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From Ducking Knives To Making Millions

“It’s good, good, good, it’s good, it’s nice”—millions grew up with that jingle. While the powers that be were oppressing the black majority in South Africa, George Sambonos was busy selling them fried chicken.



You wouldn’t think George Sambonos is a multi-millionaire. He may drive a Porsche, but he spends his Fridays helping clear the tables in the rush of Friday lunchtime at his flagship store. Hence, two words describe him: ‘humble’ and ‘shrewd’.

The son of a Greek entrepreneur, Sambonos was born in Hillbrow, South Africa. His life has been filled with doses of luck and bucket-loads of hard work. It all began with his father’s business, started by his mother to pass the time. The Dairy Den was a franchise, from the US Dairy Queen, selling ice cream and fried chicken to customers in their cars. He worked at the Dairy Den from the age of 18 and would stay until the wee hours every day.

He uses words like “awful” and “horrible” to describe working for his Jekyll-and-Hyde father. Sambonos recalls days when he’d have to go outside and cry for five minutes in his determination not to quit. Another time, his father threw a bread knife at him for dropping a glass—the knife stuck into the skirting board. He remembers his father as a good businessman but an awful boss. Sambonos is the opposite with his daughter, Chantal. He considers himself strict but fair, believing that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

It was the benign side of Sambonos senior that threw tickets to America across the dining room table and gave the young man a chance to make a discovery that was to change his life. The condition of these trips was that he visit his aunt in Greece on the way back.

The overseas trips allowed him to soak up everything he could about the US restaurant business. Sambonos would spend his days walking from one outlet to another, trying out the food and taking photographs of the menus. He claims that he still does this, but is now more selective and secretive. When he takes a picture these days, he gets his wife to hold the menu, while he pretends to take a picture of her.

It was on one of these trips, in 1972, that Sambonos tasted the fried chicken which would change his life. He asked the business owner in Waco, Texas, to give him the recipe. He wore the owner down to making a deal but did not have the $5,000 asking price. The chicken shop owner took pity on Sambonos because he was young. Further negotiations brought the price down to $1,000—all the money he had for the rest of his trip.

Sambonos came back too afraid to tell his father what he’d done. He began mixing the spices under his bed and adding them to the chicken at his father’s roadhouse, from a recipe he hoped was right. Chicken sales grew. The Dairy Den went from taking in R25,000 a month to a staggering R200,000 a month in the course of a year: a fortune in those days.

It was a good three months before Sambonos came clean, if you can call it that. It was a visiting relative who asked Sambonos’s father what he’d done to the chicken and the old man said: “That little ‘bastard’ must have done something—I’ll kill him.” The secret recipe for the addictive chicken is safely in the hands of Robertsons Spices, and its chemist was made a director in the company to safeguard the company secret.

With business doing so well, thanks to Sambonos’s bold move, he thought it the right time to ask for a 5% profit share. This did not go down well with his father, who told him to either be happy with what he’s got or his cousin would be called in to replace him. So when the opportunity came up to sign the store’s lease in his name while his father was in Greece, Sambonos jumped at it. It was a move motivated purely to save the lease, but his father didn’t speak to him for three months and died three months after their reconciliation.

Rebranding was next. In 1981, Sambonos wanted to name the store ‘Golden Fried Chicken’, like the name of the company he’d just formed, but was turned down because the name was too descriptive. A despairing Sambonos had his head buried in his hands when one of his waiters suggested the name, Chicken Licken, from the children’s book, Chicken Little/Chicken Licken. The waiter received R300 for his idea.

The Chicken Licken signs went up and by 1982, Sambonos had taken over the business and was franchising into the townships. The first franchise was in Zola, Soweto. Sambonos admits to giving away the first franchises. By 1985, he began selling them for R3,000 and giving the franchisee R15,000 worth of equipment to get them started. A television commercial featuring a well-known black actor drove up sales in 1989 with the jingle “It’s good, good, good, it’s good, it’s nice.” Sambonos found out what his customers liked and used it to make money.

Setting up in the townships of South Africa during apartheid was another risky move by Sambonos and in 1984, things took a turn for the worse. The growing turmoil in Soweto meant that delivering chicken to the township was nearly impossible. Business suffered.

