How chasing my dream ruined my career

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Michael Musau quit employment at a leading bank to start a financial and investment consultancy in 2006. After a few false starts, the outfit picked momentum as investors flowed in, thanks to the IPO hype around 2006/07 period. Ups and downs and he found himself on top of the world in this segment. Then things went haywire, again. He tells a story full of lessons for entrepreneurs.

 

 

          When we are growing up, our parents teach us to ‘work hard, get good grades, graduate with first class, and find a well paying job’. I was a good student, straight from high school to university and that qualified me for all the above. Three plus years at the university and I graduated. Like most middle class family in Kenya, my parents came for my gradua­tion, cheered when I received my ‘powers to read and write’ and invited all their friends over for the after-party.

 

          Just before I graduated, I had secured a job with a bank. And being a finance graduate, I was excited by the fact that I was spending 12 hours punch­ing numbers in excel, trying models and different formulas; I loved the graphs and all the finance jargon I had learnt in school. And just like the creation story, I’d always look at everything and feel glad that ‘it was good’. I loved the challenge, enjoyed time with friends, had crazy fun all weekends. I worked hard with the reports, got a promotion and worked even longer hours. There were days to leave office at ordinary hours and there were end months when I left office past midnight; I didn’t complain, I enjoyed every bit of it.

 

          Towards the end of the third year, reality checked in; I was making money but I wasn’t living my dream, I was instead chasing someone else’s. I was disappointed, I felt as if I was letting my lecturers down who had taught me to take risks, dream big and do big things. I wanted to own the bank, make it bigger and make lots of mon­ey. On paper it was possible and I wanted to venture out.

 

          As ambition would have it, I resigned and just like that, I was jobless.

And that’s where the drama begun. I found a sexy name for my company and luckily for me, recruiting clientele was quite easy; riding on a bubble at the backdrop of a recovering economy; just after President Moi lost an election after 24 years in power. I did great analyst reports and articles for major newspapers and the more they got published, the more clients I got. My business grew fast and I hired a big team of advisers, a large office and consultants to keep my house in order.

 

          I was making money, loving it, spending it, and ‘getting fa­mous’. And suddenly, the global financial crisis struck just after

 

       an election went bad in 2008. I had no savings at all but I was credit worthy. I borrowed without keeping tabs on how much until it fell out of place. Then the crisis bit harder and I had to send employees home, and ‘send myself home’ as well (literally).

 

       Being the good entrepreneur I had become, persistence taught me that I had to ‘hang-in there’ for as long as possible. Two years later, I rebounded and learnt to do things dif­ferently. And it worked out just fine. But one fact that I ignored was that in as much as the economy had improved, the corporate finance sector had after the crisis changed forever; investment banks had swallowed all the clients, and the ordinary Kenyan, who had started having an appeal for third party opinion before in­vesting had developed cold feet and reverted back to traditional investments (land, property, etc.).

 

The pains of being a young entrepreneur on the limelight bit harder; friends thought I was doing well because I had big clients. But the good clients don’t always pay well. I started pulling out of the social scene because more time was spent either working on the deals or looking for more deals. I stopped showing up for func­tions because I was avoiding the obvious questions or being made to feel great while in ac­tual sense it was a struggle:

“Oh, we saw you in the papers, great job,” Someone would say

“Mr. X told us what a great job you did for him,” yet another person would say.

Such were the common talk that I chose to run away from. One good client could show up, pay so well only to spend several weeks or months without good clients. In the end, I concluded that consult­ing business wasn’t easy and I needed people with the energy to ‘walk with me’ through the operations.

I was lucky to have found the partners that I was looking for but the perceived bless­ing turned out to be the worst nightmare of my life. Majority of entrepreneurs consider the entry of ‘foreign investors’ (or muzungu) as such a blessing- it may not always be the case. It is even worse that society sees you as the bad one when things don’t work out. And it’s then that I concluded that my lecturers might have been wrong. Due to the ownership battles, I chose to let go of my seven years of hard work and ‘move on’. Fortunately, ‘moving on’ had become a common term after the 2013 elections where politicians repeatedly told us to.

Laughable as it may seem, I handed in a resignation and left my company.

I got a good job at World Bank which gave me the soft landing that I was looking for. I did not want to go back to consulting but another blunder during the transition got me pairing up with another entrepreneur; another situation gone bad, luckily too soon to pick up the pieces and ‘keep moving on’.

I have arbitration issues to deal with that though unneces­sary are just a common thing that most entrepreneurs ignore every day. But that aside, the question I’d like to pose is even after three years chasing your dream, do you realize that it may just not be your calling? That you were probably better off staying at your well paying job?

Before quitting that job to chase your dream, please en­sure that you have stayed long enough to secure business from your employer. That requires you to have won the confidence of the board who can easily vouch that big account for you.

Even with a good amount of savings, I am convinced that had I worked longer (at least five years), I’d have made more sound decisions relating to my career and dreams. Some people argue that with a good amount of savings, it is possible to survive through turbulent times and emerge strong. True but shouldn’t a good business model survive such turbulence? If there was a wise decision I should have made, it would be walking out when the markets were a mess and started a differ­ent operation.

Family support comes in handy. But you should not be the pain in the family because of your struggling enterprise. Chances are that they need you more than you need them. If it’s not working, then you’re better off not dragging them into the trouble.

And finally on a more consol­ing note, we all define success on different parameters. Some of us define it by the amount of money we’ve made, others by the lives they’ve touched and yet for oth­ers, it’s the amount of attention they’ve drawn.

 

I defined success by money, I made it, spent it, saved and spent, etc. If there’s one sure thing I have however carried forward, it’s the experiences; both good and bad. A sound off to all the young entrepreneurs out there, it’s not everyone who was meant to be on the Forbes list, what we see out there glitter­ing is not necessarily gold, if it’s not working out as you’d wish, it probably won’t ever work; get rid of it, dust off and move on to something else that works- per­haps that salary at the end of the month 

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