How we made it through business challenges

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Four business owners speak to Simon Mburuabout the ups and downs of starting a business, and the lessons they have learned along the way.

Starting and building a business is a journey full of challenges that can either lead you to profit and growth or losses and collapse. How you cope with these challenges ultimately determines which destination you end up.

Today, we hear from four women entrepreneurs on the challenges they faced when they started their businesses and how they overcame them.


Partner, Africa Law, a legal solutions law firm

The challenges I faced when I started

I did not have adequate marketing skills to push my law business. This is because when you start a law business, the expectation is that you will be doing legal work.

The first shocker was that I had to be a marketer first before I became a lawyer. I had to learn quickly. This was a continuous process, and I am still learning.

Also, I underestimated the capital I would need to break even.

This was not so far-fetched. When you leave employment to start a business, you view the world with rose-tinted glasses.

You imagine that your first million will come in the first month, and end up under-estimating the amount of money you will need to operate and cater for the business expenses.

Jacqueline Munyaka is a partner at Africa Law, a legal solutions law firm based in Westlands, Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY

Start-up capital

I did not take a loan because I had sufficient capital. Nonetheless, I had to learn quickly that the business money is separate from my own money.

You must respect your company’s money because it is not yours. What the business makes should not excite you, because it is the bottom line from which you will grow.

The period it took to break even

Fortunately, my partner and I already had clients when we launched the business.

In fact, we broke even in only three months. Breaking even, though, should not be confused with the sustainability of the business.

Creating a business that is self-sustaining takes much longer, and you must have proper strategies for growth, and reserve funds to cushion your business from the inevitable volatility and unpredictability.

My finest moment in business

There is a barrier for new entrants in the market since people generally prefer to work with companies they know and have done business with before.

When I partnered up and entered the legal market, I had a single intention: to change how legal services are delivered in Kenya.

My first step forward was getting the right employees on board. These were people who shared in the vision of the business.

And of course, I was ecstatic when the first solid million came.

What holds women back

Women inspire trust. Clients trust us with their money, and we have a reputation of delivering what we promise.

But we don’t blow our trumpets loud enough. We have this tendency to be humble that keeps pulling us backwards. It is as if we are afraid of greatness.

Lizzie Wanyoike is the founder and CEO of NIBS Technical College. PHOTO | COURTESY


Founder and CEO, NIBS Technical College

The challenges I faced when I started

I started my college business in 1999. Getting started came with a host of challenges.

One of the most prominent was acquiring a registration certificate for the college. There was too much bureaucracy. Corruption complicated the process because I was not willing to go down that road.

Getting enough learning space for my college was not easy either. Back in the day, there were few open premises in Nairobi’s CBD where I could set up my institution. Also, I didn’t have enough money to market and attract students.

The major hurdles I have overcome

My biggest hurdle was defeating the existing competition. Many of the colleges that offered diploma courses had been in existence for over 10 years. But I stuck to my guns.

I launched quality and insisted on its delivery and within one year, my institution was one of the top ranking colleges in the country. This achievement did not sit well with my landlord. Although I had legally leased the building, he decided to kick me out. I challenged his decision in court and emerged victorious.

This motivated me to start looking for land where I could build my own college. Just as I was peaking, local universities started offering diploma courses. This led to the loss of many students.

But it also made us get more serious in our training. I knew that the only way I could thrive was by offering the job market with students who possessed better skills and hands-on experiences.

Start-up capital

Getting start-up capital was not a problem. I had been saving for 17 years. My late husband had been very supportive financially, which enabled me to save my salary and also invest in some very cheap plots that later became prime parcels of land.

To start NIBS, I sold these plots, took a bank loan, and topped up the total amount I got with my salary and savings.

The period it took to break even

I got 25 students in the first week I started the college. The road to sustainability was not short though. But in six months, I started reaping some fruits from my investment.

What holds women back

Unfortunately, the perception that entrepreneurship is a male affair has continued to persist. Many women who venture into business do not get the same support and encouragement as men.

To make matters worse, this low support does not only emanate from men alone, but is also perpetrated by female peers. It does not get any easier if the woman entrepreneur is married. This is because of the stereotype that financially empowered women are not very supportive or do not know how to ‘build a home’.