Sambonos has come a long way since then, with 245 outlets and franchisee payments of 12% of their turnover, up from the pre-2012 payments of 10%. These consist of 6% for royalty fees and 6% for the advertising share. The group is said to turn down five people a day. This is all testament to how much the brand has grown. There is an outlet set-up cost of at least R2.8 million ($354,670) and an initial franchise fee of R120,000 ($15,200). The flagship store in northern Johannesburg cost R5 million ($633,240) to set up, excluding the R500,000 ($63,330) for the generator. Unlike the 1980s, a lack of electricity is a concern these days.

Sambonos is still at the helm, ensuring stringent quality control. All the outlets receive their ingredients from the same licensed suppliers; use the same specs; are furnished with identical equipment; and have access to the trademarks.

This rigorous approach has led to problems when expanding in the continent. The company opened two stores in Mauritius, with a three-year royalty break. The country only had two chicken producers, one of which supplied Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC); they had no choice but to use the other. The outlets did well, but when the royalty break ended, so did Chicken Licken in Mauritius.

Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, had four outlets which were doing extremely well; one of them was a top performer in the entire group. That is, until the country ran out of foreign exchange to pay for ingredients.

Nigeria’s five outlets in Lagos closed down due to issues with the franchisee. According to Sambonos, the franchisee wanted to refranchise to others at a lower rate and loosen quality control.

Chicken Licken plans to invest in the rest of Africa, beyond their 12 stores in Botswana. Sambonos says this is provided they get the same quality chicken in those countries. The company is awaiting expansion into the continent by Rainbow Chicken, South Africa’s main chicken supplier. Sambonos feels that the key to success is to control the chicken and the advertising. In Nigeria, the cost of fuel to run generators has to be thought about as no business can rely on the electricity supply.

Sambonos says: “Nigeria’s only got 30 million chickens, that’s all. The big producer is the former president and he won’t let you import chicken, so you’re finished.”

As if going into the rest of Africa is not hard enough, Chicken Licken has had to battle the image of being a township brand in its attempt to enter wealthier malls. There is an apparent fear that the outlets will bring in the wrong element of people.

Sambonos was annoyed when O.R. Tambo International offered to slot them in the back. He believes his brand will win over the sceptics.

The company’s annual turnover is close to R1.4 billion ($177.4 million) and is powering its way towards its R2 billion ($253.5 million) target for 2014. Sambonos says that the company reaching R3 billion ($380.2 million) by 2017 will be his cue to step down from handling the suppliers and the advertising. “They can’t mess it up after that,” he chuckles.

The 2012 budget is R64 million ($8.1 million) for advertising and Sambonos oversees the ideas right down to attending the photo shoot.

The group is also a firm believer in taking care of its employees. Every three months, the best performing manager receives a R6,000 ($760) to R12,000 ($1,520) bonus and the rest of the outlet, about R600 ($75) each.

Sambonos says: “If the manager is right, then the rest of the outlet is right.”

Kind to his employees, but merciless to his competitors, Sambonos has seen his fair share of battles, or caused them, as some might say.

The first legal battle, in 1982 with KFC, was over the name. Sambonos opened up an outlet in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg, not far from a KFC. The new store took half of KFC’s business in just two weeks. The battle lines were drawn.

KFC claimed Chicken Licken’s name was too close to their ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’ slogan. Sambonos says the trademark lawyers told him he could change the name or fight in court. He chose the fight, dropping off the R10,000 legal fees in a Chicken Licken plastic bag that ended up in the office fridge. Chicken Licken won both the case and the appeal. The proud Sambonos says KFC offered him R250,000 to change the name, a sum he clearly refused, adding a sly: “Harry Swartz (of KFC) said, ‘Hell or high water, I’ll see you in Bloemfontein [High Court]’.” They never made it there.

The second battle was born of Sambonos’s usual trips to the US in the early 1980s. Walking down 6th Avenue in New York, he saw a KFC banner advertising KFC’s popcorn chicken. Loving the idea, he called his lawyer to put in an application with the South African registrar. A while later, back home, he saw a KFC advert for KFC Pops in the paper and did some digging into how this was even possible.

Apparently, his paperwork was not pushed through due to clerical forgetfulness. Sambonos demanded due diligence as he had placed his application first. The matter was settled at the registrar; KFC lost again.

