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Justus Koojo: Refusing to be One Thing Only and My Passion for Impact

"Tell me one highly successful person who never failed. If you have one, you have the right to give up," Justus Koojo. 

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"Tell me one highly successful person who never failed. If you have one, you have the right to give up," Justus Koojo. 

One might argue that CEOs are only qualified to grow revenues and not to lead societies. But there’s something about people who use business as a force of good, and I don’t mean the once in a while CSR initiatives. Justus Koojo, Founder and Chief Executive Director at the Ultimate Group of Companies is one of those who are cut from a different cloth. I had a chat with him to find out more about his passion for social impact and gorilla conservation in Uganda.

To kick things off, tell us about the Ultimate Group of Companies

Thank you for the opportunity to be here. We seek and give inspiration, so it’s an absolute honor to share my story with the Fuzu community.  

Ultimate Group of Companies is my baby and a baby to many now, but it really wears my personality. I was able to skin Ultimate with my personality. Ultimate is dynamic and always looking for the next problem to solve, and that comes with a lot of passion and resilience. 

We are a model social enterprise comprising eight subsidiary organizations - fitness, well-being and tourism.  At the moment we are leading the way in cycling, specialized fitness, and adventure activities. We also sell adventure and fitness gear. Our vision is to elevate African brands with a lot of value in strengthening communities to build the next generation of leaders that are going to transform and impact the African continent. 

As a group, we are looking to create a million jobs across the continent in 5-7 years from now. We’ll be launching a mobile application - Ultimate Adventures Application in October 2021 through which we’ll create opportunities for young people to sell activities. We’ve come to appreciate that leveraging technology and innovation is the best way to elevate communities and create impact in the African Continent.

You had an early start in your entrepreneurial journey. What made you realize "I'm good at this", at 17 years old? 

I come from a business background. My mom traded in Dubai and China and my father was in business too. As early as 17 years, I realized there were two things I could do - buying and reselling with a profit margin or being able to make a difference in the lives of those in need after my profits were made. This could be buying bread or a piece of clothing for a child or family that needed it. I realized I had the capacity to do more for the community, and when I donated it brought so much fulfillment within. That’s how I started.  

Embracing failure is part of the entrepreneurship experience. You’ve been successful at your ventures, but are there moments where you screwed up? What did you learn from those failures?

I acknowledge that failure is part of the game and that there’s no shortcut to that. I come from a cycling background and I like to use that metaphor of cyclists on the trail. If we are riding a thousand kilometers, you’ll start very excited wishing for the best. But things change - the weather, terrain, your fellow riders, your bike or you’ll even start struggling to focus mentally. 

For instance, there’s a time I was riding 1,200 KM from Durban to Johannesburg. About 800 KM in, I tripped and fell off my bike, landing on my left pinky finger and dislocating it. I pulled it back into normal position but everything thereon was difficult - taking control and the grip on my bars was extremely difficult. At that point I had two choices, I could have given up on my expedition or get up and keep going. 

Had I given up at that 800 KM mark, I would have gone back to the start line and in the end I would have done 1,600 KM. But if I limped and continued, I was going to make a total of 1,200 KM from the beginning to the end and successfully finish the ride. 

I use this real-life metaphor because entrepreneurship is a journey. Every time you are faced with a problem, you must look at it as an opportunity.  If every time we fall, we back out, we are never going to do anything.  One of my favorite things to say is that I continue to fail my way to the top. 

Tell me one highly successful person who never failed. If you have one, you have the right to give up. The key learnings from when I fail is to take responsibility. As a leader, you are responsible for everything, whether good or bad. 

You almost have celebrity status in the startup community, how different is Justus Koojo the man and the Founder of the Ultimate Group of Companies? 

The difference is very slim. I monetized my personality, that’s what I try to build and depict. The angle of attack here is a similar concept but approaching it differently.  Even when I’m riding sometimes going for a mountain biking trip for instance, the difference between me doing what I would do as a person and enjoying it is very thin as compared to when we go out with a group as Ultimate. 

