build a business like how to get products to the market and how to build teams. What really matters are people. 3Mice was a partnership of three people and what got us all excited was creating a company very early on. However, it was a common motivation, a common vision and a common purpose that kept the partnership alive as the business model changed and evolved. What innately drives entrepreneurs is essentially their purpose and vision, “how big do you want this to go” and it is important in keeping this together. I learnt the value of having those aligned very early on and applied it to my future partnerships. So when I moved on to Cellulant, Bolaji (Co-Founder) and I spent a lot of time very early on making sure that we were aligned on those things. To a large extent, the extremely successful partnership at Cellulant is because of those early learnings in my career.

In a nutshell, what would you say are some of the key fundamentals that make an entrepreneur successful?

There are at least two ways to look at it. There is what I call an innate, almost intangible driver that gives one the motivation to succeed. It has to be very deeply rooted in a person as it basically serves as the fuel to pursue a different path and gives one the strength to push for success. In my case, it gave me an extraordinary drive to succeed. I come from a single-parent family, you know, and we are always driven and drilled to succeed, despite the odds. I also come from a continent that I believe requires this kind of mind-set to pull itself from where it is and to exploit its potential. Another fundamental trait found in entrepreneurs is ambition and motivation. This has to come naturally for entrepreneurs to succeed. I consider myself generally ambitious and motivated. Otherwise, why aim for a $1Billion Pan-African Company?

You will also hear entrepreneurs described as focused, resilient and committed to a mission. These qualities translate into the business in various ways. So looking at focus, I once asked myself, “Well, what do I know about real estate, and what do I know about all this other stuff?” Nothing really! I had no scarce knowledge on other fields. But in technology, because I have been at it for such a long time, I can build very specific, deep insights that are scarce. And as a result of that, I can spend time developing opportunities and ideas because deep knowledge puts me in a reasonable position to succeed. That is why, I have been in technology and a technology entrepreneur since September of ’98 when I co-founded 3Mice. I followed the same path of building a technology business at scale ever since. I have been on that journey; I have not wavered, I have not given up.  And even today, I do not allow myself to get into distractions that seek to take me away from that journey.  So that to me is focus! I am also resilient.  I mean it does not really matter how difficult a situation is – I wear it down!  I always say that I feel sorry for problems that come my way because there is only one way it is going to end.  I am going to wear the problem down (laughs). The problem has no chance. I will look at it, I will turn it around; I will go home, I will sleep.  Tomorrow I will wake up and think about it and push it, and push it, and push it, until it breaks (laughs).

What was your biggest A-ha moment during your entrepreneurial journey

It must have been sometime in 2001 or so when I saw the pace at which mobile phones were growing.  And for me, that was an “A-ha” moment, because before then, I used to look at the internet in a PC format. I used to work in the ISP world and we looked at the internet in sort of computer, PCs, servers way.  When I saw the growth of mobile phones and I think there were some projections for Kenya on two million mobile phones by the year 2004, and Nigeria would have eight million mobile phones by 2004, now that was a big “A-ha” moment. It struck me like a thunderbolt, “Wow, this thing we call internet might actually make its way to the African mass market over the mobile phone.”  That was a real epiphany; an epiphany that started my journey with Cellulant.

For the full interview, you can access the book for free online

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