Michael Macharia, the maverick entrepreneur – Business Daily
Mike Macharia, Seven Seas Technologies Founder and Founder and Group Chief Visionary officer at Ponea. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG
In what many thought was a cuckoo move, Michael Macharia went to the trenches to fight the government. In 2017, his firm, SevenSeas Technologies, was awarded a Sh4.7 billion contract to digitise 98 government hospitals.
Two years later, the Ministry of Health suddenly terminated the contract. SevenSeas was already Sh1.32 billion in the hole with the project, but even worse Michael had already buried his heart in it. He went to court and emerged with a bloody nose but victorious after being awarded Sh 1.6billion for his trouble.
He isn’t celebratory or boastful, he just feels that people should fight for what they believe in, especially if their hearts are involved.
At 6’ 5”, Michael’s shortest ambition remains taller than him. His heart is invested in his new company, Ponea Health, outpatient healthcare, and wellness firm.
Is there anything like over-ambition?
I’m not even sure that word exists. Does it exist? Everything I’ve tried to do is doable. It’s just that, first, you need to understand in what context and what environment. Society is good at training talent but terrible at
cultivating genius. Talented people are good at hitting targets others can’t, but geniuses find targets others can’t see. They are opposite modes of excellence. Talent is predictable, genius is unpredictable.
Was there anything in your childhood that could have indicated you would be an entrepreneur?
No. I think fundamentally, situations push you to be an entrepreneur. I sold advanced calculators when I was at the university. I sold one to Julius Kipng’etich whom I saw you interviewed last week. I guess it’s just a change in the lens, of how you see things.
From an early age I was able to say if I connected this and this, this would be the economic output. In a group of people, I’ll always be the guy saying how do we manage money? What’s the plan? I worry about how we are going to achieve whatever task is at hand. I connected the missing gaps.
You are the ‘How Guy’?
Exactly. And that helped because I could see very complex situations, but I’ve always been good at simplifying those very complex situations. If you put me in the middle of hell, I’ll simplify hell for you. I remove all the noise around problems and simplify things. That is what has allowed me to see opportunities.
For example, getting into healthcare or tech, I have a background in finance but I saw technology as the next big thing. I said, ‘okay, I may not be a tech guy, but I can get people around me who understand tech’. Then I become a sponge of sorts.
I keep asking questions; what do you mean, how will that work? Then I get a lot of good people around me. By asking how over time, I develop capability. I’m able to take so much data or information and simplify it to decide what journey to take.
How much percentage would you attribute the gut feeling that you described early as a contributor to the success of a business?
I would say 30 percent. Many people procrastinate to death. They keep saying give me data but at some point, you have to say, ‘I’m never going to get the absolute amount of data that I need to make this decision and I need to move.’ I remember making a trip to Mozambique.
About 25 people wanted to come for this trip. Eventually, people fell off and only two of us went because everybody wanted data to be processed. There were no Google maps at that time. We had to buy maps for Kenya to Tanzania, Tanzania to Malawi, and Malawi to Mozambique. I was aged maybe 30 or 31.
The other person was not even part of the plan, it was a guy I asked, ‘what are you up to?’ He said ‘let’s go.’ The lesson I learned early in life is that some of those biggest journeys you’re going to make alone. It won’t be done in a clique. And it came to pass. Take this case
with the government. When I decided I was going to court even some of my shareholders said, ‘we can’t do this Mike.’ But I said I’d do it alone. You’ll be lucky if you find two or three people whom you decide to do a journey with, that are committed. Most people will talk but they won’t have their skin in the game.
What did your parents do?
My mom was a civil servant, my dad a high-ranking manager in a multinational, and eventually in some of the small companies. We were a middle-class family. But I think what drew me to be an entrepreneur was the sort of culture my parents had.
We had a farm, 20 or 30 acres, and every weekend and holiday we’d be there working and there would be some commercial return for us as individuals. So I began looking at things from that point of view.
Did you think you’d win the case against the government?
I had a significant level of conviction because I knew I did things right. I was convinced of my integrity and of what we did. I knew that my facts were right, and my data was correct.
There was a lot of propaganda but propaganda ultimately is propaganda. When you go to court, there is no propaganda. It’s data. But many people will tell you, ‘Ooh don’t go to court, don’t do this, don’t do this.’
But surely, think about it. I’ve spent over a billion shillings on the project, so how will I just let it go? This was my life. I hired people and bid correctly. We had meetings with cabinet secretaries, and they signed minutes. How could I not go to court for what I believed in?
What price did you have to pay for that?
I lost some shareholders, for one. They said, ‘we can’t stay here if you are suing the government.’ I said ‘it’s fine, sawa. You stay on board if you believe in me and the cause’. I also paid the price of reputation.
When you go to war like this, negativity will come at you. If you don’t have grit or resilience you will give up. I thought, ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ I had already lost anyway. As an entrepreneur involved in a case like this, you will struggle when you look for new business. I lost investor capital.
