How the entrepreneur behind Groove Awards bounced back from failure

Imagine being just 23 and US$25,000 in debt because of a business venture gone bad. But when he started Kenya’s first gospel music awards in 2004 Kevin Mulei had a big vision of using the platform to expose, promote and celebrate talented youth. A busy disc jockey, Mulei had wanted to do more than spinning.

Kevin Mulei

Kevin Mulei

He attended local music awards and events, scoured the internet for details, assembled a team and executed the first Groove Awards in 2004. But it proved a tough venture because he had no equipment, no contacts and made many mistakes. “If I’d been weak I’d have given up after the first one,” he says.

So the next year he gave it another shot, but limited support from the stakeholders made the second event even harder. And frustrated that people were not buying into his vision, and with the $25,000 debt, Mulei did the inevitable. He gave up, packed his bags and relocated to the US for a year where he dabbled in everything, from learning real estate to media production.

“Taking the break was one of the best decisions I have ever made. When I came back a year later I had lots of creative ideas. My passion and vision was very clear in my mind and on paper. I am a strong believer of putting goals on paper because then I can take stock of any accomplishments. So we put together the next Groove Awards, we got very good buy in from industry players and this time round I did not lose any money,” he recalls.

Today he runs Mo Sound Events, a creative and equipment company which offers a wide variety of solutions in production, events management, digital media, brand activation and entertainment equipment. The company has expanded to Rwanda and is set to open in Uganda and Tanzania. Mo Sound has 70 employees and occasionally contracts the services of up to 40 more casuals when needed.

Although the Groove Awards, which are organised in Kenya and Rwanda, is the group’s most recognisable brand, Mo Sound also stages events for corporate clients and governments in East Africa. This year it was contracted as the lead technical organiser for Rwanda’s Liberation Day event marking 20 years since the 1994 genocide. It drew dignitaries from across the world. Last year their big event was Kenya’s 50th Independence Day celebrations attended by thousands of people and a dozen African presidents.

Selling creativity

Mulei attributes the success of Mo Sound to his team who deliver creative solutions. “We don’t just sell gear. We have a lot of gear but what we sell is our creativity and our passionate team who can manage any event, small or large. “If you look back at any event you attended you may not remember the chef but you will remember the good food. You will remember if you had a good time or a bad time. So we use tools and our people to create an experience that will be remembered.”

“My technical team is called MDF (Mo Sound Defence Force). I am always confident that the force will move in and deliver, even with major constraints,” he explains. “I talk to them often and make sure they understand and buy into the vision. I make time for new staff and get to know them. I even go on location and help them set-up. It’s sometimes funny later when they realise that I am their boss.”

He adds that forming partnerships with brands such as Safaricom, which is a title sponsor for Groove Awards and related Groove events throughout the year, has been a plus for Mo Sound.

He stresses preparing large corporate events and national celebrations take meticulous planning.

“When we were doing two major events to be held in a span of 12 hours celebrating Kenya’s 50th birthday we had to worry about security threats. We had to be guided by the security agencies and their demands were not a joke. We had to light Uhuru Gardens, which is a big park, all round and fence it. The event was successful because we planned well.”

‘Learning expeditions’

Mulei says he travels a lot to Europe and Asia on learning expeditions.

“I’m always keen to learn about the new technology that can enable us to improve our delivery to our clients. We go to learn simple things like how they arrange their warehouses because efficiency is a big thing for any company running events.”

He reckons that whilst following one’s passion is good, nurturing it by seeing how others do it, networking and sharing ideas is even better. “The only thing between your goals and your success is passion,” Mulei says.

There are opportunities in the entertainment industry but entrepreneurs should not come in expecting to have the flashy lifestyle the media portrays from day one.

“It’s a competitive world and this makes people lose themselves because they hope to be like the next rich guy. Sometimes you have the money to buy that car but you realise there is a better opportunity to invest. When the season comes you will get all those things.”