Glass has been in existence for centuries, from as early as 1500BC. One of the most revered methods of forming glass objects is glassblowing – a hand-crafting technique in which glass is shaped by heating it to a specific degree and then blowing air into it through a tube to get the desired shape.
In Africa, there are countable companies that specialise in glassblowing. Among these is Kitengela Hot Glass, which was founded in 1991 by Anselm Croze and his mother, Nani.
Anselm, now 51, has taken what started off as a tiny family business and turned it into a renowned brand that draws visitors and buyers from all over the world. He spoke to Hustle on his journey, highlighting how an entrepreneur can enter a niche market and flourish.
1. Do something different
I was born in England, raised in Kenya, sent to high school in North Wales and university in America, where I dropped out and ended up being a taxi driver for over a year.
I then came back home to Kenya and completed my studies in business administration. These experiences moulded me to think outside the box.
In the early 1990s, my mother ran a company, Kitengela Stained Glass Studios, which made stained glass windows, lamps and other artefacts. My mother wanted to make flat glass and asked me to help her. It was a novel idea for a Kenyan company. Had we stopped to think about the enormity of the journey ahead, we probably wouldn’t have done it; we would have opted for something safer. But then, Kitengela Hot Glass wouldn’t exist today.
As an entrepreneur, you often have to go left when everyone else is going right because if you’re doing what everyone else is doing, your chances of great achievement are slim. So, do something different, set a trend. Don’t worry about how you will accomplish it. Just try.
2. Learn as you go
Formal education is important, but the most valuable lessons and techniques you will learn are always on the job. When my mother and I ventured into glassblowing, I enrolled for a one-week course in France.
This was a crash course and I realised what I was gaining, though valuable, was not enough to get the expertise that I needed. I made friends with the instructor, Willem Heesen, and he invited me to his home in Holland after the course. I was 22 and eager for adventure. I ended up staying with him and his family for three months and studied as an apprentice at his glassblowing studio.
I watched, learned, practiced and made myself useful by doing whatever job was needed – from sweeping to making coffee. I remember how much of a nuisance I could be because I asked too many questions. Years later, when his son Bernard Heesen came to visit Kitengela Hot Glass, he observed my employees working and was intrigued that his workmanship was being emulated by people across the world that he’d never met.
What I learned in Holland I could never have picked up in a classroom. People learn from experience more than they do from textbooks.
3. If you can’t afford it, improvise
When I got back from Holland, I tried in vain to get funding for my company. Eventually, I realised that if we were ever going to start, we needed to proceed with whatever we had. Our immediate priority was to build a furnace and get glass to work with.
Heesen knew a Finnish gentleman by the name Mikko who had lived in Kenya and was well versed in furnace building and glassblowing. Mikko heard my story and was excited to help. He arrived at the airport with the bricks needed for the furnace stashed in his jacket pockets.
Meanwhile, I had scavenged, begged and borrowed other materials, like glass and metal. A couple of months later, we built our furnace and studio and created our first 20 pieces of glass tumblers. They were completely unconventional in weight and texture, but people liked them and they sold. We broke even in the first month.
I learned never to look to others to start my dream. If it matters to you, work with that you have. Your results may not be perfect off the bat, but perfection will come later. First, create.
4. You don’t need millions to start
Typically, anyone starting a glass manufacturing company would need millions of shillings to get their factory up and running. Up until the early 1960s, glassblowing was dominated by large companies. And then a few entrepreneurial American glassblowers decided to start a small outfit because they were tired of being at the mercy of conglomerates. This altered the industry in Europe and America.
Years later, the concept of a single-furnace enterprise is what made Kitengela Hot Glass possible. My start-up capital was a piece of land owned by my family, a tank of diesel and some great networks.
It is usually when impossibility looms that new ideas emerge. If you have an idea for a business or a product, don’t wait for millions to get it off the ground. Ask yourself, how else can this be accomplished? Nine times out of 10, an option will present itself.
5. Know the rules – then break them
As a new industry in Kenya, our only guiding principles were the laws of physics and chemistry, which dictated how glass would handle under extreme heat, and how fast it would cool down for us to mould it. Everything else was left to discovery and innovation.
Our first wine glass was made from an engine differential gear to give it the ridges typical of wine glasses. We didn’t learn that from anywhere, we experimented as we’ve done with many projects over the years.
Mainstream has its purpose, don’t get me wrong, but when you’re competing with the big boys, the chances of you winning at mainstream are slim. You need to find something that sets you apart from them, and the best way to do that is to break the rules and make your own.
6. Set your price at your value
Back in 1991, we sold our first 20 glasses at Sh400 a piece, which was substantially more expensive than the ordinary glass you’d find in a supermarket. We didn’t immediately go public; most of our first customers were friends and family. We needed money, badly. The temptation to lower the price was high, but I was also very aware of how much time, effort and expertise had gone into creating every unique piece of work. So our prices remained.
Today, we have four stores at top-end malls in Nairobi. Because we stuck to our value system, we generated clientele who appreciate the cost of our products. At Kitengela Hot Glass, no two glasses are exactly the same because they are hand made. Our beads are moulded one at a time and then strung together to create a necklace or bracelet. Some of our more expensive items are our chandeliers, the largest of which can cost in excess of Sh1.2 million.
That sounds like a lot until you consider each chandelier comprises about 1,200 pieces, all made by hand, and then we instal the chandelier at the client’s premises. We have an order for 15 small chandeliers from a hotel in Nairobi.
Never, ever underprice yourself because you think no one will buy what you’re selling. Set your price at the value of what you’re offering. Those who appreciate it will pay; those who don’t are not your clientele to begin with.
7. Manage your books and save
When I started my company, we pretty much operated from month to month as far as finances were concerned. In the beginning, it made sense because we were trying to grow our capital.
However, even after the company expanded, this habit stuck and many times, the 27th of the month would hit and I had no clue how we would pay our workers. When you have 37 staff members counting on that salary, failure to meet the obligation is unacceptable.
If there is one crucial lesson I would give to entrepreneurs, it would be: save. It doesn’t matter if you’re saving Sh10 or Sh100,000. You never know when the financial climate will change, when business will slow down or current affairs will affect your industry. Never be caught flatfooted because it can kill your entire business.
8. Even in a family business, separate business from family
My mother and I started our glassblowing businesses together. We shared costs for things like the generator, outlet shops and wholesale purchases. Over time, our ways of running our businesses and our vision completely differed. It brought constant conflict and tension between us, which in turn affected the company.
One of the toughest decisions I have had to make was to break away completely from my mother’s company.
This gravely affected our relationship. Despite that, I learned that if you are to succeed in business, there will be many difficult and unpleasant choices to make. Make choices that follow your vision, and not your emotion.