After working full-time for an international research firm for 14 years, Maggie Ireri (pictured) was exhausted. She even vowed never to go back to the research field again. But as she was to learn, this was a vow that she couldn’t keep.
“I kept getting calls from various people asking me to do research for them and I kept referring the leads to other researchers,” says Ireri. But there was one call she couldn’t afford to refer to anyone else.
“The call was for a research job valued at Sh5 million.” And this would prompt her to form a company to handle this assignment. That is how TIFA Research, a company that does market research, social and opinion polling was born in 2015. We follow her journey and the important lessons learnt along the way.
You started on a high…
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Yes, but guess what, as fate would have it, I did not win such a hefty contract again for the next 18 months. It was my first learning curve in the business, something I found out is a common experience for many start-ups. The first contract may be lucrative but the business must weather the storms for a couple of years before breaking into the clouds.
Were there gaps in the market that TIFA sought to fill?
I came to learn that some companies are hesitant to work with large market research firms because their services are impersonal. They feel that executives in large firms are too busy with other clients to give their work attention. Smaller agencies like TIFA can ensure that clients get full attention, from the CEO to the research assistant. In addition, there has been a move by the development sector to spread their budgets between large multinationals and emerging local companies. This is a great way to empower local research agencies.
Did it feel like a foolhardy move to get into a field where your former employer is king as one of the world’s largest market research firms?
Thing is, as the CEO of a global market research firm, I was responsible for all the management and financial decisions in Kenya. I worked there for 14 years. I had run the race, fought the good fight and finished well. I thought to myself, ‘if I can do this successfully for this company, why not do it for myself?’ And that is how I moved on.
How did you prepare to transition out of employment into entrepreneurship?
I had read a book that recommended that before quitting a job for business, one needs to learn to diversify their corporate experience. So, I intentionally worked in various roles including setting up offices across Africa, and other general management roles that allowed me to become an all-rounded person. In Ghana, I rolled up my sleeves and supported the business in debt collection. In Nigeria, I set up the business by sourcing for offices, furniture, conducted staff interviews and did some pitches – all in two weeks! Once I got diverse experience, I was ready to exit. As I mentioned earlier, quit and try your hand in business when you have steady passive income. If you quit your job without passive income, you will be very stressed if the company does not do well. Bear in mind that it takes two to three years for a business to stabilise.
What financial advice would you give to those in employment?
To have active and passive income streams. The former is either from employment or running a business. The active income is the daily hustle. Passive income requires little or no effort to earn and maintain. This includes rental income, shares, bonds, treasury bills and bonds. Passive income allows you to have steady income flows, and is futuristic. I would recommend that one starts small by saving a percentage of their salary in cycles of six months and then invest them in passive income. After about five years, they will have accumulated. There is a board game called Cash Flow Quadrant that teaches you these principles. Anyone who wishes to understand the investment dynamics needs to play this game.
What were your key overheads when starting out?
My overheads were low. I was operating from a serviced office so there was no furniture to purchase. I also worked with consultants meaning I did not have staff overheads. I factored in all my costs in the research projects I bid for. Over time, I made enough money to hire staff on a full-time basis.
Who is your regular clientele?
My clients are mainly in the development sector – NGOs and donors as well as the private sector firms in diverse segments such as manufacturing and telecommunication.
You also volunteer quite a bit. Does that play into creating a personal brand?
Volunteering means putting yourself out in the community and meeting new people who strengthen your network. The more people see you, the more they will think about you for various business, or personal interactions. I have volunteered in many platforms including Rotary Club, Marketing Society of Kenya, as a judge for industry awards such as Public Relations Society of Kenya (PRSK) and most recently as a webinar panelist on topical issues. Through these platforms, I have made great business contacts, mentors and friends. The trick is to volunteer in forums where you are likely to meet people who can add value to your professional or business life.
What is the importance of mentorship in business?
Before I set up the business, I spent a lot of time with two of my mentors. They had set up a new business way ahead of me, and their mentorship was invaluable. Since then, I have expanded my network, and have two other friends whom I am in touch with at least twice in a week. These are my sounding boards and my ‘informal’ board members.
What is the best business advice you ever got?
Keep your overheads low and cost your services properly.
New businesses fail because….
They lack a sound business plan, or where one exists, there is poor follow-through. Others expand too quickly, a move that requires credit financing or a small business loan. This can backfire if the market changes or you hit a rough business patch. A new business that fails to achieve regular sales is also headed for trouble. Then there is over-reliance on one large customer. Again, if this customer stops giving you business, it can be a big blow to your venture.
When hiring, do you focus on papers or experience?
Personally, the minimum qualification to look for is a college degree. After that, I look at the personality – whether the person has the “X” factor – a combination of passion, confidence and an urgent desire to succeed. If they have these, I would consider them for hire.
When do you plan to retire?
I want to retire at the age of 55. Okay, by retiring, I mean working from 9am to 1pm. You cannot quit and just stay idly at home.