Google’s Joe Mucheru at the iHub

Joe Mucheru visited iHub on Friday evening for a Fireside Chat. If you passed him on the street, you would have no idea that the youthful unassuming man is the African regional lead of one of the most prolific companies on earth. Joe has had a lot of success pioneering Google’s presence in Africa for the last four years. However, the friendly setting of the Fireside chat allowed him to tell the fascinating backstory of his life which was perhaps more appropriate for the audience of young technology enthusiasts at the iHub.

Joe started off by telling us that he was born near Limuru and was in boarding school from about the age of nine. He went to Lenana High School, and afterwards studied Economics and Computer Science at City University of London.  He smilingly told us that after a period of working in the UK, he wondered what exactly he was doing there in a land where his ears would freeze for half the year, and  that’s when decided to come back home.

Joe Mucheru doesn’t know the meaning of the word lazy. He set up his own business, Information Retrieval Services, which was brought down by an unfortunate theft of his hardware and equipment. He then went to work developing a website for a company at a time when most people in Kenya had no idea what the internet was. Mucheru styles himself as one of the first webmasters in Kenya. He asked his employer to match what he’d been making in the UK, Ksh. 200,000 per month, but his employer laughed and offered him Ksh20,000, because after all, this “internet web thing” wasn’t that big of a deal. Joe laughed as he recalled that he had just signed an apartment lease for Ksh. 21,000 per month, and realized that he’d have to get smart to survive. He negotiated a deal where he would earn 60-70% of any deal that would come in as a result of his website. His employer agreed, but Joe had the last laugh when several months later, he was pulling in Ksh. 150,000 per month through the new work resulting from his site and his employer pleaded a renegotiation of a flat salary.

A few years down the line, Joe founded Wananchi Online, together with Njeri Rionge, with the goal of bringing internet to the common Kenyan. Joe spoke about his vision to provide home internet access for Ksh. 1000 a month an idea that widely derided, but because of his personality and drive, Wananchi found an Angel investor that committed $500,000 to this dream. The rest is history. Throughout his career and through his company Joe has always been a passionate advocate of democratizing the internet in Kenya and lowering barriers to access, especially through improvement of key infrastructure, resulting in the recent underwater internet fiber optic cable.

Joe spoke about the key principles of his success. Create a solid plan, and then execute blindly. When Google was simultaneously courting him and testing him with over 17 interviews, he got a demonstration of one of Google’s principles – invest a lot in making sure you hire the right people. People that are flexible, and can change direction with the company. Another principle Joe learned from Google was to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. He was afforded the freedom to take a solid idea and run with it.

Joe ended on a note that seemed out of place for a technology talk but tied in to his committed, dive-in approach to life and work. “Guard your health,” he told the iHub audieance. “You can’t work when you’re unwell.”

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