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How Ryan’s YouTube Playdate Created An Accidental (Eight-Year-Old) Millionaire

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The namesake star of Nickelodeon’s preschool hit Ryan’s Mystery Playdate appears on set in a bright orange space suit ready to embark on an imaginary interplanetary adventure with his parents. 

With a snap of the clapboard his mother, Loann, offers up the skit’s opening line — “Spaceship to aliens…” — before her then-7-year-oldcuts her off: “It’s ‘Mothership to aliens…,” her son corrects, stopping production and the 58-member TV crew behind it.

“Ryan, never correct the mother ship,” gently chides executive producer Jeff Sutphen from the director’s chair.

Ryan shrugs off the admonition. He routinely memorizes everyone’s lines, and will sometimes be caught on camera mouthing dialog along with his parents — forcing the occasional re-shoot. His father, Shion Kaji, jokes that if he hesitates even slightly with his delivery, he worries Ryan might steal his lines.

“I have a lot of words,” Ryan says in his own defense.

Not that he needs to defend himself. One of the leading child influencers on the planet, his Ryan’s World YouTube channel boasts 24 million subscribers, and Forbes estimates he earned $26 million in 2019, enough to make him the country’s highest paid YouTuber.

Kaji’s mindshare among preschoolers is so big that ViacomCBS network came running to him in its bid to stem the outflow of child viewers. Two years ago Nickelodeon turned to Pocket.watch, a digital studio devoted to turning YouTube stars into global franchises, to bring Ryan to the kids’ TV network that’s been home to such iconic children’s characters as SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer.

Welcome to the new world of children’s television. Once the domain of educators, pediatricians and psychologists concerned with fostering child development and school readiness, the D.I.Y. culture of the internet has thrown open the doors to anyone with an attention-grabbing idea. Sure, you can still find Big Bird on TV (though the feathery Sesame Street icon has moved his nest to HBO) and reruns of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood online. But those classics are getting crowded out by shows like JibJab’s Gregg and Evan Spiridellis, whose StoryBots monochromatic robot characters were born on YouTube and now live on Netflix, or the husband-and-wife duo, Derek and Cannis Holder, who created the popular YouTube channel Little Baby Bum, a collection of nursery rhymes. 

These home-grown shows have attracted global audiences in the millions. “If you were a creator in the ‘80s, you’d walk into Nickelodeon and Disney and hope that the executive in charge of making decisions thought that you had something worthwhile,” says Gregg Spiridellis. “That person is no longer relevant if you’re a creator with the ability to actually make something. You can put it out into the world and get validation. These open platforms — YouTube, Instagram — give you the opportunity to go prove the worth of your content in a way that was never possible before.” 

A digital native, Ryan grew up on YouTube, singing along to nursery rhyme videos and watching “unboxing videos,” one of the peculiar genres of the platform, in which objects — toys, electronics, you name it — get unpacked to great fanfare. The breakout began one spring day when Ryan, age 3, asked his mother: “How come I’m not on YouTube?”

On a lark, Loann drove him toTarget and bought a Lego Duplo train set, which Ryan unpacked in his first “unboxing” video. Shot onan iPhone without edits, attention to lighting or animation, the video looks painfully amateurish today. Her son loved them, though, and so did family members in Vietnam and Japan, who enjoyed watching him grow up from a distance. “YouTube was this great platform for us to broadcast Ryan’s growth,” Shion recalls.

A single video changed the trajectory of the home-movie project and thrust the Kajis into the vanguard of YouTube’s burgeoning tribe of family vloggers. A student of the new medium, Ryan had noticed a novel twist to the unboxing genre, which featured kids cracking open giant eggs with multiple toys, instead of ripping open one box at a time.

The Kaji version became “GIANT Lightning McQueen Egg Surprise,” a seven-minute video, in which Ryan is roused from his Lightning McQueen race-car bed to extract toy cars, trucks and airplanes of various sizes from a giant red egg. The resulting video has been watched more than 1 billion times. Suddenly they found themselves accidental successors to TV legends like Fred Rogers, Sesame Street creators the Children’s Television Workshop (now the Sesame Workshop) and Muppet-maker Jim Henson.  

“After four months, we were one of the top kids’ creators,” says Shionin an interview conducted from the family’s 9,000-square-foot production facility in Texas. Still, as  improbable as it seems, no one in the family thought about cashing in on all that traffic until Loann stumbled upon a post about monetization while seeking tips on improving the quality of the videos. 

