Ian Ortega had a chat with Masaba Yunus, the founder of Mas Group, a conglomerate that has businesses such as Track24, Khainza Energy, Mbale FC, Blue Magic and Mas Consults. The interview was conducted straight from the Mas Group headquarters in Kisasi. Important to note that Kisasi is fast-becoming Uganda’s innovation region, Uganda’s Silicon Valley if one must say.
Ortega: Mas, tell me a little bit about yourself. Who is Mas?
Masaba: Mas is a young guy, still very young, born in Mbale, raised in Mbale, went to Primary School in Mbale. Then went to Jinja College (JICO) for O-Level and went to Kiira College Butiki for A-Level and pursued economics at University. Mas is also into business, he started business as early as Senior 6, where he was dealing in airtime in school and also games. I love games, I was selling games to Senior One students. I would simply go and duplicate CDs, do markups and make money. That’s how I made my first money so that in vacation I simply put this money into my first gamble.
Ortega: Where do you get this entrepreneurship thing, some people tend to say entrepreneurship is learned. It seems for your case it was born. Are entrepreneurs made or they are born?
Masaba: Most of the time it is the environment that shapes what you call entrepreneurship spirit in people. Everyone has that urge to one time, want to sell something. Entrepreneurship is having something to offer to someone who wants it, it is about demand and supply. As for me, it was all about identifying who wants and who has. I was not manufacturing airtime but I knew I could access airtime somewhere and sell it at a markup. I know you are wondering how airtime can be marked up but where there is scarcity, markups always work. People used to sell rolex in school at a markup. You put in that fee that you’ve sacrificed to go and get the goods from the village and then come and sell in school. So entrepreneurship is a multi-dimensional kind of aspect.
There are some people who are born naturally. They have that urge to be innovating. There are people who the environment creates. By the environment I mean, you are in an environment and there’s always something that you need but no one can provide it for you. So you feel the urge to provide it for those people in your same bracket who want it and can’t get it.
Ortega: In simple terms, you try to solve your own problem and then realize other people have the same problem and you scale it that way?
Ortega: You get to University, and do economics. What stops you from following the conventional route of finish University, go look out for a job, get employed, do you 8 to 5, get comfortable?
Masaba: I think my mum is one of the most disappointed people because she believed I having been one of the best students at A-level, she believed this was a routine I would have followed through successfully and gotten a very good paying job and make her happy by taking her sugar, while earning a good salary. But that was quite a disappointment to her.
The other side of the coin is that as early as my vacation, I had started a magazine which didn’t live to see its first birthday. We were doing a high school magazine to compete with Buzz. It was called BacPage. Four partners and I, we started this magazine. We don’t really know where the money came from but we had a business plan. I had a business plan, I went to my mum, she gave me some money, I went to my aunt, she too gave me some money. My other colleagues too did the same thing. So we got a few coins together and published a maiden copy. That was in 2009. We registered this company, it was our first company.
One of the biggest hurdles was breaking through the advertising industry because magazines without adverts can’t run. By then, social media was becoming a thing. So you wonder, how are you going to beat the Facebook adverts if your own advert in the magazine is costing 5 million at the back page. With 5 million, I can do more on social media. So the trade-off was quite high for an advertiser to think about 5 million invested in Bacpage so that they publish you behind and then they take to high school kids who with time are going to be accessing social media. 5 million on social media brought more returns on investment for an advertiser. So we didn’t live to see the first birthday, things didn’t go on well.
Personally, I quit the company, I left my other partners proceeding with the magazine. They went on to publish 3 more issues. When I left, I joined up with another colleague of mine called David and we started Blue Magic. He was already in printing so I joined him and we started Blue Magic mainly dealing in printing. We went back to our old schools and pitched to them, asked to print the school magazines promising a touch of what the students really want.
One of our first clients came in when I was still in campus that was during the 2010 elections. We didn’t have money. We had closed shop from our first business, we were now just campusers. My first office was still in my room. I was staying in Nkurumah so I had my desk, I had my chair and my bed beside me. And that was my office. When I said we now have a business, I would tell people; “you want a banner, okay, then pay a deposit of 50 percent.” With the 50 percent, I would be able to go to Nasser road and process this thing and bring back so that the client can pay me the balance. The profits kept on accumulating and we registered the company.
We went on to open accounts. One of the things we were so loyal to was keeping a record of every detail in regards to expenditure. Even if we had a bunch of just UGX 1500, we would be able to record it because we wanted to show where we had come from. Up to now, when I look at that book, I think back and realize maybe, that’s what made us disciplined and this could be the reason why Blue Magic has made 8 years and it’s still in existence. It is the oldest company that I own.
