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Riding over dense business myths

By | May 3rd 2012


When Duncan Mwangi, declared that he would start a tailoring shop at Mtwapa at the Coast, a decade ago, I thought he had gone nuts. We were newly employed teachers then, and Mwangi was itching to make an extra shilling over the long hours of idleness we had.

His idea, however, faced stiff challenge bordering on existing myth that put the sale of quality clothes as a preserve of some big boutiques in Mombasa.

Alternatively, buyers relied heavily on the ubiquitous mitumba second hand clothes dealers for their attire; there were no half measures.

   In deed, all the "expert" and street advice that Mwangi got warned him against starting anything that was doomed to fail. Nobody could imagine him remotely challenging the supply chain that extended to some neighbouring and Middle Eastern countries of the big boys let alone attract any customers.

  But Mwangi stuck to his guns and opened his dream shop. He specialised in Kaunda suits, a must-wear for many coastal working people.

And demystifying the prevalent myth, his modest number of customers in the early stages rapidly progressed to a huge following in just a few months.

At the crest of his business, he had employed four full time tailors. Several factors favoured his trade, chief among them the sheer guts of offering a competitively priced alternative. He had stumbled on the hitherto unseen market of the emerging middle and working classes who regard their image as everything.

Myths galore

Every Kenyan town is awash with myths about how to succeeding in business or otherwise. Whereas most are comical and should be dismissed with the contempt they deserve, some misconceptions are startling and may have serious repercussions on faint-hearted entrepreneurs. For they have the tenacity of becoming self-fulfilling prophesies.

   Witness the firmly held belief in some towns that one cannot run a fish selling business owing to the unpopularity of this meal! In other areas, new businesses are given a life span, say, of five years because this is the duration that all ventures "always last!"

   But according to business development experts, such myths can be a blessing in disguise and serve to point out where others have failed before! And they can be overcome by focusing on one’s thoughts on what his or her business stands for. Once an entrepreneur establishes his or her business brand, he or she should never stop. He or she should constantly do "system checks" and "upgrades" on his or her business practices to ride over all myths.

   James Kung’u, a certified public accountant and lecturer at Nyandarua Institute of Science and Technology, says that the commonest business myth is the misconception that it is easier to run a business than to be employed.

"This is the most prevalent myth regarding starting a business and many people have fallen in this trap, with no fall back plan," he says.

He adds that the truth is that many business owners and their families work all year round with no holidays before a venture can stand on its feet. "If a business fails to generate a profit, then its owner is essentially working for free or at a loss," says Kung’u.

   This accountant says that putting up with a boss who is a quarrelsome might be difficult, but formal employment is more secure.

"When one considers that there is no safety net when a business fails, the unpleasantness associated with working for someone may not seem so bad after all," says Kung’u.

   Kung’u regrets the "one right way" myth of doing things, which is pervasive in the business culture. Hence, that horticulture farmers must start with searching for a market for their produce before planting anything, poultry farmers must begin with a minimum recommended number of birds and so on.

Wary of pitfalls

Essentially, this myth dictates that one must get into particular businesses in certain "approved" ways if he or she wants to succeed. 

"But this myth only keeps many people from succeeding in business by being too wary of the pitfalls to the extent that they have no creativity left," says Kung’u.

This myth stops people who are thinking about starting small businesses from following their dreams until they have all the real and mythical ingredients, including attainment of a certain age, he adds.

   Felix Salingo, a Nakuru trader was apprehensive when he opened his shop in town owing to a prevailing myth that the big supermarket branches would never give him a chance. Whereas his business is situated in a densely populated suburb, people would still go to supermarkets to get things at a bargain.

"I have learnt that while smaller shops cannot compete strictly on price with the large supermarkets, they can still survive if the owners can see the gaps left by the big players," he says. But this vital lesson has taken him more than 20 years to learn.

"With time I began maximising on the uniqueness of my business by packaging everything from sugar to maize flour in the kadogo portions and business held on," he says.

Cannot coexist

   But when he thought he had discredited the myth that small timers could never coexist with the big players, supermarkets began springing up in his residential area, posing serious threat to his shop.

"I changed yet again and ventured into the ready-to-eat food business alongside my usual retail merchandise," he says. Salingo would prepare githeri, beans and chapatis and so on, which people would buy on their way home from work. This way, Salingo has been able to stay ahead of the competition.

   A common myth that has gained currency in many business owners is their concept of who is the most valuable customer. Many business owners fall victim of the fallacy of giving greater attention to the occasional weekend shopper who buys things worth over several thousands shillings. But actually, the daily clients who buy, for example, milk and bread are potentially the most valued customer. Such customers may spend little, but business owners can easily talk with them and tell them of all new things that they have stocked and ask them to tell their friends and family about their products.

   And the old myth that the customer is always right needs urgent rethinking. Scores of mobile phone money transfer agents routinely suffer costly technological thefts, perpetrated by some of their clients. This exposes the myth that the customer is always right, because some of them, nowadays, want something for nothing.

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