When Vanessa Sinden turned her back on South Africa’s growing movie industry to work in a barn making cartoons, people thought she was mad.
Three years later, Triggerfish, the fledgling animation company she joined in 2009, turned from minnow to big fish on the continent. It has produced award-winning creations on cheap budgets. All thanks to ingenuity, childhood ambitions and the urge to tell African stories, she says.
“My first job in animation was one of the biggest films this country has ever made. I think I fell with my butt in the butter… we had to figure out how to make a film from scratch, we had no clue,” laughs Sinden.
It is an animation business nurtured in a 193-year-old barn with wooden floors, white-washed walls, swinging barn doors and roaming cows beyond.
These days, it’s not only the cows that roam on the farm in the southern suburbs in Cape Town. It is also the computer geeks who roam with their animation tablets amid rows of computers whizzing as they render 3D animations.
Sinden has been on the farm since the beginning. The barn betrays the youthful spirit of its inhabitants. All around are action figurines, posters of cartoon characters, table tennis tables, stock-piled vending machines, popcorn maker and coffee stations.
It is no mean feat for Sinden, who has spent eight years in this barn bringing to life African animation movies Adventures of Zambezia ($35 million) and Khumba ($26 million) that became South African blockbusters and the third and fourth best-grossing films in the country’s history, respectively.
“South Africa is the leading emerging animation industry in the world. We cannot beat Asia in terms of raw costs, but that is just servicing work. In Africa, we are passionate about our own work, our stories being told,” says Sinden.
Stick Man, a BBC One Christmas collaboration with Magic Light Pictures, has now won 11 international awards on three continents, including the Cristal for a TV Production at the world’s leading animation festival, Annecy.
Such is their prestige, Triggerfish were given rare rights to produce, alongside Magic Light Pictures again, Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes which premiered in Africa in March.
In June, this latest work scored a hat-trick: first winning Best Storytelling at Shanghai International Film and TV Festival in China, then Best Animation at the Banff World Media Festival in Canada, and finishing off with the Cristal for Best TV Production at Annecy in France, the world’s premier animation festival.
Triggerfish’s hat-trick follows just days after the release of the National Film and Video Foundation’s (NFVF) second Economic Impact Assessment on the South African film industry, which found that the sector’s GDP contribution had increased from R3.5 billion in 2013 to R5.4 billion in 2016.
“With South Africa officially in recession, it’s more important than ever that our economy finds new avenues for growth,” says Triggerfish Animation CEO Stuart Forrest.
“The animation sector is still the smallest part of the film industry, according to the NFVF’s study, but our three awards on three continents this weekend are further proof that we are punching above our weight. We believe that with continued government support, animation can become a key, job-intensive growth sector in South Africa.”
“The animation industry [in South Africa] is still very fledgling. 2007 was the first time someone could work in the industry in this country, since then there has been a couple of films and a couple of 2D studios making content for Disney, but not a lot of people have had the opportunity to do their own stories, their own content. That’s a big deal,” says Sinden.
What it means for Sinden and the animators of Triggerfish is coming up with the next big hit.
It is a lot harder than you think.
“At the heart of this issue, is we don’t have enough stories that are going to hold up worldwide. Universal stories for the family,” says Sinden.
This is why Sinden has been spearheading initiatives like Story Lab, a competition supported by the South African Department of Trade & Industry and US-based Disney that aims to develop African stories by Africans. Triggerfish were looking for four feature films and four TV series for development; they got 1,400 entries from 30 countries.
“We wanted the best stories and we wanted to mentor and nurture them through bringing the best in the world from Hollywood to teach them here. We identified 38 writers to have projects we love. We held a two-week workshop in 2015.”
The cherry on the top was the final eight would be given a rare foot in the door with mentorship at the Walt Disney Company in Burbank, Hollywood.
Two years later, and in the present, Sinden says the feature films are in their first drafts and the TV programs are ready and looking for investors.
South Africa is also in the unique position to produce movies at a fraction of the budgets of Europe and the US. It is a cut-throat business driven by merchandise and the young.
“Pixar are sitting at $100 million to make a film and then double that for marketing. Adventures of Zambezia and Khumba was both made under $5 million each… Film is basically a $100 million advert. [Pixar, Dreamworks and Marvel] are alive because of the off-screen sales on merchandise. Disney are the godfathers of this. They have 100 years of creating content it has sold off the shelf. They realized way back in the day its off-screen sales and brands make the money. It wasn’t about Mickey Mouse on the screen. We’re all catching up now,” says Sinden.
In this fast-paced industry, Triggerfish have adjusted their pipeline to focus on television.
“What Triggerfish is finding is with television there is a quicker turnaround time, and there can be momentum. If you have [content] that is interesting, you can get investors to move in quite quickly. For us to change our pipeline from movies to TV series was a massive shift. It means producing a TV episode once a week. But it’s a better business model. It is our own merchandising, our own content and we can make money off that,” says Sinden.
“Triggerfish has always been about passion but we also have realized we need to make money. We thought we would make money off our first two projects but we haven’t yet. We’ve paid all our gap investors and financers, but that’s about it.”
Another reason why Triggerfish is targeting TV is the paradigm shift of gender-based content – especially young girls.
“I see from my nephew, [boys] are given such a platter of all this variety, but all the girls are offered are pink sparkles and princesses.”
“Girls haven’t gone to university with dreams of becoming animators. Why are there so few women in those roles? It is because they weren’t encouraged to do so when they were girls. Now the content to pre-schoolers is saying you can be engineers, you can be scientists, nothing is stopping you, or you can still be a princess in pink. There is nothing stopping you.”
Two new shows set to air will break these sexualized conventions featuring not only girls in lead roles experimenting in science and engineering, but also Africans. One of them is a girl who decided she wants to be a princess and a ninja. The other, called Mama K’s Super Four, features four teenage girls who have to save the world on a budget from their headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. The story is written by Malenga Mulendema, who lives and works in that city.
“Malenga asked… ‘why can’t she see herself in any of those roles, there are no black girls who speaks to who she is and what she does why can’t she see herself as hero’.”
“It’s an all-black girl cast, all shapes and sizes and it just taps on those little buttons, that girls don’t have to be skinny, you can be beautiful and be curvy and busty, and be smart and techie and programmed robots and that’s beautiful too,” says Sinden.
“Four teenage girls living in Lusaka, who save the world, may not appeal to a girl in Germany, but reality is the time is right and content and stories like this will come from Africa and we think there is a market.”
For Sinden, now 39 years old, transforming the animation industry and seeing equal gender-based content come to life is a dream come true. When she was young, she was watching movies like Aladdin and singing along to the cassette in her dad’s car for months.
“Kids love the visual characters and the vibes you get from watching their reactions are the hooks for me… I remember when A Bugs Life came out in my late teens and I was the only adult in the entire cinema.”
There is even more hard work ahead. Around the world only one in five women are in the industry, says Sinden.
“Parents don’t think the film industry is a great industry. My parents were put off when I told them I wanted to work in film and started off working for free and finding a job. They said ‘why would you do that, why would you work backwards’.”
There is even more in store for the company that works out of a barn. On the horizon is Seal Team – an origins story of navy seals.
“It’s seals versus sharks and it’s meant to be true to the genre, seals standing up to the bully sharks. It’s going to be great for the boys. That’s currently going into storyboarding come July. We are currently going into the script at the moment.”
All from a barn where childhood dreams were born, where the tough business of animation is carried out.
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.
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.”
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