Despite enrolling for a degree in Geospatial Engineering at University of Nairobi, Dennis Gachoki knew his future is in the web. He had to get into the web space therefore, he approached his father for capital and with a prior investment of Kshs 100,000 they opened Focus Print Writers. “This was a web-platform that provided press release services, article writing services, academic writing and SEO services with people abroad as the target market”, says Dennis, co -founder. After a couple of months, they decided to go dream bigger hence the birth of Focweb Technologies. That was three years ago.
Currently, the team at Focweb is comprised of 9 people that is five full time developers, one guy each at operations and sales and marketing and two co-founders. Dennis describes Focweb as a dynamic web development company aiming to create innovative web and mobile applications. With a number of applications out there as testament to their innovation, they aim for bigger projects. Recently, they won a tender for creating an e-procurement system for Tana Water Services Board that will allow people to bid for tenders online. Piloting the portal with the ICT Board, they have been able to go live last Thursday with the goal of launching this system to other water agencies and eventually other state agencies. According to him, this shows that they have succeeded in placing themselves at a competitive position that gets them noticed.
“You realize that you have created a solution to a problem that the stakeholders had not realized existed. All you have there now is something that no one will use.”
Over the years, they have come to learn a new way of creating solutions. Dennis says that his company has moved from the model of creating solutions then presenting them to the market. “You realize that you have created a solution to a problem that the stakeholders had not realized existed. All you have there now is something that no one will use. We learned that to solve a problem, we need to involve organizations or stakeholders that understand the problem. Partnering with them will be more effective. We are good at development, therefore, we will be the development partners, while they become the implementing partners. That’s a smarter model”
Dennis envisions Focweb as an innovation hub and has taken steps in proving this. Lipa plus is an innovative mobile application that they have a stake in. Lipa plus, which is being launched this September at Demo Africa, allows vendors to accept card payments by swiping the card on a hardware attached to their mobile phones. This will open up the market that is restricted to “cash-only” mode of payment and potentially reach out to a wider customer base. In as much as this is an innovative idea, it has been faced with a myriad of challenges, especially from bigger and more experienced payment services provides. Only time will tell the future and impact of Lipa Plus.
Before we go on with the big strides that they have managed to achieve at this point, we must go back and see the colossal mistakes and reality checks that they have had to got through.
Lack of experience in the industry
“We created this from our own ideas of how a county should be run, we did not ask them. Once the system was completed…. They took it but have never used it. We were not paid for it.”
Dennis studied Geo spatial engineering. He did not have prior experience in the web development field, let alone the business side of it. Neither did his father. Granted to say, this journey has been hard and treacherous. “We wanted to do bigger things, therefore we wrote a 26 page business plan on a website targeted for online hotel listings. We had no experience in the web space, but we luckily got a web guy who got us going. The first 3 months were tough, we only got one client.” They then decided to rethink their strategy.
“We needed to be competitive, therefore, we had to be innovative. We had ties to Kirinyaga Central Constituency, therefore we came up with a web application that digitizes county management from managing CDF projects and funds to managing committees called Bunge Soft. “We created this from our own ideas of how a county should be run, we did not ask them. Once the system was completed, we presented it to them. They took it but have never used it. We were not paid for it.” This was clearly a loss due to the amount of resources invested in the project.
You would think this would discourage them from creating software without consulting the target market. That would not happen until much later. “We now knew that we can create web applications, therefore we went ahead and created a second application, Sheria Soft. This is a web application for law firms which would manage client files, keep track of pending cases and even manage client billing.
“The reception of Sheria Soft was good, and we were even featured in media. We got a lot of inquiries from our first version and converted those into 5 clients. This was encouraging to us and we knew we had done a good thing.” However, after some time they realized that it wasn’t doing as good as they expected. Maybe the problem was that law firms didn’t need this. If what they had was working, then there is little incentive to change.
From bad to worse
“…we got interest from a Canadian pensioner on our software…..He convinced us that Sheria Soft was similar to E-Court and with a little customization for a fee of 80,000, he can take the software global, with us owning 20% of it. Naturally, we were excited. He sent over a contract and I just signed it. This was a big mistake.”
A lot of good came from Sheria Soft, they were noticed. Although not everyone wanted Sheria Soft, they recognized the skills of Focweb Technologies and contracted them for other jobs. One such offer came from Kenya Airports Parking Services Limited (KAPS). KAPS had just won a tender from Narok County to develop an e-payment service. KAPS then contracted Focweb to do the job.
“We took the project on board and everyone in the office was focused on its development.Towards the end of the project however, problems started creeping in. There was a case in court that contested the awarding of the tender to KAPS. This was our first interaction with politics.”As we have come to learn, court cases mixed with politics take a long time to be resolved, therefor it took several months for Dennis’ team to be paid for their work. “This was very frustrating”, he says.
That wasn’t the end of their problems. Off the recognition from Sheria Soft, they got interest from a Canadian pensioner on their software. “He had a start-up called E-Court, an online arbitrary system that allowed people to settle matters out of court using online lawyers. He convinced us that Sheria Soft was similar to E-Court and with a little customization for a fee of 80,000, he can take the software global, with us owning 20% of it. Naturally, we were excited. He sent over a contract and I just signed it. This was a big mistake.
When we started developing the system, we realized that the system requirements were big and had nothing to do with Sheria Soft. He had already sent a deposit of 40,000 that we spent on expenses, therefore we couldn’t refund back and opt out of the contract. Once he saw this, he started preparing a law suit against us, claiming damages of $10,000, equivalent to Kshs 850,000 back them. That’s when knew that I had hurt the company.” Luckily, they are still here.
Growing from mistakes, the future is bright
“Our vision as Focweb is to be a web innovation powerhouse. We want to lead in creating innovative web solutions.” Dennis has an idea on how Focweb can achieve this. “Our short term goals involve empowering businesses, institutions and organizations with our solutions. To do this, we need to place ourselves strategically in the market, in order to be competitive. We do not want not want to work with individuals as we have done in the past. This has less impact.” He believes that he can do better with smart partnerships with stakeholders
Being young you need to be smart
When asked if his age has made it harder for him to get potential clients signed up, he said that this was not an issue as he found way around it. “I have to be smart. When my team goes to meet clients, I hide behind the scenes. Older people that me, for example my father or sales and marketing team lead the meeting and I am introduced as a developer or web consultant, not as the CEO or founder. This works like a charm and I am okay with it for the time being. In two years, I will be ready to take up the CEO role, I will have more experience. Now I want to focus solely on innovation and growth.”
Focweb technologies is not out of the woods yet and challenges still exist, like the poaching of their developers by big companies but they are determined to overcome them and achieve the goal of becoming a web innovation powerhouse. I wish them well.