The Kenyan Nomad

The Kenyan Nomad

Friday, March 18, 2016

Gurdeep Sembi: The Journey of an Entrepreneur

I've known Gurdeep for almost 10 years now, if not more, and I've seen him wear many hats. A dedicated and hardworking entrepreneur, Gurdeep is also someone who knows how to handle life when things get rough, and he is ever ready with a smile, a infectious laugh and a 'Gurdeep joke' for those around him. I've been lucky enough to get to know him, not just as an inspirational family member, but as a colleague with an incredible work ethic, and I knew I definitely had to share his story with the rest of you!
Meet Gurdeep:
Mr. Gurdeep Sembi, Managing Director, Sembisoft Limited & Founder, Wedeze Wedding Websites
What's your educational background?
Quite varied and spread out actually. We moved around a lot growing up, and I think this was a great experience for me as it taught me how to adapt quickly to new surroundings and cultures and more importantly, taught me to focus on the present and the future rather than dwell on the past because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to integrate into the new schools and towns/cities.
Here's a little snapshot of Gurdeep's educational background: from Lions Nursery School and Lions Primary School in Kakamega (Kenya), he went on to Winterbourne Boys School in Norbury, (London, U.K.). From there, he was home schooled in Torrevieja (Alicantee, Spain) and then moved back to the U.K., where he attended Grange Middle School and Whitmore High School, both in Harrow (London, U.K.). This was followed by a move back to Kenya, where he pursued his O' and A' Levels at Kisumu Academy (Kisumu, Kenya) and Greensteads (Nakuru, Kenya) respectively. To top off this impressive journey, he graduated with a 1st Class Masters Honours in Electrical & Electronic Engineering from UMIST (Manchester, U.K.)!

What made you decide to start Sembisoft?
After graduating, I went to work for Bentley Motors in their infotainment team. The project I was assigned to had an almost impossible timeline, but we worked really hard to deliver it with 90 hour weeks- not uncommon at all. I put everything I had into that project, and we managed to deliver it on time against the odds. There were some great perks on the project too, but definitely a lot of hard work.
We completed the project at the end of 2008, just as the recession was taking grip on the economy. The automotive sector as a whole was struggling and we had pay cuts and redundancies at Bentley. Having just completed such a gruelling project, I was in line to get a decent pay rise having proved myself, but unfortunately, this was not possible due to the financial situation. My managers tried hard for me, but it wasn’t possible and I made the decision to leave.
I knew for sure that I could not have worked that hard for 2 years to get nothing back at the end of it. I can live with it if it is due to me having screwed up, and that is what made me decide that I had to take my success into my own hands and so, Sembisoft was born.

What/who gave you the courage to quit your 'desk job' and start your company?
A lot of it was due to circumstance. I wanted to be in control of my own success/failure and I believed in myself and knew that I could offer services that clients would be willing to pay for. I had done enough freelance work to know my skills would allow me to make a living and hopefully build a business around them.
I couldn’t just start working for myself when I left Bentley, as I had no financial support behind me, so I initially had a day job for about 2 years where I left at 5:00 pm everyday and by 6:00 pm, was working on Sembisoft- usually till around midnight or 2:00 am. I did this until I had built up my client base sufficiently. I have to say a big thank you to my wife for sticking it through with me as we had just gotten married, and all my evenings and weekends were taken up with work.

