When he started his first business, it was solely a survival tool. He never knew that the fear of poverty would drive him to one day build an enterprise whose turnover is between Sh50 million to Sh1 billion a year.
Martin Kiarie’s father had died and left him under the care of his uncle. One day, while in his uncle’s car, he looked outside and saw street boys his age.
He was terrified of ending up like them and in his teenage brain, he saw entrepreneurship as his only escape. He started growing cabbages on a farm that his father had left him and selling in Nairobi's Dagoretti Corner. His cabbage days were not very rosy.
He went to look for greener pastures at the then-leading retail chain store Nakumatt. That was his first chapter in business.
Chapter 2 happened after he got an opportunity to study computer science at a university in the UK. Surviving on student allowances, he saw an advert asking him to turn on his phone's Bluetooth to receive free potato chips.
“I saw this ad that wanted me to turn on my Bluetooth to receive a coupon on my phone that I would redeem for a packet of chips. I jumped on the opportunity readily and this is the second chapter of my life; love.”
He fell in love with technology.
“I saw how technology eased business processes in the UK and asked myself how we could implement that back home. I was in my second year when I flew back to create these opportunities,” Mr Kiarie says.
He researched the Bluetooth-enabled devices that had won him the packet of chips and how they worked.
Armed with ideas, he looked for someone locally to help him set up Bean Interactive. Bean is an acronym for Bluetooth Enabled Advertising Networks.
They managed to raise about Sh600,000 to set the company in motion. He worked part-time as a gardener on weekends and sold insurance in the evenings while studying. They shipped the devices in 2009.
“I don’t believe that you must have some money stashed somewhere to start a business. The biggest investment you need is an idea and a ruthless work ethic. Once you have these two, you can always look for someone to finance your ideas to fruition,” he says.
The kind of business ideas he wanted to introduce in the market were, however not readily embraced. He tried to pitch to a friend who blatantly asked him why he thought anyone would want to waste money on such a venture.
That initiative failed—headfirst. The business idea or his entrepreneurial spirit did not.
“I have learned in business that people rarely buy what you do. They buy the why and how you do it. The fact that we were innovative and willing to think of something out of the box and held high values such as integrity and a ruthless work ethic did not mean people were willing to give us opportunities to solve problems.
Then he met a woman he only wishes to identify as Angela who asked him hard questions about the venture.
“She asked if we could do digital marketing. At that time, I didn’t know anything about digital marketing. I said I could and I went to Google what it was and that is how we transitioned from the Bluetooth devices to offering tailor-made business solutions,” Mr Kiarie says.
These two failures reminded Mr Kiarie of a simple but very important adage in his journey—this too shall pass. He looks at failure and success as stages and not destinations.
They have evolved from Bluetooth devices to digital marketing to what he calls transformation partners.
“Bean interactive is now part of a group called BFH Group,” he says. They have four directors. Last year, Bean Interactive was ranked among the Top 100 fast-growing mid-sized companies by KPMG and the Business Daily, companies whose turnover is between Sh50 million to Sh1 billion a year.
On surviving the turbulent times in entrepreneurship, Mr Kiarie speaks of two things: the heart and science of survival in business.
“I attended the Stanford Transformational Programme in 2018 which changed my way of thinking. I realised that the true essence of a sustainable business is how you manage the numbers in between and not just the revenue. So I came up with a working model that will ensure the sustainability of the business irrespective of the revenue. That is the science part.
Now the hard part is, once you figured out the science part, you must do what you are not doing to get the results you have not been getting.
"What I saw as a blind spot in my and many African businesses is that we don’t collaborate as much as we should. I realised that working with people in your industry facing the same problems is one of the best things you can do for sustainability and profitability," he says.
And that is how Bean Interactive came together with Fieldstone Helms to form BFH (the B in BFH stands for Bean). Mr Kiarie says the two firms had lost a contract with one of the telcos, therefore, losing big parts of their businesses.
Instead of each trying to survive on their own, they came together. What that has done is that it has reduced their costs, as they share human resources and working spaces.
“This has doubled our business because of the joint efforts from the two brands. Collaboration doesn’t just improve science but also culture because you borrow the culture from the other collaborative entity," he says.
His top entrepreneurship lessons?
“I have learned that business maturity is strongly hinged on personal maturity. Force yourself to grow up in business rather than grow old. Also, seek to be the fool among kings and never the king among fools.”