Lessons learnt while dyeing my hair

For a while now, I’ve been trying to get my hair purple. I’ve dyed it three times, and it ended up blacker than when I started. Aside from being terribly frustrated, I’ve learnt a few lessons for life and business.

1. Always do your research

I went to five or six shops looking for the perfect shade of purple. Turns out shops in Nairobi don’t stock much beyond brown, black, blonde, and grey.  Apart from realising that someone should stock strange hair colours – even if it’s only on demand – I discovered that Nakumatt and Uchumi sell half a litre of Ooh yoghurt at 73 bob while Ukwala sells it at 95 shillings. Interesting.

2. Get dizzy-proof

The thing with servicing clients, no pun intended, is that sometimes, you’ll go round in circles and end up right where you started.

The first colour I bought was aubergine, and after several sessions using varying degrees of it, and going through black, red, blue, and several purples, I’ve ended up with plain old aubergine. Come Saturday, I’ll put it on my hair undiluted, and drive my hairdressers off the edge of sanity.

In business, be prepared to spin on the spot with a client, and when you walk past the same signpost for the millionth time and client says ‘that’s exactly what I want!’ do some yoga, smile, and remember that it’s worth it in the end.

3. Failure isn’t always a bad thing

On the assumption that the Saturday dyeing will work, it will have taken me two weeks, four sessions, three thousand shillings, 6 to 7 hours, and six pairs of gloves to get my hair the right colour. But, I now know 3 ways not to dye my hair, and next time, I can do it using 200 bob and one go.

4. Improvise

At one of the shops I went to, they didn’t have purple dye, but they suggested I try powder food colour. I laughed at the idea, but apparently it’s a popular one, and it gives you a much wider colour range. Plus, it’s temporary, so if it doesn’t work out, it’ll be gone in a few weeks.

As a business person, you should always give the client what he wants. But if you don’t have it, sell them a Plan B. Just be sure it’s one that works.

5. Know when to stop tweaking

The thing with artists is we never know when to stop. We always want to put in one more word, take a comma out, change the shade of blue, twist a bit of code, make everything just perfect.

During my multiple sessions, I started out ultra-violet black, which was too dark, so I added some aubergine, which was too light. I put in a bit of food-colour purple … which took me back to black. Very frustrating. If I’d just left it at bright purple, it would have darkened with time.

Good business is like dyeing hair; you get your hands messy, you don’t know what to expect, you use a lot of resources [and water] and your hands get really, really hot.

So remember to have a tank, a long fuse, a borehole, a source of emergency capital and a brilliant assistant, even if that assistant is you.

And always, always, always wear gloves.

Crystal Ading’ is a professional author, editor, rock lover and mother. Her work is available through www.threeceebee.com.

Business 302: Weathering the storm

Running your own business is a lot like being stuck in Nairobi in 2010. El Niño, La niña, miracle babies, global warming, and several unnamed cults have urged the gods to kill our weather patterns, so no one really knows when it should rain anymore. It’s mid-May, and our showers of blessings are yet to slow down. This unpredictable weather comes with both blessings and less-than-blessings.

Rain means filled up dams, which logically equal lower electricity bills. It also means more greens, less dust, less hunger, and more umbrella sales.

But the rain has some downsides too. Tomato and onion gardens are being flooded, so they’re not maturing well and are getting pricey. In my neighbourhood, I buy one [fairly large] tomato at ten bob, which is ridiculous really.

The roads are getting eroded, and so is our good sense; have you tried moving in the CBD when it’s raining? Don’t even get me started on the burst sewers. Nairobi is a lot cleaner and greener than she used to be, but we still clearly has a massive drainage problem.

Business is sometimes like that. We all itch and ache to go entrepreneur and do our own thing, but when we get there, it’s not quite what we expect. When we are starving in drought, we beg for rain, but when it gets here, we have to deal with wet feet, muddy shoes, and malaria.

When you work for ‘the man’, you may have a crazy boss, but you can always transfer or quit. When you’re working for yourself, you often have annoying customers, but they’re paying the bill. And no, you cannot bash your clients on twitter.

But just as you enjoy rain while cringing at the potholes, you can harvest your business as you hide from giant mosquitoes.

Yesterday, I got stuck in the rain, and learnt a few lessons that can help you build your business. So here are my survival tips for rain – and business – in 2010.

