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Two Flimsy Pages – The Difference Between Disaster And Fortune

Poet Rudyard Kipling once wrote: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” Mining entrepreneur Tim Tebeila lived it.

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How do you come back from this? You’ve lost the life savings of scores of poor people who trusted you; the company that was the key to your fortune has abandoned you; your dream of building a mining empire is in tatters and you are broke. What do you do? Go back to the office and go to sleep? Surely not. Tim Tebeila was used to hardship. He was born, the third of seven children, to a laborer in the remote village of Sekhukhune, in Limpopo, in the north of South Africa. From an early age, he walked barefoot through the mountains to school—15 kilometers each way.

“It was very tough. In winter you had to wake up at four o’clock andevery day you were still late. I was lashed for being late every day for two years,” says Tebeila. As he grew up, Tebeila hustled a living selling apples on the streets. “I think entrepreneurs are born, they are not made. It is a talent, like being a soccer player, but you have to nurture that talent.” To make his life even more complicated, Tebeila was drawn into politics and became one of the leaders in the South African Youth Congress. At nights, often he would sleep in the mountains near his home to avoid arrest.

At the dawn of democracy in South Africa, in 1994, Tebeila decided to quit his job to chase his dream of becoming a mining magnate and set up a company, Sekoko Resources. In those days there were very few black entrepreneurs in mining. “My dream was always to own a mine. My dream was to build a conglomerate similar to that of Anglo American. My belief was very simple; when the Oppenheimer family startedAnglo American they started the same way I did. Not by buying other companies, but getting their ownrights and developing them.”

Getting these mining rights proved a nightmare a million miles from the dream. Tebeila was turned down 10 times, and every time he rolled onto the couch in his Polokwane o­ffice and wept. In 2002, he used his last R100,000 ($13,500) to pay consultants in pursuit of yet another mining right. He found out too late that the money was non-refundable and ended up losing both the rights and the cash.

In 2004, he identified the asset he felt could make his fortune and prayed for better luck. Soutpansberg was an estimated 200 million tons of metallurgical coal, under 11 farms, covering 8,000 hectares, near Mussina on his home soil of Limpopo. On April 19, 2005, the government granted Tebeila a license for the site and he was set to chance his arm with consultants yet again. The bigger problem was that Tebeila did not have any money left to explore and the banks were refusing to lend. He needed R1.5 million ($195,000) for exploration and struck on the idea—as was fashionable in latter years of black economic empowerment—of gathering the money from the people who lived in the villages near where he grew up.

So on a crisp winter’s morning near Bela Bela, in the heart of the country’s northern Waterberg coalfields, hundreds of curious villagers gathered to hear what their brother planned to do in return for their life savings. “I remember it was a very cold day and I had a stomach problem… There were many people there that day, old people, disabled people and even chiefs from the community. I told them I needed their money and could make them all rich,” says Tebeila.

The next day, a blind woman shuffled into Tebeila’s offi­ce and handed over R15,000 ($1,950) in cash—her life savings. “This touched me a lot and it showed belief in the project. The chiefs followed and they represented the community. My feeling was at least we have got people who are backing my dreams and people who believe in my dreams. After all the long stress of turned down applications, this was going to be it.” Full of hope, Tebeila paid R600,000 ($78,000) to a firm of geological consultants and R900,000 ($117,250) to drillers to explore for coal at Soutpansberg. Little did Tebeila know that his worst day—like the coal itself—was lurking just beneath the surface.

The alarm bells started ringing when Tebeila spent weeks chasing up the paperwork from the consultants. To his horror, he found out that the consulting firm—which had been riven by strife—had dissolved almost overnight. To make matters worse, the geologist had fled to Australia with the exploration report under his arm. It meant Tebeila was mired in a project without information, money or hope; where he was landed with being the geologist, lawyer, environmentalist and engineer of a “I couldn’t phone a blind person, who had given her last money, to tell her that I had lost everything.”

“I felt I was down and I would notwake up. I felt really bad. This was my second loss. I got that money out of struggle and it had gone. I was very down, but I never thought of quitting. Every time I had hardship, I always went and slept in my office. I went back and slept on my couch. I slept for four hours. I do this because it is both meditation and praying for an answer. I woke up with the solution.”

The answer lay in a laboratory in nearby Witbank. Because Tebeila was hands-on during the exploration he knew the laboratory used by the consultants and the people who worked there. He sped to Witbank, more in hope than expectation.

