Online visibility did it for me

At 27, Daphine Mwanza-Okonji has established a thriving interior design firm from Sh5,000 capital. Her outfit is among the top interior design firms. She shares with MAUREEN AKINYI the secret.

You started Elle Interior Designers four years ago and it is now a thriving empire. Tell us more about this establishment ...

I started Elle Interior Designers when I was just 23 years old fresh from campus where I studied for a Bachelor of Commerce degree. I started with a Sh5,000 capital and no experience but in four years, I have managed to build this firm. I have done work for companies like Swift Global Kenya Ltd, LG Electronics, Kimisitu Sacco, Gertrude’s Children’s hospital, and furnishing for various established firms.

What inspired you to start this business?

Since I was a child I always knew that I was going to be a businesswoman but I did not know what business I would run.

I got the opportunity to run a guesthouse after campus and this is where I honed my skills. I furnished it and once I was done, I was quite impressed with the final product.

Several friends who visited the guesthouse on Kiambu Road noticed my talent and suggested that I give interior design a try as a business. Since I was not employed anywhere else, I took the risk and it has paid off.

Did you start it alone or with partners?

When I started I was the sole proprietor and later made it a limited company and got directors to help with ideas and also for accountability’s sake. I took a whole year to do research since interior design was not quite my area of expertise although I always had a passion for recreating space. So I used to visit a cyber café that was near my house from where I was working. One year later, I booked a stand at the April 2009 Interior Design expo at KICC and started marketing my services. I then moved to a business centre on Ngong Road and I’ve never looked back.

Daphine Mwanza-Okonji

How difficult was it starting out in terms of finances and all?

Honestly speaking, starting a business is the easiest part, keeping it afloat is where the challenge is.

Starting out for me was not as difficult as it seems, most of the work was groundwork research.

I started by designing my business cards and talking to close friends and relatives about what I do.

I used my savings to meet my expenses.

At first, I was alone but I got one staff member to help in the training department as I nurtured the consultancy department.

At the moment, I have seven permanent staff and four outsourced staff. We also offer internship. We have a number of students both in the Kileleshwa and Town Campus.

Share about the challenges of starting out?

Starting out and keeping afloat has been interesting.

I always tell my friends that I will write a book to share some vital lessons with aspiring business people so that they do not make the same mistakes I made.

I always tell those that I mentor that finances should be the least of your worries when you venture into business.

Personally, I have had a number of challenges but I will list a few.

First, there is the challenge of forming HR processes and procedures that will help you carry out your business without loopholes.

Second is convincing potential clients that you are the best-suited person to carry out the job. I have learnt that visibility leads to credibility, which then leads to profitability.

Therefore, I have to do my best to ensure that I am visible in all relevant forums, especially the Internet.

I have landed my biggest clients from my website and BlogSpot. If you Google interior designers in Kenya, guess who pops up first on the list? My firm. Elle is among the few recognised interior design firms in Kenya.

Third, there is the challenge of staffing. As a young and upcoming business, you cannot afford to pay salaries similar to what employees get in bigger and more established companies. You therefore end up employing fresh graduates or less qualified staff who need a lot of training. Also getting staff members who share your vision is close to impossible.

Fourth, the challenge of effectively managing finances. You need to know when to plough back into the business, when to give offers on your product or service, when and how much to pay yourself and support staff.

Fifth, maintaining an effective customer database. Once you have clients inquiring about your services, you should have a database where you store their contacts for follow up. It also helps you know your clients by name and make them feel valued.

At Elle, we have a database of past, present and potential clients who we always update on our new products or any other developments.

Most businesses collapse within the first six months of establishment. Yours has survived the tide. Share the secret?

Perseverance, commitment and countless prayers! I have also had to constantly invest in new ways to improve what I offer so that I remain relevant in the market.

Branding doesn’t only work for the big firms; it also works for upcoming business.

Working on my brand perception and building customer confidence in the brand.

This can only be achieved if you not only know your products well, but also meet and even exceed customer expectations.

Make your brand consistent on every medium so that it can eventually speak for itself.

I used to go hunting for clients before but now things have changed and my staff and I are overwhelmed by the amount of business coming in.

What makes Elle Interior Designers stand out?

At Elle we attend to all clients as equals and we don’t choose who to attend to and who not to attend to.

We also offer landscape design and maintenance services as well as interior design and decoration, landscaping, events management and flower arrangement training in our design school in Kileleshwa and Town campus.

Who are some of the people who mentored you?

I have picked a lot of business wisdom from my mother and father-in-law.

My husband has also been a main pillar in my business and I don’t know where I would be without their his support.

What would you tell young women who are jobless and desire to be like you, yet have no starting capital?

If capital is what is stopping you, then you have no idea what is in store.

Capital should not be a hindrance of you have a passion for business.

What drives you?

Personally, I am self-driven. But the thought that others have made it before me also keeps me going.

I am also driven by the fact that someone somewhere is getting inspired by my story.