With Blue Magic after campus, we simply got big business from Uganda Red Cross, from schools, but the challenges were still many. One of the biggest challenges in printing is that you are always in a loop of debt. People don’t want to pay printing companies in time. You would have a printing job with a promise to pay after delivery. After delivery, for most clients it would mean after 3 months. As young people, you get derailed, you lose the morale and the energy that you are putting in all your effort but the clients don’t seem to recognize it. They want to just pull the companies down.
And I think that’s the reason most startups keep failing because people don’t want to pay them in time. It’s basically a big company taking a loan from you. And you are not able to find a similar loan from elsewhere at the same rate they have lent from you.
We opened up our first office, it was at MM Plaza. By then, I was then a designer, now I am retired. In that process, very many young people would come to me and say; “I want to start a company, how do I do it?” Because I had been in the field, they felt I had the experience that I would also guide them. If you see the first birthday of your company, you basically have to pay yourself on the back. In Uganda it is tight, 70 percent don’t live to celebrate that birthday.
Ortega: And I think most of these young businesses are failing not because they are not profitable but because they run out of cashflow. Most startups in Uganda tend to do business with other big businesses. Big Businesses believe in paying after 60 days or even 90 days. Now, those 90 days when a business has no cashflow, you get all this money locked up.
Masaba: And debt is also chewing up into your business because somewhere somehow you’ve borrowed money from money lenders, money sharks just to make sure this deal gets delivered on time. These lenders are charging interest of over 20 percent per month. You are not charging the same interest on the late payments from the deal you’ve delivered the other side. Maybe your margins were a meagre 50 percent. After 3 months, you are already in a negative 20 percent. By the time they pay you, the business could have closed, you would have run into debt and you will be cursing just hoping to go back into employment.
The biggest problem to businesses has not been that they are not profitable as you’ve said but because the big companies are giving them a lot of pressure which they cannot sustain.
Around the same time, I started doing consultancy for friends around taxation, filing taxes, opening up a company. I felt this could be a business. I thus registered Mas Consults in 2012. Our model was simple. We would do consultancy for free. You would actually pay for exactly what you have to pay for, we would guide you through the entire process. Since we had people known to us, we would easily go through some processes without going through lots of hurdles of bureaucracy. Taxation, I would charge just a small fee. Our model was that if I helped these companies to grow from the start, they don’t have money, but if they made money, they would come back in the next phase of their business. That is after one year. Let’s say they now want to bid, I would then charge for preparing a bidding document. I want to make this kind of stuff, a profile, I want to go big, that’s when we would make money. In 2014, we were recognized because of that model. We would hold business clinics for startups and startup managers on how to manage businesses. Because of the challenges I had gone through, I felt there was need to share with fellow young people on how to do things in a more proper and streamlined way.
Ortega: When you finish University, how do you overcome the fear? Because a lot of young people I have spoken to have this fear of I have my parents, they are all looking at me. How do you overcome all this, be contrarian and say; “I am not gonna be this.” What kind of mindset enables you to overcome all that societal fear, the parental fear, the fear of your peers and just choose to take on a risky path. Because entrepreneurship is risky, some days it feels like a real war zone.
Masaba: The biggest challenge is when you finish campus and you want to begin, the pressures would have piled up. I started when I was in vacation, I was not paying rent, I was not having bills for electricity. I was not having girlfriends to take away the money. When I started at that age, the fears were less. I was just starting a business just to get money to survive and in the process, save some money.
When I was finishing campus, we had just landed big deals. Just after campus, we had a deal from Uganda Red Cross as it was celebrating 150 years. We had some deals with our former school, printing their magazine. I felt confident that at this time if I had gone out to look for a job, I would be letting down the business. My partner was also willing to take on this path because we had been together since 2003 from high school. We were into this because we believed if we started from zero and we’ve grown this far within 3 years. Despite the challenges we had made it to 3 years in business, were we going to throw all this hard work to trash and start looking for jobs or we were going to put up a platform where we would also hire other people, our fellow friends who we were going to school with. The fear was less because the pressure was less. Had we begun late, maybe the pressure would be high. But because we begun early, the pressures were less.
