What we learned from our business mistakes

Friday March 2 2018

From left: Nancy Aketch, Sylvia Moraa, LeAnne Samson and Patricia Okello open up about how they recovered from their business mistakes. PHOTOS| COURTESY

From left: Nancy Aketch, Sylvia Moraa, LeAnne Samson and Patricia Okello open up about how they recovered from their business mistakes. PHOTOS| COURTESY 

By SIMON MBURU
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Opening and steering a business to profitability is a journey that is filled with trials, errors and corrections. Today, we hear from women in successful businesses on their most critical mistakes and how they overcame them.

 

Nancy Aketch, founder and chief executive officer, Taraji Insurance Agency

“I was excited about being my own boss when I quit formal employment and founded my own insurance company.

I felt that I had a lot of time in my hands. I wanted to do more since I no longer had the 9 to 5 employment routine. I opened three more start-ups simultaneously. This proved to be a huge mistake at many different levels.

I stretched myself too thin. I no longer had time for my family. Juggling four businesses wasn’t easy. I would focus on one and the rest would plummet. It became a vicious cycle of failed attempts.

To make matters worse, I didn’t have enough resources to hire the right employees to run these enterprises. I tried to bring partners on board but this, too, didn’t work out too well. While I made money, I hated it when I lost customers because they felt that I lacked capacity.

“I got a wake-up call when I lost a major contract in my courier business that would have provided me with a monthly residual income. I could no longer sustain the operational cost of the business without it.

This was a tough lesson that I should never rely on one particular client simply because they provide the largest percentage of the earnings. I had to decide whether to close the company or sell it off. By the time I closed down the three businesses early last year, I had also lost about Sh1.5 million to borrowers who never refunded money they took from my ‘shylocking’ start-up.

Perhaps I would not have cut my losses were it not for entrepreneurial advice from my mentor. I remember asking him; ‘They say an average millionaire has at least seven streams of income, how do they do it since I only have four that are now a headache?’ He asked me what people knew me for, to which I said ‘Many things’.

‘Focus on one of those things and be extremely excellent at it. After you have accumulated enough money, you can then invest it to create multiple streams of income but this doesn’t necessarily require you to do it personally. Have qualified professionals do it for you!’ he told me.

From my experience, focusing on one thing is the surprisingly simple truth behind extraordinary results. Be passionate, train intensely at your one thing, be great at it, be known for it, and the world will pay you well. Once I learned to focus all of my time and energy into one business, in just under one year, I grew faster than I did in the previous two years combined.”

 

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Sylvia Moraa, CEO of TechHub Holdings Limited, a company with three subsidiaries in business development and consultancy, printing, branding and graphic design, and events management.

“After starting my company, I assumed that it had become stable and decided to shift my focus to a new business venture that was in a totally different line of trade. This had looked like a smart move in the beginning.

You see, my initial business involved helping new franchises with development of branding strategies and marketing plans.

This comes with the bonus of acquiring new clients through direct interactions and referrals. In one of these assignments, I came across a firm that was setting up and wanted distributors. This was an opportunity that I couldn’t afford to lose. I jumped in together with my two friends.

“The distributorship venture was a capital intensive business. This required me to always be at the new business office monitoring daily activities. The supplier also pushed for re-stocking. This was too stressful because the returns did not show as fast as I had anticipated in my business plan. I consulted my mentor on what I was doing wrong. He advised that we wind it up, but I was hesitant. I kept holding on in hope that things would turn around. I tried to effect changes in operations to no avail. After running it for six months without any tangible returns we cut our losses and quit.

“One thing I got from walking away and counting my losses was that you need to know when it is time to walk away from the ring. The more you hold on, the deeper you could be sinking. Always remember that what looks good and workable on paper may not necessarily be the best venture to throw your money at.”

 

LeAnne Samson, owner of Diner En Blanc, a wedding and events planning, a micro-finance, and management consultancy businesses.

“Making a mistake in my business, no matter how little, is quite traumatising for me because I am a perfectionist. Notwithstanding, I have made so many mistakes and equally taken major lessons from them that have enabled me to be where I am today.

The biggest of these was poor management of relationships which became manifest in different ways. The first was through hiring and partnering with friends. I lost many friends that I had hired or partnered with because we were pulling the business in different directions.

My friends would often run the business like a friendship, while I would be more interested on the business being operated as a professional outfit. I also burned too many business bridges.

I used to have no patience or tolerance for mistakes and ended up burning bridges because of my temper. I would overreact to situations and make them about me, which would cause me to completely end a project or fire someone over a small mistake. I remember that when I started, I struggled with feelings of inadequacy.

I involved too many people in my projects, searched for validation from my peers, and tried to build big teams even before my business left the ground. In the end, all these cooks spoiled the broth. There were just too many people all fighting for their own interests and none fighting for the business.

“Losing many friends and the subsequent separation from business partners made me go through high levels of stress and periods of immense self-doubt. Consequently, I became too unproductive. I would be legally fighting this one or firing the other.

My businesses went bad and drained my finances. They would fail before I got any return on investment. In the end, I did a self-audit. I honestly and brutally tracked down the reasons why I was stuck in this loss-making cycle.

I made drastic changes in my life and resolved never to work with or hire my friends. I also learned how to work in silence and stopped seeking validation. This required me to build up my confidence, become more tolerant and forgiving, and learn how to mend broken fences.”

 

Patricia Okello, founder of Conferencing In A Box Limited, a corporate events logistics company and Willart Production Limited which specialises in brand development.

“After sending tons of spam mail very early in my business, I finally got an opportunity to pitch for a job with a local NGO and won a contract to design and produce a report for one of their projects. In essence, it was a ‘test-job’.

I had been in business long enough to understand the importance of signing off on all approvals from the client at every crucial stage in production. At the time, I had only one additional employee who was actually an intern and unable to execute the job.

Besides this, the subject of the publication was a legal booklet that had many terms that I did not understand. Nonetheless, the most important part of the job was designing the cover.

We had a lot of back and forth on this with the client but finally, got our approval and were ready to go to press. The job went out without a hitch and I delivered to the client in good time.

The cover was beautiful – I recall it was purple and I had given it a nice shiny finish. We had agreed that before the official launch, we would deliver the book to various important guests.

“On the eve of the day that the book was to launch, as I packed my things to leave the office, I got a call from the client. He sounded irate! The cover of the book had a glaring spelling mistake. Somehow, this error had escaped my eye. At that point, the temptation to tell the client that they had in fact signed off on all the printing proofs before we ran the job was high. All that ran in my head was: Who is going to bear the cost of this huge loss?

I quickly realised that this would not be a good idea and told the very angry customer that I was on my way to pick the books from their office and would resolve the issue the following day in time for the launch.

The following day, I ran a fresh cover without the spelling mistake and delivered in time. Yes, I ran this job at a huge loss, but the decision to re-print the publication is what encouraged the client to give me a second and third chance. I have since kept this client to date.

“Before you quickly move to blame your customer for any accidental mistakes that can occur in the process of delivering your services, you should first focus on offering solutions. That is ultimately why I am still in business and why you’ll survive the world of business.

Had I not delivered the books for the launch, my client would have certainly lost his job and I would have closed shop since at the time, my business was too young to take such a huge hit.”