Reflecting on our first year building a design consulting company

It is just about nine months since I penned my first article about starting a design thinking and software consulting company. As per my plans, I was to do quarterly updates. I didn’t. I was extremely overwhelmed. Better late than never, though.

I won’t delve too much into the motivation behind starting the company as I feel I talked about it comprehensively in my first post.

So how has it been? What were the high and the low moments? What did we learn and what do we intend to accomplish in 2019? I will attempt to answer these questions in this blog post.

First, who are we?

It has been reasonably tricky explaining how our company, Tanasuk Africa, exists as a brand. The reason is that we also do business as iHub Software Consulting (iSC). We started our company based on a branding agreement with iHub that allowed the two entities to co-develop the iSC brand. Thus, we use the name iHub Software Consulting, but legally we are a separate operational and legal entity called Tanasuk Africa. Makes sense?

What do we do? The short and sweet — we are a design thinking and software consulting company working with corporates, NGOs, and startups to build products (both digital and non-digital) for African markets.

Now that that is out of the way let me get into the exciting part of this article. I will start with our significant achievements in 2018.

The Highs

#1. Established an excellent company culture

It is not by accident that this item is the first item on my list. Culture wins all the time.

Additionally, it is always easier to get it right at the onset. Trying to change an established organizational culture is a nightmare! Consequently, when we started, we identified a good culture as a prerequisite to the success of Tanasuk Africa.

We centered our culture on three core beliefs and our vision. When selecting the 3, we looked at Daniel Pink’s three motivational factors from his book Drive — autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy is about self-direction, mastery is about being good at things and getting good at new ones, and purpose is about being part of something big. From this, we identified our three core beliefs as:

  • Tanasuk Africa trusts you — responsible people know that they need to do
  • Tanasuk Africa believes you are the best at what you do — we love our work, we are good at it, and we are getting better
  • Tanasuk Africa puts people first — we believe that a workplace built around people, rather than money, can be fun, meaningful, and also profitable

It is one thing to have this lofty statements, and it is another to practice them deliberately. In a separate article (so that this article is not a novel), I will delve into the actions that have helped us make the statements a reality.

#2. Built and grew a great team

Tanasuk Africa started operations in January 2018. Three of the former iHub Consulting team members joined the new company taking the headcount to five as we started the company. For the first three months or so, we complimented the small team with a couple of good consultants. As we grew in confidence and improved our business pipeline, we started hiring. Our culture and vision was a big selling to the team members that joined. The original team was composed of Joy Kendi (Product designer extraordinaire & scrum master), Ansel Melly (a top-notch back-end engineer & one of the happiest souls I know), Zack Adell (an extraordinary designer), and Mutugi M’narobi (partner and our ops guru). Zack joined IDEO.org as a Communications Designer shortly afterward. Despite the loss, we were happy about him taking on a new challenge at IDEO.org

Mike Manuthu, our head of engineering, and Dennis Muthuri, our senior front-end engineer joined shortly afterward.

One of the early team lunches at Mama Rocks

We then had our first UX research intern Joy Wambui who was followed by John Owuor, our Android Developer. Our second intern Peter Chencha, a back-end developer, followed shortly after John. Elizabeth Kagimbi then joined as our UX/UI Designer. The next employee was Brian Ngaira who joined as a UX researcher. Joy Wambui moved from an intern to a full-time employee at the same time Brian joined. We closed the year with the addition of a project management intern Cate Shiro bringing the team to 13 at the end of 2018!

The team grew to a point where we always had to reserve a table for team lunches

#3. The team lunches

Most companies do one end of year event and a couple of team building events. At Tanasuk Africa, we believe in various small gestures over a few grand ones. To this end, we have team lunches every other week. One is a short team lunch, and the other is an afternoon out. The meals allow us to interact and get to know each other outside the office. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they were the most memorable activities in 2018 for the team. We went to more than 15 restaurants, and each team member got the chance to select a location (of course within the budget).

