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He survived failure, tragedy and lost millions

The college dropout who made a name for himself by talking, only to make millions investing in struggling businesses.

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Vusi Thembekwayo loves to talk. He says he will do for talking what Muhammad Ali did for boxing. Ali told the world he was “The greatest”. So does Thembekwayo.

To him, great public speakers, like boxers, are not trained, they are born. His wit is the glue that binds his diverse audiences. John Howard, former Prime Minister of Australia called him the “rock star of public speaking”; global strategist and scenario-planning guru Clem Sunter said he was “simply riveting”; Sir Bob Geldof said “Vusi is a f*cken great speaker,” according to Thembekwayo.

Thembekwayo has always been an overachiever. At 21, he ran a successful consulting firm, then South Africa’s only black-owned Forensic Marketing agency. At 25, he was the youngest director of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, a bourse turning over $1.3 billion a year. At 29, he delivered 214 presentations, in 21 countries charging up to $8,000 a time. At 30, he influences over $300 million in seven companies he holds shares in. His companies operate in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Nigeria.

As a child, Thembekwayo studied by candlelight and used to wake up before dawn to prepare for school. His father had started a business with their house as collateral.

“The bank was about to repossess our house so my mother and my siblings had to move in with relatives. We stayed in a small backroom and had to wake up very early, make fire and make porridge to eat,” he says.

“One minute we had a home and were being dropped off at school in our father’s car and the next we were suffering commuting kilometers in taxis to school. That experience shapes how I look at the world and my understanding of risk. I understand that whatever it is you have, tomorrow it could be all gone.”

His father resolved the debt situation but couldn’t escape tragedy. Thieves shot him nine times leaving him to bleed to death at the side.

“This was a very difficult time in my life. My dad and I were best friends. We did everything together and went everywhere together. The only reason I wasn’t with him that day is because my mum was ill and I stayed with her at home when my dad was shot for his cell phone.”

At this moment, a tear forms in Thembekwayo’s eye. “South Africa has a violent past and that narrative continues to find expression in modern South Africa, we condone violence because we find reason to defend why it’s ok to do it and we have a justice system that isn’t sufficiently punitive for people who perpetrate the act. We need to come together as a society to say no matter the reason it is not ok to take a life.”

Left with a single mother, at the age of 15, his big mouth got him into trouble long before it became his fortune. He was forced to take up public speaking as punishment for misbehavior in high school. He was booed off the stage for what everyone thought was a male chauvinistic speech titled: What Women Want.

“The best way to get me to do something is telling me I can’t do it. When they booed me off stage I started working harder to get to where I am,” he says.

Thembekwayo studied for a BCom degree at the University of the Witwatersrand but dropped out because of money. He believes entrepreneurship is practice more than theory.

“Some of the people who get the education are the people who will not move the dial in any meaningful way. The education system in South Africa is and continues to be archaic. I also did a course at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) which was supposed to be a year but took me three years because they didn’t understand how I think. South African business schools are behind on how you educate a Vusi.”

“You don’t need too many things to start a business. Start where you are. South African young people are really challenged. They have access to DSTV and they see the world in a particular way but the reality doesn’t reflect the world they see. You must recognize what’s around you and build with what you have. If you have a vision for the future, it is important to know nobody starts where they end up.”

This is not just advice for him. It is exactly how he started building his fortune after receiving a standing ovation for a speech for which he was paid a mere R35 (less than $3).

“Former president Thabo Mbeki was the keynote speaker at the event and he gave me a hug and endorsed me at that event telling people to give me more work,” he says.

He used the R35 to make phone calls to all the people he met at that event. He says entrepreneurship is starting something that other people don’t see and getting them to see it, believe in it, buy in it and help you build it.

Even when he became a well-known figure, life has not always been milk and honey. When he decided to start his company, My Growth Fund (MGF), it ushered in six of his worst months as an entrepreneur.

Thembekwayo failed to acquire funding for the company. When he had money, in the 2011-2012 financial year, he invested $274,000 in a steel company. Excited, he neglected to do proper due diligence. The investment went into a black hole. There were neither contracts nor legal documents to save him.

“I wasn’t thorough. I didn’t check if the company I was buying into had legacy liability or legacy issues. I was over eager. The entrepreneur convinced me that everything was going to go well, only to find out my money was used to pay off her debts. She had creditors and suppliers who she owed and she did not disclose this to me. She also had the South African Revenue Services coming after her.”

Part of this $274,000 was supposed to pay his own staff.

“I didn’t know what to do. All that I had was gone. What was I going to tell my staff? They also had their own lives and bills. But this situation taught me that if you are honest with people they understand. I told my staff the truth about what had happened and they worked hard, booked me for more speaking jobs and I was able to pay them,” he says.

“I learned an important lesson to take my time. Where you are going is guaranteed. There is no doubt, so don’t rush, follow the process.”

Thembekwayo started over.

“No matter how much you trust the other person when doing an investment, make sure the numbers support it, make sure you cover your basics, and the legal side holds water,” he says.

Today if he buys into a business he moves all the capital and operating capital into a separate business to make sure there is no history to infect the investment.  Public speaking is one of the ways he makes money as an entrepreneur.

“Vusi is a very funny guy when he gives his talks. He is always well informed on the subjects he talks about such as business and investment opportunities. I always watch his YouTube videos and follow his advice,” says Thato Mokoena, a South African small business entrepreneur.

Thembekwayo studied by candlelight, his father was brutally killed, business schools didn’t understand him, he was booed off stage, he lost millions, but survived to tell the tale from the stage where he was once scorned.

Entrepreneurs

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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Entrepreneurs

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

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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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