In Witbank, lady luck at last cracked a smile on the Soutpansberg coal project. The laboratory was able to salvage two pages of exploration data for Tebeila. Luckily, the two pages contained the all-important drilling data. A lifeline for the coal mine; for Tebeila these flimsy pages were manna from heaven.

The struggle was far from over. Tebeila spent five months trying to sell the idea of a coal mine with his two pages in hand. There was a glimmer of hope when the Brazilian resources giant, Vale—the driving force behind Mozambique’s mighty Moatize coal project—showed interest, but there was a language barrier. Vale needed to send the proposals to Brazil for translation into Portuguese, but this was going to take months and Tebeila neither had the time nor the money.

What did he learn?

“I think I have learned the art of perseverance and how it works. I learned to persevere no matter what. I learned to stick to my dreams. I want to build a new Anglo American and I am doing that.”

At last, the sun broke through the clouds for Soutpansberg. Tebeila got a phone call, while he was driving, from Coal of Africa— an established player in the South African industry.

“Coal of Africa made me an off­er to purchase 74% of the assets for R70 million ($9.1 million). They also pledged to spending R100 million ($13 million) to take the project to a bankable feasibility study. “It’s the biggest deal I have ever closed on a cellphone while I was driving. The following day, they signed. Two years later, they o­ffered me R20 million ($2.6 million) for the remaining 26% and gave me the capital to finance my present project, Waterburg Colliery, which will mine up to 15 million tons of coal-a-year by 2019.” Sekoko Resources survived it all, diversified into iron ore, and is set to reach turnover of R10 billion a year ($1.3 billion) by 2019. And what of the people who handed over their last bundles of cash way back in 2005? “They got their dividends. They got all their money back and they made 300% back on what they gave. Some built houses out of that money. I felt very proud,” says Tebeila. So, coal’s well that ends well.

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31% Of Small Businesses Have Stopped Operating Amid Coronavirus: Sheryl Sandberg Shares How Facebook’s Latest Product Aims To Help

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The coronavirus pandemic has continued to take a catastrophic toll on America’s small businesses. According to Facebook’s State of Small Business report, 31% of small businesses and 52% of personal businesses have stopped operating as a result of the crisis. 

“What we know today is pretty sobering,” says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We’re in a really hard economic situation that is hitting all businesses, but particularly, small businesses really hard. We also know how critical small businesses are for jobs—long before coronavirus,” she says. “Two thirds of new jobs in this country happen because of small businesses and so that means what’s happening with small businesses has always been important, but it’s more important than ever.”

Especially concerning is that only 45% of business owners and managers plan to rehire the same number of workers when their businesses reopen. That number is just 32% for personal businesses. 

“If these businesses are letting people go, it’s not that they don’t want to rehire them,” Sandberg says. “It’s because they don’t think they’re going to be able to. That’s a pretty serious thing for us to be facing.”

Businesses that have been able to maintain operations still face significant hurdles, namely access to capital and customers. Some 28% of businesses surveyed say their biggest challenge over the next few months will be cash flow, while 20% say it will be lack of demand. 

The report, conducted in partnership with the Small Business Roundtable, was based on a survey of 86,000 owners, managers and workers at U.S. companies with fewer than 500 employees. It is also a part of the company’s broader data collection initiative with the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the Future of Business.

“We were already in the process of developing this report before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” Sandberg says. “We expected it to be a pretty rosy tale back then of low unemployment, flourishing entrepreneurship, and jobs growing all over the world. Fast forward to today and we’re in a very different position.”

An example of Facebook’s new Shops feature, which creates digital “storefronts” for businesses.
 
FACEBOOK

Now, the company is launching Facebook Shops, an ecommerce product that allows businesses to set up online “storefronts” on Facebook and Instagram. Businesses can customize their digital shops, using cover images to showcase their brands and catalogs to highlight their products. And just as customers can ask for help when shopping in physical stores, they can message business owners directly via WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct to ask questions, track deliveries and more. “Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from a small business owner to a global brand to use our apps to connect with customers,” wrote Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post announcing the new product. As was the case with the survey, the rollout was planned prior to the pandemic, but was accelerated as businesses have turned to online tools to adapt in the face of the ongoing crisis. According to the survey, 51% of small business owners have  increased their online interactions with customers, and 36% of operational businesses are now conducting all sales online. 

