Run-of-the-mill school programs have a simple, predictable trajectory. And, it’s often cast in stone: Study hard. Get a job. Be stable. School hardly ever sheds light on possible choices if that does not happen. Then, learners trying to do life are caught wide-eyed, like a deer in the headlights - when life happens.
I may study, pass exams, and get a job. What happens if I lose the job after a few years?
It’s an open-ended question, without a straight-up answer. What works for Tom, totally goes sideways for Dick - and Harry, may just be treading water, barely sticking his nostrils out. No progress.
Online platforms are flush with analysts saying what works. I’ll tell you what DOESN’T.
Perhaps, a bitter-sweet personal revelation, from August 2019. A foreign-based firm I worked for closed shop, without notice. The boarded up doors set in motion unseen events in my life, that three years later, feels like I’ve been attending a top-notch business school!
My #1 Rule: Never attempt to start a business if you’ve just lost a job.
In August 2019, my firm folded up shop. It was a foreign-based humanitarian outfit. No notice, nothing. I even had accrued two years’ worth of leave days! I was suddenly jobless, alone and disoriented.
At the time, a fledgling poultry farming project kept me occupied for a while, as it took the firm a few weeks to process the send-off package. When it came, it was substantial, thankfully. I also qualified for a small loan at my Sacco - I had a savings scheme, and I cashed that option.
I decided to start some business.
In November 2019, as I was shop-hunting, I chanced upon a vacant shop, in Kahawa West. This is an average middle-income suburb, East of Nairobi. It’s a residential hub for college students. The shop was on a busy street - and seemed a good point for a boutique shop. To me, college students meant a rich market.
Boy, wasn’t I wrong!
I poached an employee I had met in similar premises. She had a big following online. Around the same time, I landed a front-office job, in the Central Business District (CBD). December rolled by lazily, as always.
In January, 2020, the global pandemic started wreaking havoc. Covid-19 challenges were crippling. No sales. I let the employee walk. I’d work my day job, open the boutique in the evening. I was overwhelmed, and tired.
By August 2020, I decided to clear the stock at throwaway prices. Out of a whooping Ksh480,000 in stock, rent and cost of set up, I only recovered Ksh49,000.
I kept the shop, paying rent.
In the grip of the pandemic, as businesses struggled to stay afloat - street hotels and liquor outlets seemed to do just fine. People need food, and their drinks. In October 2020, I re-invested in a liquor outlet (retail and a bit of wholesale). It made great sales. At first.
My employee was a close cousin, a college student. Well, huge mistake. Other than the relative factor whenever sales didn’t balance out, liquor outlets keep running into brushes with the law. Lots of handouts to the cops, eating into the business.
It closed at the end of December 2020.
I’ve learnt four major lessons on starting businesses, so I’ll be back.
Well, it turns out that I had zero business skills. I struck out, blind. My previous job involved a social aspect, interacting with people on a non-financial aspect. I lost an opportunity to increase my profit margins at the boutique, buying stock from a middleman – as opposed to sourcing from Tanzania.
Can you balance a basic financial ledger? How do you know if a business is making profits, or a loss? If you pay staff from your monthly salary, is your business self-sufficient? Do you have client-retention skills in a cutthroat business environment?
An entrepreneur can handle this aspect by seeking a business mentor. Learn all you can. Offer unpaid labour at established businesses aligned to your idea. Offer labour for free learning. Besides, learn the dynamics of the business – competition, stock sourcing point, raw materials and so on before putting your money at risk.
If business appeals to you, choose a path that affords you some networking advantage.
Suppose you work in a real estate or construction firm, think of a business that offers you a chance to reach out to your former clients. If you open a hardware store, for example, you could easily be selling materials to your clients at your former job.
Every industry provides an avenue one can exploit, for a private enterprise. Medical professionals in major hospitals usually have clients seeking services at their private clinics.
It’s also imperative that one employs mechanisms to build networks and connections at their present jobs. They will come in handy, at some point.
In my Tale of Woe, one mistake I did - seek a job, as I opened the boutique. I didn’t have the hours to tend to it. A new business is like a new seed nursery.
I didn’t have time to supervise operations. My employee had a huge following online. She’d make a lot of online sales, from my boutique. She’d then replace the sold stock. Point to note: Every employee you have, has dreams to be independent. The cycle continues.
If you seek a fast-moving business, like a liquor outlet - hire a freelance accountant. The small fee they charge, makes up for the hours you spend on other engagements. They’ll be your eyes: Balance stock, buy new stock and balance out the ledger.
You will know if you are making a profit, or digging yourself a financial hole.
One rule, from experience: Avoid relatives. While a section may be well-meaning, it’s pretty hard to be professional with a close relative. At my liquor investment, I had a close cousin. I kept running into losses with flimsy excuses, books could not balance.
A self-run start-up has bigger odds for success. With a bit of focus and restraint, one can keep running costs low. To hire, be sure your employee is astute, and shares your passion for success. A salaried employee may lack the aggressive stature to procure more clients, after all, the salary is guaranteed.
To partner up, don’t pick a cosmetic entry. Make a value-driven choice, based on what value that partnership brings to the business. Find a way to share the spoils of war, keen not to absorb all the backend.
It’s not easy to bounce back after a sudden job loss. There’s a level of comfort and random luxuries you’ll have to give up.
First thing up, examine your savings. Are they substantial? How long can you run along till the tank runs dry? Next, cut down on your daily spend. Polish your resume - it’s time to apply for a new job. Call up new referees, exploit your networks.
Once you get back on your feet, immediately employ the 50:30:20 Savings Rule. After a while, start building that business - on the side. If it picks and stabilises, make the call.