It’s Monday and time for the Pearls And Heels segment where we interview women on their careers. Today’s Pearls And Heels lady is writer and copywriter Lilian Okado. Lilian Okado is the Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Say Cheese Writers Cheese Ltd. Originally an online freelance writing company, today Say Cheese Writers provides effective content development and inbound marketing strategies that solve the online marketing challenges of small and mid size businesses in Africa.
1. Describe your typical day?
I am up latest by 7am, many times as early as 4 or 5am. I first check my email and review my appointments for the day and prior arranged activities for the week. I will read a book. I am currently reading Matt Morris’ Book, The Unemployed Millionaire. It’s brilliant and timely for where I’m at in my life right now. I then jump into the shower and will always have a personal development audio or business related audio by various people and mentors I look up to, running in the background.
Because I run a copywriting consultancy and recently opted to venture into a second business in networking to supplement my current income, I find that my hands are full and hence depend on my diary/notebook to organize my days and weeks in advance. I then play with my baby for an hour or so before I leave home at about 9/10am. If I’m lucky and have time, I’ll have breakfast. Some days if I don’t have appointments in the morning I complete my work assignments and confirm appointments for the remainder of the week then leave much later in the afternoon. Generally, I’m a workaholic. I suppose because I am still trying to get my businesses to a profitable and sustainable level that can operate without me, I find I work pretty much the whole day. That said many of my important appointments happen from 3pm. Many days I will get back home at 10pm or 11pm.
2. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Many things. LOL. I could never really decide. One time it was an Engineer, then a Lawyer, an Architect, an Interior Designer… I wanted to be many things. I still do. LOL. I don’t think God created me to do just ONE thing. Some people are able to do just one thing. I can’t. I have so much energy, It would be a waste honestly if I only ever did one thing. The challenge is in getting everything done well.
3. If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
I’d work on eliminating fear, self doubt and worry.
Many times looking back I delayed many decisions concerning my business based on these that held me back and some even cost me great opportunities. I’d live precariously like Richard Branson, who says: “If someone shows you an amazing opportunity, say yes and then learn how to do it later.” I have wasted a lot of time over analyzing and overthinking things that in hindsight were a waste of space. LOL. Instead of just jumping in and learning the how to’s later.
I’d also learn to save earlier. Like my mom, the one who raised me. She’s great at saving and prudence. It’s weird I never learned from her to adopt this culture earlier. I’m really my father’s daughter. Spend now think later. LOL. But now that I am a mom, one thing I always regret is not having started a saving culture earlier. I lived on my own for so long and never had to worry about bills then. Now with a lovely daughter growing at the speed of light, there’s always something that money needs to buy or fix.
Oh and something else would be never biting off more than I can chew. As a hungry and overly ambitious entrepreneur, it’s easy to over promise to a client and under deliver. I have learnt this the hard way a couple of times, where I have been overwhelmed at work, taken on more client than available capacity and been unable to successfully or satisfactorily service them. This has definitely been one of the biggest lessons and growing pains, especially this year. So I have since learnt to SAY NO firmly and not budge or waver even when a client is begging me, or Say Cheese to sign on the dotted line.
4. What would you say are the top three skills needed to succeed at your job?
From a personal perspective: Self Belief, Patience, Consistency, Integrity and Resilience.
All other things like the skills to perform the job, for example are details. You can learn these ‘hard skills’ so to speak on the job, on Google and through experience, that is doing more and more of what you do consistently. But the soft skills; without these, even if you’re the best at what you do, will only get you the first job. You need the others to get you repeat jobs and regular business and build a reputation.
5. As a professional how is it working in the Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
As far as my writing consultancy, Nairobi is open to what I do most definitely. The market for my services has grown significantly over the years. My only gripe is with a subset of ‘Kenyans’ who feel uncomfortable paying for a copywriter, especially a freelancer. They assume that (copy) writing is easy and thus shouldn’t command the high fees I charge. I of course have learnt the hard way, but in recent times this attitude is changing also because our customers are now more knowledgeable. The challenge for me remains to keep doing what I’m doing and maintaining high standards of service.
As for my networking business, Nairobi and the world essentially remains ripe for the taking. It’s really hard work though and it takes time and commitment, loads of sacrifice (getting home at 11pm!!) and all the soft skills I mentioned earlier. The networking business (as any other traditional business) is not for the faint hearted. If you don’t have thick skin you will be eaten alive.
6. What motivates you?
Honestly, poverty. The fear of dying poor.
This may seem overly materialistic, but many times in the process of ‘hustling’ and trying to make a living I have missed a meal or two because I couldn’t afford it. And then of course my 17 month old baby girl Xolani. I have such huge dreams and aspiration for the kind of life I want her to remember having growing up. I want her to be fierce and fearless (like her mom). So my goal every morning is to make those dreams come true both for her and myself. You should see my vision board, it’s over the top such that sometimes I look at my dreams for us and they scare me (laughs).
7. How do you define success?
I think for me especially now and based on the knowledge I’ve gained over the years in business, I define success by the level of freedom I have. For example, am I financially free to take off from work for a month or two or even 6 months and not worry about where money will come from to take care of my bills during that period and will I find the businesses still running smoothly and earning an income regardless?
