How I built my multi-million firm at age 29

Levis Maina, after learning the Principles of Marketing as a Bachelor of Commerce student at the University of Nairobi decided that his destiny lay in branding. 

After graduating with a First Class Honours in Bachelor of Commerce, he decided to put his skills and passion into practice.

He got himself a job with a local advertising agency. The job proved disastrous. After four weeks into the job, the 29-year old got bored with the workplace’s routine roles.


He was fired. Normally, one would have hit the road in desperate search for another salaried job. Maina did not. If anything, he swore never to work for anyone again. Never mind he had no money. The “fresh idea” and a stoic character were all he needed. While working at the advertising agency, he had identified a gap.

“The gap was that most of the advertising agencies were preparing their communication for organisations and also managing their brands,” he notes. “But I do not think the advertising agencies are the right people to manage your brand,” he observes, noting that brands ought to be managed professionally – either internally or externally by consultants specialised in brand management.

He was to set up a brand management company. He picked up the phone and made calls to some prominent chief executives in the corporate world, who cared to listen. He sold them his idea. And they bought it.

Less than two years into operation, Maina’s Sullivan Marketing Company is arguably one of the fastest growing brand management firms. Maina is also the co-founder of Africa Brand Summit, an organisation that brings together sector leaders to discuss issues on branding and sustainability as well as an integral member of the Marketing Society of Kenya.
How I built my multi-million firm at age 29
He is the winner of the Rising Star Awards Kenya 2014- Entrepreurship category and also sits on the Global Advisory Council of the World Brand Congress.

Although he does not reveal Sullivan’s turnover – at least not before this financial year is over, he gives us a clue, saying they have a target of about Sh15 million this year. They have over 10 clients. “I think all of us need to be fired at some point so that we can think beyond the limits we might have placed on ourselves,” he says.

Maina is not daring enough just to pick up the phone and call a chief executive of a multinational organisation, he is also daring enough to admit his faults. He acknowledges he failed ‘terribly’ for the three times he had a stab at the CPA exams.

This is because he took an accountancy course simply because he wanted to be like his peers. He says starting a company is an energy-sapping journey. In his case, he took on a path that seemed to have been at odds with his parents’ and friends’ expectations of him. In his bid to climb up to greatness, Maina lowered himself to a nearly destitute lifestyle.

When he was just setting up his company, having been fired from his day job at the advertising agency, he was so broke that he could only afford a tiny, shabby room for which he paid a monthly rent of Sh3,000. This surprised many who expected him to look for a nice paying job in one of the blue-chip companies.

There was also the risk of: ‘What about tomorrow He always wondered where money would come from the next day. And of course, he says, there was the scarcity of capital which is common to almost all start-ups. But he is quick to clarify that the capital was not his biggest headache.

Maina who holds an MBA from the University of Nairobi was also teaching part-time on brand and sales management when he was only 25 years. He thinks his mentorship period under the Rising Stars Award was so valuable to him.

He listened keenly to the words of his mentor Rose Sang, a HR consultant and also one of the judges at the Rising Star Awards. Maina is passionate about brands which he describes as a promise of value. This promise is built on your personality, products, people, policies and values.

Your brand, he says, is your story told by others. “For example, when you read my profile before you met me for this interview, there was a promise. There is something you expected from me. And that is my brand to you,” he says.

He says it is the companies themselves that need to come up with that story. No one else can come up with it. That is why, he explains, brand strategists are working very closely with the PR and strategic companies.

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