Ken Karangi: It’s never too late to be an innovator

Ken Karangi is a young and enterprising Kenyan who has succeeded in blurring the lines between visual/creative art making it affordable to those who prior to this time, couldn’t. He spoke to Ventures Africa and gave an insight into his business side and personality.

Ventures Africa (VA): Please share a little bit about your background. 

Ken Karangi (KK): I was born Kenneth Karangi Mbuthia, although I just prefer Ken Karangi. I am 28 years old. I was brought up in Githurai, Nairobi Kenya. Although we later moved to Kahawa, still in Nairobi. I grew up as a very shy person. I never wanted to be in the spotlight. I was always the back bencher in school, observing a lot, never really being on the front row. I think that tendency has followed me through to my adulthood. In high school, I was the captain and I was supposed to be authoritative but the contrary always occurred. I hardly produced a commanding voice each time I addressed my mates. I was later told, that I was the ‘softest’ captain in school. I have since come to accept myself as un-imposing.

VA: What was your experience in school?

KK: From my nursery to primary and secondary education, I attended public schools. This way I learnt to survive in whatever situation I find myself. I later pursued an undergraduate course in Information Technology (BSc. IT) and a Master’s degree in Business Administration.

VA: What’s your perspective on Africa, in terms of growth and development?

KK: Africa is a rich continent. It is full of raw resources, talent and endless opportunities. It is a place of diversity and rich cultures. Anyone can harness this potential if they want to.

VA: What informed your decision to merge the worlds of tech and art?

KK: I have always loved arts, pretty much all types of arts. The need to make my passion sustainable was inevitable. So I had to make business sense out of it. Technology makes business easier. During my undergraduate study, I was particularly interested in online systems. I later generated an interest in digital marketing. So I started with a Facebook page, which was working just fine. I later started an interactive website that includes an online chat to facilitate real-time interaction with my clients.

VA: Give a brief description of your work at your company, ByHand.

KK: We are an art company, specializing in custom made art which includes Paintings, Clocks, Sculptures and other unique, artistic items. We started as purely online and expanded into a physical shop.

VA: What inspires your work?

KK: I gather inspiration from different people and things. Like the first clock was an inspiration from a clock that I had seen online.

VA: What is a day like at By Hand?

KK: I first plan the day, what needs to be delivered and fast tracked. I also set up the posts and advertisements for the day. The rest of the day, I am implementing plans to see all runs smoothly.

VA: Where did you work before setting up ByHand?

KK: I worked as a web designer at Farwell Consultants then later at Asilia Creative. It is no surprise I later set up a business in that regard.

VA: How is ByHand different?

KK: I think most of the work speaks for itself. We custom make the paintings so that they suit the client. We also deliver and install for our clients. Our clients also love the customer service and they give testimonials and star ratings which instill confidence to our prospective customers.

VA: Did you need financial backing before you started and who provided that aid?

KK: I started the company, just after I had quit my previous job. So I didn’t have any financial backing, except for a small saving I had of about Ksh. 40,000.

VA: Where do you see the business in five years?

KK: I see the business diversifying into more artistic and unique products. Byhand may even branch out into full-time interior decoration. Kenyans have been receptive and I think there is no other time that is better than now to start this kind of venture. Kenya’s middle class economy is fast growing. At the moment the real estate industry is booming. This means that in a few years, the need to fill their houses and decorate them will be of high importance.

VA: Does ByHand cater to Kenya’s middle class?

KK: Kenya’s middle class economy has been rising. It is estimated to be over 40%. Now that is a group you cannot ignore. Lately, we have seen the entry of companies that were not in Kenya like Cold Stone Creamery, Domino’s Pizza, indicating the rising need to cater for that market.

VA: What is peculiar about Kenya’s real estate industry?

There has been an increase in demand for houses and real estate in general since mid-2,000’s partly because of the rise of the middle class. Nairobi leads other countries. This is evident from reports like Knight Frank’s report that rated Nairobi as the fastest growing real estate market in the world in 2012 and top 10 cities to watch by global real estate firm, Jones Lang LaSalle, out of 150 cities globally.

VA: Do you sell your products to people outside Kenya?

KK: Yes we do. Our website allows people to switch currency to dollars and also select a shipping rate for transactions outside our base in Kenya.

VA: From your chat with CNN, you mentioned that you create custom-made items to suit customer needs? Please explain that.

KK: Our clients do not have to pick a painting just ‘off the shelf’. If for example you saw a red painting with your preferred pattern but it does not blend in with your wall, you can request for the same painting to be recreated in any other color. Some clients will send us pictures of their ideal space and we will match the colors in collaboration with the original artist.

VA: Does the process go beyond viewing abstract art off the internet?

KK: Yes, people can come into our workshop and view the products before making an order.

VA: Do you have an office? What is your staff strength like?

KK: Yes we have a workshop. We have several artists at the workshop. We also have two staff at the shop. Both with great communication and internet skills.

VA: Do you have other ventures aside Byhand?

KK: At the moment, we are running Byhand exclusively. The plan however, is to branch out into more ventures very soon, God willing.

VA: What does success mean to you?

KK: In its totality, success is about bringing your vision to reality. I do not view it as a destination but a journey. One that you conquer and you see another one ahead that you want to conquer again. Success is a process and it is never restricted to a single achievement.

VA: What are some of the challenges facing your business?

Major challenge is finances. Difficulty in accessing funds is what most startups have to battle with. This affects business growth eventually as you will have to start small and experience slow growth, before you ever undertake any substantial business.

VA: There was a debate recently on CNN on the relevance of Facebook. What is your take in relation to your business and why?

I would say Facebook is a platform that cannot be ignored now. It has the numbers. It’s the “new” marketing tool. It’s affordable and has a relatively high Return on Investment (ROI) for most start-ups especially the ones that cannot afford “Above the Line” advertising. Personally I find Facebook’s audience better as it is much easier to target and control advertising in different ways.

VA: How does it feel to be a young innovator?

KK: It is a great feeling. At least I am opportune to have enough ‘time’ to build my dream before old age catches up. I would encourage and tell anyone that it is never too late to be an innovator. In fact, today is the day that you are young enough to start innovating, you will never be younger than you are today.

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