“I was like, ‘Hon, you can make money on YouTube.’ Shion’s response, recalls Loann, was  ‘Are you sure?’” 

She was, and she set a goal of $20 a week, enough to cover the cost of buying a new toy for Ryan to unbox each week, like a never-ending birthday celebration. When the first check arrived, for $100, “I was so proud,” she says. It was nothing, in retrospect: By the fall of 2016, the charismatic 4-year-old with an infectious smile and affinity for Thomas & Friends trains and cars had amassed an online following of 4 million subscribers. 

Shion and Loann quit their day jobs that year and devoted themselves full-time to the family’s budding media empire. They hired a video editor so they could focus on that aspect of production they enjoyed most: spending time with Ryan, playing around and filming. To shelter their son from burnout, they drew inspiration from Japan’s Virtual YouTubers, which feature anime-style cartoon characters who attract sizable online followings. The Kajis created animated alter-egos like superhero Red Titan (Ryan drew the stick-figure prototype himself), and an adventurous alligator, Gus the Gummy Gator. Today they have a roster of six virtual “friends” for Ryan, each depicting a facet of his personality.

As the output expands, so does the team. Twenty-eight animators, video editors and other creatives working for the family’s production company, Sunlight Entertainment, now generate the steady flow of educational videos, kid-friendly science experiments and cartoons that populate the eight channels that comprise Ryan’s World. 

It’s not been a completely smooth ride, all things considered. The consumer watchdog Truth in Advertising filed a complaint last August with the Federal Trade Commission, accusing the Kajis’ YouTube channel, previously known as Ryan ToysReview, of deceptive advertising, saying it’s difficult for preschoolers to discern Ryan’s “innocent antics” from paid endorsements. The complaint cited as an example one June 2019 video, in which Ryan operates a make-believe Hardee’s drive-through window and delivers a “Star Pals” meal to his father. It’s the same month that the fast food chain announced a toy promotion featuring Ryan.

The regulatory agency hasn’t announced any public action against the YouTube channel, though this month the FTC said it would begin reviewing its guidelines concerning influencer marketing on social media, potentially ensnaring the Kajis and other online influencers in a cultural and political scrum over the commercialization of childhood.

Shion says he welcomes direction from regulators and works with a legal team to help identify online content that’s advertising. “The one thing that was very difficult for all the influencers (is) there was no clear guidance from FTC until recently,” he says.

Sorting it all out will be critical to keeping the millions flowing, even as Shion and Loann strive to balance the demands of Ryan’s budding entertainment career with their desire to give their son the life of a typical elementary-school kid. He attends public school and maintains a crowded calendar of after-school activities that includes playing Fortnite and Roblox with friends online, swimming (he’s perfecting his backstroke), computer coding, Taekwondo (he’s working toward earning a green belt) and gymnastics, where Ryan’s kinetic energy is expressed through headstands and flips.

In a room surrounded by scores of toys that bear his image, the child phenomenon reflects about the quirks of internet celebrity, and how complete strangers will approach him, and call him their best friend.

“They’re like ‘Ryan I saw you on my iPad and your mom and dad on my iPad too,’” Ryan says, nervously tugging on the long sleeves of his green shirt and swiveling back and forth on an office chair. He says he’s found it easy to make friends at school. “Some knew me just from who I am. Some people know me from YouTube.”

Put him in front of a camera, though, and he comes alive. Posing for photos, he offers up a fresh expression with every shutter click, sporting a big grin and thumbs up, an eye roll with a tongue out, another confidently grinning with arms folded, poking a finger at the lens, shrugging. It may be a hint of things to come. At the end of his first season on Nickelodeon, he penned a thank-you note to the director.

“Next season,” he wrote. “I want to direct, too.”


Entrepreneurs

Houseparty: Is The Hit Coronavirus Lockdown App Safe?

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Houseparty, with 10 million downloads on Android and millions more on iPhones (Apple won’t confirm exact numbers), has become one of, if not the hit app of the coronavirus shutdown. Vogue even called it “the quarantine app you need to download immediately.”

It lets users start and join a handful of games – Heads Up!, Quick Draw! and Trivia – all with live video and chat. And, thanks to COVID-19 restrictions on people leaving the house, the Epic Games-owned property is scoring many more fans.

