Segeni Ng’ethe is the CEO of MamaMikes, an online shop used by people living abroad who buy gifts for their families and friends in Kenya and Uganda. The 36-year-old easy-looking CEO always knew he had a passion for business. However, getting into one and growing it hasn’t been rosy. His has been a journey marred with both success and failure, all of which have provided valuable lessons. Segeni walks ESTHER KIRAGU through his life and journey in pursuit of success.

Segeni Ng’ethe is easy going and quite jovial. He laughs and smiles easily and I think to myself that this could be the secret to his resilience. Soon we exchange pleasantries and enjoy a cold drink as our conversation drifts to traffic in Nairobi and the unpredictable weather before settling down for the interview.

‘My parents have been the bedrock for me and my three siblings,” says Segeni, the first born among three.

He went to Nairobi’s Hospital Hill Primary School and thereafter Alliance High School for his secondary education and as soon as he completed in 1994, plans were underway for him to go to the US.

“My parents and their siblings were pioneers who went abroad to study before Independence. And so growing up, my siblings and I knew the standards were high. Whenever I visited my grandmother, she persistently asked me when I was going to the US to read?” he says amidst a chuckle.

Segeni grew up on a farm in Limuru where the family bred cattle for milk.  He recalls as a teenager helping his parents identify customers who would buy milk at a better price, and organise for the delivery. Unaware at the time, this was the beginning of his love for business.

In addition, his parents were self-employed for the better part of his growing up. His mother a doctor with her own practice in Nairobi and his father a retired diplomat and now farmer both inspired Segeni’s thinking to one day run his own business.

In 1995, he left for the US at barely 18 years of age to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He says the exposure he got at Alliance came in handy in a foreign country. His new found peers and their ways of doing things were very different from what he was used to. He was aware that this was an opportunity to shape his life.

A business idea is grown…

His degree programme was to take four years but Segeni’s ambition and curiosity for business ventures saw him take a one-year break from studies. “At the time I felt that the campus years were too slow and I was burning with ambition to get into business. Internet had just come of age, it was the new fuss, I was fascinated and wanted to know as much as I could.  I learnt how to set up a website and an idea popped in my mind” he says.

Segeni used his website to market various activities happening in the campus to students. Somehow he believed this idea would generate into a business although he didn’t really know how. With time he encountered challenges since he didn’t understand the market very well.

“I didn’t know who was holding what events, where and when, and yet I needed this information for the business to work. I was just a techie (an expert in technology) with a business idea but no networks,” says Segeni.

He says this failed first attempt at business taught him a valuable lesson – patience.  Segeni returned to his studies and this time completed and graduated in 2000.

 

Venturing into business…

“I was still fascinated with website development especially since I had created one with much ease. I got a job as a software programmer in a telecommunication company – Cable and Wireless – in the US. I worked there for three years, acquiring much needed growth and expertise. But I still had a burning desire to start my own business. I knew that although one often plans for his big break; at times you arrive at it without even knowing, and often there is never a really best time to do something,” he says.

In 2001, Segeni began MamaMikes – an online shop for where people buy gifts for their friends and families living in Kenya. With support from a friend, they gave Kenyans abroad a brand new service, one that allowed them to provide for their loved ones in a direct way. Living in the US, they could easily identify with the needs of Kenyans there. Some of the products they offer include flowers, cakes, chocolates and gift hampers.

He named the business MamaMikes out of the inspiration that with time people would identify and define his company’s name through her actions.

“When I began the business I played the role of both a techie and marketer. I had to make the website attractive to draw people’s attention, while at the same time pushing for sales. Playing the two roles was quite demanding and required merging my interest and love for technology with my passion for business,” he says.

Chasing his dream Segeni had the opportunity to enrol for a one-year fellowship programme in Social Entrepreneurship at the prestigious Stanford University in California. “My time at Stanford gave me a unique perspective on success, achieving it starts with one step,” he says.

Segeni returned to Kenya in 2005 to run the business full time.

