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Chicken Licken: George Sombonos

With the goal of establishing the largest, homegrown fried chicken franchise in South Africa, Chicken Licken is fast catching up to its competitors, and having fun all the way.

Chana Boucher

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George-Sombonos

Daring to go where no one else would, poking fun at its competitors, taking risks with new products and continuously innovating. This is what has made Chicken Licken the force it is today. But it’s no time to sit back and let the business run itself, as the franchise’s founder explains. There is still much work to be done.

In the early 70s, George Sombonos assisted his father in managing his roadhouse restaurant, the Dairy Den, which was located in the south of Johannesburg. His father sent him on a trip to the US in 1972 where Sombonos spent his time absorbing restaurant trade journals and tasting food. “I would taste 12 hamburgers and 20 pieces of chicken every day until one day in Waco Texas, I tasted the best chicken ever.”

Sombonos tells the story of how he invited the owner of that particular chicken outlet out for dinner to convince him to hand over his recipe. After much negotiation, he agreed to sell it to Sombonos for $5 000. Since he only had a few traveller’s cheques adding up to $1 000, Sombonos had to settle for a different, untested recipe from the same chicken outlet.

Without his father’s knowledge, Sombonos swopped the existing chicken coating recipe at the Dairy Den with his new US recipe. Sales increased and turnover shot up to over R200 000 a month. At the start of the 1980s, Sombonos renamed the business, Golden Fried Chicken – but soon after, a waiter came up with the name Chicken Licken, which was registered for R300. The logo, which is still used today, was designed for R75.

Current Operations

From its early beginnings, Chicken Licken is now 245 stores strong. There are also 12 stores in Botswana, but Sombonos says he has no intention of opening more stores beyond South African borders until the company reaches 400 local stores. In the past, there have been attempts to open stores throughout Africa in countries like Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Mauritius, but these were withdrawn due to inconsistent chicken supplies and unscrupulous franchisees. Chicken Licken is currently a third of the size of KFC’s South African operation.

Only 12 of the South African stores are company-owned, six of which are the most successful. Sombonos doesn’t believe in having too many company-owned stores, citing Subway as an example of a successful franchise that only has one company-owned store. However he does believe that it is important for the franchise to run some stores to retain a certain measure of control and to know “what’s happening”
in the franchises.

Chicken Licken sells around 100 000 chickens a week and when it comes to Hot Wings, one of the most popular options on the menu, the company sells thousands of cases. At first Sombonos says his supplier, Rainbow Chicken, thought he was running a “Mickey Mouse operation” but when sales began to increase they took him seriously. Chicken Licken now buys so many wings that Rainbow Chicken sometimes struggles to supply them. He has had to import chicken from Brazil in the past.

The company’s annual turnover is now well over R1 billion and Sombonos predicts that in eight years it will be turning over R3 billion, at which point he jokingly says he will leave the business, because then he “knows they can’t mess it up anymore.”

Looking ahead, Sombonos aims to have 500 stores in South Africa in the next ten years and to increase the brand’s presence in the Eastern and Western Cape.

Growing the Business

According to Sombonos, franchising was the best means to expand the business, as he didn’t have enough seed capital to open more than one or two stores. He had seen how franchising worked in the States and realised that it was how most chains expanded.

Being a new concept, Sombonos struggled to get people to buy a Chicken Licken franchise. “People didn’t want to buy franchises. They thought ‘who’s this, they’ve got no experience’. And we were just winging it – we had no franchising agreement.”

He says that a friend who owned a Wimpy franchise in Durban sent him his franchise agreement which he copied, changing the names where necessary. Since then, he quips, the Chicken Licken franchise agreement has been changed twice to make it more in line with his company’s needs.

In 1982, he resorted to giving away the first two franchises located in Soweto and Alexandra. By 1985 he started selling franchises, but to help the franchisees get off the ground they were given R15 000 worth of equipment and stock. He also didn’t charge royalties for the first six months.

While this meant that he wasn’t making much money, it did give the brand a bit of a boost. “There were lots of fly-by-nights in the market at the time so franchisees were reluctant at first,” he adds. From franchisees, the most important response Sombonos required was that they ran their stores the way he had run his. “Nothing less,” he adds.

