As a young child, Helen Njoroge was keenly aware of how she did not want her life to turn out. Her father, a military man, didn’t beat around the bush when encouraging his children to work hard for what they expected to achieve and painted a vivid picture of what would happen if they didn’t improve their school grades.
“I am extremely grateful for how I was raised as it contributed a lot to the person I am today. Seeing so much of it around me, I was afraid of poverty very early on. Actually, I still am; it’s what motivates me. When I think about not being able to provide for myself and my family, it pushes me to work harder towards a better future.”
Sometimes a little fear isn’t bad, especially when you’re an entrepreneur.
Helen made the list of Kenya’s “Top 40 Under 40 Women” for her business acumen and success in establishing a startup that highlights procurement opportunities for small businesses in her country.
Two years back, while working as the Executive Officer of the Federation of Women Entrepreneur Associations, the then 26-year-old Helen was bouncing business ideas off her friend, Peryl Adudans, something the pair loved to do over coffee. One in particular seemed promising.In order to empower a previously disadvantaged demographic and address unemployment, since 2013 the Government of Kenya had been reserving 30% of all contracts for women, youth and persons with disabilities, amounting to billions in Kenyan shillings. On the lookout for opportunities herself, Helen had been noticing how much money she’d been spending in tracking down information.
“I carry the brand of the business. So if the business looks bad, I look bad. If our systems are inefficient, then I look inefficient. If our work quality is poor, then the same shows for me.”
“Procurement opportunities were primarily announced in the local daily newspapers. We have two major newspapers in Kenya so I was spending around $1.20 on a daily basis to buy the papers. This translates to about $30 a month or $375 annually. That’s not an insignificant sum of money, especially for the so-called disadvantaged population. So I thought why not launch an online platform providing information on all procurement opportunities in one place for a lower cost?” she explains.
Peryl thought it was a great idea and wanted in. Together they raised about $2,000 from personal savings to establish Tenders Kenya, an online platform for the procurement of goods and services.
The duo began with public sector opportunities but quickly expanded to private sector ones too. In addition to targeting disadvantaged groups, it made sense to post calls open to all businesses, ranging from tenders and requests for proposals and expressions of interest to pre-qualifications and consultancies.
The economic model of Tenders Kenya is straightforward. Over 10,000 subscribers pay an annual subscription fee of $20 to access the platform and receive email alerts, but the means to generate income wasn’t so clear cut from the start.
“We were lucky enough to break even in less than a year and started earning from the business shortly thereafter, but it was a matter of trial and error in the beginning. We made some wrong assumptions in terms of revenue streams, anticipating earnings from selling website advertising space. When we realised this wasn’t working, we pivoted and changed the business model,” Helen recalls, adding with retrospection, “As a startup, some outcomes are not anticipated so it’s really important to have a mentor who can go over your business plan and assist in the thought process from the very beginning.”
In terms of her success, Helen credits herself with being highly disciplined but readily admits she can be somewhat hard on herself and others, holding them to her own high expectations. But in fairness, she has her reasons.
“I carry the brand of the business. So if the business looks bad, I look bad. If our systems are inefficient, then I look inefficient. If our work quality is poor, then the same shows for me. But I’ve learned my business is not an island and that I need to be more collaborative to make it prosper. Knowing how to manage these relationships especially with key suppliers and your staff is very important,” she acknowledges.
Helen also emphasizes the importance of good financial planning. She pre-plans for expenses and saves up for reoccurring ones a couple of months in advance.
“For both business and personal reasons, I like to set aside money for precautionary measures. I have a daily journal of expenses, which I analyze at the end of the month just to see the trends on how I spend my money. If I can see a pattern, I’ll be able to plan ahead better.”
Although the Tenders Kenya team is small, with two directors, two permanent staff and two contractors, Helen and Peryl are working on an expansion plan. Their goal is to replicate the model across the continent within five years. How do they plan to achieve such an ambitious target? Helen believes the secret sauce is in building relationships.
“I network as much as possible, but I’ve learned networking is a two-way street. I try to be generous with my time and other resources as this allows me to learn new things and meet new people. It also leads to unexpected opportunities.
“At the end of the day, business is all about relationships. Friends have in more ways than one given me sound advice on how to improve the platform and even opened doors for me to go places I wouldn’t have dared go,” she says, adding with laugh, “I really believe friendship is the greatest form of corruption.”
So clearly Jane Austin got it all wrong when she said, “Business may bring money, but friendship hardly ever does.”
- Variety is the very spice of life. We are all different and consequently perceive things differently. If your ideas conflict with those of others, take the time to listen because you might learn something refreshing and resourceful.
- Always invest back into the business.
- Interact with your clients and ask for feedback on how best to improve your offering. By listening to customers, you can gain insights on how to diversify your business.