  1. Always  trust your instincts: When I looked at the sky at 4.30 yesterday, I considered staying in the office and waiting it out, then decided to try to beat the clouds instead. Had I stayed at work, I’d have been stuck until 8.00. But then I’d also have been warm and dry, and got a lot more work done.
  2. Always have a backup plan: I carry a big blue knapsack everywhere I go. It’s loaded with endless junk, cables, a bottle of bubbles, a yoyo, three novels, purple lipbalm, spare bullets, ten teabags and three handsets. But nooooo, it doesn’t have an umbrella. ‘Nuff said.
  3. Wear sensible shoes: You never know when you’ll need to have an emergency meeting in a high class restaurant with a new client. Or when you’ll need to run in the rain.
  4. Learn from others, but don’t envy them: I have always admired girls that can walk in high heels, and I’ve even toyed the idea of ‘upping my business image’ by getting some skirt suits and Louis Vuitton. But yesterday, I saw good-looking ladies in litty-bitty power-skirts surviving the cold and rain while I breezed it in my Northstars and jeans. Score one for the tomboy!
  5. Always have an emergency fund: You never know when you’ll need to kill some rain-time by having a hot pizza instead.
  6. Timing is everything: When I finally got to my bus stop, the rain was pretty bad and there was a shortage of matatus, so I hung out in the semi-shelter for a couple of hours. I saw some people rushing off to Bomb Blast to get transport, but they had to get soaked through and use some serious rugby skills to get there. I waited until the rain was a drizzle before I calmly headed that way, and I found a matatu ready and waiting. Yay!
  7. Stay positive: If you have to be stuck in the rain, it helps to have a big red jumper, heavy blue denim, canvas shoes, and a waterprof hairstyle. But even without the protection, try to keep smiling. The bad times, like the rain, will turn to rainbows eventually. Just ask Donald Trump and Noah.

Crystal Ading’ is a professional author, editor, rock lover and mother. Her work is available through www.threeceebee.com.

Nice-guy Politics

One of the services I provide at 3CB is project management, which mainly involves logistics. For one client in particular, I handle correspondence, i.e. making phone calls and emails to get delegates to the venue in one piece, preferably with their wardrobe intact. It’s a tedious, essential, but unglamorous task.

This particular client has a very firm corporate image. It’s a no-nonsense environment where everyone takes themselves quite seriously. Protocol is followed in debilitating detail. As a result, any communication with customers is stoic, almost cold.

Enter me, with my warm, uber-friendly approach to strangers. Results were mixed at best, and disastrous at worst. My client’s associates began to ask for me by name, and my personality interfered with my client’s detached approach.

Because I was seen as more malleable, I ended up being sought on my own time for this client’s business, which was ineffective for all involved. On the plus side, people I had interacted with on behalf of my client remembered my name and persona. It’s quite possible that the relationships formed could lead to business tangents unrelated to this client. However, the primary client remains dissatisfied with my system, because that’s not who they are.

As a consultant and a businessperson, I’ve had to weigh the pros and cons of cases like this. Being myself may work well with some clients, and it certainly makes my job more enjoyable. But, cliché or not, the customer is still king, and it may mean compromising my attitude, dress code, or ethos to keep them happy. After all, they’re paying for my services, so they should get what they want.

There is a line to be drawn of course. If the client requires you to bend over so far that you end up on your back, you may need to pass up the money and work for someone else. But when you want to be paid, it’s not you that matters, it’s your client. Running your own business has very many perks, but it doesn’t necessarily make you the boss.

One way to overcome this is to pick your specialty carefully. You can’t always choose your clients, but you can choose your field. If you’re into computers and you want to start your own business, you should pick a niche that suits your nature. If you enjoy nitpicking details, you are better suited to programming, where every extra comma changes a swathe of site specs. If you’re a creative, graphic design is better, since it lets you use your imagination. The tinker-types would probably work well in hardware, so they can take things apart and stick them back together. Extroverts may prefer networking, so they can deal with flesh-type people as they explain how the systems work, and so they can be invited to the product launch.

As a writer and editor, I play with words, and I mostly work alone. My nature lets me deal individually with clients, so I sometimes do administration. Other writers prefer to outsource a marketter, publicist, or resident sanguine to deal with the more social aspects of their business. You could hire a personable assistant to act as your ‘social interphase’ so that you can hide in the basement and write. This assistant can be the ‘face’ of your business while you stay rich, anonymous, and less susceptible to kidnapping. Plus, you’re creating employment, which is always a good thing.