As the brand became more and more recognised in the townships, people were approaching the company with new sites they wanted to develop into franchises. “There were no other businesses in the townships, so finding sites was easy,” says Sombonos. The early franchisees were not ideal. “We were not in a position to be fussy.”

The majority of them have since dropped out, because according to Sombonos, they weren’t suitable. He explains that nowadays potential franchisees have to take a test to evaluate whether or not they are compatible. “About ten years ago we battled to get someone to spend R1 million to take a franchise, now they are clambering to spend the R3 million to open a store.”

Fake it to Make it

Over time, says Sombonos, Chicken Licken developed a reputation. “People learnt to trust the brand.” The early stages of setting up the franchise weren’t easy. For a new franchise, the franchisees tend to be more demanding, but with more established brands, they obey and respect the system.

Sombonos admits that the transition from shopkeeper to executive is very difficult. “We had to learn about phones, hire a receptionist, work switchboards – we didn’t even have an in-house accountant.”

To project the image of a professional organisation, fictitious names were used to give the impression that there were more people working there. So whether a caller asked to speak to Mike in marketing or Peter the accountant, little did they know that they were all speaking to Sombonos. “It looked like we had a few different people working for us, but we couldn’t afford to pay salaries to hire real people in those roles,” he explains.

Because of the growth experienced by the franchise, Sombonos was forced to formalise operations. He hired a British school teacher who had come to South Africa as a food writer, but lost her job at The Star because she wasn’t bilingual. He also hired someone to handle the PR, and began to slowly build his support team.

“You don’t attract good people in the beginning because you don’t know better. All I thought of was growing. But over the years I’ve been able to get the ideal team together. Without the right core people you are nothing,” he explains.

Changing Perceptions

To say that Chicken Licken served an untapped market is an understatement. In 1975, while still trading as the Dairy Den, Sombonos contravened apartheid legislation and started serving black people in their cars. “When they saw they could get equal service at our restaurant, business boomed.”

The company’s reputation quickly grew amongst its black clientele. Sombonos says it was only logical that the next step was to expand the business into black areas like Soweto. Chicken Licken was classified as a township brand which led to it earning the loyalty of millions of customers, but the downside was that it was left with a stigma attached to it.

By 1998, Chicken Licken’s sales were going backwards. According to Sombonos this is because after 1994, those who got good jobs and could afford to move out of the townships did.

“The people with the money left. They bought houses in the surrounding suburbs.” The franchise had to follow them and start opening stores in the more upmarket areas, although there are still some outlets in the township
areas, for example at Maponya Mall in Soweto.

The move into the suburbs called for a change of menu, but Sombonos says the wings became popular for a second time around. The franchise’s stores have also been refurbished to portray a more upmarket style, complete with Louis Vuitton mock-style packaging.

The first outlet opened outside of the townships was in Alberton. Chicken Licken’s flagship store opened in Rivonia in May last year. It was the first double storey outlet and features a state-of-the-art kitchen.

The upper end of the market still perceives Chicken Licken as a township brand with low standards.

Sombonos says while the company’s white clientele is growing there are still many who refuse to eat it. This is a mindset the franchise is working hard to change. Sombonos often visits the Rivonia store on a Friday at lunch time and finds it full of customers from all racial groups. “The younger generation don’t know the Chicken Licken of 30 years ago.”

He says it is also a challenge to secure good sites in affluent shopping malls. Every time a new site is secured Sombonos and his team get excited about it. They recently concluded a deal for a site at The Zone in Rosebank, and now Sombonos has his sights set on Sandton City.

Chicken Licken also has a tarnished image with some of the local banks because of its positioning in the market. According to Sombonos, in the early 90s banks started giving 100% loans to applicants. The problem came when six months down the line a franchisee would leave the shop because they felt that it was too much work. To this day, Sombonos mentions that one of the country’s biggest banks still refuses to fund Chicken Licken franchises.

Now, Sombonos says franchisees are expected to have half the money required to buy the franchise. If his team approves the site, they approach the bank on behalf of the franchisee and convince them to provide the financing required.

For Sombonos, there are two key ingredients to a successful chicken fast food franchise: chicken and marketing. The cheeky nature of Chicken Licken’s advertising campaigns has developed over the years, he says. The first ever advertisement was filmed by a ‘quack filmmaker’ and cost R10 000 to make. The advertisements were flighted on Bop TV as he couldn’t afford to be on SABC.

