Entrepreneurship is the last refuge of the trouble making individual. ~ Natalie Clifford Barney
Ted* came to work in my team as an intern in early 2007. Back in those days, working in a financial institution such as Barclays was the alpha and omega of a professional career. He was a stroppy 22 year old, with hair that was at least 3 inches too long and shirts whose cuffs that were at least 3 inches too short of the wrist line. He was a breath of fresh air in an environment of monumental performance pressure underpinned by a staid, insipid office culture. About a month before the first anniversary of his employment, as he had successfully transitioned into a full time job, he came to talk to me about taking a few months off to tour the United States.
“What?” was my incredulous reply. “Yeah, I want to just go around the States, maybe I’ll go to Mexico as well. I just want to figure stuff out,” he said nonchalantly. “But what about your career, I mean, you’ll have this inexplicable black hole in your CV which can’t be addressed with the words ‘backpacked through the United States for the sake of it’ as a line item,” I whined. It didn’t matter. Ted left for the United States, and threw in a couple of months backpacking through Europe as well. When he got back, he decided to start up a business doing websites for companies, as he was now crystal clear that he never wanted to work for anyone again.
Last week, I spent a morning in the offices of Kevin*, a twenty six year old entrepreneur whose business it is to collect electronic data from the online community, make sense of it and then help businesses make strategic decisions by distilling the information into language that decision makers can understand. Kevin has travelled around the world in the last two years providing insights at global conferences as a leading voice on African social media tactics and tips.
For two straight hours I sat with Kevin and two of his team members, getting completely blown away by the quality of data that they are able to collate using people’s Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds as sources of what would look like rubbish data to the untrained eye, but is actually valuable information on the experience of products and services by Kenyan consumers. Kevin only has one permanent employee in his office. The rest of his team work on contract from wherever in Kenya that they can link up to a fast internet connection. His clients are multinationals and top tier local corporates who are now starting to understand the benefits of getting unsolicited real time customer experiences to improve on their product offerings.
In a classic serendipitous twist, Kevin’s landlord is Ted, who has now become the consummate entrepreneur. At twenty nine years old, Ted now has 26 employees providing web design, branding and social media marketing solutions to multinational and local organizations in the banking, FMCG and not for profit sectors. I walked through Ted’s offices, where young fellows with 5 inches of Afro, cuff less shirts, loud blaring music and a completely relaxed, colorful environment created extraordinary client solutions on large Mac computers. It turns out that Kevin needed space to set up his business, and Ted gave him a corner desk and unfettered access. “It’s all about how we work together, Kevin thinks differently and thinks big, as a result he has helped us on some of our work and we’ve done some projects together,” Ted told me later. In his playbook, having different people share his rented office space provides opportunity for getting different perspectives on how to do business. Paul is another twenty something entrepreneur sharing Ted’s space. “We liked his vibe and he liked ours so we gave him space as well,” Ted says of Paul. There is a refreshing openness in the way Ted operates with his sub-tenants and a strong culture of leverage from synergistic relationships within the workspace. His big break in providing customized Facebook pages for clients came through a famous Kenyan musician who had come to see his previous music industry production tenant. Ted and his team were trying out their new product and offered it to the musician who had nothing to lose. The marketing manager of a large FMCG multinational saw the page, loved it and commissioned Ted’s company to do one for them. The rest as they say is history as their highly visible work sold itself off its virtual platform.
There are many Ted’s and Kevin’s in Kenya. They have chosen to buck the trend that our education system has tried to force down our collective throats which trend says that cramming, passing exams, going to university and looking for a job is the ultimate route to Canaan. These young men, and the people that they work with are making a big difference in the way that their corporate clients are doing business and understanding a client demographic that is both fluid and fickle. They are providing a service on their own terms, not constrained by the astoundingly boring confines of office environments that stifle creativity.
For every Chicken-gate, Angloleasing-gate and Maize-gate tenderpreneur we have in Kenya, there are at least ten thousand young people who want to make an honest living doing what they are madly passionate about. They fight a system that has conditioned our society into thinking it’s all about passing a standard eight sieve into a smaller form four sieve into an even smaller university sieve that spits out graduates expecting to be absorbed into a small workforce. The chaff that remains at the top of the sieves is browbeaten into defeatism and a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. I’m glad that Ted bucked the trend and walked out of employment despite my pathetic exhortations against his mad ideas. 26 employees are happier for it.
*Not their real names