Interview with Sam Gichuru; CEO Nailab
Sam Gichuru is the CEO of Nailab, a Nairobi Kenya based business incubator and startup accelerator that offers a 3 - 6 month entrepreneurship program with focus on growing innovative technology driven ideas. Startups like Hisa play and Keja hunt have all be featured at Nailab. Here's an interview we did with Sam in the backdrop of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit that was hosted in Kenya. The Interview was originally published in TAP MAG Issue 4. Kindly introduce yourself to the Tap Audience!
Am Sam Gichuru, CEO of Nailab
Tell us more about your childhood- where did you grow up, who were your first heroes and what were your favourite moments growing up?
Sam Gichuru: Grew up in poverty in a small town in the outskirts of Nairobi. The town is known as Rongai. Most days in my childhood we went without food and had to trek a total of 10km everyday to and from school. That was my introduction to the beauty that is life
How did you get into business? What else are you passionate about?
Sam Gichuru: My greatest passion is seeing startups I have mentored excel and scale. I must admit I got into business by default. I had had a series of computer training and while I was working I felt the need to start something in Kenya we call “A side hustle” and I began offering software and other computer related services.
In the simplest terms, what exactly is NaiLab? What problem is NaiLab solving? Please expound on NaiLab’s vision and mission
Sam Gichuru: Nailab is a business incubator that helps young entrepreneurs who have business ideas or early stage businesses and are using technology as their base of scale, grow. As a country we have a high rate of unemployment among the youth, and we are also surrounded by daily existence problems. From health to food security and education. Nailab helps create job creators solve social and economic problems using technology
As an organization our mission is to create an enabling environment that inspires and stimulates innovation and entrepreneurship. That is achieved through partnerships with different corporate entities that provide mentorships and other amenities that help entrepreneurs develop.
Where has Nailab come from and where do you envision it in the future?
Sam Gichuru: It’s been a journey of lessons for us as an incubator. From learning how to spot great solutions to developing a curriculum that works. By and large, nailab is still learning and fashioning the program to offer entrepreneurs a tailor made program. However as time goes, we have seen the need for a lot more early stage investors as a lot of the businesses at this level shrivel and die due to lack of funds.
What would you say are NaiLab’s major accomplishments to date
Sam Gichuru: Our greatest achievement definitely is seeing startups develop and grow their customer base. However just recently we had one of our first batch of startups acquired for over $1.5m. That in 3 years is a great achievement in this market. We also have had one of our startups join 100startups, an accelerator in Silicon Valley growing their valuation to over $100,000. From a policy level we are privileged to have spear headed, together with other ecosystem players, the establishment of Enterprise Kenya and entity that will see growth in trade of local ICT solutions across borders.
How is NaiLab different from other local incubators/accelerators?
Sam Gichuru: As an incubator we play in the riskiest level of growing businesses, the early/idea business stage. We are also very keen on more than just the “business” behind the solution; to us the right team is crucial for the success of a solution.
What are the key criteria’s you look for when choosing which startups to work with? What happens after the 6 months of incubation? Do you continue to consult these Startup’s or they are now on their own?
- We have quite a rigorous criteria but some of the items we look into are
- The team constitution
- Viability of the solution
- The idea’s unique outlook
- Ability of the solution to meet a very specific need in society
Sam Gichuru: After the 6 months we continue working together and they automatically alumni join the mentor network for the new businesses
Approximately, what’s the annual budget that NaiLab has to operate with? Is NaiLab an NGO
Sam Gichuru: Nailab is a company by guarantee and we rely on grants and Innovation enterprise engagements
Who are some of your most proud NaiLab Alumni’s? Does NaiLab have an alumni association? Approximately how many people do these companies employ?
Sam Gichuru: We are proud of all our alumni’s for the achievements made. Its definitely not easy establishing a business and keeping it running with low capital injections. That said, our alumni have cumulatively created over 200 job opportunities.
Who are some of your biggest partners? Is your preferred partnership financial based or you’re also seeking service to service partners?
Sama Gichuru: We have a wide spread partner base with corporates offering financial advice to legal help. As an incubator we are not subject specific experts so the partnerships provide a lot of leadership and guidance to our incubatees. With the establishment of the seed fund, we are now keen on more financial partners and we welcome investors and corporate entities looking to have ICT innovations as an outlet for their corporate social investments
Will NaiLab be working hand in hand with the government in the future?
Sam Gichuru: We currently are, through a contract won in 2013 where we are to create a roadmap for incubation in other counties in Kenya. That said, the contract ends in 2016 and we hope to keep the engagement going
In your opinion, should the Uwezo fund be implemented through incubation (or incubators) rather than the current vetting that the government does?
Sam Gichuru: There are different channels that the funds can be implemented through. However as an incubator, we are more than glad to engage in any way possible to help support the growing number of entrepreneurs
Global Entrepreneurship summit, Nairobi Kenya
The sixth global entrepreneurship summit is being held in Kenya this year! How do you assess the current local entrepreneurship ecosystem? What are some of the opportunities available and what are challenges that local budding entrepreneurs have to face?
With the GES summit being hosted in Kenya, it clearly shows that Kenya has become a centre for innovation and entrepreneurship. There is definitely a booming startup environment that is heavily tapping to the untapped market and growing middle class. The summit offers a great opportunity to expose local innovators to the world and showcase the achievements the ecosystem has made over the last 5 years. It will also help inform both local and international investors on the areas to look out for. At the moment, there is an influx of investment in education. However, there is a great opportunity to grow solutions around security, agriculture and health.
I gather that international investors are more interested in local entrepreneurs than local investors! Is this true? If yes, why is this so? How can we get local investors more involved?
Sam Gichuru: Most foreign investors have had experience in IT. Locally the investors have more of a traditional outlook focusing on Real Estate and the capital markets. There is however a growing interest with the growing and delivery of tech startups. A lot more can be done and as Nailab we continue to engage interested local investors.
What would you say Kenya is doing well that other African countries can learn from?
Sam Gichuru :
- Collaborative development between the startup community and the corporate sector is a great factor
- Government interest and support of the startup community is also a great contributor in growing the ecosystem
- The establishment of the necessary infrastructure from incubators to the internet services
- There is also a growth in research in the process of solution development and also realizing the importance of data to inform consumers patterns and behaviors
What’s the most rewarding and challenging aspect of what you do?
- The growth and success of startups gives me great pride and fulfillment. As for challenges, they cannot all be summarized in one statement but the greatest one of all is time.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Never tire in engaging
Interview by Moses Mutabaruka -
Interview first published in TAP MAG ISSUE 4