It’s difficult to imagine a 24-year-old running a successful business. Especially when its a security company that deals not only with residential estates, but top-end security detail for concerts and political campaigns.
But that’s just what Tilas Onyango has been able to build over the last three years. He was 21 when he started his company, Topwatch Security. His achievement makes sense as he speaks to Hustle about his journey.
“I grew up as a military kid. My father was a major in the army when he retired last year. So, all my life I’ve known about security and safety. I didn’t want to join the army, but I knew I wanted something to do with protecting people.”
Topwatch Security offers both manpower and digital intelligence support for residential security management and events coverage, as well as background checks for recruitment firms and human resource departments.
“Many people ask what exactly we do when we check employee backgrounds, which is our unique speciality. Well, employees usually give two or three references when they apply for a job. But these are people they know, which means they can coach them to say whatever they want,” says Tilas.
“As a security company, we do our own research. For instance, we might speak to the guard or an intern at a person’s place of work and ask about their character.
“We choose people they ordinarily wouldn’t care to impress because this is a good way to judge a person’s true nature. We collect all this information and give it to our clients to help them make a more informed decision on whom they hire.”
While Tilas may have a handle on issues of employment and security these days, he admits he hasn’t always been responsible or known what he would do with his life.
Growing up, Tilas was expelled from two schools.
He finally finished his studies at Kodero Obara High School in Rongo, Nyanza, despite being suspended from the school at least twice.
“The principal always told my dad that he saw something special in me, so he would make sure I sat through to my final exams. I got a C. When I told my dad, he didn’t believe I’d actually passed. He insisted that we drive from Nairobi to Rongo to get the results directly from the school.”
Tilas says his father not believing he would get even this average grade was a turning point for him. It became clear that the most important people in his life didn’t think he had the capacity or desire to amount to much based on the choices he had previously made.
Value of experience
Tilas decided at that moment that he would choose a different path and leave behind a life of legacy instead of a life of destruction.
“My dad asked me what I wanted to do with my life after high school and I chose security. He told me to find a school and he would pay for it. I enrolled at the Kenya Institute of Criminal Justice for a diploma course in forensic investigations and security management.”
During his time at the institute, Tilas realised how crucial experience was in the industry, so as he studied, he applied for work from security firms.
He was soon offered a job as a security officer, which he thought meant he would sit in an office and help formulate security policies. However, on the day he reported to work, he was given a pair of boots and a uniform and told to report to his post.
“I discovered I’d been hired as a security guard. My job was to manage the gate at a refugee consortium.”
Tilas took it in stride, however, having seen many army cadets who started from the bottom rise up the ranks through focus and hard work.
It is this drive that helped him apply his knowledge and suggest system changes at the consortium, which were quickly picked up by his managers. His value to the security detail was noticed.
“But my salary remained at Sh7,000. I would give my mum Sh1,000, save Sh1,000, invest Sh1,000 and use the rest of the money for transport and food. It was a difficult balance, and I knew that if I wanted more out of my life, I would need to create my own terms at work. That’s when I decided to start my own company.”
It took Tilas six months to set up Topwatch Security.
During this time, he graduated from the Kenya Institute of Criminal Justice and started studying security and forensic investigation at Egerton University.
One of his company’s first clients was a construction company, which he supplied with four guards.
Unfortunately, the company suffered three thefts in that time and Tilas’ contract was cancelled.“It was tough to think we had failed, but I realised the issue was that I went into this particular job without studying the challenges of guarding a construction site and coming up with solutions for my client. I wasn’t even equipped to do that at the time. I needed more experience and more manpower.”
Tilas changed his tactics when he opted to look into residential security.
He spoke to several estate managers and picked out the shortfalls they experienced with the companies they’d hired. Most complained about guards’ poor interaction with residents, and indiscipline.
Tilas set out to fill this gap. With the help of his father, who used his military background to design a training curriculum for the guards, Tilas managed to supply top-end guards at affordable rates.
The firm currently has a database of 100 guards specifically trained for residential security, with 27 guards in employment.
It also handles events, and it counts in its portfolio Churchill Live recordings, weddings and political rallies.
The company’s current turnover is between Sh200,000 and Sh400,000 a month; Tilas’ dream is to grow this amount to between Sh500 million and Sh700 million a year in the next five years.