Sameer Shah: Daring move from graphic designer to furniture retailer


Sofya Furniture Chief Executive Officer Sameer Shah during the interview at his store in Waterfront, Karen on October 30, 2023. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

Sameer Shah started off his entrepreneur journey with a graphic design company in 2007. One of his first clients was a furniture store. When he realised the client was taking a lot of his time, he decided to turn it into a consultancy firm and he became its full-time design consultant.

“Together with the team, we built the furniture brand and I ended up being part of decision making and learnt a lot at that time,” says Shah, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Sofya Furniture Store Limited based at Waterfront Mall in Karen.

Shah says that contracting Covid-19 opened his eyes and he decided to start a trading business after his then-employer got bought out by another company.

“The initial plan was to do what my employer was doing which is to import 95 percent of furniture products. However, lots of local furniture manufacturers approached me for advertisement,” he says.

“I also shared with them my plans for setting up a furniture store and it became a perfect match because they were struggling with retail and I was going to be a store that boosts local manufacturing,’ he adds.

He says that this approach became his business model and gave him a unique selling point of being the first Kenyan retail store that sells locally manufactured furniture products.

“We are looking at positioning ourselves as the number one Kenyan furniture store.”

He clarifies that even Sofya Furniture Limited imports 20 percent of its products because that’s the only way to get local manufacturers to an international level.

“Through that, customers will end up buying a sofa made in Kenya with a setup that has imported products and get a package which they will not see as a Kenyan stock,” he adds.

Mobilising resources

Shah says that raising capital was one of his difficult points.

“It was difficult but I sought the advice of a financial consultant friend who looked at the proposal and the figures and realised there was an opportunity, made an offer and he became my business partner,” reveals Shah.

Together, they raised Sh4 million which was a drop in the ocean of the capital they needed.

“I talked to lots of the local manufacturers and told them that if you need me to support you, then you need to support me as well and they offered us lines of credit and got products into the store.”

Initially, they opened 1,500 square feet in July 2022 and by October, they had 8,000 square feet. He says it’s been a road full of challenges because furniture is viewed not as a necessity.

Transition into business

Shah says that making the decision to transition from employment to entrepreneurship took him close to two years.

“I threw away a very big income, comfortable lifestyle for an uncomfortable one and I have learnt that business is like war, every competitor is your enemy and you have to know who to align with,” explains Shah.

Mistakes from previous ventures

Having been part of his father’s manufacturing business, Shah says he learnt that consistency is key and hard work never goes unpaid.

“The discipline has to be there. The resilience to stay focused amidst challenges, wake up daily, have a disciplined diary and continuously do the same thing over and over again till you perfect it. It sounds very easy but it’s not very easy,” he cautions.

He advises that as an entrepreneur, you have to be savvy in preparing your business plan and have realistic projections.

Shah says that in his entrepreneurial journey, the biggest mistake he has ever made is not keeping track of finances which he says can kill a business.

With three failed ventures, he cautions against rapid scale-up and being overconfident.

“For me it was self-learning from lots of mistakes. When in printing business, after clearing a bank loan, we relocated from Industrial Area to Ngong Road thinking we would get more customers there but what surety did we have that we would get more clients?” he poses.

“We killed ourselves with rent. The best thing would have been to save the extra rent cost and continue building on it. So always stick within your lane until you can handle the extra costs.”


Sofya Furniture Chief Executive Officer Sameer Shah during the interview at his store in Waterfront, Karen on October 30, 2023. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

Competition from bigger players

Shah says that his biggest challenge has been staying afloat and getting the sales coming in and facing stiff competition from the big players with deeper pockets.

“For them, keeping their business afloat through tough times is easier but for us, we are literally scraping through our coins to keep afloat,” he says.

He further adds that Kenya is still young in manufacturing compared to other developed countries, which are able to produce in volumes and that local manufacturers need exposure to what’s happening on the international stage.

Having opened its second furniture store along Mombasa Road, Shah says that Sofya Furniture is looking to open more stores across the country and into the East African community and take Kenyan manufacturing outside the country via Sofia Furniture.

“My dream is to see a Kenyan store in other countries and I want to brand Sofya Furniture as that Kenyan store that is able to take our Kenyan products to other countries.

Solo vs partner approach

Different entrepreneurs prefer different approaches to business ownership but for Shah, this depends on the type of business.

“If you are in a service-based enterprise, you can do it alone until you are strong enough to hire a team to scale up but in businesses like retail or manufacturing, it is very difficult because different multifaceted areas of the company need to be handled by different professionals,” Shah advises.

“You can run solo but you will not be able to scale because one person can only do so much. I knew I could not handle finances so I had to look for a finance person,” he concludes.

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