If you leave campus right now, you want to go to a room of your own, you don’t want to go back home, so that is rent. You want to live on a decent meal, you have a girlfriend asking for MBs, so all that pressure if you don’t get a job that’s ready to pay for those bills monthly, then you are going to be chased out of the house, the girlfriend is going to run away. The pressure keeps piling on compared to me who had no pressure at that time. When I was leaving campus, I was a bit in a more comfortable position. I was opening up an office as people were graduating to go home to sleep, I was graduating to go into my own office. So I was feeling proud because the office was finally shifting from Nkurumah Hall to Nkurumah road. If I hadn’t started early, I would have had those fears of how am I going to push forward? The biggest challenge in Kampala is getting where to sleep. If you have where to sleep, the hustle begins from there. But if you don’t have where to sleep and how to pay those bills, then it is hard.
Personally I didn’t know many people in Kampala where I would maybe get that privilege in Kampala to sleep and work at someone’s office and hustle from there. The environment has changed a bit. I have friends who want to start out, I always offer office space for free for them to build their thing. When they grow, then they can take a route out. I have friends who I helped, some companies that I was doing consultancy for. I was like; “there is no need to fear, you want to pay rent when you’ve just started? No, don’t do that. You want to hire people when you’ve just started? No, don’t do that. Come and just occupy here, I have a desk here, sit here, do your hustle, when you make it, you will grow, and go out.”
Ortega: There are two things I get here. First is that when people are still young, they are more daring, they have less baggage, like, even if they failed, they could pick themselves up and start again. I often say that someone could be wrong for the next 5 years in their twenties and still wake up and they are just 28 years, and still start again.
Masaba: I failed in my first business after one year. But I didn’t feel the pinch because I was in school. I was just like; “mehn, let’s start another thing.” We had very many ideas drafted on paper. We still wanted another magazine. We were like; “maybe the partners were wrong, maybe we didn’t do something right somewhere.” But then we zeroed down to printing, we actually did printing for our former company, printing the magazine for them. When you are young, you can take big swings without having the fear. A baby can always fall down, break a hand and the hand gets put back in its position compared to an adult who will fall and next thing, they are lame. If you are a kid and you are starting out, you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to prove to anyone.
Ortega: Because basically when you have nothing, then you have nothing to lose.
Masaba: If you are already down, the only way you have is going up.
Ortega: Then you talk of people taking on early expenses before the business actually starts to make money. I call it the things that don’t add value to a business. People hiring many people when the business has yet to make its first money. I tell people the first role of a business is to make money, all else is secondary. Try to find a way to make money as early as possible.
Masaba: In business, there is P and L. If you have only the L, then it is not good. If you have only the L, you will close shop unless you have prospects of a 5 year strategy and you know in 5 years, I will be making the P. That’s fine. Without the P, there’s no vision of where you are going.
Ortega: What advice would you give to a young person just joining University? How should they structure out their path?
Masaba: One of the biggest challenge with kids joining University is their parents. That’s their biggest problem. It is the pressure that comes from parents that is going to influence most of their path. I always ask people in interviews; “why did you choose the course you are doing or did? Is it because the parents forced you or because you loved it? Are you ending up here by default that you were forced somewhere somehow?” It is a key thing to ask; “are you doing what you love?” Are you on your own path or you are being forced onto a path that your parents took?
This was a common thing in the past. “My dad is a teacher, my mum is a teacher, so then you will be a teacher. Everyone in that lineage, they want you to be a teacher.” But the question is, are you going to be better off than your past, are you going to be better off than your father? If the father was complaining about raising school fees, do you want to repeat that pattern, have the same struggles?
It comes down to the path you choose as a person, the choice should be yours. Your parents should just be guiding factors. The people you associate with at this point are very important. When I was at campus, I would associate with people slightly older than me, the kind of people I could learn from, learn about the challenges. I didn’t want to go back and ask my father; “what were the challenges you faced when you entered campus?” Their challenges were far different from our challenges now. If you are starting a business, don’t go to a very old person who made it long time ago and you want to go over certain things. They will tell you; “I smuggled.” So are you going to smuggle now? I will tell you the basics of how to do it in this era. People will tell you to go for Newspaper adverts, are they feasible in this era? The rules of the game have changed. The field is now levelled regardless of your age.
So don’t think because you are young, you are 18, you are going to meet a one Ian of 30 something years, so Ian is more advantaged or you are less advantaged. The field is almost level in the dotcom world. I can virtually operate a company without a person ever meeting me to see how old I am. But I have learned the rules, I know how to go over it.
Back to your question of campus, the simple thing is; “do what you love!” Get guidance not people pointing where you have to go. Get advice from people you believe are in the path that you want to go to.
Ortega: Speaking of a levelled field, how can you drum that down a bit more? The last interview I conducted was with Amos Wekesa. I had only met him once, I didn’t have his phone number. But I was able to set-up an interview with him given all these facts all because of social media. How do you get people to understand the fact that this ground is levelled? People still think they are having it worse. Do you believe the current generation has it much better than the previous ones?