“One of the things I find so amazing is how much of the activity has migrated online and that we’re doing things we never thought were possible,” says Sandberg. “If I had asked you or you had asked me, could I work entirely from home? Can my whole company go home? I would have said ‘No way.’ But we did it. Small businesses have even more entrepreneurial spirit.”

There are more than 30 million small businesses in the U.S., many of which are struggling to stay afloat amid forced closures and are still hoping to receive financial relief from the government. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 71% of Paycheck Protection Program applicants are still waiting for loans and 64% don’t have enough cash to survive the next three months. As of April 19, more than 175,000 businesses have shut down—temporarily or permanently—with closure rates rising 200% or more in hard-hit metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, according to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report.

Employees of these businesses are disproportionately affected, with 74% and 70% reporting not having access to paid sick leave and paid time off, according to Facebook’s survey. For hotel, cafe and restaurant employees, those figures are over 90%.

Facebook, which relies heavily on small businesses for advertising revenue, was among the first major tech companies to provide much-needed aid. On March 17, the company announced $100 million in grants for small businesses, the majority of which will be distributed in cash, with some ad credits for business services. Of those funds, $40 million will be distributed across 34 American cities, with 50% being reserved for women, minority and veteran-owned businesses. The other $60 million will be distributed to small business owners throughout the world. In addition to financial assistance, the company also rolled out various product offerings including digital gift cardsfundraisers and easier ways for businesses to communicate service changes to their customers. 

Small businesses are resilient, even during times of crisis. According to the report, 57% of businesses are optimistic or extremely optimistic about the future, with only 11% of operating businesses expecting to fail in the next three months, should current conditions persist. 

“The report raises awareness about the struggles small businesses face from the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Rhett Buttle, founder of Public Private Strategies and co-executive director of the Small Business Roundtable. “But small businesses have brought us out of previous economic downturns and they will do so again.”

Maneet Ahuja, Forbes Staff, Entrepreneurs

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Birds Of A Feather: The Stepchickens Cult On TikTok Is The Next Evolution Of The Influencer Business

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Like any self-respecting cult, the Stepchickens follow a strict code of conduct as dictated by their absolute leader, Mother Hen, a comedian named Melissa who posts on TikTok as @chunkysdead. Mother Hen has widely preached a message of peace, telling her 1.7 million TikTok followers: “We do not rule by being cruel, we shine by being kind.” Further, she has asked all Stepchickens to make themselves easily identifiable and make her photo their TikTok profile picture.

Mother Hen has created TikTok’s first “cult.” (Her word.) Boiled down, she is a social media influencer, and the Stepchickens are her fans, just as more famous TikTok influencers—Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae and the like—all have their fanbases. But Mother Hen’s presence and style is quite singular, particularly in the way she communicates with her followers, what she asks them to do and how the Stepchickens respond to her. After all, not every member of the Charli hive use her image as their profile pictures.

“These influencers are looking for a way to build community and figure out how to monetize their community. That’s the No. 1 most important thing for a creator or an influencer,” says Tiffany Zhong, cofounder of ZebraIQ, a community and trends platform. “It’s become a positive for Gen Z, where you’re proud to be part of this cult—part of this community. They are dying to be part of a community. So it’s easy to get sucked in.”

Mother Hen, who didn’t return a request to comment for this story, already had a popular comedy vlog-style TikTok account on May 6 when she asked her followers to send suggestions for what they could name their cult. From the ideas offered up, she chose Stepchickens, and in the 19 days since, her following has more than doubled. (It was around 700,000 back at the beginning of this month.) She has posted videos about taking ediblesher celebrity lookalikes and her relationship status (“all this cult power, still no boyfriend”). And perhaps in violation of her first-do-no-harm credo, Mother Hen has implored her followers to embark on “battles” and “raids,” where Stepchickens comment bomb other influencers’ videos, posting messages en masse. She has become the mother of millions: TikTok videos with #stepchickens have generated 102 million views on the app, and her own videos have received 54.6 million likes.

Mother Hen is now concentrating on feathering her nest. She has launched a large range of merch: smartphone cases ($24), hoodies ($44), t-shirts ($28) and beanies ($28). Corporate sponsorships seem within reach, too. TikTok accounts for the Houston Rockets, Tampa Bay Rays and one for the Chicago Bulls mascot, Benny, all changed their profile picture to the image distributed by Mother Hen. The Rays sent her a box of swag, addressing the package to “Mother Hen,” of course. She dressed up in the gear (two hats, a fanny pack, a tank top) and recorded herself wearing it in a TikTok, a common move by influencers to express gratitude and signal that they’re open to business sponsorship opportunities. Mother Hen has launched a YouTube channel, too, where she’ll earn ad revenue based on the views that her 43,000 subscribers generate by watching her content.