By the time the hotwings saga began in 1992, Sambonos was already a thorn in KFC’s side. KFC held a convention in Swaziland for its franchisees, who were served fried hotwings. A friend’s phone call prompted Sambonos to call up his lawyer and say: “Hotwings! See if we can grab the name quickly.” The lawyer found out that a company called County Fair owned the name in South Africa, but had failed to use it. Sambonos’s lawyer offered them R750 ($300 at the then exchange rate) for the name, pointing out that  their ownership could easily be expunged and they’d get nothing from it. The lawyer signed a check on the spot.

Sambonos describes how he quietly went to Rainbow Chicken and asked them to supply him with his wings, even drawing a diagram as to where they should be cut. In the meantime, the creative entrepreneur would buy normal chicken wings and cut them himself. He sold them at one outlet—six ‘hotwings’ and chips for R2.95 ($1 at the then exchange rate)—and had the manager keep all the receipts just so they could use the name for the minimum required period. This paid off because KFC decided to start selling the hotwings its sister company in the US had introduced, only to be informed by Rainbow Chicken that Chicken Licken had beaten them to the order and would use the same name.

Since the name legally belonged to Chicken Licken, KFC offered Sambonos about R85,000 ($29,460 at the time) for it. “No deal,” said the man who had already paid R750.

According to Sambonos, his company sells an average of 12,000 cases of hotwings a week and is now importing XL wings to keep up with the growing demand. The original ‘six hotwings and chips’ meal now costs R21.95 ($3).

Sambonos attributes his business savvy to his constant need for something new. He still reads trade journals every week and travels as much as he can. He says that the US isn’t as secretive as the South African market. There, when a company creates something new, they test it and it becomes common knowledge.

Sambonos says: “If somebody has got something good and you’re not going to go to jail for it, use it.”

Wise words from the humble millionaire who owns the trademark “Soul” in the food category, and probably has his eye on a few more words.


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




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



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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How Three Small Businesses Are Pivoting To Stay Afloat Amid The Coronavirus Pandemic




In late February, Jeff Davidson, cofounder and co-CEO of fitness company Camp Gladiator, was on an annual boys fishing trip on Lake El Salto, at the foot of the Sierra Madre Mountains in western Mexico, when he was struck by an overwhelming sense of dread and déjà vu. After a long day of bass fishing, he logged onto his laptop for his daily browse of investment forums, an old habit from his days as a senior vice president at AXA Advisors. Hedge fund managers and Wall Street analysts were following the development of a novel coronavirus out of Wuhan, China, scouring the region for under-the-radar money plays. The more he read, the more he found himself feeling as he did at the start of the Great Recession. 

“I just remember the way it felt when we saw Bear Stearns go bankrupt and the panic of the stock market crash. All of that just burned really harsh memories into my mind,” Davidson says. “I immediately went back to our headquarters and told my team, ‘I think we need to be prepared for a major event.’” From Camp Gladiator’s offices in Austin, Texas, they hatched a plan, “Project Mars,” to pivot their fitness bootcamp business in real time.

Founded in 2008 by Davidson and his wife, Ally, who used the $100,000 she won after being crowned champion of NBC’s American Gladiator (which she had auditioned for on their wedding day) to launch the now $60 million company, Camp Gladiator’s training sessions were always meant to run outdoors, in public spaces like parks and schoolyards where people could come together and support one another on their fitness journeys. In recent months, Ally had been conducting a competitive analysis of the virtual workout landscape, with plans to roll out their own remote offerings in 2022. 

As state-wide shutdowns and shelter-in-place mandates have forced gyms to close indefinitely, casting the $94 billion fitness industry into financial freefall, Camp Gladiator has emerged uniquely poised to profit. While chains like Gold’s Gym filed for bankruptcy and billion-dollar startups like ClassPass have seen 95% of their profits evaporate overnight, Camp Gladiator’s lack of physical locations and trainer income model (the company’s 1,000 instructors collect 75% of the revenue from their classes) have served as advantages. “Camp Gladiator is like 1,000 small businesses rolled up into one medium business, because each of our trainers are local owner operators that collect the profits of their own locations,” Davidson says. 