In the end, it comes down to Justus spending more time outdoors in adventure which still happens with work. The switch between this is me happening and this is Justus of Ultimate going is very thin and I try to tangle. However, in hindsight, I would say the CEO Justus is more into the strategic stuff of board meetings while Justus the person is more into outdoors either by the lake, fishing, cycling or hiking.  

So when I’m at work it’s as if I’m still happening and that justifies the passion. But it also comes down to defining Justus who is doing social impact as an individual mentoring young kids and Justus at the Ultimate Group impacting from a social enterprise perspective. That is honestly one of the things that I still need to dissect and understand. 

A colleague of mine recently shared that she now understands the time and effort that goes into product development. As a Product Designer & Developer, how can companies achieve remarkable product development speed without compromising on quality?

Product design and development is something that I’m very passionate about because I like to solve problems and find new ways to do things. With problem-solving what’s likely to happen is that you are going to come up with a new product. The most important thing is to understand the ‘why’ of the product you are building. That then aligns with the core purpose of the vision of what you are doing.

For instance our Gorilla Bikes, the real product goal is selling a premium product that’s going to enhance customer experience. We recently even dubbed it ‘the ride of your life’ which translates to - if there is that one thing you’ve got to do just go for it. So if that’s what we are selling to the customer with the brand promise of ‘one life - ride it’, then it’s very important to understand what the product goal is. 

Still sticking to Ultimate’s Gorilla Bikes, our impact story is the conservation of the gorillas we have in Uganda. 5% of our top-line revenue goes towards gorilla conservation programs under the Uganda Wildlife Authority.  

Product design and development becomes successful if there’s an impact or legacy story behind it. The overall legacy of the product is important, what’s the legacy of the product you are building? As for gorilla bikes it’s to be a generational business. We want to see the next generations come and do their part because we have understood the ‘why’ and know what the impact story is and we want to build a sustainable product. 

If you know why you are building something, you have to be non-compromising on the quality of the product.  Draw your vision board and do market research to be able to answer these: Are there enough people interested in my product? What does the market size look like? One of the hacks when building products is leveraging the emotional aspects of the consumers to help you get a pull. 

Optimization of the product cycle is also key. Once you have your product design ready, have done testing, built prototypes and have buy-in, you have to understand your supply and production chain and get reliable suppliers and vendors. Further in, the next challenge or opportunity is getting the product to fly off the shelves. 

Let’s talk about your passion for cycling. What sparked your interest and how did that idea grow into Ultimate Cycling Uganda? 

I grew up quite privileged, while in school my parents would say ‘if you are top five we’ll get you a new bike’. I would make that mark and come back to a brand new bicycle. But at the age of 13 to 14 years old when I started driving my parents’ cars, I started feeling like I’ve outgrown this stuff.

However, coming back into the cycling space at around 17 years old, it was a cocktail of curiosity, mentorship and commitment. These are the things that sparked my interest. 

In Uganda a bicycle is traditionally a poor man’s tool, I was curious to go back to cycling to know what it feels like, and I felt different. My mentor saw me and pointed out that I had good pedal strokes, was good at climbing and balancing. I then sought mentorship to grow, asking questions like how do I eat, exercise and rest well to get optimal performance. Once I was hooked and had the right knowledge and tools, I committed myself and started doing 60 KM per day. That transitioned into passion, I couldn’t do without cycling. Being on a bike felt like I was set free as a bird. 

Coming back to Uganda, I had a beautiful bike but I couldn’t find spare parts or a community to relate to. I remember when I broke something on the bike I had to rely on my friends who were travelling back from South Africa or the US and I had to wait for about two months.  That was a challenge but also an opportunity,  I used my problems to solve a puzzle for many and that gave birth to Ultimate Cycling. 

Ultimate Cycling today is a community of cyclists and a bike shop and the most successful organization in Uganda and East Africa. We’ve been able to build a community of people that love to get on their bikes and we can integrate that into sporting activities. 

Do you still do the 60 KM every day? 

Being in Kampala you have to appreciate that you need to go to work and the infrastructure is not very friendly. But I do that on a spin bike at least every day. I also do cross-training, a bit of running and rowing and take my bike outside on weekends. I cycle more when I travel to the States or Europe. In South Africa, I use a bike to go almost everywhere. 