You may think you’re too shy, too quiet, or too nice to be in business, but with a little out-of-box thinking and some smart recruiting, you could surprise yourself. Try it, you just might like it.

Crystal Ading’ is a professional author, editor, rock lover and mother. Her work is available through www.threeceebee.com.

To the left to the left

Running your own business is immensely fulfilling, but it can also be tedious. You have no weekends, no public holidays, no annual leave. You will probably never retire, and you can’t quit or walk away when you get frustrated or bored. You worry even in your sleep, because there is no boss or subordinates to blame when things go wrong. The buck starts and stops with you.

But I’ve realised that getting a breath of fresh air is easier than you’d think. All you have to do is shift positions, change direction, step to the side.

Think about your pre-business desk job. When you felt drained, all you had to do was facebook for a few minutes [only a few minutes mind you] and your mind would be alert. You’d find some long-forgotten picture tag or some silly new game, and suddenly you’d be smiling through your chores.

In running your biashara, the same rule applies. I’m not recommending you go hang out on facebook; you can end up spending a dangerous amount of time there considering there’s no annoying boss to stop you!

I simply mean you should change tasks. When you’re running your business, you generally handle everything from finances to door-to-door sales. Even if you have employees to do all this for you, you find that your eye is all over. After all, this is your baby.

And this is where the trick lies.

If you’ve been dealing with difficult clients all day, take a break and look through the books. If you’ve been filling out your tax returns and your eyes are swimming in numbers, stop for a second, pick up your cell phone, and make a courtesy call to a client.

If you’ve been shaping up the code on your website, jump to the comments page and work on your response. If you’ve been taking inventory at your warehouse, run to the computer and work on the receipts. All it takes is a simple sideways step.

I’m not very good at multi-tasking [actually, I suck at it. I can’t even talk and skate at the same time!] and I’m (usually) a very focused person, so I like to finish one task before I move on to the next. I’ve been working on an editorial assignment all day, and after 12 hours, the full stops were starting to look like commas, and the small caps are lost in the text. I thought about taking a break to read a novel, but I figured I’d never stop. I looked at the pile of laundry and the dishes in the kitchen [I’ve nothing left that’s clean!] but that didn’t hold much motivation.

So I started to think about the other assignments that are due today, and took a break to do a little writing. Four articles later, my mind was refreshed, my deadlines were met, and I could do my editorial work easy peasy.

Granted, this may not be possible with all businesses, but if you stretch your mind far enough, you can find a slightly different section of your work to take your mind of things, even if it’s as basic as shifting from counting your thousand-bob notes to stacking your ten-bob coins…

Crystal Ading’ is a professional author, editor, rock lover and mother. Her work is available through www.threeceebee.com.

Should You Work For Free?

The primary reason for business is making money, that’s a given. Business is not like art, it can never be done just for the sake of it.

But business is not as simple as art. A piece of music or a pretty picture can bring infinite pleasure even if no one actually buys it. You could be carelessly singing in your shower [or the karaoke bar] while your audience marvels. Some genius could tape you and post it on youtube where it will virally spread and make a billion people’s day.

Hopefully, the appeal will be your singing voice rather than anything else.

But business isn’t like youtube karaoke. A business that isn’t earning is … well … not a business; it’s just a person being busy.

That said, benefits are not always monetary. Say, for instance, that you attend a seminar. You won’t get paid; more likely you’ll spend to attend. But you may learn a skill, and you will meet a hundred other people, all of whom could possibly buy from you. If you use 2 or  3 thousand to attend a workshop, meet two hundred people, and five of them end up being your clients and pay one thousand a piece [probably more], then it’s totally worth it.

The classical musicians of the past did not always get salaries. Many of them worked for food and board. They lived with their patrons and were given nice clothes, royal treatment, and access to a full time orchestra. They produced some of their best work for ‘free’.

The same applies with freelancing. We are often advised not to work pro bono, and no professional does anything for nothing. So when a client approaches you, you need to seriously review your options. What do you get out of it? Will this help you to meet potential clients? Will you learn anything new? Will it push you out of your comfort zone?

Are you engaging with people, getting ideas that you wouldn’t find by sitting alone in your office or at your computer? Are you meeting experts from other fields, people who could expand your pool of information? Are you forming relationships that can give you an edge as you find ‘free’ manpower to ‘outsource’? Are you making friends who could support you, advise you, [buy you birthday presents] and bring business your way?

