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I left employment for art and it paid off

By Caroline Okello | April 13th 2021
James Kimathi aka Jay Sketch Masta at his studio in Westlands, Nairobi. April 12, 2012. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Frustrated with low and late payment working as a graphic designer at a publishing firm, James Kimathi quit employment in 2014 and set up an art studio in Kasarani.

The 37-year-old painter states that he felt more at home doing art, but at the same time he nursed ambitions of training people who had talent and wanted to refine their craft.

Coincidentally, he was an active user of social media where he showcased his art and started receiving requests for training.

In 2016 he opened Sketchmasta School of Art, enrolling about 20 students in his first year of operation. Today Kimathi has trained over 500 art students and recently opened a new campus in Westlands. He opens up about how he did it.

James Kimathi aka Jay Sketch Masta trains one of his students at his studio in Westlands, Nairobi. April 12, 2012. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

What financial preparations did you make before opening an art school?

I saved Sh100,000 as capital while running my art studio where I also operated the school from when I first started. I started with two students and later got two more. The studio was in the back room of a barbershop. When the barber moved out I took up the whole space and as time went by I expanded to an adjacent room.

How did you approach pricing your services?

I did research on what small art colleges were charging. Fees ranged between Sh10,000 and Sh20,000 for a three-month course. I settled for Sh15,000 as that cost would allow me to settle bills, pay for marketing and make some profit.

As business started picking up, I expanded and got an extra room. With a bigger space came more expenses. Fees increased to Sh22,500, and later Sh32,500. This is still what we charge in Kasarani campus. In Westlands campus, fees range from Sh65,000 to Sh80,000, for a three-month course.

Courses include pencil work, charcoal work, and painting. We enrol students from four years of age and there’s no upper age limit. The reason we’ve kept the fee at around half price is because it’s our mentorship base where we offer half scholarships to underprivileged students. This CSR effort is a cause close to my art because I believe learning art can be a way for the youth to be self-reliant.

James Kimathi aka Jay Sketch Masta at his studio in Westlands, Nairobi. April 12, 2012. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

What challenges did you experience when you first started and what lessons came out of them?

Sometimes students couldn’t pay fees in full and I’d have to pay rent out of pocket using earnings from my art pieces. Sometimes I’d get two students then go a few months without students. This was tied to weak marketing. I did research on how to run a school as a sustainable business but what you read and what you experience are usually different. I learnt that enquiries don’t always translate to enrolment.

Out of hundreds of enquiries you can get two students only. I also wish someone would have told me that the money that comes in is not mine to spend--at least not at first anyway. I started paying myself in the middle of my second year running. All the revenue needs to go to meeting business obligations such as paying teachers, rent and taxes. I learnt that every shilling must be accounted for and keeping records is key.

This is where I learnt the importance of tapping into the expertise of others who are more knowledgeable in the areas in which you’re experiencing challenges. Towards the end of my first year I hired consultants in human resource management, business strategy, digital marketing and accounts management to help me with my problem areas.  

What influenced your decision to open a new campus, and what challenges did you anticipate?

So many students requested for a much more central location as Kasarani was too far for them. And they were right. In January this year we opened a campus in Westlands. The biggest challenge we’ve faced is capital – we ended up needing more than we’d initially planned on, and that is largely due to the pandemic. To meet that challenge, I sought partnership with my friend James Kimani.

I’ve known him for a long while; we’ve worked on projects together and share the same goal. He runs the graphic design arm of the business. Having diverse sources of income has helped us stay afloat during this pandemic period. Now we plan to shore up our marketing and publicity efforts because we have a new target audience thanks to our new location. We’ve been working with consultants but now we want to hire fulltime staff. We also plan to introduce new courses.

What’s your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Have a plan. Don’t go in blindly. If you’re currently employed, don’t just quit your job. Save first and if possible start the business on the side, and once it starts picking up and you have enough money saved then you can quit your job. Also know that you’ll have to make sacrifices and forgo some pleasure for a while.

If you have any vices, give them up. I was dependent on alcohol and drugs, and I’ve been sober for 7 years now. To be your own boss, discipline is key. Before I got into business, I knew I had to quit.

Finally, be patient. There’s no certain date when a business should break even so a lot of patience is called for.  

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