Jonathan Somen’s journey of building and selling a multi-million dollar IT business

Jonathan Somen is one of Kenya’s most successful entrepreneurs having built a multi-million dollar IT business in the last two decades. Together with his brother they co-founded AccessKenya Group, an internet service provider (ISP), which listed at the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) in 2007. In 2013 the company was fully acquired by South Africa’s Dimension Data for about US$36m.

Jonathan Somen

Jonathan Somen

Somen spoke to Dinfin Mulupi about the decision to sell AccessKenya to the South Africa-headquartered group, his journey in business and his advice to other hopeful entrepreneurs.

You co-founded AccessKenya in 1995 way before Africa’s internet revolution. What inspired you to start the business?

Actually the real internet part, which was AccessKenya, started in 2000. It was still early days but we weren’t the first. My brother and I had been involved in some ICT services before and we sat down in 2000 and discussed what the next big thing would be. Our answer was simple – the internet. As soon as that was agreed upon, we went about getting our licences to become a corporate ISP.

We didn’t really have any target but felt the internet revolution would keep growing and Kenya would embrace connectivity more and more, similar to the trend in other countries. We decided to become a corporate-only ISP so we could focus on giving corporate clients excellent, reliable connectivity backed by amazing customer service. Those two basics haven’t changed.

Looking back at the past two decades, describe the journey.

It has been an amazing journey from the start until today. Amazing because with deregulation the business kept evolving into something different and new as licences became available and technology changed.

There have been many great moments, but each time I hear from a client or individual congratulating us on exemplary performance, it always makes me happy because it means we are doing what we set out to do.

One area I’m very proud of is staff. We have people who’ve been here for years and the personal growth many have experienced is phenomenal. Being part of Dimension Data now, has also created excellent training opportunities for our team because they have their own online university (known as DDU) where there are multiple courses people can take.

What motivated the decision to be acquired?

As a public company, you have a duty to consider what’s best for the shareholders. Dimension Data put a very good offer on the table and so the Board ultimately recommended shareholders to accept. We were not actually looking for a buyer, but had certainly been approached several times. Dimension Data, and access to their global networks and vast skill sets, has helped the business to grow and deliver new and innovative solutions for our clients. Given also that more competition exists today, being in the hands of a much larger organisation with access to funds and many products and services will only help to further secure our future as the outright leader in corporate ICT services.

Many entrepreneurs prefer to hold on to their businesses, yet you let AccessKenya become a public company, then a subsidiary of Dimension Data. Why the different approach?

I don’t think there is a “one size fits all” reality when it comes to business. There were a number of times people attempted to buy the business but offers weren’t enough value for the shareholders. It is important to remember, once you are a public company, the decision of whether to buy or sell is not based on a small family unit who make the decisions, but rather on what the board believes is best for all shareholders, ALL being the most important word.

What challenges does AccessKenya face today?

There is definitely more competition than 10 years ago, but we are happy that we continue to hold our own in the market and also continue to grow our business. This is a challenge we feel very ready for and are dealing with. It has enabled us to be better, more efficient, and more customer-centric, and as a business I believe we are improving all the time.

The lessons learned on your journey?

Too many to list all here. But one is the importance of ‘focus’, particularly when a business is small. When you are great, even good at something, it is crucial to keep focused on that. I have seen many businesses fail because entrepreneurs do well then diversify and spread themselves too thin. There is nothing wrong with diversification, and all businesses that survive do tend to branch out, but it is a road that must be travelled with care.

Any advice for entrepreneurs in Africa on building sustainable enterprises?

Start with a great idea and then focus, focus, focus. I believe most successful entrepreneurs have an unwavering belief in their own abilities to do things better than anyone else. That belief will, in many instances, carry a business through stormy times and into calmer waters.