Do I have time freedom? To do what I want to do with whomever I want to whenever I want to? I know many people who are financially free, but they do not have that time freedom (or vice versa). Do I have time to spend with my loved ones, my family, my daughter for as long as I want to without worrying about the time spent away from my businesses? As it goes, I am not yet ‘free’, so to speak so it follows that I am still on the path to achieving success.
8. Who has been your greatest inspiration?
My greatest inspiration currently is a man called Marc Accetta. Google him. I happened to attend a training event for my networking business in South Africa a while back, where I got to listen and interact with him for three days. By God, he is a phenomenal speaker and trainer! I gorge out on his audios daily.
Someone else who inspires me closer home is Ciiru Waweru. This woman introduced me to Rotary and Rotary Club of Muthaiga. I will forever be indebted to her. We’ve become such good friends since. Unbeknown to her, I think she’s such a phenomenal woman who I can relate to based on my present situation because, well she’s a woman and a wife and mom first, and an entrepreneur second, whose building an amazing global children’s brand and killing it! LOL. She has the most positive energy I have ever experienced or cared to receive from a fellow woman. LOL. There are not many Kenyan women that move me other than my mothers. And she does what she says she will do. I’ve watched her entrepreneurial journey and it’s gobsmack amazing. You can’t sit and do nothing if you’re Ciiru’s friend. Actually, it’s sinful if you do. No way has God brought these people into your life for you not to learn or take away from them (laughs).
9. What is your favorite aspect of your job?
Writing. I love to write.
I don’t per se love to write for other people and I’m currently doing it for the money, but I love to write because it’s the one avenue through which I learn so much about everything.
Like over the years, I have literally written on everything you can think of. All industries. All subjects expect nuclear physics (laughs). So my exposure and knowledge base has really grown tremendously and this really in turns complements my conversations and interactions with people from all walks of life, young and old, white or black. I can literally be dropped on another planet with aliens and I wouldn’t suffer a day, because it’s likely my ability to piece bits of information together would get me friends and partnerships soon enough. Writing, which goes handing hand with reading, is like being a permanent student at the ‘University of Life’.
10. What would you say are the key elements to being successful?
I think I may have answered this partly above. But to add, bottom line it’s just about being able to know what it is you want in life and going after it no matter the obstacles that may exist along the way.
I am also learning that it is also helpful if you have the right financial vehicle to get you there. So you can be skilled and have the ability and put in the right amount of effort, but if you are NOT in the right business or the right environment where your business can thrive, success will be slow and hard to come by. Some of us remain stuck in our dead end or unfulfilling jobs, or running businesses that are doomed to fail or aren’t profitable, but pride, fear, uncertainty, lack of knowledge, or a combination of all keeps us stuck in a rut for years or FOREVER! Thus, to me today and especially because I am also just realizing this and learning as I go along, SUCCESS = RIGHT FINANCIAL VEHICLE X SKILLS X EFFORT
11. What advice would you give somebody just starting out in your line of work?
Becoming a good writer, or copywriter is all about practice and perfection. The more you write the better you become. Don’t be afraid to work for free either, BUT also learn that there is a limit. This year especially, I had to make some tough decisions about the kind of writing work I would take on and in multiple cases even had to refund some clients their monies, because I realized the hustle wasn’t worth it. You’re good at what you do, but a client doesn’t want to pay you or want to pay you peanuts because they don’t see the value of your work. My take has been with my more than 10 years writing to boot, I am allowed to choose my jobs even if it means going hungry a day. But yes, write and write and write until you become so good that even you are willing to pay for your own work.
12. What has been your most satisfying moment in terms of career?
I think these have been based on a happy client’s feedback after I’ve delivered the work, or when a repeat client comes and tells me that they can’t work with anyone else but me / Say Cheese. Or when clients offer / beg to hire me to work for them full time. That’s the ultimate icing on the cake.
13. What makes you happy?
Peace of mind… and my adorable Missy (Xolani).
14. What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?
Right now, travel. I’ve always wanted to travel the world, see new people, taste new cuisines, etc. By nature I am a curious soul and love to meet new people. I actually thrive best in new and strange territory. I’m like Alexander the Great (of travel) right now, wanting to conquer the different travel destinations across the globe that feature on my ever-growing bucket list.
I also love to eat. Yeah. Despite weighing nothing. True story (laughs).
15. Where you see yourself in around 10 years?
Financially free. Settled with a life partner (not sure about the whole marriage thing, but I definitely see myself being with ONE person for a lifetime, if I’m lucky.) Maybe having adopted another child to be Missy’s sibling or had another of my own…with the future life partner, who knows?
I also want to do A LOT of charity work especially in my birth-place. I was born in a village somewhere in one of the most remote parts of South Nyanza, where we still have murram dirt roads and walking from one trading centre to the next over super long distances is the norm. I most definitely want to go back and add value down there, especially because my birth mom still lives there. So yes, I should have started a Foundation by then. I want to be a major sponsor for the education of needy and kids with potential to be great.
I also see myself having a children’s book series/ brand. I want to write for kids in Africa specifically. I’ve started on that already. Maybe even having won some International Literary award/ prize/ accolade/ recognition for the children’s books. That’s an aspiration I hope to see in my lifetime.
I also look at having published two books at least of my own. I already journal every day religiously thanks to iPhone’s Notes, which is so easy to use, so I have a lot of material stacking up for my book(s). This and traveling across Africa to speak and inspire young people or people in general; now that would be something.
If you would like to interact with Lilian Okado find her on twitter at