What are the 3 most important principles you believe an entrepreneur should live by?
  • Honesty
    • Even when things go wrong- and believe me they will- be honest with your clients. They will understand and appreciate that you are doing everything you can to resolve the issues, and more importantly, put measures in place so that it doesn’t happen again.
  • Don’t be greedy
    • Don’t try to squeeze out every last cent from your clients. Look after them, take an interest in their business and its success. This builds more of a partnership and the better they do, the better you will do in the long run.
  • Believe in yourself and value your time
    • There will be times when you wonder if it is all worth it and that guaranteed paycheque seems like the promised land! Believe in yourself, and why you are doing what you are doing in the first place. You must also value your time. Just because you can now do a task in 1 hour instead of 3, doesn’t mean you should only charge for 1 hour. All the experience and extra hours you spent learning the ropes and learning how to spot what to do quickly and then doing it quickly too also has value, so make sure you charge what your value is, but remember: don’t be greedy, be fair!
If you could go back and meet yourself 5 years ago, what advice would you give yourself?
I’d tell myself to read Zero to One by Peter Thiel, although I would need a time machine as it was published in 2014! But honestly, this book changed my mindset completely and it makes so much sense.
It changed my thinking on how to evaluate opportunities to see if they are worth pursuing. When you start out, you will have a lot of ideas that you think are the best thing ever, but you need to really evaluate them carefully and in a detached manner to see if they will seem as appealing to someone other than you or your family/friends.
But I would definitely tell myself to stick it through and that this was the correct path to go down.
You've started to diversify Sembisoft recently (with Wedeze and different plugins). What made you decide to do so?
Our vision has always been to develop products and not to be a service-only company. Our Wedeze Wedding Websites product, for example, is one we are passionate about, and we believe it solves a very real problem in organising weddings. We want products that actually make a difference to how and what people do with their time. We want to free up their time from the mundane tasks so that they can focus on tasks where they can add maximum value.
We still want to offer custom web and app development services, but we are selective about the projects we take on; we must believe in them and be fully invested in their success which means that the end product for our clients is something we are proud of and want to shout about.
As an entrepreneur (and recent father), how do you balance your work/nonwork life?
In short- you don’t. I have read a lot of books and articles on work-life balance because it is a real issue. But I think the whole work-life balance thing is a myth.
You have to think more about what constitutes success for you and your family. Success is also being able to spend time with your family everyday and everyone has to buy into what that definition of success is. So that when the weeks where you have to work 90 hours come around, everyone understands why, but by the same token you have to make sure that it is the exception rather than the rule.
The key is that you shouldn’t expect balance on a daily basis. Try to balance it over four weeks, which is a more realistic expectation.
Also have some non-negotiables. For me that is my morning time with my son when he wakes up. I feed him, have some play time, get him ready for nursery and then get him in the car. My wife also works so she gets ready for work in the morning while I sort him out and then she drops him to nursery. In the evenings, my wife feeds him and bathes him, and we both have some playtime with him so that we both get to spend a decent amount of time with him everyday.
What's your favourite quote?
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” 
- Albert Einstein
If you could have a dinner party and invite any three people, dead or alive, who would they be?
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Peter Thiel
  • Steve Jobs
Any advice for budding entrepreneurs?
Be prepared to work hard- there is no substitute for that and it is the minimum requirement. Be prepared to sacrifice your free time and forget any ideas you have of being in total control of your time. In reality, your projects and their deadlines will control your time although you try to manage this to give you as much flexibility as possible.
But it is definitely worth it. The highs are amazing and will give you a sense of fulfillment that you simply can’t get by working for someone else. Make sure you do your homework on the market you are entering, and read Zero to One by Peter Thiel; it changed the way I think about business and opportunities completely!
If you weren't in this line of work, what else would you be doing?
I think I would be working for a startup with a unique idea that I believed in.
What are the challenges you've faced in your journey of entrepreneurship that people might not have realised?
The biggest challenge has been trying to build and develop some of our ideas while still trying to make ends meet. I had no financial backing or savings when I started out, so this made it doubly difficult because projects that pay the bills take precedence over developing some of your ideas. We will look for proper investment in some of our products to take them to the next level so that we can develop them quicker and get new features to our clients faster.
If you could sum your company up in five words/phrases, what would they be?
  • Innovation
  • Integrity
  • Pushing boundaries
  • Quality
  • Family feel

What do you do in your free time?
Haha, what free time? I generally try to spend as much of the limited free time with my wife and son, and then whatever is left to keep fit by playing Squash competitively in the local leagues.
Favourite books?
  • Zero to One - Peter Thiel
  • How Google Works -  Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg
  • A Long Walk to Freedom - Nelson Mandela
If you were invited to give a TED talk, what would the topic be?
Educate to eliminate poverty.
Not education in the traditional sense, but teaching academically or practically. In developing countries, there are so many bright kids who can go on to do great things but never the get the chance to expand their horizons.
What did you think of this interview? Let us know in the comments below, or feel free to reach out on Facebook or Twitter!

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