But Is Houseparty Safe To Use?

There is some good news on the safety front: there are no obvious flaws or dangers with the app. Forbes had cybersecurity and privacy researcher Lukas Stefanko take a look at the Android version of the app to see if there were any other potential issues. He said there was nothing of concern.

“I analyzed the app’s permissions usage and since the app provides video chats with your friends it is logical that requested permissions are necessary. I haven’t found any shady misusing of them by the app,” said Stefanko, a researcher with cybersecurity firm ESET. “The app doesn’t provide a lot of in-app options and settings, which creates less scenarios for exploiting security issues.”

From a privacy perspective, there’s one obvious issue that some might want to note before diving in: games are open to any of your friends and any of your friends’ friends, unless you lock the “room” where you’re playing. That’s easily fixable, however, with a simple hit of the padlock button at the bottom of the screen. If you don’t lock rooms down, there’s a chance people you don’t know will invade your fun.

What Does The Privacy Policy Say?

There’s also nothing obviously outrageous in the Houseparty privacy policy. Perhaps the most concerning, though, is that it can collect “anonymized and aggregated information, such as de-identified demographic information” and “de-identified location information.” As seen in recent news about antivirus company Avast, even when location data is “de-identified,” it’s still possible to find out who the person is by linking it with other information. (That kind of aggregated location tracking is something global governments have considered using to follow the spread of coronavirus. Perhaps they could ask Houseparty to help out as they’ve reportedly done with Facebook and Google.)

Whilst the app collects contacts so you can find friends to play with, the company promises it “will never share your phone number or the phone numbers of third parties in your contacts with anyone else.”

There is the standard warning that user data can be used for more targeted advertising. If you’re concerned enough about that, there are further steps you can take to protect your private information and still use Houseparty.

How To Use Houseparty Privately

There are a few things you can do to boost the privacy of your Houseparty games. First, head to settings, which can be found by first clicking the smiley face at the top left of the screen, then hitting the cogwheel button when the menu appears.

Then you can turn on private mode, which locks every room you’re in. You can also go to the permissions section and turn location on or off. It’s turned off by default, so leave it that way if you want to ensure your whereabouts are private. And if you want to go even further protecting your identity, use a fake name and birthday in the profile section.

It’s also possible to opt-out of receiving any emails, texts or notifications about Houseparty offers. Go to section 5 of the Houseparty privacy policy (it’s brief, don’t worry) to find out the best way to opt-out of each. To withdraw consent for Houseparty to use any of your personal data, users can also email [email protected]

One other neat trick learned whilst using the iPhone version of the app: hold down on the Houseparty icon and click on ‘Sneak into the House.’ That means that when you go in, none of your contacts will be notified.

Thomas Brewster, Forbes Staff, Cybersecurity

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Billionaires

How To Become A Billionaire: Nigeria’s Oil Baroness Folorunso Alakija On What Makes Tomorrow’s Billionaires

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One of only two female billionaires in Africa, with a net worth of $1 billion, Nigeria’s oil baroness Folorunso Alakija elaborates on the state of African entrepreneurship today.

The 69-year-old Folorunso Alakija is vice chair of Famfa Oil, a Nigerian oil exploration company with a stake in Agbami Oilfield, a prolific offshore asset. Famfa Oil’s partners include Chevron and Petrobras. Alakija’s first company was a fashion label. The Nigerian government awarded Alakija’s company an oil prospecting license in 1993, which was later converted to an oil mining lease. The Agbami field has been operating since 2008; Famfa Oil says it will likely operate through 2024. Alakija shares her thoughts to FORBES AFRICA on what makes tomorrow’s billionaires:

What is your take on the state of African entrepreneurship today? Is enough being done for young startups?

There are a lot of business opportunities in Africa that do not exist in other parts of the world, yet Africa is seen as a poor continent. The employment constraints in the formal sector in Africa have made it impossible for it to meet the demands of the continent’s working population of which over 60% are the youth. Therefore, it is imperative we harness the potential of Africa’s youth to engage in entrepreneurship and provide adequate assistance to enable them to succeed.

Several governments have been working to provide a conducive atmosphere which will promote entrepreneurship on the continent. However, there is still a lot more to be done in ensuring that the potential of these young entrepreneurs are maximized to the fullest. Some of the challenges young startups in Africa face are as follows: lack of access to finance/insufficient capital; lack of infrastructure; bureaucratic bottlenecks and tough business regulations; inconsistent government policies; dearth of entrepreneurial knowledge and skills; lack of access to information and competition from cheaper foreign alternatives.