Masaba: The current generation has a bigger advantage over the previous generation. I started a tracking business two years ago. There were very many businesses doing the same kind of thing but these businesses were being led by the old guard. These are guys who’ve been in business and they know how to follow their way of doing things. Here I come with all the energy. I am seeing a very big market of young people. I am seated on social media. Previously the class monitors, the head-prefects, the guild presidents had the biggest influence. Right now the person with the biggest influence is the person with the biggest following on social media. You have limitless number of people, interactions, and there are no boundaries. A guild president of Makerere will have influence over 30,000 students. On social media, you can have influence beyond that, multiply and cut across Makerere up to all Universities and have that influence.
When I joined the tracking business, I kept wondering why companies were not using this social media space. What then should young people do? They should come into this space. CEOs are on social media. I have gotten big deals from procurement managers who have just seen me talk about this kind of business on social media and they come into my inbox and request that we meet or I send them a quotation. It is important to brand yourself on social media. This is the biggest platform we have now. Become the flagbearer of your business on social media, give it that personal touch.
Every business needs a flagbearer. Even political parties in Uganda have that person, the one who bears the vision, and sells the party. During MP elections, the party president comes in to rally for support. So the same applies for a business, the flagbearer must associate with the brand, be proud of the brand, sell the brand as part of you. You are part of the company, you are part of the brand. Damage your reputation as a person, that means you are also damaging that of the company. The space now is big, but it is also levelled. People today have a bigger advantage than those before.
We joined social media when we were at campus. I have seen kids in high school, kids in Senior One with more followers than I do have right now. So I am always wondering; “can they convert this following at one point to money?”
Ortega: I fear to post on instagram because my sister in high school beats me there. She makes one post and gets thousands of LIKES. That staggers me. She’s seated on gold. She has not the slightest idea. So that means we live in a world of personal brands, where personal brands are scaling more than the corporate brands that we knew. All the popular brands right now are personal brands, Oprah, Elon Musk, Donald Trump, Kanye West. Even in Uganda, the popular newspapers today are personal brands, Kakensa Media, TVO, Seruga Titus..
But let me go back to your childhood. Did you ever face hardship growing up?
Masaba: I was a small kid! I grew up with four boys in our family, I am the third in that line. I mainly grew up in the shadows of my big brother. I really loved what he used to do. He was an artist, I took on art, but he left art. He was into media, I took on media. I set up my radio station back in 2006. In my village, we were broadcasting to an entire village at a radius of one kilometre. He was the presenter, I was the technical guy. I was the engineer. I was a footballer until I broke my hand. These days I just came back from retirement. Now I am playing non-league, veterans’ football. But I loved football a lot. I had my own team which I managed. Even in school, we had teams playing as clubs, I owned a club as well as I was a player within that club. That’s how much I loved football but after the injury, I was forced to cross over to another sport called Table Tennis.
I thrived in table tennis, I was the best for over 3 consecutive years. I just learned the basics and whoever taught me regretted why they had taught me because during the competitions, I became a menace to them.
I was small boy, people always thought I was too young. True I was young, having joined school a year before I was officially supposed to join. I was in Nursery for one week. After one week, my contract at school was terminated claiming I had learned numbers, and the alphabet. So the teachers thought I should just go home and sleep and wait for the start of Primary One the following year.
When I went home, my dad was like; “there is no one going to take care of you here. Let me take you to P.1, you sit with your buddies.” When they took me to school, my dad tells me I was rejected suggesting I was too young for P.1. Our village did not have the normal nursery school with baby, middle, top. It was all just one thing, nursery. And at Nursery, they had told me I had learned whatever I needed to learn.
So my father requested that the people at Primary One just babysit me. He paid an extra fee for me to stay in school. When it reached time for going out of P.1, it turns out I had passed. I transferred to North Road Primary School where I spent the rest of my 6 years, then went to Jinja College for 4 years. It was an amazing place though the rules were quite stringent. It was a very strict school.
My highlight at Jinja College was getting involved in Table Tennis. I was also a Chess Player, and I was almost suspended and expelled because of over-playing chess. I spent lots of time playing chess than reading books. At one time I was a very terrible performer because I was spending more time playing chess and omweso (traditional board game) compared to reading books. After S.2, I was given enough whips to perform. I quit those games just to concentrate on books. That was my growing up until A-level, I was still playing Table Tennis. I didn’t do any other sport in which I was really outstanding. I loved those simple sports where a small guy could thrive. I was short and the table would favour short people. People used to say, “the guy is short, he can see all angles, bend easily.” My short height became an advantage.
