How four friends built a thriving creative firm

Tessera executive directors Joanna Gow (left) and Stella Mwachi. [File, Standard]

For Tessera, a communications agency, the business story began with four friends sipping wine on a cruise ship in Greece.

This was in 2014 during a girl’s getaway trip.

The stage had been set in 1994 when the four young women - Joanna, Stella, Maxi and Nora - met at the university and struck a lifelong friendship.

It’s said that the easiest way to start a business enterprise is with friends or family but it’s also the easiest way to end a friendship.

However, the story of Tessera’s four founders might be the antidote to “friends and business don’t mix.”

Enterprise spoke to the agency’s two executive directors Joanna Gow (managing director) and Stella Mwachi (Finance and administration director) involved in the business’s daily operations.

Tessera was actualised in 2017 – three years later – only after meticulous planning and establishing clear rules and roles in the business.

Great business ideas solve problems. And there was a gap they saw in the market. Their agency aimed to champion women in business and also revamp Kenya’s branding scene which was heavily commercialised.

Joanna, a career brand strategist, had worked for big agencies which she describes as shark tanks and driven by the obsession to sell products and services.

 “I felt like they didn’t really care about their clients. It was always a question about what’s the bottom line, whereas I come from an environment of immersing myself deeply into a client,” she says.

She had long been contemplating a solo business venture. The annual holiday trip offered a perfect opportunity to pitch to the girls who also wanted to see a change in their areas of work.

Their story is about numbers with the number four featuring highly. From the time they met, to the year they came up with the business idea, Joanna got married in 2004. Ms Stella was having four nieces at the time.

The brand strategist in Joanna, who has Greek roots, went to work to come up with a brand logo.

The number four in Greek is Tessera which is the English translation as they couldn’t register the Greek symbols. But the brand logo has the original Greek symbols.

Interestingly, this is how all their roles fell into place in the business.

Every business has a hierarchy. This was a fact that the four founders perfectly understood even though they were equal as shareholders in the business. 

“What we said is that right from the beginning, each of us has their established roles and we have to respect them and have worked long enough to know and respect for roles within any company,” says Stella.

Tessera finance and administration director Stella Mwachi. [File, Standard]

Business workshops

Naturally, Joanna was the leader as she was well versed in what it takes to run a communications agency.

They also attended business workshops and drew lessons from similar business models as theirs and what structures they needed to establish.

 “We had worked many years, we were mature enough to understand if Joanna is the managing director and she admonishes me in that capacity. I’m not going to catch feelings because she’s my friend and understands this is a job,” adds Stella.

“Tessera must excel, that’s the role that we are all vested in.”

They hold regular meetings to evaluate the business and their friendship has helped inject transparency into their operations.

After the meetings, the executive directors then sit with the leads of every department to relay their vision.

There are also boundaries. For example, when they are out for lunch as friends, they don’t discuss business. A burning issue waits till they are back in the office.

Their strength, observes Stella, is also drawn from their different personalities and viewpoints. For example, she is good with money matters owing to her corporate finance background while Joanna isn’t and is more of a manager.

“We balance each other out in that aspect. Maybe for some people that might have been the conflict but because we are different, the arguments or differences in opinion are fact-based and not about you as a person,” says Stella.

To fund the business, they each put in an equal amount. They also got a boost from a loan from a business partner.

They didn’t need massive funding in the beginning. It was first about strategy and ideas.

They did a business plan and examined all angles for the first three years. Tessera began with one office and already knew, for example, how much money they needed for rent for a whole year.

“By the time we were opening, we knew that even if in the first 18 to 24 months we didn’t make a single shilling, at least the business would happen. It was not a one-day plan,” says Joanna.

After five years in business and impacting the market, Tessera is now pivoting into a fully-fledged integrated agency.

The company is looking to grow its digital team, excel in strategy and also strengthen its creative team.

