Chris Bitti is the quintessential digital guru. As the founder and CEO of Digital Brands Agency, Chris is the man corporates run to when they need finesse. As a brand positioning expert, he gives companies a new outlook on use of the digital space to help maximise their potential. The Cameroonian is famed for rebranding Citizen TV (Kenya) and digitising Safaricom’s annual reports. He has also worked with Coca-Cola, KTN, Airtel and many NGOs that require his services to optimise their influence on the digital space. With a solid reach in South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda, Ghana, Congo, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, he has come a long way in the business world.
Where did your journey begin?
My journey began in Cameroon. After high school, I realised that I needed to make some money. I began by selling juice and after some research, started making my own. It was some pretty good juice and I became known for it (laughs). Even my mother wondered why I was selling juice, but now they know it was my entrepreneurial side developing. I joined a two-year university programme before I travelled to South Africa for further studies. I was a bit late on the academic year and so I decided to embark on something technical before enrolling in university. I trained on branding and design. When I joined university, I took computer science and artificial intelligence. I was already getting jobs (for branding and design) from the lecturers even before I finished school. I also did some work for small companies.
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Was business a soft landing for you?
Not at all. In second year of university, my father died. I had to now pay for all my expenses, so I had to do serious business. So, with a couple of friends, we started making websites. I was doing so well soon that one of my lecturers wanted me to go with him to Australia to harness the opportunities there. But I believed in the opportunities in South Africa. So I stayed.
With all the Xenophobia reports in South Africa, what was your experience?
Every time companies gave me jobs, they reminded me they were doing me a favour because I was a foreigner; almost as if It was not merited. But, look, I’ve been a foreigner most of my life, at least since I left Cameroon. But I was there for over 12 years and I gave it my best.
Why did you move to Kenya?
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Business was doing well in the south. We had started doing strategic building and were making inroads. We were getting big contracts with the government. I had a friend in Kenya who had known me since I started my business. We met in South Africa on his visit and seeing my growth, he lured me to Kenya in 2008, telling me of the opportunities to be exploited here. I had been in Kenya in 2001 and decided that since South Africa was already really advanced, Kenya was the place to kick things off and create a disruption. Plus my friend had ready clients that we served from the off.
Was Kenya all you had hoped for?
I always say that if you survive doing business in Nairobi for 10 years, scratch that, five; then you could survive anywhere (laughs). The business environment here largely lacks ethics, integrity. You could hire a guy today, you empower him and give him exposure and tomorrow he takes off with your clients. In Kenya, goodwill is very little. People will hit you without minding where you end up if that will put food on the table for them. Kenya is a country of deals. But Kenya has a lot of opportunities and very skilled people. People are also very competitive here.
Do you regret the move?
No way. Kenya has been a wonderful business place. I have learnt valuable lessons. I have grown my brand. I have worked with many companies, big and small. And I have made priceless networks. Nairobi is my favourite city; it grooms the best.
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What is your proudest moment starting up?
As a young man, I once appeared before a board to make a pitch in South Africa. I was stiff scared, but Peter Matlare, a CEO who was the chair of the board, spoke to me in French urging me to calm down. I relaxed a bit and after my presentation, everyone was clapping for me. I felt so energised and ready to reach the skies. It was a humbling moment, and one that motivated me greatly. My pitch was accepted and the project kicked off.
Later, I appeared on television, getting congratulated for the success of the project. This gave me business confidence, which is very crucial.
What is the biggest mistake you have made as an entrepreneur?
I think this has to be bringing in business partners who do not have the same purpose as mine. Some of these partners I didn’t need. I once had a disagreement with partners and I decided to walk away from my own company. But they could not survive without my services so they called me back and we had to reach an agreement. Situations such as being cash-strapped may lead you into partnerships that are not worthwhile, as you seek stability. Every party in a partnership should bring in value to the business. But I am now very wary of partnerships.
Encountered rogue clients who won’t pay?
Certainly. I have worked with some big entities that defaulted on payment here in Kenya. But I could not sue them because they could be future clients or partners. I had to pay my staff from my pocket, which was a huge drawback. I had to start from almost zero, again.
What next for you?
I am at only 20 per cent now; my big break is yet to come. I will keep on going. I am repositioning everything into a consulting business. I have noted that brand strategy heavily impacts actual corporate strategy. We’ll become business advisers, and I intend to train companies on building internal teams and digital thinking. They must not use agencies; they can craft a team internally.
CHRIS’ TOP TIPS FOR BUSINESS SUCCESS
What Covid-19 period should teach an entrepreneur:
1. One is better off having multiple small businesses than one huge business. Diversification is helping many entrepreneurs.
2. No company is bulletproof; even the mightiest collapse.
3. Stay lean. The need to have many employees and big working spaces has also been revealed to be an ego-driven shot at vanity. Fewer employees, less room, fewer overheads. Get me?
4. Working remotely is feasible. Now people probably realise that you don’t have to be there physically to perform. Which is a good thing.
5. It is time to use digital platforms to position your brand!
The one value that will maintain your business...
Integrity. Creating a name for yourself and fighting hard to protect its reputation is something I do. Integrity is everything and business ethics are paramount. Your skills and consistency of the quality you offer, keeps you relevant. You also have to adapt fast. Things change rapidly in business.
The biggest mistakes new entrepreneurs make…
1. Expecting that business is a smooth ride and that you will make it the very next day after starting. I hear many young business owners talking about depression when things don’t go well for them. In South Africa, at some point, my roommate and I did not have food, making just enough to survive. But we carried on, because business requires the heart of a lion. You are allowed to have a bad day. But that should not crush you.
2. Living a lie. Why wear expensively to show the world you are doing well while you barely afford basic wants? Don’t live for others.
Best business advice I would give is…
You have to be agile. You see, Nairobi is a place where you start something and the very next day, everyone else has copied your brand and are doing the exact same thing. Competition is very high. People could do anything for survival. In an era where social media has given relevance to some people who don’t deserve it, take advantage. Position your brand where it can be seen and felt. Covid-19 should wake people up to leveraging on social media to create and position their profiles.