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Monday, 1 September 2014

Kenya's Ken Oyaya - " Do What You Really Love and Start Small "

Meet Kenya's Ken Oyaya, founder and CEO of Blackrose Limited, the young entrepreneur who took the bold decision to quit his job and do what he really loves. “I have always had a passion for events. Even in university I was a hustler: showing movies, hiring out sound equipment, organising birthday parties and even renting out pay TV to other houses,” says Oyaya. “But when I decided to start my own business I did not want to continue hustling. I wanted something more formal and organised. I decided to open a club first.” 

Today he owns 5 clubs and restaurants, a DJ outfit, a furniture manufacturing firm and an interior design company. He links his entrepreneurial skills to many years ago when he was actively involved in helping his mother run her part-time tailoring business. While in high school, Oyaya was convinced that entrepreneurship would be his chosen career. For the next 4 years, he dabbled in almost every kind of business, and at age 21, he was distributing paintings made in India to hawkers in Nairobi.

“I saw the potential in business at a young age. My mum was a teacher but she was making more money from business,” says the founder and CEO of Blackrose Limited. He later joined the workforce and was employed at East African Breweries Limited (EABL) for 7 years, Oyaya’s interest in entrepreneurship never faded. In 2011, Oyaya quit his well-paying job shortly after being promoted to a managerial position to start his own business in the entertainment industry.


Looking back, Oyaya says he is glad he followed his passion for business. However, making that step to quit his job was not an easy one. “I was in charge of events at EABL and I had been thinking about starting my own business, but I always felt that I wasn't ready.” At the time, Oyaya’s wife was enrolled in university, they were building their home, his children were going to an expensive private school and he had just bought his wife a new car on loan. “The thing I worried about the most was losing the medical cover my family enjoyed. I was scared. I was praying that no one would get sick after I quit my job,” says Oyaya, adding that he finally took out medical cover for his family and all his employees 5 months ago.

The young entrepreneur explains that after quitting his job, he went through a stage of confusion, finding himself free all day and even began applying for employment. It took him 6 months to make his first cheque running his own business. “I was getting very worried. I was now thinking of things I could sell to get by. It was very hard. The reason why it took me so long to settle was because licensing a business in Kenya takes so long. There were so many licences we needed and no one advised us. There is a cartel that harasses entrepreneurs and takes full advantage of their lack of information.”

On his management style, Oyaya says he chooses to empower his 12 managers to run the businesses and devotes his time to coming up with new ideas. He argues that micromanaging a business can stifle growth and limit its expansion. “If you never give the people you employ ownership, you will never make money. When I go to my clubs the waiters don’t even know I am the owner because the managers are in charge of everything from hiring to stocking. That gives me the time to do other things, innovate and start new businesses. Giving people responsibilities and giving them room to execute is something I learnt at EABL.”
His biggest lesson in business has been investing in human resources and ensuring professionalism in all his businesses. “You will find someone operating a bar with one or two waiters and a barman who also serves as the manager because the owner wants to make 90% profits which is never long lived. You have to invest in people and motivate them to perform efficiently. If you try cutting costs by compromising on human resources you will run one shop until the day you die. If you want to expand, you have to embrace professionalism and hire good talent.”

Oyaya advises entrepreneurs to embrace and learn from their mistakes as well as attend professional courses to improve their capabilities. “I have started businesses that have failed. I choose to look at failure as a learning process,” he says. “Our education system is wrong. It teaches kids to never fail. The focus is on being number one and nothing else.” This best or nothing mentality, Oyaya warns, makes people afraid of failure and taking risks, and formal employment with a monthly salary is considered a safer option.

“I have a friend who sells sweets and makes over KSh. 500,000 ($5,824) a month and another friend who wears a suit and tie every day, drives a company car but takes home KSh. 30,000 ($350) a month. When we sit down, it is the guy in the tie and suit who will brag the most because he works for a big company and drives a company car. Meanwhile, the guy who sells sweets and wears jeans all day is quietly thinking of where he will open the next shop.”

Oyaya warns young entrepreneurs not to focus too much on image but rather start businesses that actually make money. He adds that most young people would not want their peers to know they sell mandazi (Kenyan doughnut) for a living and would prefer to be software entrepreneurs for instance.
“Do what you really love and start small. Let the business grow gradually. Be proud of what you do and do it well,” he advises. “I see most young people eager to make money overnight. You have to patient and put in the hard work.”

While he has no regrets about venturing into business, Oyaya cautions that it has its downside, citing an event last December in which he lost KSh. 600,000 ($6,989). Such unexpected losses, he adds, can have serious repercussions on his entire portfolio. “As an entrepreneur I am not just responsible for my family, I am responsible for my employees. It’s like having more than 100 dependents,” he says Oyaya. “But I enjoy this. I wake up at 9 o’clock and eat breakfast as I watch TV. No one asks me why I am late for work.”

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