For the readers that don’t know, Crystal is the one and only “3CB”, a popular blogger and prolific writer. She is the brains behind ThreeCeeBee, a mother, and a rock lover. Crystal recently quit a well paying job to start her own biashara as a freelance writer. Today she’s going to share with us her story, thus far, as a freelancer.
Q. You’re quite an achiever, tell us about you
I’m a Jack – or rather a Jane of many trades; not all, but many. I sometimes think this is a disadvantage because the world is prefers ‘specialists’ and can get sceptical if you dabble in too many different areas. But it’s also a fall-back because it gives me many different avenues to pursue. I worked at Oxford University Press Tanzania from 2006 to 2009. I was based In Dar es Salaam and edited textbooks in both English and Swahili. Before that, I interned at Kwani Trust for a few weeks. Academically, I’ve studied literature, music, media and creative writing … and it always helps to mention that I’m a PBerian.
Writing was a hobby for me, a form of expression – therapy even – a vent for the pressures from work. I had a radio play produced and aired on BBC World Service in 2007. My first novel, Against the gods, was published in August 2008 and is selling on Amazon. I’ve written several short stories and a lot of poetry, one of which was published in Green Piece QCS.
I’ve been blogging since 2007, and that’s my first love in terms of writing – mostly because it’s really, really easy. Plus I have a column called Crystal Dings in The Lily Review, which is an online e-zine for women, and I do some writing on my publisher’s website. I also have a beautiful little girl that I’m doing my best to raise.
Q. How did you start?
I have always enjoyed reading, and I wrote good compositions in school, but I started writing seriously in Standard 6 or 7 when my English teacher, Ms Simbi Muniafu, gave us a poetry assignment and it was so fun that I couldn’t stop doing it. I started to write a little fiction too; I had this little exercise book where I wrote out my romantic fantasies with a red pen – I was furious when someone stole it from my desk, and I’d still like to get it back.
In my high school, everyone was writing novels, so I didn’t bother. But then a friend, Nora, said ‘I look like writing a book’ so I started working on one. That’s what eventually became Against the gods. It was never intended for publishing, it was simply an narration of my daydreams. Years later I heard about an annual playwriting competition on BBC Radio so I tried out. My first entry, Showcase, was a religious satire that I had a lot of fun writing. It got a commendation. The next year, I wrote a play called The Game Plan. It won joint third prize and was aired on BBC. The team included Jenny Horrocks and Hugo Boothby from BBC, as well as Packson Ngugi, Nini Wacera, Kariz [Metro TV] and Keith Pearson. I met them during the recording in Karen, and it was lots of fun. Winning that prize gave me confidence in my writing, and convinced me that I could actually go somewhere with it.
I found Like Chapaa through Twitter a few months back, and it looked interesting, though it seemed like some theoretical model that would never work in Kenya. I started talking to Kelvin and Nickel Pro helped me set up a website and define my services. I had a lot of contacts that I had taken for granted – to me they were just interesting people that I had worked with in the past. So when I got back to Kenya, I sent a text to everyone I knew announcing that I was back home, and many of them set up meetings with me, including my former bosses. That’s how I got my first clients.
Q. What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
Fear. That was really the biggest thing. I was afraid I wouldn’t make it, and I had no clue where to start. I’m not really sure how – or even if – I overcame it. I still have panic attacks and moments of doubt. Fortunately, my previous job required that I give three months notice, so by the time I started getting cold feet, a month had gone and I couldn’t rescind my resignation. The next time I got really scared, I already moved into a new house and bought a fridge and a DVD, so there was really no turning back.
My friends helped. They’d look at my CV and the things that I had done and ask me why I was so afraid. And once I started working with Like Chapaa, they made it seem possible, which kept me going. Once the website was up, it seemed less like a dream, and I felt like I could actually do this. And my first clients showed a lot of confidence in my skills, so that quashed some of the fear.
Another challenge was defining my services and rates. I knew that I wanted to write, and that I was good at editorial work, but beyond that I was clueless. Kelvin from Like Chapaa chatted with me on the importance of stating exactly what it is that I do, so I sat down and broke down my skill set and we guesstimated how much it should cost. I also sat with my former boss – my first client – and he asked me what I would charge him. I was shy at first, but he insisted I give him a ballpark figure, which he agreed to, and from that I was able to set my rates. I’ve only been at it for a month, so I’m still working out the kinks, but it’s a lot of fun so far.
I went to Sheria House to register a business name and realised that my brand, 3CB, would not work as a name because they don’t accept initials. Plus, I would have to add another word like media or publishing or something at the end of the 3CB, so I had to brainstorm for a while. I’m still working on that, because a business name is something you’ll be stuck with forever and you don’t want something that will make clients giggle and dismiss you. You want to look professional.
