One Friday morning in 2004, Jael Amara woke up to the fact that she was jobless after the advertising company she worked for folded up. She could have opted for another full-time job when the idea struck her to revive Consumer Options, a company she had registered earlier during her stint at an international research firm.
“Consumer Options was registered long before we knew what we really wanted with the company. We were researchers and we knew we did want to do research. I am not sure that is enough motivation to start a company but we knew we could do the same things for ourselves as the company we worked for.”
In 2004, the pan-African market and social research company began operations in Kenya. For the last 16 years, it has weathered many storms and found its rightful place among similar firms in the region. Jael shares the journey that has led her here.
Congratulations on your new baby. What is it like juggling motherhood and business?
Thank you. My baby is five-months-old now. I do both. I have devoted some amount of time entirely to my baby and to work. The programme obviously allows for flexibility so I can respond to whatever crisis crops up in any area. And I do not hesitate to ask for help with the baby when I need it.
You have built an impressive regional business. How did all begin?
After my employer closed shop, I had the option of looking for another job but I didn’t. My mother also offered to assist me study in the UK, but again, I never took that offer. I felt I wanted to work for myself and that is how I plunged into consultancy.
Consumer Options had a humble beginning. My co-founder and I started doing market research for other firms from my house. From here, we could conduct meetings and strategise. In business, always start with what you have and be flexible. It wasn’t easy though. Many voices told me to get a job instead.
Well, my mother actually thought entrepreneurship was not the way to go for me then and wanted me to get a “proper job” and hopefully go into business much later. Many others thought I lacked the expertise to run a business but I knew that I couldn’t fail if I hadn’t tried. Better to try and fail than not try at all.
What did you do for capital?
We had the vision but no resources to see it through. So I determined what I had to put in and used personal savings from my employment income. This required that I cut back on non-essentials. For example, I had to cut down on travels thus bringing down the amount of money I spent on fuel. I also cut back on social life such as spending money in restaurants and other leisure activities. Eventually, I had enough to start.
Reality is though you will never have enough resources when starting. Financial institutions are not all that business-friendly. They still need collateral like title deeds from someone starting out in business so that he can eventually buy land! In addition, if government, which is the biggest spender does not pay contractors on time, then the rest of economy suffers since nobody wants to spend when there is no revenue coming in.
Was getting into consultancy business back then easier than it is now?
To an extent, yes, since there were few local companies, perhaps two or so, in this particular field of market consultancy and research. We correctly identified a big gap and moved in to fill it. In fact, our first jobs came from previous contacts in my former employment.
This taught me the importance of never burning bridges as you may not know when you will need them again. Relationships you create are very important. Also, I embarked on aggressive selling, or what I call hardcore marketing. I was not shy of telling all who would listen about the kind of work I do. This coupled with positive customer sentiments resulted in growth and retention of the customer base.
How have your relationships helped?
Strategic partnerships help build up a business. In my line of work, never try to be a Jack of all trades. You will always find that in a project, your input may be 60 per cent while the other 40 per cent has to come from another strategic partner who inputs certain skills that help you achieve your objective. So again, don’t burn your bridges.
What could you say was the biggest business mistake you ever made?
At one time I didn’t take a particular potential client too seriously. I misjudged him before the deal could go through and I lost some good revenue.
Everyone in town is a consultant now. How do you stay relevant?
Business competition will always be here and it is healthy. Unfortunately, there are too many briefcase consultants that distort the market. However, I like to be known more for the type of quality service that I give. People should know you for being consistent. Then they will never look elsewhere.
How is your business dealing with the coronavirus pandemic?
Nobody in business is immune to such shocks. You accept and adjust to the circumstances. When your core business is low, always think of what you can do in the changing circumstances. Personally, I try to make strategic decisions drawn from research and past experience to influence change and deliver growth. Sadly, some circumstances such as the current Covid-19 can be trying since a number of clients we rely on have closed.
How have you empowered fellow entrepreneurs to build similar resilient businesses?
I have been involved in women’s empowerment in the past years by mentoring women entrepreneurs through a startup organization known as mentor match (MeMa). I was instrumental in the development and creation of DADA a product targeted towards female entrepreneurs by Stanbic Bank and supported by the International Finance Corporation. I am also a trainer and influencer at Kayana, a community of female entrepreneurs who wish to move their businesses from idea stage to start ups. Prepare to give and you will last long in business.
When is it the right time for one to diversify into another area of growth?
There is no specific time-frame that fits all. It will depend on how stretchable a business is and a willingness by the owner to explore. If you are an avid risk taker and got the requisite capital, then by all means diversify.
Your greatest lesson in 16 years of business?
One big one. That my business is as strong as the relationships I build. And if I was to tell bright eyed youngsters eyeing entrepreneurship anything, it is that they should build their networks well and to think carefully about any potential partnership. To make sure that partnerships brings diversity and drives the shared business vision.