By Ken Njoroge
The journey of being an entrepreneur is often compared to a man riding a lion.
People look at you in awe of your bravery and laud your accomplishments yet while atop the Lion, you’re constantly thinking of how to keep riding or jump off without the Lion devouring you whole. The opportunity to jump off the Lion at the right time and in the right way is one of the most crucial tasks of a founder and it is the test of a journey ran well. Such a time has come for me.
After 18 years of running Cellulant, I have decided that 2021 will be my last year as CEO.
Such transitions are not easy in any way and require a great deal of growth, thought and patience. I remember my team and I started 2020 with a clear mission to recover from the past three difficult years. We set out with an airtight vision, an incredibly talented team, the right resources on board and that hunger for excellence that has now become our corporate identity. 2020 turned out very differently for many people and businesses worldwide, of which we were no exception. However, apart from being a challenging year, it was a season of deep reflection. It gave me a chance to pause, reflect, question, examine and double down on why I do what I do.
Back in 2003, when we began Cellulant, it was not the Lion it is today. I would liken it to a cub. It was a tiny, harmless idea with weak arms and legs, which looked to my co-founder and I for life. It was the cub that I had been warned to stay away from by people who ‘knew better’ and warned me off entrepreneurship with phrases like “this is not sustainable”, and “please get a degree first”. Even then, I knew that my dream was to ride one. My co-founder and I found a way to get close to the cub, speak to it and understand it. Before long, we found ourselves on the back of the cub, doing the thing that made life worth living- riding the Lion, creating and changing the world we saw. For me, Cellulant was an ode to the belief that Africa could build great things. To create a solution on this continent, by Africans and for Africans, even in a field as westernised as technology was the dream we committed our lives to. We ate, slept and breathed nothing else. Every day, we woke up and fed this cub… until it was a cub no longer.
Growing the Cub into a Lion
When we speak of growth, we often refer to it as a remedy; as the thing that resolves all problems. As entrepreneurs, we learn that scale will make us stable and increasing our markets will make them more profitable; this becomes the thing you work towards. While this is true, we leave out the fact that while on top of that Lion, there is no map or manual. It is the thrill you cannot live without yet the one that scares you the most. You are both the master and the clown, but you must wear both hats tactfully juggling the different needs of the business at different stages. This is a skill I only learnt from reflection- taking the time to hear and look and listen until I knew what the business needed.
In every phase, the cub has grown and required a new toolbox. At first, I struggled to find my way around these phases. When Cellulant was a smaller cub, the leadership came naturally. It was survival mode, and I did everything to stay in touch and push it over the mark. It is straightforward at that point because you speak, and the cub listens. With time, however, the cub learns to talk back to you, and you’re the one that must listen. I can admit that I wasn’t always the best at listening to the business. I didn’t make conscious time for reflection, and I know this cost me speed and strength at inflection points. For this reason, I now know that nothing is more important than being able to see the signs when the time comes, and the Lion is ready.
From 2014 to 2018, Cellulant went through a phase where it needed dreamers. It needed fierce ambition that believed building financial technology for the African continent was worth 47.5 million dollars with its eye on a billion dollars. It also required me to go out on the road and sell that dream to investors worldwide until finally, we secured the largest fin-tech fundraise for an African company in 2018. This phase necessitated an expansion of the dream and by extension, an expansion of the den. We opened our doors to investors who believed in the dream enough to support our growth.
In 2019 after the Dusit terror attack, when we lost our Brave 6, we suffered indescribable heartbreak. The company needed me to show up differently as a leader; it required me to place healing above everything else. I became the leader who saw to the needs of each team member and spared nothing to heal and unite the organisation. That year brought with it the humbling realisation that this dream was no longer about me- It couldn’t have been. There were people and families who had sacrificed the most precious thing they had on account of this dream, and it was theirs as much as it was mine.
The Art of Jumping
At some point in the life of every founder, the Lion outgrows you, and you find yourself on top of a beast. It walks and talks familiar, but at the same time, it is a whole different being. At that point, the Lion will send you some signs telling you this is where you jump off.
We don’t hear enough stories about jumping off the Lion. Certainly not in Africa. Businesses either live and die in the hands of their owner or are inherited by the next generation. Even then, the stories and difficulty of that transition are not shared enough. I have sought out those stories in the past few months to craft a blueprint of my own. One of the things always going through your mind while riding the Lion is that if you jump off too soon, it loses its way; yet it will swallow you whole if you hang on too long. So when do you let go?
Jumping off is more of an art than science. It all comes down to the how, and then when, especially finding the perfect moment for the transition. The truth is that there are many ways to jump off the Lion, each one nuanced in its own way. For me, finding the right moment required me to be extremely switched on in assessing the business’s needs and character.
Two signs, in particular, solidified the decision for me:
Firstly, in August 2020, we suffered a major internal crisis that saw my co-founder exit the business. It wasn’t the crisis, but the process that followed, which gifted me the clarity that the next phase needed an ‘enterprise runner’ rather than a ‘venture builder’. As a natural builder, this reflection allowed me to see that I had given the business the best of my abilities in establishing an enduring business, built on strong governance, systems and culture.
I know this because, despite the COVID pandemic and a crisis, the business was unshakable. We came out of 2020 sharper, more focused and energized around our customers. The most critical technology, product, service & growth transformation happened over the last few months.
For me, people have always been the most rewarding part of the job. From clients to employees, seeing how tangibly the work we do impacts people has always fueled me. The last few years have pushed me to become more of a coach than a boss, and as a result, I take the development of the teams very seriously. About a month ago, I woke up and read a board document that had been prepared by my team, and in the first few lines, I knew my job was done. They were ready, and it was time for me to let them ride the Lion with a runner as their leader.
The Second sign came from my family who have been part of the journey every step of the way. I have spent the last 16 years of our marriage focusing 85% of my time and energy on the business. It’s time to balance that equation. My wife humorously introduces Cellulant as her first-born child or her co-wife, because they’ve felt the ripple effects of any storm that was happening at work. Now that even the children are old enough to have an opinion on the business, let us just say, I have a second board of directors at home. A few weeks ago, when I shared my decision to leave my position as CEO with my family, my teenage daughter looked at me and said: “Dad, it’s time”. Though this was only a moment out of a larger ongoing conversation, the certainty and finality of that statement was the lightbulb I needed. It became clear that this was the perfect moment to jump.
The next 12 months will be a season of learning like any other. I will transition from my role as the CEO by the end of June, and spend the rest of the year supporting all the teams and the new leader in the transition. I will remain a shareholder and director on the board. As a founder, I am still passionate about our vision and will continue to work tirelessly to be a strong advocate for our customers and our talented management team.
Africa needs Lion riders who can run faster, better and build world-class businesses that solve fundamental problems in this continent. Most of them will be technology-driven. The next part of my journey is to nurture, build and grow a thousand more lion riders who can run faster, better and with fewer mistakes than I did.
A dreamer, doer and rider of Lions
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