By Mark Kawalya
Let’s see… I am trying to come up with a singular sentence that can best summarize the life of Ethan Peter Bampeirwe, the co-founder of Social Clark. Yes! I think I have something… He is a serial entrepreneur with an insatiable itch to leverage technology in distinctive ways to solve common problems. His life has been convoluted with turns and twists that are not characteristic of the general trajectory of the lives that many young people in Uganda live.
This month we decided to look at SocialClark and the man behind the startup that is revolutionizing the digital marketing ecosystem in Uganda by offering the often out of reach service affordably to SMEs.
A child fascinated with machines
Ethan says he wasn’t a top performer in his class, nor was he interested in classroom leadership positions such as being a prefect while in primary school. “But I had a lot of passion for technology, which later on in life became the driving force for my business acumen. When teachers used to ask me what career I wanted to get into, I never had any of the ambitions like being a doctor or a lawyer that many of my peers used to have.” With a chuckle, he says. “All I ever wanted to do was drive trucks.”
It wasn’t until later on in his life that he realized he didn’t simply want to drive trucks as an end in itself, but was greatly fascinated by the technology and the systems working in synergy to move the large vehicles.
Luck threw its full weight behind his destiny when he joined a school in primary three that had an elaborate computer lab where he was first introduced to the machines, sparking an unquenchable interest in information technology. However, coming from a background that was not privileged, he unfortunately had to change schools, and alas, his new school was not equipped with similar facilities. This became the new normal throughout his entire primary school education, and he wasn’t able to access computers again until secondary school.
A tumultuous education
The financial situation at home had not improved, necessitating Bampeirwe to change schools often. “I attended so many schools that some of them I don’t even remember the names.” He says. “I was even moved from one school to another as I transitioned from one class to another.” This denied him the chance to settle into school and concentrate on his studies. Some of the schools he attended include, Santa Maria nursery school in Bukoto, then he went to a school in Kabale district for his primary one and primary two, before joining another school in Kampala for his primary three. He later joined St Jude Primary in Mpigi before moving to Kiira primary school, where he sat for his primary seven leaving examinations.
For his secondary education, he joined St. Kizito Secondary School in Bugolobi and later moved to a school in Kyebando for his senior three.
A conscious decision to abort his education
By this time, he had lost interest in school and had instead taken to having a good time with some of his classmates. Consequently, his senior four O-level exams were very poor, compelling his father to make him repeat the class in an attempt to better his results.
Despite not placing importance on his education, his passion for technology was still burning deep inside him. He wasn’t sure which specific course he would take at the university, but he knew it had to be technology-related.
By the time his second batch of results for his O level had returned, Ethan had experienced a change of heart about proceeding to start his advanced level education. This led to a bitter fight with his father, who was convinced his son was throwing his life away by not going to do his A levels.
“I didn’t see the necessity of proceeding to senior five and six because I felt I had already spent a lot of time studying subjects that deviated from my area of interest, which was technology. I felt like I would be wasting more time if I went to do A levels. “
His father left him to his own devices, and the young lad signed up for a computer applications course, after his O levels. He then did a CISCO certification, which is a course that offers a path to a technology career. He later joined Makerere University where he did a few handpicked courses that were directly related to information technology, although they did not lead to getting a degree.
The start of his entrepreneurial journey.
While still in school during his senior four, Bampeirwe started a Facebook group that he named ‘Hints to Hacking’ which shared general hacking deterrent information.
“I had a goal to become the best hacker out there. I did eventually become a self-taught hacker after digging into the subject and familiarizing myself with the field, although I did not move into the criminal side of the career. Steadily, the Facebook page grew to more than 40,000 members, which led him to create a blog that similarly dispensed technology-related information.
“It was also during this time that I made my first online sale, which was quite exciting.” He narrates. “The client was from South Sudan, and he was interested in buying a disk of software I had recently marketed using social media. I used to sell a few of these, and the client paid me after I sent the disk to him via bus. On receiving the money, I realized that if correctly applied, technology had great potential for generating an income. “
He, however, later learned that the software he was selling was copyrighted and the business was not only illegal, it was not scalable. He then made the conscious decision to drop the venture.
Running his first digital marketing agency
Before the onset of the pandemic, Ethan had been running a digital marketing agency called OptiBrave for about five and a half years. Business was good and he had a client base that enabled him to employ five people, who he paid a monthly salary. The COVID-19-inspired lockdowns hit OptiBrave hard when one of the firm’s biggest clients situated in China dropped the firm. This was in 2019 because, by that time, China had already been hit full scale by the effects of the pandemic. The client also had interests in the US, whose digital marketing needs he had outsourced to OptiBrave.
“This hit us hard because that client gave us very good business,” Ethan says. “The tricky reality was that our overheads were still running yet our earnings had greatly reduced.” This put a lot of stress on us as a business. By March 2020, we couldn’t pay some of the team members and had to make the painful decision to lay off some of them. We cut down the team from five to three workers. At this time, the effects of COVID-19 had hit Uganda, and our local existing customers were no longer paying. Those that could pay no longer saw the benefit of digital marketing amid the lockdown. ” The culmination of all these effects brought the wheels of the once vibrant firm come to a screeching halt.
The birth of SocialClark
When the doors of OptiBrave were shut, Bampeirwe went back to the drawing board and used the long first lockdown period to brainstorm on a viable way of running a digital marketing agency. The services that such firms offer are quite expensive, and Ethan looked into ways of bringing the cost down so that there would be a larger uptake of the services by SMEs.
“If medium-sized companies struggle to pay Ush2M per month for social media, what about the smaller businesses that need the social media presence more to grow.”
This gave him the idea that his new digital marketing startup should be able to offer services at affordable enough rates for small businesses and SMEs. Social Clark is the business that was formed to execute this new business approach. The business initially started offering a number of services but has since scaled down focusing more on a social media management angle.
“Social Clark follows a unique business model that very few, if any, businesses have replicated in Uganda. Social media management can be expensive and time-consuming. You need a graphic designer to create artwork for your business. After you have approved it, you take the artwork and post it to your different social media platforms, along with resizing it for different socials.” Ethan says
SocialClark’s model simplifies this using its platform. After clients’ artwork has been created by their team of designers, the customer can approve it along with its captions, and at the click of a button, it is posted on all the social media platforms of the client.
Pricing for the service is flexible, with the lowest package costing only Shs95,000 ($26) per month and offering one piece of social media artwork per week.
Bampeirwe is happy with his latest business. This is because of the social impact it is having on SMEs across Uganda, who can now boost their businesses by leveraging affordable digital marketing.