This alignment they have with their workforce helped accelerate the launch of their virtual offerings to March 16, well ahead of competitors like Orangetheory Fitness. After a week of free #HustleAtHome classes streaming on Facebook Live, they released a 6-week virtual workout challenge for $39 (in-person memberships usually cost between $59 and $79 a month). The quick pivot paid off: Since launching two months ago, Camp Gladiator has gone from 4,000 outdoor workouts a week to nearly 10,000 Zoom workouts a week. It has retained 97% of its customer base of nearly 80,000 and has acquired an additional 20,000 customers and $700,000. The adoption rate has been so high that the Davidsons plan to maintain their virtual offering long term and have been hiring new trainers, many of which were recently laid off from other fitness companies. 

“Six weeks ago, we thought we were making a Band-Aid. Four weeks ago, we thought we were making a supplemental product offering that might be worth keeping,” Davidson says. “And now we think we’re making the way forward. There’s a chance that in a year virtual will be our primary product offering.”

Needless to say, fitness isn’t the only industry that’s been affected by the pandemic. The coronavirus crisis has taken a significant toll on the majority of America’s more than 30 million small businesses, many of which 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 last 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.

The restaurant industry has been especially crushed. A recent survey conducted by the Independent Restaurant Coalition and James Beard Foundation found that the food services industry only received 9% of PPP dollars, despite accounting for 60% of job losses in March. The National Restaurant Association estimates the restaurant industry lost $80 billion through April and is on track to lose $240 billion by the end of the year.

La Monarca Bakery and Café, a $15 million Los Angeles-based chain described by cofounder Ricardo Cervantes as “if a Mexican bakery and Starbucks had a baby,” expects revenues to drop as much as 40% across his 12 locations this year. “Being that we purposely positioned ourselves in working class Hispanic neighborhoods, we are in areas where the employer and employee basis have been hit the hardest,” Cervantes says. “We have not stopped,” he adds, referring to the work he and cofounder Alfredo Livas have been doing to adapt to the new normal. They’ve kept all of their locations open for pick-up and take-out and reduced all costs and management salaries in an effort to keep the majority of their team intact (about 10% were laid off) and expand their business to include more prepackaged items and family meal options. In response to the needs of their local communities, they started carrying essential items like milk, butter, flour, paper towels, toilet paper and bleach. “Some of our neighborhoods do not have access to large supermarkets or Costco, and if they do, many individuals don’t usually have the resources to stockpile two months of toilet paper,” Cervantes explains. “They need daily goods but in smaller quantities and that’s what we’ve been providing.”

When the duo met as MBA students at Stanford Business School in 2001, they had no idea they would someday be putting their finance degrees to work like this. “We are busier today than we have ever been—and that is not to say that business is great. As the analogy goes, we’re building this new airplane while we are in the air,” he says. 

But while the need for social distancing has forced business closures around the world, taking a toll on every sector, some like the wine industry have found somewhat of a silver lining. According to data from Nielsen, wine sales for off-premise consumption during the period from March 1 to April 18 were up 29% as compared to the same period year-over-year, with total alcohol sales for off-premise consumption up 24%. 

Kingston Family Vineyards is banking on this trend. Founded in 1998 by Courtney Kingston, the $3 million family-run business is headquartered in Portola Valley, California, with a 100-year-old farm and 350-acre vineyard in Chile’s Casablanca Valley that doubles as a premier tourist destination, one that’s been awarded TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence for the past six years. It produces just 3,500 cases of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc annually (they sell 90% of their grapes to other winemakers), so when Chilean President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of catastrophe on March 19, Kingston lost a significant amount of revenue during what’s been their most profitable season of the year. 

With Kingston’s 20th wine-grape harvest of the year well underway, the vineyard shifted to offering virtual wine tastings, shipping bottles to customers in advance. Revenue in the U.S. for the month of April was down just 10% year-over-year.

“Based on these virtual tastings, we’ve made up a lot of revenue with a totally new business,” Kingston says. “Before the coronavirus, hosting guests in an intimate setting was key to how we shared our small corner of the world with others. They’d often become customers for a lifetime. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, we can’t do that. The bright light in the darkness is what we can do.”

Maneet Ahuja, Forbes Staff, Entrepreneurs

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