?Want to go into consultancy? Lessons from my 15-year journey

Consultants at a meeting (Photo Courtesy)
Billboards, flyers, online presence, advertisements, activations and campaigns; all these are components associated with marketing and branding.

Any company that wants to get knowledge out or build appeal for a product or service must inevitably use one or all of these platforms.  

At the age of 22, John Gikang’a founded Colors Incorporated, which is a holding company for two other design companies. These businesses deal with all things design, from branding and advertising to personalisation and interior architecture.

It has taken the now-37-year-old John 15 years to steadily build his company from a home office that had no desk to the vibrant consultancy it is today. He shares his story.

What’s the greatest appeal in design for you?

I think it’s the challenge to constantly create something from nothing.

When I was in high school, we had these Science Congress events where students would create a product or service and present it at a competition with their peers. I didn’t win, but being a part of that event showed me that the best ideas are a result of exposure and insight. That, essentially, is what drives me today as a design consultant.

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Take us through your role. A client walks through your doors ... and then what?

I’ll give you an example of one of the bigger jobs I’ve had.

The Ministry of Information and Communications tasked Colors Inc with designing and rolling out communications for its initiatives. In a case like this, we got the brief from the client, put together a design and multimedia team, advertising and a full branding strategy.

In essence, we handled both marketing above the line, which was doing commercials, billboards, and so on; and marketing below the line, which was doing activations and campaigns. We do 360-degree marketing, which is building awareness end to end, from concept to consumer.

How large is the team you work with?

It depends on the project, but the beauty is that I outsource. Apart from the actual concept building, I use partnerships in all my contracts. I get the right companies or individuals to complete the task at hand.

Do you feel this limits you in comparison to companies that have everything in- house?

I think this is what has kept me competitive. Originally, this concept worked for me because I remained in full-time employment for nine of the 15 years of my company’s existence.

Outsourcing was the only way I could manage to fulfil my contracts and my role as an employee. Years later, I realised this system was not only lower risk because of low overheads, but unlike companies that do everything in-house, I could search and get the best service for my clients without bias.

Because I’m not tied to anybody, I bring together the best of all service providers to bring to life my client’s vision, and at their budget point.

Despite the low risks, what are some of the challenges of consultancy versus full-time employment?

One of the bigger ones is learning how to manage finances.

In 2002, my start-up capital was Sh23,000, which I used to buy a laptop. I had moved out of my parents’ home and only had a mattress and a TV to my name. I didn’t even have a desk so I’d put the monitor on the PSU (power supply unit), the keyboard on my lap and do my designs.

However, in consultancy, there’s no ‘pay day’ or end month. But when you get a good contract, it can sustain you for two years if you allocate your finances correctly and also re-invest. The downside is you can’t predict when the next big contract will come, so you have to be smart. You need enough in your company accounts to facilitate big jobs and enough in your personal account for your expenses.

What’s the range of work you get in terms of costs?

One of my biggest contracts had a budget of more than $1.5 million (Sh150 million) for a countrywide rebrand. But I also recently did a job for Sh500 for a client who wanted an app icon. The icon took me six minutes to design. I figured just under Sh100 per minute was worth my while. I’ve also done jobs for Sh1,000 designing business cards.

When you’re a consultant, you take all the jobs that you’re qualified for and have the time to do. Why? Because that Sh500 job can get you that million-dollar contract. Building networks is everything.

What are some of the other disciplines needed to be successful at consultancy?

One of the greatest things I learned when I was in employment was the value of time and focus.

Between 2002 and 2005, I worked as an editorial designer at a media house. As the designer for the newspaper’s cover page, nothing was solid until the very last minute because news constantly changed.

This one time, I had clocked out at midnight and driven home when I got a call from the creative director telling me to go back to the office. A minister had died and we needed to change the headline and, therefore, the entire layout of the newspaper.

You could choose to get frustrated or take it in stride. This principle helps me even now when sometimes a client asks for one thing and then changes their mind in the middle of a project. You still have to work within the deadline and sometimes on a minimal budget.

But a happy client means a repeat client, and they’re the breadbasket of consultancy. Design only makes business sense if delivered on time, every time.

In your 15-year journey, what have been some of the more memorable moments?

It would have to be right at the beginning of my design career.

I got a job at an Internet provider as a web designer. The only problem was I knew nothing about the technical aspect of web design.

The systems administrator was a gentleman called Martin Kuria. I confided in him that I didn’t know what I was doing. Martin took his time to teach me the basics of web and mobile, shaping my career with a more futuristic view of how design and technology interface to solve problems.

Ten years later, Martin was in my wedding line-up. He works for the UN today and we’re still great friends. I’ll never forget the potential he saw and the investment he made in me. Two other people who’ve shaped my career are ICT champion Bitange Ndemo and Ken Njoroge, the CEO of Cellulant.

What have been some of your lowest moments?

I was working at a top advertising agency and had climbed up the ranks to become creative director.

It was thrilling because I handled complete visions for high-end clients with enormous budgets. And then politics kicked in and I got pushed out of that job. It really affected me because I felt it wasn’t my work that was being judged, but my ability to politic.

However, now that I look back, this was a blessing in disguise because if it hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have quit full-time employment to focus on my brand leadership programme in 2016. I have no regrets about that.

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