A sixty-five-year-old Cape Town antique furniture maker, Pierre Cronje, guarded his business and worked his guts out for three decades, but he now lives to convince his children to take over when he retires.
At his time of life, most of his fellow entrepreneurs are taking it easy. Cronje still wakes up in the early hours to open his 4,000-square-meter workshop of about 200 workers. FORBES AFRICA went to see Cronje in the workshop, nestled in the heart of the crime-ridden suburb of Lansdowne, on the outskirts of Cape Town.
We found grey-haired Cronje, in a short sleeve shirt and khaki chinos, perambulating amid his men in blue overalls, working on expensive furniture. It is a noisy workshop with heavy machinery. Just before the tea-bell rang at 10AM, Cronje ushered us to his corner office a floor above the business he has loved since he was a boy.
“I loved woodwork at school, which was an unusual thing in those days, so throughout school I studied woodwork. I waited for the whole week for the double lesson. But I had to study at university, so I went to study for civil engineering but I was so fixed up to furniture, especially Cape furniture. While studying I restored old furniture for people, it paid for my fees,” says Cronje.
Cronje qualified as an engineer in the 70s, but he lasted only four years. Woodwork beckoned. He said he could not spend the rest of his life without making furniture. Soon after meeting his wife, Frances, they both worked briefly for the same company in Johannesburg. The Cronjes returned to Cape Town to establish a furniture restoration business in the snooker room of his Victorian house. Ten workers helped him with stripping and collecting antique furniture for restoration.
“We started as a restoration company because I knew restoring, I knew the trade and the dealers and could get as much work as I wanted. But slowly, about six years, we moved from restoration to manufacturing. So, we have a big base of reproducing antique furniture because I know Cape furniture and antique furniture very well, we do some European or English antique reproduction. We stopped restoring 20 years ago.”
From the humble backroom, Cronje has moved his expanding business a few times until he bought the land where he built the workshop a decade ago. He employs 140 artisans and 40 administrators.
“Restoring is very difficult; you cannot easily teach people what you can teach them to manufacture. To restore you must have the love for antiques. If a client brings a 200-year-old table with patina on top and someone who doesn’t know would sand it off and your client will get very, very angry,” says Cronje.
“I am now 65 years and I should retire. But on my 60th birthday I promised the floor I won’t retire for 10 years. So, I still spend a lot of time on the floor looking for mistakes. Just like you saw me, they have a little job sheet, they showed me where they are going to cut, I said to them that’s perfect. I look for mistakes, I say that won’t work, the color isn’t nice or the finish isn’t nice, whatever. I spend a lot of the time on the floor and in the drawing office because I am teaching them my 30 years of design,” he says.
Every piece of furniture that leaves Cronje’s workshop goes to either a client or the two showrooms in Cape Town and Johannesburg. It has to bear the famous signature of the founder himself. He says that is the way to maintain the high standard.
But the business has not always been afloat.
“We had cash flow problems for most our life. There are times which are easy where there’s money at the bank but most of our lives cash has been tight. It’s not a highly lucrative business, a lot of people see the furniture, see what we’re charging for it, see a brand name and they think he’s very wealthy and he has a holiday house in the Seychelles. We’ve got nothing, we’ve only got our main house,” Cronje says.
Despite the humble life of Cronje, he has made some extravagant pieces. The company manufactured a R1-million ($74,000) table for Brett Kebble, the controversial mining magnate who was murdered in Johannesburg in 2005. He says it was the most expensive piece of furniture they manufactured.
“Now, we are doing a lot of floors that cost R1 million but furniture doesn’t come close to that. The most expensive furniture is probably R150,000 ($11,000) for a really nice cabinet. There’s one on Wolfe Street in Wynberg,” he says.
Family has always been at the heart of his business.
“I was lucky in two things, my father had a bit of money I could borrow when I was about to go bankrupt when I started. I had to phone him in Joburg and ask for R100,000 ($7485.71) to pay wages. And he did help me many times. My other luck was that when I was studying I was a keen collector of Cape furniture. Every time I really needed money I would sell things. I sold nearly all the Cape furniture,” he says.
His father, Frans, who was the chairman of South African Breweries and Nedbank, wanted his four sons to follow him in business.
“He had aspirations for us. He also wanted us to play golf but none of us did. When he got used to what I was doing, he loved it. At the beginning he thought ‘he has a degree in engineering but he loved working with his hands fixing furniture’. But we started getting a name in making good furniture. He saw that I was passionate, I could see he accepted it fully,” he says.
All these years his wife Frances has been the low-profile partner who looked after the two family furniture shops.
“Our clients want to be fashionable; they don’t want something that was popular 20 years ago. I discuss with Frances what comes next. We made a lot of prototypes together, borrowing from her ideas what is trending or not,” says Cronje.
Now his children are his problem.
Cronje says he never ran Pierre Cronje furniture as a business, but he saw it as a hobby. Of his three children, only his firstborn son, Taillefer, has so far been convinced to work in the family business. On the day of our visit, Taillefer couldn’t come speak to us as he had a string of meetings with clients in his tiny corner office.
“Although Taillefer is not interested in furniture itself, he loves running the business. He’s actually the person who introduced the staff complement. He said ‘you have too many staff for the amount of work. You just hire as you please’. He’s so strict with the staff and timekeeping. He brought a very good HR team. He wants to carry on with the business but I think he needs an artistic person to work with,” he says.
Now Cronje has to convince his daughter. Unlike his own father, who initially disapproved of his furniture restoration penchant over engineering, Cronje says he will stop at nothing to convince Antonia. He says her background in arts is needed by the company.
“Just like Taillefer, she refused to come work for the family. Taillefer also said he was not going IDB (into daddy’s business), he wanted to start his own business. But he saw how hard it is. Anyway, he joined us and he’s enjoying it. It might take me another five years to convince her, but I always win,” he says.
Without his children, Cronje wonders who else can match his passion for working with wood.
“It is very difficult to find people who are passionate about wood, but it’s not impossible. I think he can find somebody. There are a number of people in the organization that are learning well. But a problem is when they are not family, they can leave easily,” he says.
Cronje laments that training people, who are not family, doesn’t guarantee loyalty for the business. But he says he doesn’t see that as betrayal as he himself would also encourage his own children to start on their own rather than spending many years working for other families.
For now, Cronje will keep getting up at dawn and dreaming of a win: all three of his children working at his side.
31% Of Small Businesses Have Stopped Operating Amid Coronavirus: Sheryl Sandberg Shares How Facebook’s Latest Product Aims To Help
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.”
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 cards, fundraisers 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.”
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 edibles, her 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.”
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.
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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