Lava Latte has some of the best food
Road House has good nyama choma. The trick is to order well in advance as the waiting time can be long
Habesha is one of the places we went for lunch. Team lunches happen irrespective of the number of people working at the office
Bao Box was a team favorite because of the games
There is someone in the team with a taste for fancy looking drinks. Lol!
You can’t go to Habesha and not take coffee
Cj’s dessert is on the next level

We have a full archive of photos from the team lunches, and we frame a couple and hang them in the office further down the line.

#4. Validating our value proposition and meeting our revenue target

The big bet we made when we started Tanasuk Africa was that the design thinking was going to be central to everything we did as a company. This was even though we knew many potential clients were still unwilling to pay for it as the business value of design is not very clear in the African market yet. However, we believed if we pitched it well we would get converts. We thought combining the design thinking approach and excellent software development would lead to better value for everyone we worked it.

It seems we were right. We have signed a good number of pure design thinking work and design-led software projects. Design thinking has allowed us to work across different parts of Kenya and Africa at large. Team members have traveled to Mogadishu, Johannesburg, Juba, Malakal, Marsabit, and Garissa to conduct fieldwork or run workshops. We believe this will be only better.

Joy Kendi, Design Lead at Tanasuk Africa, conducting design research in Malakal in South Sudan

Our culture and approach allowed us to hit our 2018 financial target. This also validated Tanasuk Africa’s believe that a workplace built around people, rather than money, can be fun, meaningful, and even profitable.

There are many other items I would love to highlight. However, for brevity, I will end with the four I have shared above.

Areas for improvement

Despite being a good year, we faced a couple of challenges as Tanasuk Africa in 2018. We will be seeking to address these challenges in 2019.

  1. Cash flow — this is the most prevalent issue for a young company like ours. Our payments were almost two weeks later than the due date for our bills
  2. Onboarding new staff members — as we grew, we realized that we were not doing a great job helping new staff members understand the Tanasuk Africa way. Some team members could do it well while others couldn’t. This boiled down to us not correctly documenting the Tanasuk way
  3. Capacity building — we were not intentional about how we did capacity building for the team. It was left to on-project experience and personal initiative
  4. Branding and marketing — a lot of our leads were inbound and from our immediate network. We didn’t do a good job getting our name known outside our immediate network

What do we have in store for 2019?

First, we are working to address the things we didn’t do very well in 2018. Top on that list is resolving our cash flow issues. This will require aggressive business development combined with quick project execution. We already have the receipt for both, and it is a matter of getting down to work now.

Second, we are looking to double the team this year and take on more work across Africa. This means we have to get serious about documenting our process and onboarding new team members to ensure our culture stays intact. If we get this right, it will allow us to hit our 2019 revenue target which is almost 4 times our target for 2018.

Third, we are looking to establish Tanasuk Africa/iSC as a voice in the design thinking and software development space. This is mostly an outcome from the first two, but it will still require us to get the word out regarding the work we do.

Shoutouts

First, to the fantastic team that makes Tanasuk Africa. Without the team, there is no Tanasuk Africa. We have a diverse set of individuals in the team who together deliver on some of the most challenging problems. As at the end of 2018 the team was made up of Joy Kendi (Design Lead), Mike Manuthu (Engineering Lead), Dennis Muthuri (Senior Front-end Developer), Joy Wambui (UX Researcher), Ansel Melly (Senior Back-end Developer), Liz Kagimbi (UI/UX Designer), John Owuor (Mobile App Developer), Brian Ngaira (UX Researcher) and our interns Peter Chencha (Back-end developer), Amos Korir (Android Developer) and Cate Wanjiru (Project Management). Each contributed immensely to a successful 2018.

Second, to everyone that has given us the opportunity to work with them this year. They placed their faith in us, and without them, we won’t exist.

Happy new year from the Tanasuk Africa team! Mike missed this day out, so he isn’t in the photo.

Interested in working with us? Reach out via consulting@ihub.co.ke.