From my experience, I have also noticed that the success of women who are go-getters will often be attributed to sexual favours in a bid to cut such women down to size.

Alison Ngibuini is the CEO of AI Is On Production Limited. She is a two-time Top 40 Under 40 winner, and has shot more than 400 commercials and produced more than 20 drama series. PHOTO | COURTESY


CEO of Al Is On Production Limited. She has shot over 400 commercials and produced over 20 drama series.

The challenges I faced when I started

I started my business in 2014. I single-handedly manned all operations, from cleaning to accounts. This became too choking and I quickly hired an accountant and an office assistant.

Getting word that I had started a company and needed business was not easy. Nonetheless, the burden was less tasking since I had built a network of good work relationships within the marketing and advertising industry that really helped me.

I have discovered, though, that fresh challenges are always lying in wait. For example, making a break in the media space has been a constant hurdle. The business needs to evolve daily. But I am glad that I have mastered the art of re-invention.

Also, working in the business instead of working on the business was a major problem at the beginning. For example, work could become so obsessive that I would forget to carry out inventory reviews, cash flow, payroll and employee analyses.

Start-up capital

I did not take a loan to start my business. Having gained work experience in employment, I had great insights on how money was made and moved in the communication sector.

For example, TV production was very capital intensive and the client had to pay 50 per cent down payment. It would be impossible to do the job because industry-practice was that actors must be paid before the product went on air.

The period it took to break even

Gaining traction takes time, and for me, it took three years before I broke even. I did not make money in the first year. Also, customer acquisition was a real time consuming process.

Midway through the second year, I started breaking even. By the third year, I had made back my initial start-up costs. Always be patient and eventually, the money will come.

My finest moment in business so far

I resigned from employment aged 27 to start my business. Armed with a laptop, a mobile phone and high heels, I started knocking on doors.

Many did not open at all, but remaining focused really helped me stay afloat until I started getting a ‘Yes’ amidst many ‘Nos’! I learned that the world is a stage on which you must be bold and memorable for wealth to follow.

What holds women back

Owning accomplishments is not easy for women. Many of us seem to unintentionally downplay our worth or achievements. We are cautious not to be labelled braggarts. But this is a necessity, especially when pitching business proposals to investors.

Personally, I have come to appreciate my value and own up to my accomplishments. If we could all do this, access to funding would be much easier. I also believe that we must create a viable work-life balance by identifying personal goals, and priority people and activities. I have learned to say no to what doesn’t serve my priorities.

Grace Mwanzia is the founder and director of Twenty Fifth Hive Cosmetics, a spa and cosmetics store. PHOTO | COURTESY


Founder and director of Twenty Fifth Hive Cosmetics, a spa and cosmetics store.

The challenges I faced when I started

I am still a young entrepreneur, and all around me are growth and business development challenges. I first ventured into entrepreneurship at the age of 19. I started a clothes’ boutique in Nairobi. But I was too inexperienced.

Also, I had not done proper research to determine if there were any needs that my business would address in the market. Neither had I studied my competition well enough. I assumed that all I needed was to buy clothes on wholesale at Eastleigh’s clothing malls and wait on customers to buy them off. I soon found out that I was wrong.

There were no fundamentals to support the business. I was forced to shut it down and carry home sacks of old stock and huge losses.

I took a business hiatus and started again in late 2017 with a spa and cosmetics business. This time, I conducted market research on what products were available before I launched, and how I could either offer different, and higher quality products at more affordable prices. But it was no less easy than the first time.

For a start, apart from getting a reliable supplier, I struggled to acquire my first customer. This was mainly because women are more beauty-conscious and will not just buy into any product or service that comes into direct contact with their bodies.

I stuck to my guns. I was determined to make it work. Looking back, I am glad that I did. Over the past few months, the business has stabilised and now I am getting more referral customers.

The period it took to break even

I have not reached a point where I can comfortably say that my business is self-sufficient.

But I cannot afford to be apprehensive. For example, although I did not take a loan, I have been able to grow my operating capital to a point where I am now offering delivery services for my customers within Nairobi.

I have also managed to grow my corporate customers under my spa segment, which has boosted my revenue streams.

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