In 1986 he hired an ad agency to make a more professional advertisement. The agency suggested using Joe Mafela, who was an actor in a comedy series at the time. After the advertisements were broadcast, the annual sales increased by 47%. “Sales went berserk,” says Sombonos.

The advertisement was shot in the Booysens outlet. “There was no studio, and we didn’t even have music. After Joe had a few brandies he started playing the piano and came up with the jingle ‘It’s good, good, good, it’s good it’s nice’.” This tune was used up until 1998.

Ten years ago, the annual marketing budget was R12 million. This year it has grown to a massive R64 million. Up to 95% of this spend is allocated to television. “TV is more effective. I was told that if you want to change perceptions of a brand, the best medium is TV.” Sombonos says that people are more impressed by TV and that it makes an organisation appear bigger than it may actually be – but it costs money, he adds.

Knowing the Market

With the help of menu consultants, the Chicken Licken menu is updated every May. This is done to keep things fresh. “We don’t want to be boring with the same menu for many years. You have to change the menu but you can’t do silly things with the menu. We will only sell chicken, no beef or fish,” says Sombonos.

Sombonos doesn’t believe in doing market research. “When I go to the US, if I see something I think people will like, I bring it over – this puts us far ahead of others in South Africa,” he says. He adds that when a company does market research on a new product, the opponents find out quickly.

“The best option is to gauge in a small circle if a product will work or not. When we brought in the fried spatchcock chicken, up until two weeks before we launched it, only six people knew about it. We kept it quiet.”

With this kind of thinking, Sombonos admits that the company takes chances when introducing new items to its menu. “There have been some failures,” he says. In the past Chicken Licken introduced boiled eggs with batter around them, but the product was a flop. Sombonos says they usually give a product up to six months before withdrawing it.

In 1992, Chicken Licken introduced its hot wings. Another first for the brand was injecting marinade into the chickens to make the meat juicier. Chicken Licken was also the first to buy the plates needed to flatten the chicken fillets in order to make them all the same size.

Choosing the right locations has also become important. Sombonos says he doesn’t want to go into the small towns, as the franchises just aren’t viable. He is also not interested in taxi ranks. “People want to open new locations all the time and we say no. I say no to at least ten people a week, and that’s excluding the franchise department.”

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Going The Extra Mile With Neil Robinson Of Relate Bracelets

In business, your offering is only as good as your relationships. Neil Robinson from Relate Bracelets explains how FedEx Express has helped the business grow into Africa and beyond.

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  • Who? Neil Robinson
  • Company: Relate Bracelets
  • Position: Managing Director
  • Visit: relate.org.za

Neil Robinson, MD of Relate Bracelets understands the importance of business relationships. While Relate is a non-profit organisation, it is run like a business. It does not rely on donors, but instead produces and sells a product.

For each bracelet sold, one third of the income goes towards the materials and operating costs, one third supports the people who produce the bracelets, and one third goes to the charity for which that particular bracelet is branded.

In order for the business model to work and be sustainable, Relate’s partners are incredibly important. These include the retail chains that stock the product and who provide prime point-of-sale positioning, the charities who Relate works with, and most importantly, Relate’s logistics service provider, FedEx Express.

“Retail is all about visibility and availability,” explains Neil. “A brand is a living, breathing thing. People can see it, use it, and comment on it, but if they can’t access it, it’s all for naught. And so, at the point of purchase, it’s both visible and available, or it’s not.

“Logistics is key. You need to get your product to the retailer on time, 100% of the time. The expertise and focus that FedEx displays in supply chain and logistics encompasses far more than just retail, they understand our specific needs, making them a strategic partner, rather than merely a supplier.”

Related: Zenzele Fitness’s Clever Tactics To Grow In Next To No Time

Building a relationship

The FedEx/Relate Bracelets relationship stretches back to 2009, when Relate Bracelets launched its first campaign with ‘Unite Against Malaria’ leading up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

“We did the first campaign in partnership with Nando’s,” says Neil. “Robbie Brozin was passionate about the cause, and he pulled in strategic partners to launch the campaign. Within two years we’d shipped hundreds of thousands of bracelets. FedEx was an incredible partner, ensuring the integrity of our product and time-sensitive deliveries, and we’ve worked with them ever since.”