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Then there is the Stepchickens app available on Apple devices. This digital roost is a thriving message feed—it resembles a Slack channel or a Discord server—where Stepchickens congregate, chat and coordinate their raids. They can also use it to create videos, ones “to glorify mother hen,” the app’s instructions read.

The app launched last Monday and has already attracted more than 100,000 users, a benchmark that most apps do not ever see and the best reach within months of starting. Since its debut, it has ranked as high as the ninth most popular social media app in the world on the download charts and in the Top 75 most downloaded across all types of apps. The Stepchickens have traded 135,000 messages, and the app’s most devoted users are spending as long as 10 hours a day on it, says Sam Mueller, the cofounder and CEO of Blink Labs who built the Stepchickens app.

“There’s this emergence of a more active—a more dedicated—fan base and following. A lot of the influencers on TikTok are kind of dancing around, doing some very broadcast-y type content. Their followers might not mobilize nearly as much as” the Stepchickens, says Mueller. Mother Hen’s flock, by contrast, “feel like they’re part of something, feel like they’re connected. They can have fun and be together for something bigger than what they’re doing right now, which is kind of being at home bored and lonely. There’s untapped value here.”

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Op-Ed: How Nigerians Can Unlock Their Potential In The Digital Age

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By Uzoma Dozie, Chief Sparkler

Nigerians are some of the world’s most creative, energetic, and entrepreneurial people. We are rich with talent, enthusiasm, and passion.

Nigerians are a global force bursting with potential and an enviable track-record of success. But in a more complex and fast-paced world than ever before, many of us struggle to find the time or have the ability to fulfil their potential.

Ultimately, this comes down to the lack of effective solutions in the market to support the lifestyle and finances of Nigerians and our businesses. For too long, we have been underserved by the traditional physical retail environment, which is limited by bricks and mortar infrastructure and legacy technology – the weaknesses of which have been laid bare by the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Unlocking Nigeria’s digital economy

While Nigerians are being underserved by current circumstances, there is also an exciting opportunity to start filling a gap in the market.

Nigeria’s digital economy is thriving, but it remains informal. Nigeria has a population of 198 million people – 172 million have a mobile phone and 112 million have internet access.

Many of us access social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram through our phones and use them as valuable sales tools, especially female entrepreneurs. Data and digital applications have the potential to revolutionize the daily lives of millions of Nigerians.

Therefore, new digital-only solutions are required. These should not just focus on finances though – they have to be intrinsically linked with everyday lifestyles, rather than thinking about linear processes and transactional outcomes.

Let us take one example. Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence have long been used to provide financial advice. But these chatbots could do so much more and evolve to provide support for more sophisticated usage, such as a personal adviser or lifestyle concierge.

Furthermore, these solutions should not just support Nigerians at home, but the ever-growing diaspora across the world.

Introducing Sparkle

The opportunity to play an integral role in transforming Nigeria’s digital economy and lead the charge in growing the digital economy across Africa inspired the creation of Sparkle.

Sparkle was founded with five core values – freedom, trust, simplicity, inclusivity, and personalization. We are adopting these values and embedding them in everything we do.

We will be leveraging technology and data to create and apply new digital-only solutions which bring more Nigerians into the formal economy thereby benefitting Government, businesses, and individuals.

Starting with the launch of a current account, we will co-create with our customers and collaborate with our partners to improve our services and increase our user base. We embrace collaboration and we are

working with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Google, Microsoft, Visa, and PwC Nigeria, to achieve our vision.

In addition, we want to create a more inclusive economy and break down barriers by accelerating the role and influence of female entrepreneurs, many of whom already operate in the informal economy with the help of Instagram and other social media apps.

At present, we are facing a global crisis in the shape of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has shown us that we need a strong digital infrastructure to ensure the economy continues to function. It will likely completely change the way we operate and conduct business in the future.

COVID-19 has only reinforced our belief that new digital solutions like Sparkle are required now more than ever before to serve Nigerians, boost the formal economy, and unlock potential in the digital age.

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