When going to pitch to a client, they would partner with different smaller and less established agencies such as public relations firms and pitch as a consortium.

The aim was to tell brand stories well and enable firms to boost their customer base and revenues. The agency does brand strategy, creative design and corporate collateral and social media and event management, among others.

Having worked in big agencies, she observed that a lot of what’s being done in the market is extremely commercial and aggressive selling of products and services.

This was by big multinationals built outside Kenya. Tessera wanted to change this and had targeted to work with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) who didn’t realise the importance of brand value.

“What we saw in the market is that not a lot of agencies push brand strategy… Even up to now, people don’t understand what it is but it’s about growing your story, your tone, personality and getting into the heart of the customer as a brand. A customer can easily pick your product without being able to explain why. We saw a gap, especially for SMEs,” says Joanna.

The business was tough when they were starting with the market having its dominant players. Having worked in advertising and communications agencies, one of their policies was to never steal clients but only if they approached Tessera or asked them to bid for projects.

However, they did win some businesses purely on relationships.

“We used the relationships to get small jobs that helped us build a portfolio. That portfolio helped us pitch to other clients,” says Joanna.

Some of the popular campaigns they have been involved in include Safaricom’s repositioning and producing the Simple. Transparent. Honest. campaign. The firm does all the brand work for Safaricom - East Africa’s most profitable company.

Another campaign was The Girl Generation: ‘Together to End FGM’ which ran across eight African countries with Tessera being the lead agency.

They’ve also worked with Pfizer, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. 

But it hasn’t always been rosy for the business. There are challenges which mainly emanate from external forces.

Tessera managing director Joanna Gow. [File, Standard]

Stella notes they started the business in a year that saw prolonged electioneering. “Everyone was holding back money but because we had a two-year plan, it allowed us to ride that window,” she says.

Their growth is organic and there’s no heavy borrowing.

“Our organic growth made sure that even in the years when things were good, we set policies and funds aside that would tide us through the tough times. Covid-19 was a difficult window but we’re proud to say we didn’t lay off staff.”

The pandemic slowed down their growth plans but things are picking up again. Tessera now has a team of 16 and hopes to be 20 by the end of the year.

Being founded by women, 67 per cent of the staff are women. Another challenge which is rife in their industry is the high staff turnover.

Another challenge, notes Joanna, is mainly people related. Their industry has a high staff turnover rate. It might be common in agencies but it’s expensive, time-wasting and disruptive to clients.

The job involves working with creatives who can be complicated at times when their ideas aren’t listened to or concepts are forced onto them.

However, it helps to have various personalities in the business, especially during brainstorming sessions and they can properly panel beat a concept.

Another gem for business owners, says Stella, is learning to separate company and personal money. They pay themselves salaries and draw no other money from the company.

They went a whole year without a salary and pumped everything back into the business. So far, Tessera has done only one dividend payout for the shareholders but is now at a steady position and is looking to make it regular.

Tessera’s job involves dealing with emotions to grab consumers and it takes time to research and get into the mind of a Kenyan consumer. “What we do is a science... because you have to appeal to something you can’t touch... sell to you something intangible feel it but can’t touch it.”

Social media

The business is not always about charm. But how hard is it to convince Kenyans?

 “In the old days, it wasn’t so hard because there were no social media. What brands sent people is what stuck, that’s why you have every margarine called Blue band and detergent Omo because those were the people who could advertise and had the money.”

“Now, with social media, it’s a lot harder to convince you that a brand is good for you... reactions are instant people and many people don’t take time to understand a product,” says Joanna.

As they become a multi-agency in the next five years, Tessera wants to refocus on its commitment to working with SMEs, a business which slowed down when the big clients came.

On the money side, Stella says the goal is to maintain stability as they diversify and grow.

“It’s great to have the money from the clients but also what are we doing to protect ourselves and generate more revenue because we also have a responsibility to the people we employ to make sure that by the time they leave here, at least they’ve grown economically,” she says.