And if this is the case, then are you really sure you’re not getting paid?

Sometimes your wage doesn’t come in cents and zeroes. Just because nobody is showing you the money, doesn’t mean you’re working for free.

Crystal Ading’ is a professional author, editor, rock lover and mother. Her work is available through www.threeceebee.com.

Business Sense In 8 Easy Steps

Common business sense suggests that you should give the customer what they want. After all, they’re always right, and unless you’re a shrink, nobody is going to pay you for telling them they’re wrong.

So what happens when what the customer wants is bad for them? Well, you get smart.

Case in point. For quite a while now, I’ve wanted a haircut. Several hairdressers refused to oblige me, mostly because it is considered sacrilege to chop off such cultured hair; I’ve been growing my dreadlocks for years.

But I am quite stubborn, and each time the guy or girl in question denied me scissors, I started looking for someone else.

Yesterday, I finally found someone to cut my hair. She didn’t want to, and she whined the entire time, but she cut the hair.

It looks … well … I like it … but I’m definitely not doing it again.

In doing what I wanted, Fatuma earned herself – and her salon – a lifetime customer. It will be difficult to pry me away with Exposé.

That hairdressing session has taught me a few key lessons about business.

One, always give the customer what they want; but do it well. Cutting my hair was not the best idea, and Fatuma knew it. But she used her skill to make a bad idea look pretty. Fatuma is already established as an expert – I went to her on a direct commendation from another satisfied customer. She proved herself, and now she has one more client giving her free advertising.

Two, build your team. When I walked into the salon, I asked for Fatuma by name. But she was busy, so she politely offered to let someone else do my hair. I was quite happy with the person she gave me. She could have hogged the limelight, made me wait for her, and maybe earned a commission for having more clients. Instead, she boosted her workmate’s experience, earned her trust [and mine], and showed me that good as she is, her colleagues are equally skilled.

Three, know your specialties … and your limits. The lady who was assigned to do my hair was great at twisting – not so good at cutting, so she asked Fatuma to do the scissor-work while she handled the rest. Result being my hair was not messed, my hairdresser’s ego was not damaged, and everybody ended the day smiling.

Four, good work sells. Exposé is a new salon; so new that they don’t have the sign up yet. The person that sent me there asked me to “Go to the new Bishop Magua building and look for the salon on the ground floor. It doesn’t have a name.” A name is good, but a reputation is better.

Five, develop your brand. When I got to the building, I asked at the reception and was told there were two salons, but if I knew the hairdresser’s name, then they could show me where she worked. I knew the hairdresser’s name – and so did they. Make sure people know who you are.

Six, be damn good at what you do. There must be hundreds, thousands, [millions?] of hairdressers around. There are five in my building alone. But only one agreed to do what I wanted, and only one took a potentially distastrous idea and made it work. Anyone can wield a pair of scissors, but it took Fatuma to effortlessly give me the exact look I wanted. While I will certainly not be cutting the hair again, she has earned my respect and trust. I will let her work on my hair, swear by anyone she recommends, and next time she tells me it’s a bad idea, I’ll salute and say ‘Yes Ma’am, what works better? … surprise me.’

Seven, gimmick gimmick gimmick. I noticed something about the salon. I saw this lady there – she might be the owner; she had this air of authority about her. At first I wasn’t sure if she was white or just light, and I stared at her for a while trying to figure it out. She had her daughter with her, and the girl was even more interesting. She must have been five or six years old, very bubbly, and had the cutest way off tossing her hair.

I noticed two things about the little girl. One, her hair looked exactly like her mother’s – brown shoulder length, pretty and shiny. And two, she had no accent. Or rather, she had a Kenyan accent.

I later realised that while the girl was quite caucasian, her mum wasn’t any specific race, and had a beatifully planted weave on her head – more props to the salon. She’s also warm and friendly. This mum-and-baby are the perfect stage prop.

The final lesson I learnt is that all customers are equal and should be treated equal. Customer care goes a long, long way. I walked in with faded jeans, a scruffy look, and a pink acrylic handbag, but I was treated like a diva. I was received politely, offered coffee and a newspaper, and felt generally pampered. I don’t get that often.

Fatuma didn’t even ask who recommended me until after my hair was done. Her reaction suggested the recommender is VIP, but because the question came late, I felt special just for me.

