Mary Njoki, the affable CEO of Glass House PR might be one of the most resilient businessperson in town. After completing high school at the age of 16, Njoki’s single mother could not afford money to take her to campus. She found solace in acting, doing some gigs at the Kenya National Theatre to hone what she thought was a fledgling acting career. It didn’t last long.
At 17, her mother took some loans and enrolled her at Graffins College, graduating with a higher diploma in software development. Later, she enrolled for a course at Daystar University for a communication course majoring on public relations, but quit midway. In 2010, Njoki registered an image consulting firm and in the same year consulted for a gospel artist who paid her Sh500 – the only amount she made that whole year! Two years later, at the age of 23, Njoki founded Glass House PR with an initial capital of Sh6,000, a laptop, an Internet modem and tons of optimism.
From no clients or any fixed location then, the firm has become a respected brand that has consulted for companies like Facebook, Viber, and the Ethiopian Government, among other entities in East, South and West Africa.
She is currently running A Billion Startups, a free mentorship platform that brings together entrepreneurs across Africa to learn on brand visibility and sustainable growth. She has earned several accolades along the way. She was shortlisted as an innovative African Entrepreneur during the 2016 New Orleans Collision Conference besides her nomination by Forbes as one of the 30 under 30 Entrepreneurs in Africa. She tells of her bumpy ride to the top.
You founded Glass House at 23 when many are not sure of the careers by that age. What gave you that confidence?
I knew what I wanted from an early age. My initial financial challenges prepared me for what lay ahead. I had tons of patience and belief in my idea. In addition, I took every opportunity to learn what I could about my business idea. It required discipline.
For example, I would wake up by 4am, take a matatu from our home in Limuru and get to Nairobi for a breakfast meeting. It was not convenient, but I needed to follow through on my idea despite the obstacles along the way.
You were employed in two different firms before deciding to go it alone. What role did the short employment stint teach you?
Having trained in software production, I had hoped to work in a similar capacity, but I was assigned in the marketing department for a Sh15,000 salary. I was poor in sales and my boss was not very pleased. I was fired through a text message. To my second boss, I suggested that we go heavy on digital media since it was catching up in the country. My ideas were ignored.
At some point I just didn’t show up for work. I was happy to quit since I was doing something I never really enjoyed. I knew what I wanted in life. Sadly, many people, despite having great entrepreneurship ideas, still wake up every morning to work in jobs they don’t like for a pay they despise.
Employment can help you save for that hustle you are always thinking about, but keep postponing. And if you enjoy the side hustle more than your day job, it is time to go.
What was your big break?
When business people talk of big break usually they refer to a big paycheck. I had none of that. The growth of the company has been gradual. I can only talk of being noticed by a big technology firm that required public relations services back in 2012. I gave what I thought was the best rehearsed presentation.
They liked it, selecting Glass House PR from a number of other established firms. We went through the initial procurement processes but as they checked our online presence, my firm was dropped as they could not see established systems in place to handle a company with a global presence. Gone too was the prospect of earning $5,000 that the firm had offered.
What did the lost opportunity teach you about handling rejection?
Rejection of your goods and services comes with the territory. Unfortunately, that is where many aspiring entrepreneurs quit thinking that their idea was bad from the start. However, I always look at such ‘mishaps’ from the bright side.
I was glad that a global company had considered me and my small firm for a job. I never lost my vision of being a global player in the public relations business and knew others would take notice of our small efforts.
And some did take notice, didn’t they?
Yes. In 2013, I was invited for an information technology conference in Ethiopia where I met other industry players from the continent. In 2015, I developed a computer software that got me invited to the 2016 New Orleans Collision Conference where I was shortlisted as an innovative African Entrepreneur.
Here, I shared the platform with Chris Sacca, a leading start-up investor who has made appearances in the American TV show Shark Tank. While you may not earn money from such appearances, your confidence levels as an entrepreneur are boosted.
How did reality check in in your first year of business?
I learnt how little I knew about the business. I was learning on the go. Fortunately, a service such as public relations required little overheads or a need for much capital investment.
I had no office or staff to pay when I started since I was a one-woman show for close to two years.
What mistakes did you make along the way?
Separating public relations and marketing was a key challenge. After a presentation, a prospective client would say that I was making a marketing pitch. It was painful. This was the difference between earning some good money or going home empty handed.
You quit your college degree course for business. What would you say is lacking in our educational system?
The course I was enrolled in was not aligned to my goals. There is little about financial education in our school system. The few courses that come close to this teach a lot of theory. There are no real case studies or real life experiences from those who have succeeded in business.
In addition, much of the education towards entrepreneurship is not based on African experiences, but from the western culture. It seems that we learn more from other people who are not necessarily true entrepreneurs but who have a lot of head knowledge.
What advice would you give beginners in entrepreneurship?
Do not feel entitled or catch some negative feelings if people do not buy into your idea. Nobody owes you anything. Do not worry about the shame of failure. Pick yourself up, dust yourself and move on.
What would you have done differently if you were to go back in time?
I think I would learn things quicker and also hire the right people with a shared vision. I would also conduct a good client background check.
I have suffered in the past for not doing enough homework on a client who exaggerated his real net worth for the sake of a good public image.