When I was in vacation, one of the things was to join a table tennis club. I went for trials, I didn’t know the basics, I failed flat. When they took me for playing their champions, I thrived. It was quite confusing for the guys. They wondered why I didn’t know the basics of how to hold a bat, but then you know how to play, you know how to win. For me, the whole thing was about winning. Can I win a game? I learned how to win, I didn’t learn the basics of how to get to winning. I just did all that it took to win, period.
Ortega: Let’s talk failure. When I met you some weeks back, you talked about this failure of Transporter and I was shocked because business people rarely talk about their failures. What has been your biggest lesson out of failure? What’s your view of failure?
Masaba: When I failed on Transporter, it was very painful. I was employing over 35 people. These are guys who would wake up everyday counting on you, looking up to you. These are riders. Most were University graduates, they had just finished campus. When Transporter didn’t work out and we had to write off the entire project, it was very painful to see people walk away from you. It was very painful to partially close down the office.
As I went into a three months holiday meditating on what I was going to do next, I was doing consultancy. But consultancy is just building other people’s businesses. I wasn’t building my own real business that I could see my kids inheriting. So I continued doing consultancy nonetheless. The advantage with consultancy is you get exposure, knowledge. People are always asking you the hard questions and you are always seeking the answers and in the process, you get to know very many things that you didn’t know earlier about even your own business.
Ortega: But didn’t that moment depress you?
Masaba: It wasn’t quite depressing.
Ortega: Personally, whenever I fail, I crash so badly. There’s that moment when you know you are supposed to be starting another business but you’ve just failed from one business, now you are just there scouting around for what next am I solving? How do you handle that process? Some of the people I know who have failed, most never come back.
Masaba: I hadn’t failed completely because I had Blue Magic going on despite having become an inactive partner. I had left the business for my other partner to run the show. We would only balance up the books. The business however I had put in my all was Transporter. I had put in my all, the energy, the brains, the resources. It was something that was big. We had built it but when it failed, I was not afraid of closing it. When I projected at the time, it was either about willing to make more losses hoping that one day a miracle would happen or I would shut it down then and save myself from the embarrassment of going into debt.
When I closed down, it was gradual. When we closed down until the last bike was left. I had this one bike and I said to myself; “I am not selling this particular one. I am going to stick onto this.”
By then Safeboda was starting, it had a different model. I wanted to do something like Safeboda upcountry. So I went to Mbale where I grew up from. I had been so detached from the place and was now more of a visitor. I went there to do research. I had some money on me, I had just won a grant under Transporter.
This is the grant I took on vacation. I didn’t want to reinvest it in Transporter because I knew where it was headed to. So when I went to Mbale I started interacting a lot with boda guys, finding out their challenges. I was drawing up an insurance model for boda guys whereby they would be paying as low as UGX 500 to be part of this model. And get them organized. I had divided up my days, I would spend 3 days in Mbale and 4 days in Kampala.
I had opened up an office in Mbale mainly doing consultations. During consultations, turned out the biggest problem was not actually insurance but theft of their bikes. So I come back to Kampala and try to crack a deal with one of my OBs who was running a tracking company and we failed to agree on a few terms.
In that process, I decide to research about tracking itself. I had laid off everyone except one person who was my accountant, who would help me generate the projections and so on. He was my most trusted boy. Whenever we did the projections, they were looking amazing but he couldn’t also believe it would happen.
At the same time, I get a call from one of my colleagues who was looking for a job. I had trackers to examine and see how they work. So I tell him, “look this is your job. Your job is to find out how this stuff works and we go forward.” One week later, we install it in the bike that had remained behind. We test it, it works. So I decide, my first clients should be the companies from which I had bought my bikes.
I first organized myself because I had now grown. I went registered the business, drew up all the necessary documents. I didn’t want to get a shock of my life when I am cutting a deal and I am asked about my account or something. Then I make fliers and send them out. Next thing I get is a call; “can you come and install for me tomorrow?” We go and install and the client says he has business for us.
By then I was also a panelist at Urban TV doing an economics show every Monday. After the show one Monday I walk to TVS and inquire about the person providing their trackers. They give me the price they were getting those trackers. I promise to beat that price. They then give me a huge order of over 500 pieces. I had just spent one month in business, here I was with a business of 500. The guy assumed I had stock. So I told him to give me time so I first go look at the stock I had. Honestly I only had two trackers back at office with 2 staff.
