The 28 Year-Old Kenyan Entrepreneur Who Built A $7 Million Retail And Advertising Business

Trushar Khetia is one of Kenya’s most outstanding young entrepreneurs. The 28 year-old serial entrepreneur is the founder of Tria Group, an outdoor advertising firm that uses public transit vehicles to market leading consumer goods in Kenya. Tria, which was founded in 2013, places advertising on more than 200 buses in Nairobi for clients such as Unilever, Google, HP, Dell and Konica Minolta. The company has annual revenues exceeding $1.3 million.

Khetia is also the founder of Society Stores, one of the most popular supermarkets in Thika, a thriving industrial town 40 kilometers north east of Nairobi. The four-storey retail outlet is doing more than $6 million in annual revenues and Khetia is set to open two other stores before the end of this year.

Khetia’s two companies have combined revenues of more than $7 million. I recently had a chat with him where he recounted his entrepreneurial journey , reflected on the lessons he has learned along the way and spoke about his future plans.

What’s your personal and professional background?

I was born on the 29th of November 1986 in a small town in the western part of Kenya called Kitale which is still my home and where my parents live. I did my primary in Kitale in a government school, before moving to Nairobi for my high school (O & A levels). After High school, I went to study at the Manchester Business School which is part of University of Manchester when I was 17 years old. I studied Management with a Specialism in Marketing. I have always been the youngest in my year/batch and have always been very strong academically.

I have worked in several small jobs across university from video library sales, perfume shops, charity fundraising. Always I have enjoyed sales roles as that is where I found my strength in being able to persuade people. My first major employment was as a Marketing Manager at Securex in Nairobi for 6 months whilst being a part-time DJ at the same time at Pavement Club in Nairobi.

After graduating in the UK, I worked for Procter & Gamble (P&G) for 3 years as a business development manager looking after some of UK’s biggest retailers. I successfully grew every single business I was given and was promoted 3 times in the space of 3 years.

Finally, in June 2011 I decided to come back home to Kitale, Kenya in order to join and grow with my family business as they really needed me back at the time and I felt that I would fulfill my entrepreneurial ambitions with them. However, one year down the line, I realized this was not to be as my growth and potential was being limited by certain members of the family and I was not prepared to compromise on where I wanted to go in life, so I made the decision to leave the family business and move to Nairobi to start Tria Group. This is where my journey as an entrepreneur started.

How did you get started as an entrepreneur?

Interestingly, when I wanted to get inspiration for starting Tria, I looked back at my young age in school to what I had achieved and I realized that entrepreneurship had been in me since a very young age.

In Year 4 when I was barely 8 years old, I had and still have a passion of reading books. At that age it was all about comic books and children story books. As I was an avid reader, I would finish one book within a few days and move onto the next one. I realized an opportunity when I saw how many of my school friends would like to borrow the books I was reading. This gave me the idea of starting a book library where I would charge a few shillings to my colleagues to borrow the book. By the time it went around my class, the book would have paid back for itself. Even my teachers started borrowing the books from me for their own kids! I didn’t realize at that time that what I was running was a business. For me it was fun, a way to make money in order to buy sweets and chocolates for myself and my friends in school. It was purely driven for my passion for books and I saw why my colleagues shouldn’t also enjoy the same privilege of gaining knowledge.

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A year later in Year 5 when I was 9 years old, I saw a second opportunity. Our school canteen was selling boxes of biscuits which were mainly bought by the boarders for their daily tea time as my government school was 90% a boarding school with us being a few of the day scholars. I realized they were overcharging the student compared to how much our own family wholesale shop was selling the same biscuits for. So I started by bringing a few boxes to school on credit from our shop with a promise to pay them back, and started selling them in school to the students at a much cheaper price than the school canteen. This was a win-win for all since they saved money and I made a profit for my family’s shop. Only later I came to realise that I was running was a retail business. Again for me the fun was in selling and saving money for my friends whilst also proudly brining money back home to the family’s shop as a 9 year old! What started with 3-4 boxes a week became 20-30 boxes. It was an amazing experience!

