Every week as SmallBizLady, I conduct interviews with experts on my Twitter talk show #SmallBizChat. The show takes place every Wednesday on Twitter from 8-9 pm ET. This is excerpted from my recent interview with Muthoni Maingi, @NonieMG. Muthoni started Deviate, her own Brand Strategy and Management agency at 24, after working for five years in TV, entertainment & other design and brand agencies. Since then, she has also recently launched her clothing and is determined to place her country & continent on the global business map. She is also an internet technology enthusiast & foodie. Muthoni has been featured in numerous publications such as CIO Kenya, Standard Newspaper and Afroelle in the capacity of a business leader to look out for. She has also given a talk at the United States International University.
SmallBizLady: What do you think of the African business landscape right now and what are your thoughts on its future?
Muthoni Maingi: I believe that we should look at African countries individually, as opposed to grouping them all together. For example, in terms of infrastructure, many African countries are not the same. However, as far as the entire continent is concerned, I believe that there is a lot of room for improvement, although this is already underway in many African states.
SmallBizLady: What areas of improvement do you see on the continent and where is more work needed?
Muthoni Maingi: I think that a lot has improved in terms of legislation and infrastructure. Take for example Kenya, which has seen massive change in terms of communication infrastructure and which is reaping the rewards of this through ICT innovations and entrepreneurship. However, there are areas where this can be improved with more government involvement to reduce the digital divide and the implementation of a broadband policy.
SmallBizLady: Have any of these changes helped women, specifically young women to set up & run businesses?
Muthoni Maingi: Yes, the improvements in the technological and legislative landscape for example really assisted me by the time I started my own business. I relied on Google Sites for a website as I could not afford one at the time. I also purchased a mobile phone that had a number similar to that of a land-line. In Kenya, many do not take you seriously as a company if you don’t have a land-line. As for legislative changes, when my mother was my age she would not have been allowed to open a bank account without her husband’s or father’s permission. By the time I was starting Deviate, this law had changed.
SmallBizLady: What more do you think could be done to encourage young women to start their own businesses?
Muthoni Maingi: I believe that young women need training in soft skills as with regards to business. I find that in many situations men are still overwhelmingly better negotiators and are more assertive with what they need. I also think that there should be a stronger mentorship network, an informal one similar to ‘old boy’ networks where young women can interact with older and more experienced female entrepreneurs.
SmallBizLady: What challenges do you face as a young business owner?
Muthoni Maingi: I think one of the biggest challenges I face is the idea that Gen Y’s are fickle with commitment, easily bored and entitled. This perception, in the initial stages of my business was quite challenging to over-ride as I often pitch to people from an older age group.
SmallBizLady: What did you do to prove that you were different?
Muthoni Maingi: I had to demonstrate a willingness to stick to my word and my business. As my company portfolio grew, people began to take me more seriously. I also have to admit that I did change my lifestyle, avoiding too many club scenes and parties. However, this did not reduce my quality of life, as a business has a way of enriching it even more as time goes by.
SmallBizLady: Do any clients approach you specifically because you are young?
Muthoni Maingi: None have openly said this to me, but I think that as I now have a working portfolio some may feel I bring a youthful/fresh energy and dynamic to a project.
SmallBizLady: How did you overcome the various business and personal challenges that have come with running your small business?
Muthoni Maingi: I have come close to giving up on this lifestyle that I chose and love so many times! At some point it begins to feel like a typical relationship with its ups and downs. But just like a relationship, if the partner you have is great and you put work and dedication into it, it eventually works out and becomes stronger.
I’ve also had to learn to be my biggest cheerleader and also to forgive myself and allow an attitude of constant learning as opposed to being overly critical of myself if something goes wrong and feeling like I ‘know it all’ at the same time when it goes right.
SmallBizLady: How can one better anticipate business challenges and brace themselves in a smart way?
Muthoni Maingi: Save. Save. And Save Some More. It’s shocking how much money is sometimes needed to push you through a rough business patch, especially if you have rent, salaries and all manner of bills to pay.
Also cultivate relationships with your clientele – the good kind, where you can anticipate solutions to their problems and bill them for that. Repeat business makes for good profits as well as cross selling. Nurture this ability in yourself.
SmallBizLady: What tools can business owners use to cultivate relationships and expand their brand footprint?
Muthoni Maingi: Blogging, newsletters and social media are amazing tools if used correctly to allow people to see your spirit, passion and some of your expertise.
SmallBizLady: How did you determine your target audience and how do you reach them?
Muthoni Maingi: I always knew I wanted to start and run my own agency. After working at two and observing others, I realized they were not set up to assist growing business and SMEs in their brand journey. Instead they focused on landing business from larger clients. I started Deviate to specifically target growing businesses and SMEs. Initially I relied on the contacts I had made while working to get clients, but as the company’s reputation grew, business increasingly started coming in from referrals. Currently, I keep the company news fresh by updating my networks with newsletters and tweets.
SmallBizLady: What business goal have you set for yourself this year?
Muthoni Maingi: I intend on making profits for Deviate. At least 30% increase by the end of the year. As of the end of 2012 the company had only broken even and I am determined to push it forward.
For more tips on how start or grow your small business subscribe to Melinda Emerson’s blog http://www.succeedasyourownboss.com.