Most kids had their fathers teach them how to ride bicycles, play soccer or drive. As a child, my father taughtme how to buy, sell and manage my money before my teens. I have sold second-hand clothes, farm produce, veterinary supplies, and by my 18th birthday, I was overseeing a project with about 10 people working under me. That has got to be the hardest thing I have ever done.
While in 2nd year the entrepreneurship bug bit me. Every night, I would sit down with my notebook and think of challenges facing fellow students in a bid to get a business idea. I came up with lots of ideas, which I all passed by my mentor. Most of them were not feasible. My main motivation was to set up a profitable business and dropout of college once it picked up.
At last, I got an idea that could work. I emptied an emergency kitty my old man had set up for me and borrowed more from my mother. I used this money to buy Tablet-PCs from Walmart with the aim of reselling them to my college mates. Having failed to do a market study and factor in the other costs involved in that business, the total cost of importing one tablet was higher than the market price. To make it worse the same week my shipment landed, Safaricom rolled out a number of China-made tablets which were not only cheaper but also had other enticing add-ons. I was unable to sell a single gadget!
That was my first huge disappointment. I had already quit college to concentrate on my import business. The loss humbled me, I went back to college and spent the next year paying off my loan. Oh yeah, she didn’t forgive my debt but at least she allowed me to pay in flexible installments.
During my 3rd & 4th year long holidays I worked as an intern in a national housing parastatal. This gave me a chance to interact closely with the country’s top engineers so that when one of my uncles asked me to accompany him to inspect his housing project I went there prepared.
The foremen and masons had made so many mistakes. I had a field day (literally), pointing out the errors and suggesting remedies. When one of the masons asked for my opinion on how to make a certain column, I held out my finger: took out my notebook, pencil, calculator and tape from my bag then started making complex calculations using equally scary formulae I had learned in class. They all stood there in awe. After about 15 minutes I looked up and shouted the instructions like a drill sergeant.
“ I want you to use 4Y20 fy 460 steel reinforcement for a height of 2850mm, a kicker of 75 mm, 40 mm cover, overlap length of 1000mm, concrete class 20, shear links placed at a distance of 250mm and bent according to shape code 67”
To be honest, I had no idea what most of that actually meant. But my uncle and workers were impressed by my deep engineering knowledge. At the end of the day, I was given Ksh. 2,000 bob for my services and hired to oversee the installation of important structural members on a retainer basis.
On the same project, I met Mutua, a plumber whom I was shocked to learn also acted as a contractor. On average, he would complete three projects a month earning 100-300k from on each, yet most engineers I knew were not earning anything close to that in a month.
When I went back to the office, I asked the experienced engineers to teach me how to tender for contracts and negotiate with clients. They all burst out laughing and taunting me.
“Mark, why do you want to run before you can walk?… You haven’t even cleared college yet you want to negotiate for contracts with clients?…Young man, you have to be patient, clear campus, work for a number of years then start looking for clients.”
I was disappointed but my desire to be a billionaire wouldn’t let me give up on my thirst for contracts. I joined forces with a fellow intern, Charity, who is not just smart but industrious too. Every afternoon, around the city in search of tenders ranging from construction, stationery to homemade detergents. Thanks to Charity’s good looks, many officials would let us into their offices and listen to our pitch. Despite the many companies we visited, we never got a single contract!
The following Semester, I was overjoyed to learn that a certain professor would lecture my class. The said professor was once Nairobi city engineer, Vice-Chancellor & Chancellor to Kenya’s biggest universities and had a CV the size of a newspaper. In addition, he sits on two major engineering boards in the country.
This one time the good old professor was teaching on the Engineers Act, which states that one has to work for 3-5 years under a registered engineer after graduation before seating for a professional exam and be allowed to practice as a professional engineer.
The truth of the matter is that many established engineers in this country are threatened by the new crop of graduate engineers so they deliberately place obstacles in our path in order to discourage us and maintain the status quo thus registration is not guaranteed after the five years.
I asked the professor why anyone would subject themselves to 5 years of unnecessary torture when they could easily partner with an already registered engineer and tender for engineering contracts. The professor got very furious demanding to know why I would study engineering for 5 years if all I wanted was to become a businessman! Careful not to make an enemy out of such a powerful individual, I apologized but deep inside my choice had been made.
I would save a third of the weekly allowance my parents gave me, write for both print and online magazines for a fee. I also developed content for websites so in a year I managed to accumulate about Ksh. 80,000 in savings. I turned down my old man’s offer to top up the amount; I wanted to be a self-made entrepreneur.
With the little capital I had, I paid a lawyer to register a company and that’s how Lameija Construction LTD was born. The two other shareholders in this company include a registered engineer who was to handle the technical stuff and one of my mentors who had the resources, connections, and reputation I needed. The registration process exhausted most of my capital; in addition to paying for the various documents, I was asked to give a ‘facilitation fee’ for every step otherwise the process would be delayed indefinitely.
I finally landed my first contract. It was a small job but it felt great to actually have a paying client. I went back to my internship supervisors seeking for help in undertaking the contract. They repeatedly told me that the project was impossible, a misplaced priority and waste of resources.
Thank goodness for my stubbornness, I called so many other professionals until I got an architect who was willing to do the job. I also hired three of my lecturers to do the structural, mechanical and electrical drawings. Oh yes! It felt good issuing instructions to my lecturers and asking them to redo the things I didn’t like.
In business things hardly ever go as planned. The client who lives out of the country wanted me to send the drawings before he would send the cash while the architect refused to release any sketches until he got a down payment. I was caught in between, trying to keep both my client and architect happy. You don’t know the struggle of having to raise 50, 000 bob in two days when you are a non-employed student.
I withdrew everything in my bank account, Mpesa and then went through all my clothes and checked under the bed for money I might have misplaced. All I could raise was 45k having borrowed from literally everyone on my phonebook. I convinced the architect to take the amount and all I had left was 200bob between me and starvation.
Anyway, I was finally able to successfully complete the project. The money I made from the project barely covered my operational costs. I bought the couch I’m sitting on to celebrate my first business milestone.
I landed another contract thereafter with a very wealthy client. I spent all my money on the job but upon delivery, the thug in a suit never paid me or ever picked my calls again. I hadn’t signed a written contract before embarking on the project rather took his word for it since he was not only wealthy but also a powerful government official, I didn’t imagine he would bail out on me. Lesson learned; Never do anything before you sign a contract.
This happened in May 2015. The non-payment crippled my company. I went broke, suspended operations of the company and decided to go out and learn more about running a business from other entrepreneurs before embarking on my next huge investment.
Armed with nothing but dreams, ambition, a positive attitude, and wiliness to learn no matter how many times I fail, I’m not going to stop until I create a profitable business empire that succeeds generations after me. For now, call me Mark Maish the broke billionaire!
PS: I am looking for a new mentor. If you are a successful entrepreneur and would like to take on a new protégé, kindly contact me.
Written By Mark Maish