The following day I come back to meet the guy. I tell him; “you wanted 500 but I won’t be able to provide you with 500 right now. I will provide you with half the number but in two weeks time you will have the 500.” I ask him for an LPO for the 500. And that was our breakthrough in the industry. When we got those 500 pieces, we ordered for excess stock and when we stocked, we started advertising, going to whichever company was selling bikes on loan. What we would do was to simply beat the price of the people that were supplying them trackers. We had nothing to lose. We had few people. Our model was simple, train the guy from the client’s side. All we did was installation. My only overhead costs were super low. I had learned that employing very many people doesn’t translate into making a lot of money. You may have all the pride of employing 100 people but if you are not money, no one will ever remember you. Only the people you employed and didn’t pay will be the ones to keep cursing about you.
When we cracked that deal, we broke into the market. Our overhead costs were minimal. I was employing only 2 people but controlling business in big volumes. One of them was a telecommunications engineer called Jude. He was doing all the work, setup, plan, make sure everything is online and the systems are working. I was doing strictly one thing, selling. My job is to sell, Jude’s job was to make sure the systems are working and the accountant’s job was to make sure the money is balancing out. That is how we broke into the business and since that time, I have never looked back. We had hurdles, we had challenges, one time we got robbed of all our laptops. 3 months after setting up, all our laptops were robbed but we got back better because we learned that data has to be set online.
We developed systems that we started backing up our data online. We work online. If there is no internet, we shall tell you we are unable to really work much. Young entrepreneurs are always asking for accounting packages such as quickbooks. That doesn’t matter a lot now. You just have to setup a google sheet and you will have all your accounts in that online excel sheet. Wherever you are, you will be able to access it. There are lots of templates online such as customer management, sales management, name it all. It opened up our eyes to systems we didn’t know were available.
Our first year target was to work on bikes. We break into the market. Second year, we start bidding because we would have gotten the experience. Some people want to rush and jump steps. Whenever we would get lots of demand, we would cut down on advertising. Because we didn’t want to grow faster than our capacity. We’ve intentionally been having a slow but steady growth.
We are making two years in August 2018. The biggest thing you can get in marketing won’t come through advertising, it is that one client you’ve handled really well and has made that recommendation. Majority of clients we’ve worked with have come through recommendations from the first clients. Up to now, we do little advertising because we want to grow steadily until we have capacity to handle everyone extremely well.
Ortega: I agree with you on the word of mouth. Wherever I have done better in business, it’s because of word of mouth. I think nothing beats word of mouth. When you look at influencer marketing, it’s a replication of word of mouth. You’ve done Track24, you are now the biggest player in this industry, what would you say are the three core lessons you’ve gotten about business? What are those rules one should not break in business?
Masaba: One is organisation. You have to be organized from the word start. I had learned a lot of lessons from the previous businesses, some of the businesses had been sketchy, I had not been straight with some things that I was doing. For Track24, I was now a consultant. I had learned from my failures. I spent 3 years organising myself, planning for the next big thing. I didn’t want to go down and come back small. I wanted to go down and come back with a bang. So one of the things I did right was organising the company (Track24) before inviting people in. Never invite visitors in your house if you haven’t yet roofed. They will diss you. Only invite people into your house when you are ready for them. One of the key things was organising the company from the word go, things like a company profile, business cards, website. Organisation has been key. We’ve been so organised, we are straight, we pay our taxes, we are registered with all the bodies and we do business in a very legit manner. Give the employees contracts, have proper documentation.
You need a clear system where when someone comes into your company, it is clear who to speak to. In case of emergencies, we’ve had crises before such as when there was a suspension on selling simcards. We were one of the most affected companies. We had another crisis where I was not around in Kampala. But because of organisation, and the clear separation of roles, the engineering team handled this very well.
Another key thing is focus. What are you planning to be? What are you aiming to be? Are you building a company for today’s food only? A company for home rent? Or you are building a generational company where your child can come and replace you? Do you want to build a company that will die with you when you die? For Track24, I am building a company that should be able to run smoothly even when I am not around. I have put in place systems. Focus is about the vision, where you are going. What is your strategic plan? My strategic plan was to concentrate on a particular thing in the first year. I couldn’t bid for any contract in the first year, I considered it a waste of resources. What matters is where you are going, not how fast you are going. If we didn’t learn from our year one challenges, we would not be prepared for the volume of business that would come in our year two.
Our inaugural engineer got a better deal with MTN, he had to leave. But he left behind a system he had built for the next engineer to inherit. The next engineer too was taken by Huawei, but there was still a system in place. Systems, organisation, focus and strategic planning, those are key.
Ortega: The worst thing that can happen to a man is for opportunity to come and you are not prepared. Because everybody cries about opportunity. But the worst thing is when opportunity comes and you are not a prepared man.