So for me winning was not about money, it was just a replacement for what I had spent. Winning is being able to restore that reputation, to say ‘now I can go and do the next big thing without having this thing holding me down.’ But this [case] had to happen because facts are facts and facts are stubborn.
Going to court with the government, did you have any fear?
The law is the law. What’s the worst that can happen? Arrest me, send KRA to my business? They could have done all these things. But I think we need to look at the government as seasonal. People in government come and go but court cases stay.
I needed to do this for vindication, to move forward with my life, and seek the next big thing. I didn’t want to be seated in London or Dubai and someone is asking me about this case. It becomes amorphous. And amorphous things are very dangerous. You just have to do what you need to do.
Has there been a time when your life was noisier?
No. Everything just went belly up. I’d wake up and read about myself in the newspaper. It was noisy for me and everyone around me because you’re connected to many things and people; banks, employees, relatives, family, and friends.
I had already built a business with myself as a brand at a global level but then now bloggers were writing stuff about me without any facts. Do you respond? Do you ignore it? Do you even have the time? Your bank is calling you. Your partners as well. You’ve got 200 employees on your payroll.
Banks won’t lend you more because you are sinking more money. I sold my house. I had a very beautiful house in Rosslyn, Nairobi. This is where my son was brought up, a great neighborhood, everyone wants to stay there. It was difficult selling it but I was at that pressure point.
And more significantly, I sold at a time when it was very challenging to sell a house, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. You can always buy another house, I figured.
During that noisy period, you have to remove your emotions from things and make hard calls. Let go of things but it can be hard for people who have invested too much emotion in them.
What are you very bad at?
I’m not a very patient person. I’m also very poor at empathy. I need things done and the normal thing is to give people a chance even though it might be clear they might not be the right fit.
I fear that we might not get anywhere when we take this route of hoping for some people to step up. Guys who have worked for me before and left have set up WhatsApp groups to perhaps say how difficult I was as a boss but they can also say that Mike pushed us to be better entrepreneurs.
How do you balance work and home?
You can’t. It’s difficult. Something has to suffer and you have to choose what you care about. I cannot be at all funerals or weddings. It’s impossible.
What do you think your son will say of you when he is 25?
He asked me that question today in school. He’s 12. He told me they were asked in school to describe the person they admire the most and he said it was me. I think our parents were not good at immersing us in what they did. You just saw your dad when he came home from work.
Having one child means I take him everywhere, literally; meetings with doctors and pharmaceutical companies, meeting my friends… So people around me are used to seeing him and when they don’t they ask; ‘how’s Leo? Today he’s not coming?’ I long decided that he needed to see my good and bad.
He says, ‘daddy I see sometimes you talk and these people fear you.’ I say ‘no, no. It is respect.’ Now I have to explain to him what fear and respect are. And then I asked him a question, ‘would you rather be loved, feared, or respected?’
Do you think you are feared or respected?
Both. I don’t think I am the person you have to keep loving. (Chuckles) You either like me or you don’t, no two ways. That’s the reality.
You mentioned earlier how you always look at situations as opportunities to capitalise on commercially. Do you think that prevents you from seeing and enjoying life wholesomely?
That is a great question because that has happened a lot. I recently went into a meeting with my son’s teachers and his mom and I was making decisions in that meeting based on data.
She on the other hand was applying an emotional position. That happens a lot, especially in family and friendship settings, and sometimes it brings conflicts.
When did you last cry?
Cry? [Confused look]
I don’t know. I’ve not cried. I last cried when I was a child.
How has your relationship with money changed over time?
Money is just a tool, not an endgame. Today you have a lot of it, tomorrow you don’t. If one guy has a billion shillings in loan debt and the other has a billion shillings in his account what’s the difference between them when each can eat in the same restaurant and both fly business class?
Both are situations, one negative and one positive. In fact, the negative guy’s account is most likely to become positive while the positive guy is always looking at his, scared it will reduce.
As you grow older, do you feel like you’re getting better or worse as a human being?
I think I’m becoming better in one way. With my combined experiences, I’m able to start impacting people differently. I have diverse friendships, if I died and people I know met in a room they would all wonder how unlike they are.
They would each wonder, ‘but how does he know those other people?’ So I think I’m becoming better because I’m able to become more ‘nitrogenous’ across the ecosystem. I’m able to play at a level where I can talk about business, politics, and family. I can talk to a young couple and tell them the truth about what life is all about or not….
What truth would you tell a young couple?
[Chuckles] Surely…[Pause]. I would tell them to be independent and do psychological evaluations of each other before they get married. There is so much background that is important; how they were raised, what they fear, where they are going, and how they see things.
For example; take a girl who was brought up in poverty and has a stigma of poverty. Then she marries this man who is doing well until he starts going through a financial situation.
Do you think she’ll stick around? Pilots who fly Boeing 787s are given a stringent psychological evaluation yet people who intend to spend the rest of their lives [together] aren’t. Think about the outcome.
When are you most insecure?
When I don’t feel in control. When I wake up in the morning and there are so many balls in the air and I’m not in control of them.