Journey to young, rich starts at the gate

“In ancient warfare, there was a practice that generals used when they arrived on ships to conquer new lands. They would offload their supplies and their soldiers and then burn the ships. Why? Because that meant they had only two options, conquer or die,” says Eugene Mbugua. “I find I’ve done that a lot in my life. It’s shaped the growth of my career and business.”

Eugene Mbugua, 28, is the founder of the production company, Young Rich Television. In 2014, he made the Top 40 Under 40 list in the Business Daily. In 2016, he was featured on Forbes Global Top 30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs in Africa and went on to make the cover of Forbes Africa for Top 30 Under 30 in 2017. 

Eugene has flourished in an industry that has challenged many other entrepreneurs. He speaks to Hustle on how he built his TV empire.

Why TV?

I accompanied a friend to the set of the TV series, Inspector Mwala, and ended up being an extra. The creative space was refreshing. When the opportunity came to be an extra on another series, Makutano Junction, I took it. We were paid Sh600 that day, which I thought was great because I was between high school and university and had no money. Those days birthed my interest in TV production.

When did you do your first show?

That came much later after university. While I was a student my friend, Peter Wangugi (Dexta), and I set up a production company to train young students on film, since movies are considered cool. We approached many schools with our proposal but most times we didn’t even get past the gate. I mean, we were dirty and sweaty and had usually walked for miles by the time we were getting to the school gates, we looked suspicious.

We decided to drag another friend, Mike Rewa, along to our pitches since he was a TV personality. It worked. They still didn’t let us through the gate, but they allowed us to talk to one of the ladies in the school. We gave her an elevator pitch, which I now fondly refer to as a ‘gate pitch.’ 

Many things are funny when you look back. One month after our gate pitch, the lady, Joy Ochola, called us on Dexta’s phone.

He asked her to hold while he ‘transferred’ her call to my line, then ran down the hall to give me the phone. We were pretending to be in an office while sitting in a very small house.

It was Wednesday, she wanted us to start the project on Friday. We had no equipment, no plan, nothing.

Did you pull it off?

Yes. We borrowed cameras and computers from our friends on campus. That Friday we signed on 37 students from Makini, charging Sh3,000 per student, per term. We took home about Sh100,000. We couldn’t believe it.

This gig went on for three years, during which we taught between 50-60 students each term from Makini and St Austin’s. This is where the idea for my first show came from.

Tell us more about that.

My first show was called Young Rich, a show that featured millionaires in Kenya under the age of 40, talking about their businesses and how they made their money.

When I was teaching students in Makini, most of the time I didn’t have bus fare. I’d walk from the CBD to Ngong Road.

Taking the back routes, I would see all these huge homes and young people driving expensive cars.

I remember when I saw a ‘To Let’ advert for Sh70,000, it baffled me how anyone could spend that much on rent alone. I was curious about how these people had made their money, so I created a show around the topic.

I pitched it in many places and it was eventually picked up by K24. The first show aired in 2013, the day before I graduated from United States International University. It was an iconic moment for me.

I made Sh1 million in the first month, with K24 paying a licensing fee of Sh250,000 per episode. It ran for nine seasons.

What are some of your other shows?

In 2015, we produced a show called Get In The Kitchen, which was about men who can’t cook, being challenged by their significant others to prepare a meal.

They would be taught a recipe by a renowned chef, then rope in a friend to replicate that recipe. That show run for about 140 episodes, first on K24, then on KTN.

We’ve also been commissioned to do shows by Maisha Magic and Mnet like My Perfect Wedding and Stori Yangu. Our latest show is called Foods of Kenya.

Many film and TV producers in Kenya cite lack of finances are a huge hurdle. How have you overcome this?

I think it is about transforming good ideas into good shows and selling them, then managing the books exceptionally well. It helps to have a good relationship with banks who can give you credit when you need it.

Our shows have also attracted sponsors, which means they get renewed, running for many seasons. When they’ve done the Kenyan run, we resell them to international markets.

I make a point of attending these markets every year. In April, I’ll be going to the Cannes Film Festival.

How do you know you have a good show on your hands?

When it’s picked up by a TV station and runs for at least a year. I keep it that simple. You must be stubborn enough to push your ideas through to the end. That’s how you succeed at business.

Many people say when you experience continuous success, you can get jaded, are you?

When it comes to my work, no, because I have a responsibility to 40 employees, my clients and my audiences. Creating is something I enjoy. I’m naturally a curious person so exploring life and its angles excites me.

But sometimes, yes, success can bring with it a sense of ennui. Growing up wasn’t easy for me, and I told myself I had to make it. By the age of 21 I had done just that. I had to rethink my goals, because there is only so much money you can spend, so many cars you can buy or homes you can live in. If your entire life is based on more money, what happens when you get it? It’s in the bank, great, then what?

What do you live for then?

They’ve been many times that I haven’t had an answer to that question. I’ve struggled with depression, and a sense of lack of purpose.

I guess the biggest lesson I’ve taken is be true to who I am.

I believe strongly in doing what you want to do, sometimes that will have repercussions like going against the grain of society and that’s fine.

For instance, we operate under this notion that everyone wants to make millions. That’s not true. Some people are content exactly where they are, living day by day and that should be okay.

Strategically speaking, majority of the world will never be rich.

I think we should aspire towards happiness because that’s one thing we can’t dispute, right? Everyone wants to be happy, but how you define happiness should be up to you.

What’s your last play, the one thing you will tick off and say you’re done?

I have a figure in my head that I want to hit, when I do, I think I’ll nod and say, I’m good now.

There is this tattoo on my arm, of a poem by J.B Rittenhouse: “Life is a just employer, He gives you what you ask, but once you have set the wages, you must bear the task. I worked for a menial’s hire, only to learn dismayed, that any wage I had asked of life, life would have willingly paid.”

In life there are no minimums and or maximums. It really is about what you want, what you think you deserve and how much work you’re willing to put in.

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Cannes Film FestivalYoung RichEugene MbuguaTop 40 Under 40