Masaba: I will give you an example of how opportunity comes when you least expect it. These bidding guys came and were shocked that we were doing business much better than our competitors who’d been here for decades, everything about us awed them, the swiftness of our communication. There’s nothing like a guy asking you for a quotation today and you send it the following week.
I wanted a local supplier to do for my gypsum at our reception. Several guys came inspected the place and then I asked them for quotations. Till now, one year later, they have never given me a quotation for gypsum. So I wonder, you want to grow, but you can’t even give a quotation. I sensed the guys were terrified by the size of the work.
One key thing is people ought to network within their industries. When I was active in printing. Within the printing world, you are interconnected. So if I have this deal, I will call my colleague and inquire about the right price to quote, know about the most efficient supplier. Those relationships help you thrive.
When I joined tracking, people were looking at me as their biggest rival. I wanted to be their friend. Because imagine we are all facing a problem with phone lines, why not come together and we do something?
Ortega: We live in two worlds. Some people live in the scarcity world where they think if you win this, I lose. I have recommended business to many of my competitors and they got shocked. Some moments you are not ready to handle a client, why not recommend them to your competitor? Who saved Apple? Was it not its biggest rival, Microsoft?
Masaba: Recently I sourced technology from a rival company. They were shocked that I was going to them. I told them bluntly; “you’ve been here longer than me, you have the experience, but I have the opportunity, I am the one with the deal.” They had never seen it before that a rival company comes to sit on the same table with them on a partnership.
Ortega: So how do you build that win-win? People have the mentality that if I win, you lose?
Masaba: It depends on the background you are coming from. I have seen associations for media houses. You guys of online media houses have an association. So if someone came from this background of media, they would understand the win-win situation. They will come with that mentality of wanting to work together. There are people who have formed consortiums to be able to win tenders. The guys of kasasiro (garbage) formed a consortium in order to win the KCCA tender.
Ortega: When you think of success, what names come to your mind? Why those names?
Masaba: The first name that comes to mind is the Late Mulwana. Success is when you go away and whatever you built still lives on. I call it success when you walk away from something you built and live it to people that have come after you and it is still of the same quality or even better. Look at Apple, Steve Jobs left but even after his death, Apple is still producing great products. Success is what comes after you’ve left, the legacy you leave behind.
Another person that comes to mind is my father. When he passed away, everyone expected that being a family of boys, we would be fighting over his property. But none of us ever did that. He instilled in us discipline that were able to see beyond that property. He passed on certain values. My dad prepared us for the worst. His death was actually a turning point for me. It was a re-awakening. I look up to the things he taught me. Fathers of today ought to prepare their kids for the worst so that they are able to be there with or without you (the parent).
Ortega: Jordan Peterson often asks; “Parents do you want your kids safe or you want them to be strong and prepared?”
Masaba: I watched this TED Talk where this school has build these spaces that put kids in a daring environment, something that exposes them to danger. They are busy climbing trees so that when they are out in the real environment, they are prepared.
Ortega: We are creating an overly-sensitive generation of kids with hurt-feelings, the victim-brigade of easily offended people. People who can’t stand an argument But beyond that, speaking of legacy, 2000 years from now, you are certainly not gonna be here, whatever you’ve done now won’t matter. Given this fact, why do you still do what you do? There are entire civilisations we only remember by name, such as the Mayans. No one knows who was the richest Mayan.
Masaba: It’s quite scary in that perspective. Look at the generations before the ark. The entire generation was wiped out. The difference is, we now live in the most heavily documented generation. You can now go back and trace Ian Ortega’s father, what he was doing, what do you learn from him? 2000 years aside, the real motivation for me is that I am scared of being poor. If you’ve been poor before or interacted with poverty, you don’t wanna have a share of it. It’s scary to wake up when you have all the potential, all the energy and you go to the streets and find a lame guy sewing shoes to make a living and you who is able-handed, you want to go and beg. The question is; “do you want your kids to have a better life than you did?”
Ortega: I have been thinking hard about poverty and wealth. And I realize poverty rids you of options. When you are poor, you have no option. You can’t take your kid to a better school, you don’t have that option. Everything is mapped out already for you. Want healthcare? There you go, to the hospital for the poor. Poverty takes away your options. The worst thing in life is to have no options. Money buys you options. We can both be sick but there’s an option of dying in a dignified way, in a better hospital. I enjoy eating local food, but it’s because I have an option of eating something different. If local food was my only option, then I wouldn’t enjoy eating it.