Q. What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in Kenya?
I’ve only just started out, so I don’t know much about that yet. For me, I still say the biggest thing is being afraid. Everyone looks at you like you’re insane, and a lot of times you wonder about it yourself. I often ask myself whether I shouldn’t just get a real job and stop daydreaming, especially when the bills are due and the clients aren’t paying on time. But I’m happier than I’ve ever been at my desk job. I enjoy the space to set up meetings at my convenience and still have time for myself and for my family. It’s fun juggling my different projects and taking a nap when I really need it. I feel fulfilled, like I’m doing what I want for a change, and it’s such a high being paid to do what I love. It’s a pretty good feeling to be home when my daughter gets off school – something that I could never manage with a regular 9-to-5, and it’s so freeing to finally get out of the rat-race. Some of the challenges I expect to face are tax issues, accountability and keeping my books in order, but I’ll deal with that when it gets here.
Q. What was critical to your success?
Work ethic. In business, contacts are everything, but beyond the networking and the phone numbers and the diaries, the key is your attitude to what you do. My first clients were former bosses and colleagues who sought me out and gave me tasks because they believed in me – often more than I believed in myself! They were people I had worked with in the past and built relationships with. They had seen me relaxed and seen me under pressure, and they had seen that I can perform. They liked my work and recommended me to others based on business relationships that had sometimes lasted for as little as two weeks. That’s much more powerful than any form of advertising or pimping. To be successful, do your work and do it well – that’s all there is to it because when you put your all into what you do, people will notice, and they will pay.
Timing plays a role too. I always knew what I wanted to do; I had a rough idea that I wanted to write and be paid. But starting my business was all about timing. Things fell into place cosmically in the last six months in a way that had very little to do with me. The landscape in Tanzania changed, my homesickness grew beyond bearing, my spiritual outlook shifted, my baby said she wants to come home … it was simply the right time for me to take this step, and I’m very glad I did.
Diversify. Writing is my primary passion, but editing is the main source of income for my business at the moment. Find a related skill or service that can pay the bills even as you work at your primary area of concentration. Always have a tangent.
And, of course, you have to believe that you can make it.
Q. What about the competition and marketing, do you need to advertise, print flyers participate to conferences or is it mostly word of mouth?
I’m only just starting out, so right now my business is based on past associations. It’s a good place to start but I believe I will need an active marketting campaign to build my business. I don’t know if flyers would be particularly effective. I think the best system for me right now would be networking in various forums and making my work more visible, both on and offline. I’m still figuring out the best way to do that.
Q. Do you think that in order to “make it big” online you have to live in a Western country? Or does Kenya offer more or less the same opportunities?
I love my home, and I intend to succeed here because there’s nowhere else in the world that I’d rather live. And since I launched my writing career online, then that’s the most logical place to start. Blogging is practically free, you get instant feedback, and you build a network through other bloggers and readers. I know you can make it much bigger in the West, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it here. In any case, you have to start somewhere, and you don’t know until you try.
Q. Where do you see yourself and your business (es) in the next 5 years?
Ironically, I want to keep my business small. I’m not a very ambitious person – I hardly even consider myself an entrepreneur as such. I’m just a girl pursuing my passion and making a lot of money doing it. I don’t really want to expand on a commercial scale, I just want to keep having fun and keep making money; this isn’t something I will retire from. Girls are expensive, and I have two to take care of, so of course I will keep looking for avenues to make more and more money to meet our needs. But I don’t want to go all conglomerate and lose touch. I want to reach people on a personal level and make a difference.
In five years time, I see myself doing the same thing that I’m doing now – working hard, having fun, building relationships, living my dream. I plan to diversify into TV and film writing, something I have only toyed with thus far, and I’d like to do some directing. I also want to get into radio, and I’d like to host my own rock show a few times a week. It would be fun to have regular columns in the big magazines and dailies; I have my eye on True Love and Eve, which I enjoy reading. I’d like my business to be big enough to buy me a house, but not so big that it takes over my life. I plan to buy my dream car in the next two years, and my dream house in the next five, but my business will always remain cosy, homely, and most importantly, mine.
Q. If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I would believe in myself more. People have always told me that I’m talented, but I’ve wasted a lot of time battling low esteem and self doubt. I would cut myself some slack and just get on with it. I’d also take my brand a little more seriously. 3CB the blogger and the tweeter was all about fun and letting it all hang out, which can be a good thing, but I think some of my online acquaintances would have a hard time seeing me as anything more than a diva or a joker.
Q. What advice do you have for internet business entrepreneurs in Kenya?
Again, I’m just starting out and learning the ropes, so I’m not sure quite how to do things. The most obvious thing is get a good internet connection, and don’t be so afraid to expose yourself online. TMI can be dangerous, what with identity theft and things like that, but at the end of the day, business is about people so you have to let your prospective clients see you as a person, not just a generic avatar or robot. Remember though that everyone you meet online is a potential client, so be professional; friendly, open, genuine, but professional. Also, remember the offline factor. As much as you’re working online, you will actually have to leave your computer once in a while and meet real live people. You can’t do everything through g-talk and webcam.
Crystal is an amazing writer. Make sure you check out her work.