It is therefore imperative that governments, non-governmental agencies, and the financial sectors work together to ameliorate these challenges itemized above.

The governments of African nations should provide and strengthen its infrastructure (power, roads and telecom); they should encourage budding entrepreneurs by ensuring that finance is available to businesses with the potential for growth and also commit to further improving their business environments through sustained investment; there must also be a constant push for existing policies and legislation to be reviewed to promote business activities.

These policies must also be enforced, and punitive measures put in place to deter offenders; government regulations should also be flexible to constantly fit the dynamics of the business environment; corruption and unethical behavior must be decisively dealt with and not treated with kid gloves. We must empower our judicial system to enable them to prosecute erring offenders with appropriate sanctions meted out. There should be no “sacred cows” or “untouchables”. The same law must be applied to all, no matter their state or position in the society; non-governmental organizations can also provide support for them through training and skills acquisition programs that will help build their capacity; they could also provide finance to grow their businesses; more mentorship programs should be encouraged, and incubators of young enterprises should be supported by public policy aimed at improving the quality of these youths and their ventures; and also, avenues should be created where young entrepreneurs will be able to connect, learn and share ideas with already successful well-established entrepreneurs.

What, according to you, are the attributes needed for tomorrow’s billionaires?

There is no overnight success. You must start by dreaming big and working towards achieving it. You must be determined to succeed despite all odds. Do not allow your setbacks or failures to stop you but rather make them your stepping stone. Develop your strengths to attain excellence and be tenacious, never give up on your dream or aspiration. Your word must be your bond. You must make strong ethical values and integrity your watchword. Always act professionally and this will enable you to build confidence in your customers and clients. 

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Entrepreneurs

The Sun King Bows Out: Legendary Hotelier Sol Kerzner Has Died

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Solomon (Sol) Kerzner, one of the world’s most innovative hoteliers, founder of the Southern Sun hotel group, Sun International and Kerzner International, has died of cancer surrounded by his family at the Kerzner family home, Leeukoppie Estate, in Cape Town, South Africa. Always a maverick, Kerzner was a titan of the hotel and resort industry who redefined the scale and scope of integrated destination resorts worldwide. He was 84.

The son of Russian immigrants, Kerzner was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1935. The youngest of four and the only son, Sol was a working class boy from a rough neighbourhood but he would grow up to become one of the most influential entrepreneurs in South Africa. Having founded the country’s two largest hotel groups — Southern Sun and Sun International — Kerzner would go on to achieve international prominence with groundbreaking resorts that helped transform the tourism industries not only of his home country but of Mauritius, The Maldives, The Bahamas, Dubai and other important international destinations.

Kerzner’s career in hospitality began in 1962 when he decided to leave the accounting profession and purchased The Astra, a small inn in Durban, South Africa. Kerzner quickly transformed this rundown establishment into one of the most popular hotels in the area, a success that whetted Sol’s insatiable appetite for innovation and demonstrated a trademark ingenuity that would define his 60-year career.

Kerzner’s most monumental and controversial achievement was the creation of Sun City.  Here, in an area north of Johannesburg where there were no roads and no infrastructure, Sol imagined and delivered the most ambitious resort project in all of Africa. Commencing work in 1975, over the next ten years, Kerzner built four hotels, a man-made lake, two Gary Player golf courses, and an entertainment center with an indoor 6,000-seat arena, which played host to a world-class roster of artists including Queen, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli, Shirley Bassey, as well as huge world title fights, and many other spectacular events. Once again, Kerzner defied the naysayers to train a best of breed workforce and to operate Sun City on a totally non-racial basis. Even the most cynical of visiting overseas journalists had to concede defeat in trying to find racism behind the operation of the vast resort.

Sol is survived by his children Andrea, Beverley, Brandon and Chantal and ten grandchildren. His eldest son, Howard ‘Butch’ Kerzner died in 2006.

Sol Kerzner will be buried at a small, private funeral with only immediate family in attendance.

Back in 2014, the Sun King was featured on the cover of Forbes Africa for the 3rd Anniversary Issue of the magazine.

In 2018 he was honored with the Life Time Achievement award at the All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLAs).

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