How a high school dropout built a firm worth millions
Timothy Simiyu came to Nairobi from Kitale at the age of 16. He had just dropped out of high school, something he admits was a mistake. However, he’s turned this mistake around over the years, and now owns Achis Ranch in Nairobi’s Karen. The ranch offers horse riding lessons, as well as picnic and wedding grounds, camel rides and quad bike racing.
What is now a well-working operation has taken 35-year-old Timothy 19 years to build. Despite his current success, he eccentrically lives in a tent at the ranch’s campsite because he has an overwhelming urge to connect with nature. He takes Hustle through his journey, and the principles that helped him build a multi-million-shilling business.
1. See opportunity where others see only hard work
I spent the first year I arrived in Nairobi working, first as a housekeeper for my brother and then as a gardener. I worked hard and honestly. I was eventually made a caretaker of a home next door to what was then the Camel Sensations Ranch. I was fascinated by the horses and camels so I made friends with the owner, Tony Achesa. I soon started volunteering at his stables during my free time. Because of this, Tony started taking me along on jobs that he would get at Mamba Village and Carnivore in Nairobi, where he offered horse and camel riding. The money I made from these gigs was much more than what I made from my full-time job. I saw an opportunity and took it.
2. Learn as many skills as you can When I came to Nairobi,
I didn’t know the first thing about gardening, but I took the job when it was offered and I learned. When I started visiting the Camel Sensations Ranch, I was always quick to volunteer for jobs that needed doing, such as cleaning the stables and cutting the grass. They appreciated my efforts and taught me other skills, like how to handle horses, groom them, what to feed them, train them, things like that. When they allowed me to accompany them on entertainment jobs, I learned how to handle customers and children, I learned how to keep the books and how to balance turnover versus profits. It was on a small scale, but these lessons became the building blocks of my business later.
3. Take the long road When I joined Tony Achesa’s ranch,
there were about six other people working there. Tony had to leave to go to Australia, so he gave us a 20 per cent stake of the ranch to share among ourselves. It didn’t take long for conflicts to break out. Soon, all the other partners quit and I was left to run the ranch alone. It was extremely difficult. We hit a low season because horse activities are seasonal. I barely had money to feed myself, let alone feed and groom the horses and camels. I also knew that I would have to replace the animals soon because they were ageing. I wasn’t sure where that money would come from. I wasn’t even sure how I would manage to pay rent for the ranch. It would have been easy to quit after spending many cold nights sleeping in a semi-floored room on a one-inch mattress, being attacked by mosquitoes and disturbed by frogs that liked the damp conditions. But I knew if I could just struggle through the initial months or years, the ranch would bear fruit. So I stayed. It’s almost impossible for something you want badly to come easy. Whether you succeed or fail depends entirely on how badly you want the thing you want.
4. Reinvest in the business I lived a very modest life.
Every shilling I could spare went into the ranch. The stables needed to be built properly, the staff housing was not suitable during the rainy season, there were salaries to pay for the handful of part-time staff members I had. Most importantly, I wanted to buy more horses and camels as soon as possible because the more we had, the more business we would get. I set my targets and kept working towards them.
5. Do what needs to get done
The first time I had enough money to buy a new horse, I didn’t have a truck to transport it in and I couldn’t afford to hire one. So, I bought the horse from Thika Road and rode it all the way to Karen. I repeated that four times for the other four horses I purchased. What mattered was that I got the horses home. Thankfully, the camels were delivered directly from Garissa to the ranch – it would have been a bit tricky transporting those ones
6. Invest in staff
Almost all the employees I have now have been with me for the last 10 years because I insist on treating everyone as family. Most of the ranch hands came from a nearby slum. Like me, they wandered in because of their fascination with animals. I never turned any of them away, I would engage them, teach them and see if this is something they would be interested in doing for a living. I know one day, in the same way Tony left the ranch to me, I will leave it to someone else. The legacy must continue.
7. Look for ways to expand
Our original business plan was to find an establishment that focused on family events and take our animals there. This model changed when Achis was visited by a family from Israel who had heard about our horse riding services.
We became quick friends, and they gave me the idea to expand the ranch enough so that we could offer horse riding and other activities on our own premises. It seemed farfetched at the time because leasing land is very expensive in Karen, but I took up the challenge. With their help, we found 100 acres, which is big enough to use for horse riding, camping, picnics and weddings. By expanding our options, we expanded our clientele as well, which meant even during the low seasons, we have other streams of income from the diversified activities.
9. Be faithful I now outrightly own Achis Ranch. When Tony visited several years after he left and saw how much I had accomplished with the ranch, he gave me full ownership. I decided to name the ranch after him using his surname ‘Achesa’, hence ‘Achis Ranch’. I feel like the least I can do is remember his legacy because without him, I wouldn’t be here today. 10. Build something you can be proud of I started the ranch when very few Kenyans dared venture into the industry. I was intimidated at first, I won’t lie. But I knew all I had to do was keep my head down and be professional, offer a good product. In 2011, I was awarded the Best Trainer Award by former President Mwai Kibaki at a trade show. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I started with four horses and two camels. I now own 38 horses and seven camels. Further, I have seven full-time staff.