Lilian Kanini Waithaka’s career was like the blossoming of cherry flowers in springtime. For eight years, she moved from one prestigious employer to the other. Her monthly paycheck grew in tandem with the steps she took on her career ladder.
The 35-year-old started off at Celtel, which is today known as Airtel, where she was employed for a year in 2006. Then she moved to the JKIA in 2007 where she worked for Swissport Kenya for two years. Her crowing moment came when she joined Qatar Airways in December 2008.
“Joining Qatar Airways was dream come true for me,” she says. “The job paid well, and the allowances were heartwarming.” Every month, Lilian would take home a basic salary of Sh. 150,000 in addition to transport and accommodation allowances.
Many of her peers thought that she was lucky and cut out for a trailblazing stay in employment. But Lilian had other thoughts. Despite running a career course that was the envy of many, Lilian felt that there was more in her that she could do. For a long time, she had dreamed of becoming self-employed.
“I carried this conviction that I could be more successful if I transitioned my energy from employment into a business. After all, if I was so good while working for someone else, how better could I get if I worked for myself!” she says.
Also, within her eight years in employment, she had made an attempt at entrepreneurship. “I had tried to open and run a clothing side hustle in 2010 in vain,” she says. Apparently, her job was so consuming that she became unable to juggle between it and the side business. My supervision at work was in constant demand. I could not juggle the two and in the end, I decided to let the budding business go.”
But by 2012, Lilian was convinced that she was ripe enough to start her own enterprise. She began to carry out market studies on what business venture she could place her money on. “I wanted to come up with a venture that would make me unique from other enterprises.” Eventually, she settled on a fashion line that would feature American brands for plus size women. “My mom has always been a plus size woman, and the way she dresses was a big influence in my choice of business,” says Lilian. “I also wanted to redefine the notion that beauty has size by providing solutions that plus women would go for and look elegant at a bargain.” Then she quit employment and returned to Kenya to launch her business which is known as Lyl Fashion. “I started with a startup capital of about Sh. 300,000 which I got as a loan from my Sacco.”
Interestingly, Lilian did not rent out space where she could sell her products from. Instead, she started off by combining online and car boot sales. “I was lucky enough to get started when online marketing was a bit new in Kenya. It was not too crowded and the response was good.” Lilian would market her products online and then deliver them to her customers on orders. This was not easy for her. “I had never driven on Kenyan roads before. I hardly knew how to get to some of the popular places such as Sarit Centre or Westlands where my customers were. The roads were too complicate to navigate and I would get lost for hours. But I am grateful that my customers were patient enough,” she says.
She nurtured customer trust and one referral led to another. Her customer base increased. Many of her clients began to prod her to open an outlet where they could visit her. “I felt that the business was growing. I needed a physical outlet.” A few months later, she settled in Nairobi CBD, and the reality of jumping from the comfort of a high-flying career into entrepreneurship began to sink in. “The first year was particularly tough. When I got a shop, business, customer frequency, and revenue turnover did not turn out the way I had expected. I had big expenses. Rent was especially very difficult for me to keep up with.” Lilian says that she nearly gave up. “As the tough got tougher, I contemplated going back to Qatar Airways where I could progress my career without breaking the kind of sweat I was shedding. But my sister and husband kept on encouraging me to hang in there.”
Today, Lilian says she is glad she held on to her business. In fact, looking back, Lilian says that she has no regrets for taking her bold step into entrepreneurship. “I held on and the business began to improve. A few months down the line, it stabilized and I opened a second branch in Hurlingham, Nairobi,” she says. Although her journey in entrepreneurship has been largely profitable so far, Lilian says that there are times when she has incurred heavy losses. She singles out the turbulent post-election period last year when general economic growth across the country grinded down. “Everything was very slow. Products hardly moved. People complained that they did not have money. The business ran into big losses, but we kept going and now we are on our feet again,” she says.
Lilian says that she expects there will be more challenges along the way. She sees the growth of her business becoming synonymous with challenges. “Every business worth its name is built through meeting challenges and providing solutions both to itself and its target clients. My business cannot be any different. For example, the current dollar exchange rate is quite a problem for our transactions,” she says. In the next five years, Lilian expects that she will have ventured out to new markets in Mombasa, Kisumu, and outside Kenya.
Lilian’s four takeaways
- Be prepared to cope with teething problems. No matter how well prepared you will be when starting a new venture, you will face teething problems. If not well solved, they could put your venture asunder.
- Losses and profits are part of the game. Don’t expect a streak of profits and zero losses. Your business will incur a loss at some point. How it recovers is what will determine its strength.
- Be courageous enough to venture out even if you are already doing well in your current career.
- You will never go wrong by starting a business that holds your passion. Nonetheless, it must make financial sense to be more than just a hobby.