This gave me an inspiration to start business as I told myself that I had already been an entrepreneur without realizing at such a young age.

Your company, Tria Group is one of the leading lights in the in-transit advertising sector in Kenya and Tanzania. What inspired your entry into this line of business? Also, how many clients do you have now and how successful is the business in terms of revenue and reach?

My inspiration for starting Tria came from two sources. One was my time in the UK both as a student and working where my main form of transport was the public buses, trains and underground tubes. Ii realized what a huge media space this was as in UK every single bus, train and taxi had advertisements all over both inside and outside. I researched more into the companies who were in this industry and realized that they only focused on transit media yet they had revenues of over a million pounds!

Secondly, was my time as the marketing manager at the age of 19 at Securex. They asked me to put together their marketing plan for 2007 so I had to recommend to them the avenues of advertising. In doing my research into the Kenyan media market, I realized the huge white space in the transit media industry whereby we had so many buses and so much traffic in Nairobi but barely only 10 out of thousands of buses carried any ads. Majority of outdoor ads were billboards. So I convinced myself that this was a great space to enter.

7 years later the dream became reality as I went ahead in 2013 by starting up Tria. I later saw the same opportunity in Tanzania as I did for Kenya which made me also open up offices there mid-2014.

So far Tria in Kenya has worked with over 30 clients within a year. This includes some of the world’s biggest companies and brands. (more explained in my profile and portfolio for Tria).Tria in Tanzania is still at infancy stage but we have already got 4 clients on board who have started with us.

The most unique thing we did as part of transit media is to also venture into airline media with a partnership with Precision Air, one of Tanzania’s major airlines. For our major client Konica Minolta, we did in-plan advertising which involved doing the table trays of the aircraft. This was an out of this world experience!

Tria in Kenya has crossed $1.3 million dollars since we started 1.5 years ago. Tanzania is still small with revenues of about $ 50,000 in 6 months.

The reach of our media is phenomenal as we have over 110 branded buses on the road every day and each bus carries a total of 400 to 500 people in a single day so you can imagine the reach a brand gets with our media. This is not even taking into account the millions that see the ad externally in traffic, whilst walking, or driving in the month.

You also run a fast-growing retail outlet in Thika, Society Stores. What’s the story behind your entry into the retail business?

Retail has been a life-long passion that came from my upbringing in a retail shop environment. From a very young age I was already helping out in terms of the roles of cashiers, arranging goods on shelf, serving customers, engaging employees so to me the retail shop was nothing but fun!

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Being so passionate about people and products, it drove my love for retail. Initially, the plan was to fulfil this retail dream with the family business and it was part of the reason for moving back from the UK, but this was not meant to be. So whilst I started one dream with Tria, the passion to do retail still remained.

So when I moved to Nairobi, using my relationships I had built with other retail business owners, I started looking for retail businesses to buy. I put word out in the market that I was interested in taking over a running retail business. That is when I got introduced to a retail business where the owners were as eager to sell as I was eager to buy. We actually started engaging each other and exchanging information when I was 26 years old for almost 1 year to date before finally I made the big move into agreeing on a deal to buy them out as a going concern on a walk-in walk-out basis. This led to the birth of the first Society Stores in based in Thika town in Kenya. A fulfillment of a life-long passion! I finally had bought and owned my first retail store at the age of 27

Access to financing is always a challenge for many entrepreneurs. How have you been able to fund the acquisition of Society Stores and the growth of your advertising business?

In everything I have achieved, I have always put the issue of money last. As difficult as it is to get start-up funding from banks out there, there are always alternative ways to get what you want in order to go to where you need to.

Society Stores was started purely from pulling all the profits that Tria had made in its first full year and reinvesting it back to buy the retail business. This has been a calculated risk whereby I have put the stakes of one company to build another. I had to start with just enough finance to take control of the shop and I bridged the remaining funds required through borrowing from private individuals. After that, the business itself has started paying back for itself from the daily sales and profits we make.

