Tuesday, December 2, 2014

How I made a million shillings in High School (short story)

Taken during the project

I made a million Uganda shillings straight out of high school in 2009. Ugx 1,000,000 ($400) may not seem like much, however the story of how I did so certainly is. It all started in November 2008, the period leading to my A’level final exams at Kako Senior Secondary School, Masaka.

Mr. Menya, the school cameraman was selling photographs he had taken of students as he usually did every weekend. As he flipped through his stack collection looking for mine, he landed on a bunch of awfully taken student headshots. When I inquired what they were for, he responded that they were intended for the school magazine.

Having had a brief history in photography and design, I was upset that the headmaster could allow such terribly taken photographs to appear in an important publication like the school’s first edition magazine.  At once,I rushed to talk to my classmate Bill who I figured knew something about the photographs since his headshot was among the collection and besides he was the president of the writers club which was working closely with administration to realize the magazine project that had stalled for a year.
Bill did know something. After explaining my point of view of why a magazine could not possibly have bad images, he posed the question, “why don’t we make the magazine?”

His idea was so big that it knocked the wind out of me and for about a minute there was complete silence. His idea sounded like a very good one but it possibly could have been a bad one as well. We discussed it more that night in Abraham’s private dorm room which he had shared with him. Our conversation went well into the night. Walking back to my dormitory, I was so excited about the idea even though it seemed less likely that the school would go for it.

L-R Rwakatungu Bill the media guy, Patrick Seruyange the money guy and Kanuma Abraham the muscle 

The following day Bill convinced Abraham, who was a student body chairman to join us for our meeting with the headmaster, Mr. Wamala, to put forth our interest in taking over the school magazine project. Maureen, a classmate who was the deputy president of the writers club and a straight A student, joined us. She made us look like we meant business.

After waiting in the secretary’s cranked office, which acted as a waiting room, we were called in.
Bill being the extrovert he is immediately got down to business, announcing our agenda, as the headmaster listened on. He then posed the question, “Why you?”

Immediately jumping into the conversation, I explained why it was important to me as an individual to have a well-produced magazine by what was soon to be my alumni matter, enlisting Bill’s publishing history to complement my photography skills. Mr. Wamala was not convinced but Abraham persuaded him to give us a chance. He then asked us to write a proposal which he was going to evaluate amongst other staff member concerned with the project.

I was actually surprised that he was willing to even consider the idea, given the fact that what we were about to do sounded like a lot of hot air.  We had never actually produced a magazine and didn't have a proven professional work record to back-up any of our claims.

While we thought through the proposal, it occurred to me that, though writing an air tight application would increase our odds of getting the contract, we needed to start acting immediately to demonstrate our focus and ability to get things done. As luck would have it, the school had just purchased a new school bus, an achievement that was attributed to Mr.Wamala who had been headmaster for less than a year. More importantly the handover ceremony was coming up in a few days. The headmaster had struck me as a man who cared about his image, which presented an opportunity to show off my photography skills.

I dashed to the phone booth to call Sadik, a good friend who had finished the year before. He had decided not continue to University and opted to stay in Masaka to help his Dad in his profitable hardware business. I requested him to lend me his digital camera to photograph the bus handover event, explaining that I had received an opportunity to design the school’s magazine, going further to explain how doing a good job on the project was the first step towards realizing “Ky-ika concepts,” the media company we dreamed of starting.He was hooked and he brought the camera the very next day. 

Ivan and I shared a deep appreciation for art and All star converse shoes

But perhaps the most important thing that Sadik did for me that day, was convincing Ivan who became our design artist for the project. He had been hesitant to join forces with Bill and me because he purely had no interest in under taking a school related activity. However Sadik was able to sway him into joining us by explaining its importance to “Ky-ika concepts” to which Ivan was going to be a member of.
The handover ceremony was as big and pompous as anyone could imagine and I captured it in its full glory. At the end of it, I rushed to Mr. Wamala’s office to show him the pictures I had taken. He was impressed by the quality and my sheer will to follow through with my plans. I could tell we were winning him over.
By mid-December 2008, we were all through with our final exams and were heading home for our long vacation. We dropped our proposal over and went our separate ways, promising to link up in the holidays if the school okayed the project.

Late February 2009, I received a unexpected call from Mr. Cramer, the teacher who was overall head of the project. He was asking me how soon I could be in Masaka to discuss the details of the assignment.
The following day, I was meeting with nearly the whole staff body to discuss how we were going to execute the design process. It was an intimidating moment addressing a staff body comprising of some teachers who held me in low regard due to the disciplinary rap sheet during in my student days. In the end it was agreed that my team and I were to come work from school.