 Then storms hit hard…

When he returned home, he had to adjust to Internet issues, which was then one of his biggest problems. The Internet was slow, expensive and mostly only accessible from cyber cafés. In addition, he had to look for office space to set up his business and getting space in town was difficult and expensive for his young business.

“Luckily, I had some savings which I used in the belief that soon the business would pick up and be self-sustaining,” says Segeni. He got office space at Kingsway’s House in Nairobi’s Muindi Bingu Street and found two computer scientists to work with him. The business picked up and soon he needed to expand. He acquired two other offices within the building.

Feeling that MamaMikes had now become stable, he decided to direct his attention into another business idea – Hapa TV. He invested in a DVD business that entailed video recording of events, music and people discussing topical issues, which he distributed for free to public transport systems with television screens, hoping to capture potential and willing advertisers to use this platform.

“I underestimated the cost and was to learn soon that without advertisers, my business was as good as dead. After a year and a half the business collapsed because content production was expensive and without advertisements it could not sustain itself,” he says.

Not one to give up easily, Segeni ventured into another business, Channel Safari that used online videos to market the Kenyan hospitality industry. He approached various hotels that embraced his idea and rolled out his new business early in 2007.

“Unfortunately, there was post election violence in December 2007, which dealt a huge blow to both the tourism and hospitality industry. With this, my business died a natural death. By then, MamaMikes was doing poorly since all my attention had been diverted to my now two failed business,” Segeni explains.

He also came across another hurdle. A new landlord bought the building where MamaMikes was located and without notice doubled the rent. ”Stressed out because of my failed businesses and an illegal hiked rent, I mobilised other tenants to take action. We got a court order and blocked the landlord from hiking rent” recalls Segeni.

He adds: “While doing this, I got an opportunity to interact with other tenants and learnt a valuable lesson – the need to love your neighbour. I was surprised that despite most of us having been tenants in the same building for five years, we were strangers to each other. Some of the tenants were in businesses that supplied products that I would go all the way across Nairobi streets to find. Furthermore, their products were better priced and there was no added transport cost.”

The new landlord got frustrated when she couldn’t get the money she expected from the premises and sold the building to someone else who eventually kicked out all the tenants amid claims of expansion. With his only surviving business MamaMikes doing very badly Segeni relocated to a small office within Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD) where he continued running the business despite low sales. He says the team, together with loyal customers, kept the business going despite tough times.

Fruits of success…

In 2010 MamaMikes relocated to The Business Center at Ngong Hills Hotel on Nairobi’s Ngong Road.

Today, a team of seven young dedicated people runs MamaMikes. The business is currently in the process of expanding and re-branding to accommodate a variety of gift items such as sculptors, jewelry, gift-baskets and eco-jiko (a wood burning energy saving stove) among other unique gift items from various suppliers. “This is a transition point for us and I feel the time is right to do local e-commerce as a way of re-inventing in order to remain relevant in the market,” says Segeni.

In 2012 MamaMikes was one of ten businesses that won a financial grant – Tandaa grant – of 4M from the Kenya government in conjunction with World Bank in support of successful small and medium enterprises (SMEs). “With this grant, we look to further expand and avail our services across major East African towns and hopefully see the results in the next one-year or so,” says a highly motivated Segeni.

Segeni says the excitement of venturing into an online business and making a success out of it keeps him going despite the hurdles. He hopes to make MamaMikes a renowned e-commerce shop and would like to be remembered as an optimistic thinker who made an impact. His company’s motto: Share Love, Spread Happiness – is something he strives to do daily in both his business and personal life.

On family…

Segeni says MamaMikes is a testament of strong family relationships across vast distances, since most of her customers are people who purchase gifts for their families as a gesture of love.

He is in a relationship with Ciru, a jazz artiste, popularly known as Lonesome Bounty. He says together they are a good and supportive team. Segeni advises people who are looking out to new ventures in business or any other pursuits to know that there will be days of self-doubt and fear. “However, if one wants to start out on anything I urge them to go ahead and do it. It may work or not but at least you will always have the satisfaction that you tried and learnt something,” he says in conclusion.

Published in November 2012