For Tria, starting up was not easy. I invested my personal savings that I had accumulated over my time of employment from UK with P&G and also in Kenya. What also boosted me was a small overdraft facility of $50,000 which I was able to secure from a bank I had built up a relationship with. What more so boosted Tria, was that even before officially starting with an office and a team of people, I single handedly landed my first two major contracts by simply working from home with just a laptop. This was equal to more than Ksh. 7m in about 7 days! (Approximately $78,000). My first client was Unilever with a campaign for their detergent brand called Omo followed by Kenafric Industries, one of the biggest confectionery manufacturers in Kenya.

You are quite young. Has your young age been an asset or a liability in the pursuit of your business?

My age has always been an asset! Starting early has meant I have practically learnt business and life lessons 5 years ahead of my time. I start failing early, learning from my mistakes early and finally achieving the success early as well. No university will teach you life skills and street-smart business skills. You have to learn this by doing, by risking and putting yourself on the line day in day out.

The people I actually meet give me so much respect because of what I am trying to achieve at such a young age. Ambition really has no limits whatsoever! They have appreciated my passion and enthusiasm for running all these business and doing crazy things at such a young age! Most important is to never let your age show in terms of maturity levels. I could be 40 but show the maturity and thinking of a teenager and I could be 28 and show the thinking of a 50 year old. It is not about age but more about your mindset!

Have you encountered any unique challenges in Kenya or Tanzania where you run your businesses?

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Getting people to accept any new idea or business is never easy. You have to be persistent, patient and persuasive. For Tria initially we got so many NOs and rejections where companies wanted others to first try the idea before they were convinced. But we never gave up. We would learn from the rejection to only pinch in a stronger way next time. Now the very same clients that said no are the ones calling us!

For Tanzania, it is going through the same as when we started in Kenya. People will always take time to warm up to new ideas and this is where you have to demonstrate your ability to persevere and continue being relentless until you succeed.

I have personally learnt a lot from my family business especially my father. He is a raw entrepreneur with no formal education or corporate work experience like I did, yet purely because of this hard work, desire, and instructs for business, he has achieved a lot considering he came from such small and humble beginnings in India where he was born. Everytime we go back to the village he came from it is the biggest inspiration to me to see how he has grown over the years. That is why I always challenge him that I should be able to achieve even more than him as I have learnt things he didn’t get to experience at my age!

What does success mean to you?

Real success is about leaving a name and legacy behind that outlives you even if you die. To me it is leaving a scratch, a mark on this planet, that I did something good, I made a difference, I had an impact to peoples’ lives during my time on earth!

It is not primarily about the money you make in the process. A lot of people think that success is money. What I believe is that money is just but a thermometer of how successful you are. And real long term success is purely driven by your passion and ambitions.

What’s next for Trushar Khetia and the Tria Group?

Next 3 years, I want Tria Kenya to grow even further to reach USD 2-3 million turnover. In Tanzania I would like it to hit the $1m dollar mark. And then also open up operations in Uganda so we are covering all the major East African countries. Having said that, it is my dream to own a radio station so depending on the opportunity at hand, I would like one day to have Radio Tria!

For Society Stores, the plan is to open up more outlets around the country. I have personally put a target of having 5 stores in another 1 and a half years which means I need to open an outlet every 4 months.

As much as I set target as to where I want to reach by a certain time and age, my growth will always come from the risks and opportunities that I will continue taking. As I said before, my ambition has no limit and no end

Any words of wisdom for young African entrepreneurs that are afraid of starting something?

The biggest fear you should have in life is not doing enough with it. I am not afraid of death but afraid of dying too early before I have fulfilled all that I need to.

A lot of young African entrepreneurs have great ideas, but do not have the courage or mindset to take the risk with their idea and action. So in the end, they end up being their own biggest barrier to success purely because they lack self-belief and self-confidence and a positive mindset which forms the core of the success. Yet they will find excuses that it is their family or society or their employers that are holding them back. If you do not take risks in life, then what is the point of living, where you are chained by your own fears of failure. You have to break yourself free in order to experience your true fullest potential.

TheFounder Magazine

Made Of Founders

TheFounder Magazine is an online business magazine that focuses on starting, running and growing a business in Kenya today

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