We are lobbying for a more cycling-friendly city and that will see a lot of air pollution and traffic reduced if we have the right infrastructure for us to safely cycle to work. 

You juggle many balls - a Venture Capitalist, Social Entrepreneur, Product Designer & Developer, Business & Life Coach and Philanthropist. How do you measure the success of your work?

There’s actually more that I’ve committed to than these that I’m currently doing. Life, leadership and business coaching, motivational speaking. I’ve also been intentional about being a socially responsible investor because the philanthropist element in me comes from a place of wanting to position myself as an ambassador to the youth in terms of community leadership. 

I’m also working on getting my piloting license. I believe being a pilot is an added advantage in creating opportunities for underprivileged children who want to be pilots one day. 

It is a lot but I think about it as an investment because it involves time and monetary resources. As a businessman, it’s about revenues. But brand identity is valuable as well because people know that I do life coaching, philanthropy and that helps to attract a different tier of network. 

I also measure my success through failure. Failure is a good thing that I embrace and enjoy. When I try something and I fail, it’s encouraging because if you don’t try you’ll just be wondering how that would have turned out but failing gives you an opportunity to know how to approach things differently.  

It’s also fulfilling and empowering when I see children that I have mentored become new beings and I get to hear the impact stories. I count that as success. 

What do first-time entrepreneurs continue to get wrong?

There are things we do wrong as entrepreneurs. But based on my apprehension and understanding I’d say lack of self-awareness among entrepreneurs. If you don’t know who you are or what you want, it becomes difficult to be anything. If you don’t know what your purpose and passion is, things are bound to be difficult. Building a business around things you love to do makes the journey easier. 

The other thing is getting into business for selfish ambitions. I encourage anyone who’s building a business to position themselves as an industry visionary and leader. Once you appreciate that you are contributing to the bigger picture and are a player in the industry, you’ll appreciate your competitors as players in the big picture.  When you get into any space, work to contribute to the industry’s vision. Working with your competitors makes it easy to regulate the industry, and when the industry is regulated there are more opportunities. 

We tend to also come in with small dreams. There’s self-sabotaging around what we are able to do and that comes about due to a lack of self-awareness and vision and one ends up working out of structure.  

You can’t expect instant results as an entrepreneur. You need to have the stomach for it when things get tough, you just have to be consistent. 

In a world where you can be anything, you choose to make a difference in your community through Kitenge Africa Foundation. Why is this important for you? 

Kitenge Africa Foundation is a project I started at 19 years old and I handed it over to the community. It is a community-based organization that champions for equal opportunities for education, medical access and sustainable living for vulnerable women and children. 

What I do now is continue to tell the impact stories through the Ultimate Group of companies. All our subsidiary organizations have proceeds that are redirected to community initiatives. We are launching the Ultimate Group Foundation that will consolidate all of the proceeds and be deliberate with the impact we put out. 


Are you up for a round of flash questions? 


1. What's your dream cycling trip?

Cairo to Capetown - the tip of Africa north to the tip of Africa south. That’s about 12,600 KM.

2. What do you tap into when you need a little bit of inspiration?

Reminiscing about my big dreams, reading biographies of the people that I admire like Mandela, and engaging the people that inspire me. I’m big on taking inspiration holidays too. 

3. Dead or alive, who would you like to go out for dinner with and what would you ask them?

Nelson Mandela. I’d ask him what is the foundation of his global leadership and seek his endorsement as a follower in his steps. How do we shift the mindset of our African people from where we are to a more sustainable continent? How do we create equal opportunities for all? How do we maximize the African resources and create democratic governance? Those will be my questions because he lived it and that’s what we remember him for. 

4. What would you say you are bad at?

One of the things I need to learn in life is balance. I’m an extremist. Even when I’m cycling I’m either number one or the last one. Sometimes it’s good to work within balance. I need to also start seeing and appreciate small details, I focus a lot on the big picture. 

Written by

Kelvin Mokaya

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