Lessons worth noting if you want to make money in Kenya…

Crystal Ading’ is a professional author, editor, rock lover and mother. Her work is available through www.threeceebee.com.

Keep It Simple

I’ve heard it said that there’s nothing new under the sun. There’s even a book that claims there are only 36 dramatic situations; these 36 are used in different combinations to write all stories. For someone who makes a living from writing, the prospect is pretty depressing.

An article I read recently suggests that originality is not about the idea, it’s about how you present it. For example, anyone can eat an ice cream cone, but not everyone can eat it while standing on their heads. The latter would be more likely to get media coverage.

The same can be said for business. Take Tux Cybercafé on the the third floor of the most ubiquitous building in Nairobi. They provide fast internet – just like the three other cybers in that building. They play music, just like everyone else. They have a cooler, and hotdogs, and ice cream. Big deal.

Except … it really is.

I first heard about this place from my brother. I was meeting him at Kenya Cinema and he gave me an ice cream. Now ice cream addiction is in our DNA, so for him to give me vanilla was a really big deal. He offered it to me because he’d had enough. That was even stranger, since the cup was quite tiny.

A while later, my other brother told me about this cybercafé where his college buddies hang out.  It sells ice cream for fifty bob and hotdogs for another fifty, so ex-cands can impress their girls on a budget of a hundred bob. Given the two independent referrals, I decided to check the place out.

I’d had a long day, so I badly needed ice cream therapy. I walked into the building, and at every cyber, asked if this was the place that had ice cream. They politely said ‘third floor’. But I was using the stairs – so I had to keep asking which floor I was on – there must have been six flights at least!

When I finally got to the cyber, the first thing I noticed was light … and loud music. The building itself is dingy and dark, but when you walk into the cyber, it feels more like you’ve walked into sunlight. The place was quite crowded – college kids – but because of the light, it felt a lot less stuffy.

The boy at the counter was very polite, all please and thank you’s. He said the ice cream would take a few minutes, so I decided to have a hotdog while I waited. They’re up to 60 bob.

The hotdog corner was next to the ice cream  maker, which was next to the cooler. So as I watched him assemble the sauces, I decided to have Novida as well. My bill was now up to 150.

I sat on a chair right next to the machines to wait for my ice cream. The seat was isolated, was far from the kids, and there was no computer on the desk, so I knew I wasn’t interfering with anyone’s surfing.

But as I placed my bag on the desk, I noticed it had a see-through glass top … with a monitor beneath. The keyboard was neatly tucked on a sliding panel. Since I was sitting there, I figured I might as well check my email.

The surfing experience was so fast and so smooth that it was an hour [and a hotdog and a soda and an ice cream cup] before I realised how long I’d been there.

Did I mention the ice cream? It’s HUGE! The cup is a teeny weeny plastic thing, and I can’t quite remember what the spoon was like … but the ice cream! It was a mixed vanilla-strawberry and it spiralled up to three times the height of the cup! I had to take coffee-breaks just to finish it!

The taste was a little watered down, possibly because it was assembled in a hurry – the ice cream operator pours this yoghurt-looking liquid into the machine and then it chugs for a few minutes and produces ice cream. There were lots of orders and a long queue waiting, so I guess he got the portions wrong.

In addition to college kids trying to impress, and surfers looking for net, I noticed a few hotshot office types coming by for the ice cream. And the boy at the counter served them all with a thank you and a smile. What really amused me is that I spent over 200 shillings when I’d only planned for fifty, and had such a good time I almost tipped them for it.

There was even a comedic interlude when the frazzled ice cream operator, while mopping up the goo, accidentally unplugged my computer twice in two minutes. Luckily I was done surfing by then and just laughed off the charade.

I’d been in there for quite a while, so as I walked out, the counter boy thought I hadn’t paid my bill; he sprinted down the stairs after me and asked me so respectfully that I really couldn’t be mad at him.

This is a very effective business model – and it all relies on fifty bob worth of ice cream. Fifty bob? At that size, I’d pay a hundred. But then again, if it cost 100, I wouldn’t buy it to begin with.

It doesn’t take a lot to build your business. All it takes is a simple idea that’s spun right, and these guys are spinning it right into the bank.

Crystal Ading’ is a professional author, editor, rock lover and mother. Her work is available through www.threeceebee.com.