Masaba: That’s what drives me. When I imagine a thought of not being able to afford rent in Kampala, remember all the people who told me to get a job and how happy they would be. There’s nothing worse than being used as an example of those they advised and they failed. There is nothing worse than going back with your head low having failed to prove the doubters wrong.
There’s an animation titled; “Animal Planet” with a racoon character. It goes to collect water for its family. The kids of the racoon are bragging to their friends that the father is bringing them water. The racoon goes to a well where there are rhinos and buffalos fighting for water. He walks through and gets the water. On his way back, he’s knocked down by the buffalos and he couldn’t make it. The racoon’s kids couldn’t stand the shame having prior bragged to the friends about their father. The racoon feels so low but this becomes the biggest revelation of his life, he goes on a quest and he became the biggest hero of the village. He didn’t just bring water to the family, he now goes on to bring water to the entire village.
This tells us a lot about legacy, the things you work for everyday, it’s not just you working for yourself, there are lots of people who believe and count on you. Ian you don’t want to wake up tomorrow and you tell people; “I give up on this stuff.” Very many people will lose hope. Imagine Ian failing on his own principles, that’s a full generation giving up on everything. It is a burden that you carry subconsciously.
When Transporter closed shop, the biggest fear was announcing it out. My mum would have said to me; “I told you, why don’t you get a job?” Those words of; “I told you can haunt you.”
Ortega: I was watching David Goggins, the hardest man on earth. He’s built this motivational business that he doesn’t want to scale so fast for one simple reason; most people in motivation scale so fast that they stop living by most of the principles they preach. You know how people come and talk to you about hustle, hustle but are they really hustling? Are they waking up at 5am as they say? It’s easy to tell someone else; “wake-up at 5am.” David Goggins lives by that fear, he doesn’t want to outscale his own habits.
But you are also a movies guy. What’s that one big quote that you keep on referring back to? For me, it’s Steve Jobs quote that affected me on a deeper level. When you look around you, all the things that you call life were made up by people who are not much intelligent than you, not much smarter, and that’s life. And the minute you understand that, you realize you can change things, you can build your own things, you can write your own books. That life is not just showing up. For your case, what’s that quote? Your wake-up call?
Masaba: It’s actually not a quote but a dialogue from this movie that features Rango. At the start, Rango is undefined. Rango is not Rango. He’s no one, he’s unknown. He is in a box. He’s having life but it’s not as fun as it should be. So he realizes all he needs is a sudden happening and a hero is born. And no sooner had he mentioned this to himself than an accident happened.
When my dad died, I took it as a sudden happening. In such a moment, do you choose to become a hero or you remain in a desert and get killed? Rango was no one, he decided to write his own story and make history. History is nothing other than ‘his story.’ Rango moves out of that box and wants to be the coolest guy around, an actor. By leaving that box, that comfort zone, he’s able to step into the possibilities of being anyone. The moment you believe in yourself, believe in your abilities, the whole world will be ready for you. Rango is that movie I will always recommend everyone to watch. Look out for the dialogue. The other movie is war dogs. Look at things from a different perspective. Where you see war, an entrepreneur is looking at what a soldier is wearing, he’s calculating from the helmet to the gun, how do I make money off that? In Politics, an entrepreneur wants to be printing the posters for the candidates.
Ortega: What’s the habit you are most trying to change right now?
Masaba: I am a late riser. My alarm goes off at 5:30am but I leave bed at 8am. At one point I was really trying to adjust but then I noticed it’s not about what time you wake up, it’s about the output you have during the time you are awake.
Ortega: I actually tweeted something along those lines and said; “maybe we’ve gotten this time management thing wrong.” That it’s not about time management, it’s about energy management. Can you do the most when the energy is at peak?
Masaba: People have just crammed this whole philosophy of time management and early bird, early worm. But what if you are the early worm that gets eaten? Most times I work till late because I come in late. I hate sitting in jam. I rather come to office at 9am.
Ortega: What is the one thing you believe in that most people would disagree with you on?
Masaba: Very many people think I don’t believe in God, but I am a believer. I believe in the existence of a supernatural. I believe there is that guiding factor, that supernatural force that guides our life in a certain way.
Ortega: You have this one moment to talk to the entire world. What do you tell them?
Masaba: Simply believe!
I forgot to mention about our biogas project, Khainza Energy. The concept really works. We’ve packaged biogas, that’s 90% methane. You will buy it the normal way you buy your LPG only difference is ours will be at half the price. We have a farm in Najjera and Mukono where we do our prototyping. The biogas burns just well and doesn’t smell. It is clean. We are looking forward to launching out our liquefied biogas.