By: Simon Dixon
Edited by: Melanie Jansen
Ever have one of those ideas, where you stop and immediately think, “that’s crazy!”? Yet at the same time you’re thinking, “that’s cool!”? Winnie, my wife (and co-founder of Kwangu Kwako), usually responds with an, ‘Oh boy!…’ at these moments, but it turns out, the craziest ideas often turn out to be the best ones! In 2015, I had one of these, ‘crazy but cool’ ideas, which is exactly how Kwangu Kwako, our social enterprise, was conceived. You’ll have read about that process in our first blogs. Well, more recently in January, I had another one of these moments and I’d like to share it with you here.
It all started when I received a reminder about Sankalp, an international gathering of all the great and the good of the social enterprise scene. The Africa event is held right here in Nairobi, this year it was on the 23/24th of February. We immediately jumped on the opportunity and decided we had to be there! This would be an excellent networking opportunity to find further potential investors. The problem was, how to make sure we attracted the investors we want, while impressing them and leaving a lasting impact? I had been thinking a lot about how we could access the right people, use our networks to get advance intros and recommendations, start dialogue before the event, arrange meetings in advance etc. But doesn’t everyone do that? How could we be different? Stand out?
There was the option of an exhibition booth, but it was $1,500 and cashflow is particularly tight for the business, we would have to make good use of the space. With this in mind, the new question became how to make the best use of the exhibition booth to ensure we receive maximum impact? Do we build a small model home and place it on the table? Do we make a great video and have it spooling on a screen? Aren’t these things that everybody else will be doing?
Then it happened. That moment… BAM! Let’s build a house! Not a mini-model home, a real one, right there in the conference!! I paused for a moment, shook my head… here it comes… the ‘crazy but that’s so cool’ verification. The idea was born! When I told Winnie, her reaction was, “You’re nuts!” That was the final endorsement I needed!
The next day we told the team about our idea. “I’m not sure how we are going to do this but, we can make it work!”. I then noted “Oh and by the way… we only have 5 weeks until the event to get everything ready!”
So… Here was the brief:
- We need to do two ‘practice’ builds off-site to make sure everything goes well.
- We cannot weld on site; normally, we weld the inner face of the door frame to get the perfect fit (also, did I mention I want a different window design, twice the size of our normal one?).
- There must be no dust; this means no on-site cutting, or modifying of building materials.
- We must minimise any wet items (no cement, mortar, painting, etc.).
- We need to have it completely built in about half a day (usually a house takes 2.5 to 3 days!).
- We might not have access before the event so, yes, there’s a possibility everyone could be watching us build (no pressure!).
- And finally, it is probably inside the venue, on a timber or carpet floor.
- Finally, finally, did I mention we only have a 2m x 2m space (6ft 6 x 6ft 6) to work in? Our standard unit sizes are 10 x 10ft to 12 x 12ft.
“So guys wont this be amazing͟?” Silence … furrowed brows … a slight smile … “You’re nuts!” followed by, “we will try”. Now, when you have worked with our amazing team for a while, you know to translate ‘we will try’ to ‘no idea how yet, but yep, we can do it’! (Also, apparently when the guys say, “you’re nuts!” they really mean, “this will be fun”? It is a complement apparently?)
The guys, Chris (Engineer’s Without Borders Fellow) and Symon (Installations Manager, plus anything else we don’t have anyone to do yet), spent many long days and nights at the factory and test centre, scratching their heads and working with Erastus (our Manufacturing Supervisor and great all round artisan) to get the home ready for the event. Winnie and Mel (our other Engineer’s Without Borders Fellow) were busy working on the branding and interior design aspects; how we set up the interior, what marketing materials we’d need, etc. But because of the difference in size between this and our regular product, they needed to see the house built. A mere 2 weeks later and we had the first version! Their reaction to the first test “Wow, it worked?”
Not everything went smoothly, obviously. Our normal welder was not available, so we had to go with a new one. While at first, he didn’t turn up for 2 days (yikes!), in the end, he did an amazing job. After visiting the venue, Mel and Chris managed to get us access the day before the event to build, which was great news! However, the exhibition space was outside, and not inside as originally anticipated. In many ways that made things easier and gave us more room. However, this also meant the surface was grass and therefore not flat! With only 2 weeks to go, we now needed to design and build a platform to deal with this, one which could support a concrete house! Yet again, the guys said, “we will try” (not sure it meant “that will be fun” this time?
February 22nd arrived, the day before Sankalp, when over 1,000 delegates from all over the world are arriving and soon to see our house. By 1pm, for various reasons, we still had not started yet! All around us, tents, banners, etc. are going up in preparation for tomorrow’s big day. An army of event management people were doing their stuff. Finally, we started the house (remember, normally it takes 2.5 days to build a house!). Luckily, all the preparation and practice paid off. Only 5 hours later, the house was complete, except sealing the joints and some touch-up painting (we had pre-painted the concrete panels but the journey meant the finish was affected and needed an extra coat). By 10pm the house was officially all done! I drove an exhausted team home, feeling very proud of them.
The big day finally arrived and by 630am February 23rd, I picked the guys up again. We were all hoping the paint had dried because we needed to dress the house (branding, furniture, curtains, etc.). Everything went smoothly, and we were ready before 830am, when the first delegates started to arrive.
Within an hour of the event opening, it was obvious this ‘crazy but cool’ idea was the right one! The attention we got and feedback received was amazing.
By the end of day one, we had met most of our planned key contacts and been introduced to many others. On Friday morning, day 2, one investor said, “you guys were the talk of the evening”. That second day we had many return visitors wanting more details, had a number of Kenyan’s coming to us wanting to know if we could build these houses back in their home town etc. By Friday afternoon, we were exhausted, with bags full of business cards and notebooks with long lists of follow-ups. We powered through, with the last gasps of our voices clinging on after 2 days of pitching and chatting. Overall feeling very happy with the event, we took the team for a well-earned drink!
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