After the meeting I walked to the Kako trading center which is a quarter mile away to find an available house to rent that my team and I could live in for the period we were going to work on the magazine. The only available house was an old depleted two roomed house. I made a deposit from the two hundred thousand I had received in advance and headed back to Kampala to plot our return.
As the day for travel drew closer, I started having doubts in the ability of myself and the team to deliver a high quality magazine as we had imagined and promised. The headmaster had taking a big bet letting rookies with no portfolio design the first edition of the magazine. There was a lot of pressure but my Dad just encouraged me to do my best. His advice seemed to help.

When we arrived, the gloomy house I had rented did not inspire the confidence of my colleagues and it took a lot of persuasion to get them to accept the living conditions. We used the first room at the entrance as a kitchen and slept in the next on bunker beds. It was not the ideal accommodation but we made due.
Early the following morning, all dressed in black, we invaded the school to start work. We were given a room on the main building complex to use as our office and one of the teachers who really hated my guts was assigned the duty of ensuring our morning tea was brought on time. Watching karma at work truly is amusing.

We worked our butts off to produce the magazine

We immediately started setting up. Collectively we had a projector, two digital cameras, a high resolution color printer, scanner, modem with wireless internet (the school didn’t even have a connection) three laptops and surround speakers. We were out to make an impression. 

But behind the impressive tech facade, our false confidence and larger than life verbal assurances, we had no idea what on earth we were doing. So we got to working to figure it out.Bill was in charge of editorial and lay out, Ivan was  the graphics Illustrator and  I was the photographer, layout designer and project leader.
Soon, the magazine project became the center of our existence. We lived, breathed, ate and dreamed the project. Initially when we started, we were motivated by the need and the desire to prove a point to the school that we were exceptional student-alumni. However going through the process of spending dozens of uninterrupted hours at an end to brain storm, write, edit, sketch,  design, illustrate, photograph, caption and lay into InDesign, one single page, broke us but also made us. Each step taken forward was refreshingly liberating but also frighteningly intimidating.

As we worked away, we were becoming increasingly aware of the fact that in every decision we took, we were by action accepting responsibility. Initially our outlook of the deal was; do a good enough job to make the students and school administration happy, so that we could get paid. It seemed like a simple enough plan but the one thing, however, that none of us could have accounted for was falling in love with what we were doing that led us to unlock our own individual potentials. And soon, we began to aspire and expect nothing less than the best from each other.

Slowly and carefully we started to produce page after page and soon we had 20 pages, half way. Up until that point we had worked for two weeks and neither the headmaster nor anyone else for that matter had a clue of what we were doing.
I created a PDF file and sent it to Bill and Ivan to proof read. Once they were satisfied with the content, we printed a color copy with the water marking, draft. I had worn a full suit that day for my afternoon meeting with the headmaster that had been scheduled for review and status. When we commenced work, we negotiated with Mr. Wamala to grant us complete creative control and working space for two weeks so that we could have the space and time to come up with a concept that we had promised. Being the micro-manager he was, he reluctantly accepted with the provision that we produced a draft copy within two weeks which would be the basis for discussion for the continuity of the project.
After the last page was out of the printer, Bill arranged and stapled the draft copy. Everything was riding on this. As I approached the administration building, I realized that everything we had said, done and worked on had come down to that decisive moment.

As soon as I walked in, Mr. Wamala jumped out of his chair in delight to greet me and said, “I can’t wait to see what you have to show me.” Without further hesitation, I handed him the well printed copy which he immediately snatched out of my hand. I took a seat in the sofa across from him, quietly observing his facial expressions with the faint hope of deciphering his thoughts. The room grew quiet as he flipped through the pages, occasionally lowering his face to steal a glance at me from under his reading glasses. When he was done, he put it down, took off the glasses, sat back in his swivel chair, looked thoughtfully at me, and then said, “Bravo. Continue with the work. Go to the bursar to collect your additional two hundred thousand for upkeep. The project continues.” I was so excited but didn't show it, suppressing my emotions so that I could maintain my composure.

When I got back to the office, Bill and Ivan were quietly working away, waiting for the verdict. I couldn't hold the excitement in any longer, “we are not going home yet,” I shouted.We had proved what we had set out to, which immediately gave each of us an insane level of unwarranted self confidence in each of our abilities.

Later that night as we talked right before bedtime like we always did, Bill floated the idea of traveling to Kabaale to his home where we would have an office to complete the project, since it was costing us a good amount to live and work in Masaka. Ivan needed a break from school and we had all earned the right to a rest. We decided to travel the following morning.

Early the next morning we said our farewells to our neighbors in the community who we had known for two weeks. Kalo (village) mates as we referred to them.The land lady was especially excited at seeing she had made a months’ worth of salary for half the time. I briefly left Bill and Ivan at the center as I dashed to school to wrap up a few administrative details and to also say my good byes to my younger friends, many of whom saw a mentor image in me. The tide for growth was blowing in a different direction and I was ready to set off for another adventure. I had a feeling that it was the last time I was ever going to feel welcome at Kako, knowing that in future I would be a guest.

Many of my friends, whom I had photographed while on the project, eagerly asked me when the magazine was going to be out so they could have a look at it themselves. I did not say.  For a brief moment I was sad that I was finally leaving the place that I had come to know as my fortress. Kako offered me the two most peaceful and wholesome years of my young life.

Quickly flashing back to May 2007 when I first arrived for my senior five, I could see I had made the right decision transferring from a private school in Kampala after only a term, because Kako offered me much more than just an education. At that moment I was filled with nothing but contentment and gratitude for the warm experience the community had shared with me while I was still a student and during the project. 

I hurried to catch up with Bill and Ivan who were excited about our road trip. As we waited for a bus bound for Kabaale from Masaka town, we were spotted by Bill’s friend who was driving a minivan and heading in our very destination. It was an assurance that we were heading in the right direction. It was the first time I was away from home and making such big decisions on my own. Even if the project had ended that every day, I would have still been very grateful for the life lessons I learned in the two weeks we lived in Masaka.
When we got to Kabaale, we briefly forgot about the work for a few days as we took time to explore the town Ivan and I had never been to. I soon received a call from a friend from Seroma Christian high school who wanted me to join them in Kabaale to record their journey on camera and produce a documentary at the end. When I told him I was already there, he couldn’t wait. I got the team to work together to produce the documentary which earned us extra spending cash. I had found my own little slice of paradise there.

A selfie with Kuteesa Cornelius and I in Kabaale. We studied O'level together from Seroma
 Just as I had started getting comfortable, I received a call from home informing me that my uncle’s wedding was in a few days and since I had pledged to shoot the event, I was needed immediately back. I had to cut my vacation short, leaving Ivan behind with Bill. We had barely designed a page for the magazine since leaving Kako but I agreed to design the rest on my own from Kampala. As I left, I wondered if the three of us would ever get another chance to work again like we had just done and most importantly if starting a company was in the cards for us.

After the wedding which was in May 2009, I got back to serious work to beat the July deadline. It was not the same without the two and the first two days were difficult, however I soon found my energy again and before I knew it, my room was littered with paper, mostly of articles and printed pages, a sign of progress and stress. After a good number of journey’sbetween Kampala and Masaka, I finally received the approval to go into printing in mid-July.

The headmaster connected me with the publisher who in turn sent me all over Nasser road, a famous place down town Kampala where all the printing action happens, to align all the necessary requirements for going into print which opened my eyes to key insights of the print industry that I never knew existed.
But it wasn’t all as rainbows and butterflies’. The days leading up to publishing were so difficult to the extent that on one of the days I walked from Nasser road to Kabalagala which is approximately 3 miles away because I had spent the money I had on paper. My social life was also put in the balance since the project had taken center stage in my life at the expense of those close to me. I expected my family and friends to understand however there is only so far I could stretch it and clearly I was burning the candle from both ends but none of it seemed to matter then. I was insanely driven to see the project completed that I barely ate or slept that whole week leading to the publication.
And then the moment came when I held the first copy in my hand, straight from the printer. As I flipped through the pages, I was overcome by happiness. It had had surpassed our expectation and everything we had been through during the project started to make rational sense. What mattered stuck with me like glue and what didn’t vanished into thin air.
11 PM that day, Timothy my friend help me load the two boxes that contained the copies onto the bus I was boarding to Masaka. I arrived at Kako at 2 AM and couldn’t sleep till morning when I handed over the magazine to the headmaster who in turn handed me a cheque of six hundred thousand (600,000/=) as reward for the three of us. Having received a total of four hundred thousand prior, the grand total was a Million shillings!

It has been six years since I sat my A’level finals or made my first million shillings. I am now a C.E.O of a startup, Xibra Digital which develops mobile applications for an Afrique-centric market. When I look back, I can now saywith more clarity that my decision to be an entrepreneur was inspired by the magazine project, whose experience has been invariable in my life and career. I learnt that the most vital ingredient for success of any venture lies in the synergy of the team.  Which is why, as a leader, it is extremely important for me to work with people who above all else are passionate, persistent and won’tlet anything standing in their way of pursuing excellence, least of all themselves.Success is nothing but consistent persistence.

It has not been an easy journey to get here, where I can say with more certainty that I know what I am doing and know what I want to do with my life, but for what it’s worth, the journey will always be the reward. Starting is the most important thing and with time, determination and the right people around you, the pieces of the puzzle will fall in place, much faster and effortlessly than you could imagine.
Have the courage to start something, the persistence to see it through and a level head to pick yourself up and have another go at it.