As with all good B2B relationships, the FedEx and Relate Bracelets teams understand that regular strategy sessions and updates are important.

“FedEx understands the inner workings of our business,” says Neil.

“A successful campaign has multiple elements, from planning and strategy, to marketing support, pricing and distribution planning. Of these, distribution planning is the most critical. For us, the bridge between our brand and the consumer is logistics. FedEx have delivered beyond expectations. They literally and figuratively go the extra mile for us.”

Protecting a brand

FedEx has customers across different industries and each of their needs are different. In the case of Relate, who operate in the retail sector, buying patterns are important. “Retailers run a tight ship,” explains Neil.

“They have planning cycles and seasons. Besides the fact that penalty clauses are built into contracts, you can’t miss a deadline by two days, or you’re in the next cycle, and that might be two weeks later. Not only are you missing out on valuable shelf time, but this can affect an entire campaign. Lost sales can also influence the retailers’ buying decision the following season. FedEx has made it their business to understand our business, so they know what’s at stake and what’s important to us.”

Supporting growth

FedEx has also played an integral role in the overall expansion of Relate Bracelets, particularly into new markets. “As a global organisation, FedEx has been absolutely critical in supporting us to grow our business into Africa, the US, Australia, the UK, Western Europe, and now New Zealand. They play an enormous role in the delivery of our products, with sophisticated tracking systems ensuring that the quality and integrity of our products are maintained.”

Through the relationship with FedEx, Relate experiences the benefits of working with a globally recognised and credible brand. “When you work with quality, you get quality.”

Related: Entrepreneur BB Moloi’s Inspiring Story of Rise To Success Through Grit And Hard Work

The business

If you’ve ever bought a beaded bracelet that supports a cause (for example: United Against Malaria, Operation Smile SA or PinkDrive), chances are it was a Relate Bracelet. If you bought it at Woolworths, Clicks, Sorbet or Foschini, it most definitely was.

To date, Relate Bracelets has raised more than R40 million, which supports various charities and ‘gogos’, women living on government grants and supporting their grandchildren, and who desperately need the additional income Relate Bracelets provides.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Slikour’s Moto: If You Dream It, You Can Be It

Rapper and entrepreneur Slikour believes his success is the result of one key element: The aspiration to make something of himself, and create a platform for his voice to be heard. Now he’s bringing that mindset to South Africa’s black urban youth.

Nadine Todd

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Take note

Before you can achieve great success, you have to believe in the possibility of success. This is the single greatest secret to changing your circumstances — you have to believe it’s possible.

Did music or entrepreneurship come first? Siya Metane, aka rapper Slikour, isn’t sure himself. The two have worked hand in hand for him since he started selling cassette tapes of his own music when he was 12 years old.

What has developed over time however, is an innate and deep understanding that with his success comes a responsibility to pay it forward, and help his community and kids like him see that they can be anything they put their minds to.

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

If they can dream it, they can be it — provided they realise they can dream it in the first place. This is his challenge, and greatest driving force.

Start small, but dream big

I bought cassette tapes on Smal Street in the CBD for R5. My best friend, Lebo and I recorded our own rap music onto them and sold them in our neighbourhood for R15. We needed the mark-up — it meant we could buy more tapes, and also that we were making a profit.

Related: Zuko Tisani Learnt These 7 Invaluable Lessons On His Path To Success

I’m not sure if we were trying to start a business or launch our rap careers, but if you’re living in a hood like Leondale you don’t always recognise that there are opportunities open to you. No one is going to do it for you — you have to have your own aspirations, and find a way to make them happen.

Keep dreaming big, no matter what

That was one of the biggest and earliest lessons I recall growing up: The ability to dream big can be stifled out of you. I lived in a hood where there were no aspirations past our neighbourhood — the neighbourhood and its opportunities were everything. If 90% of the people you know are suffering, who are you to not suffer?

It’s a very limiting mindset, and one that does a lot of damage to our youth. I knew kids who had incredible potential, but could only look at their immediate environments for opportunities. So a budding young scientist doesn’t find a way to change the world — he finds a new way to make drugs.

Those are the limiting aspirations I was surrounded by. I call it the Trap, and it’s the driving force behind everything I do today. I want South Africa’s urban youth to recognise the Trap, and understand that they should have aspirations beyond it, because they have the abilities and potential necessary to break free.

Work hard, be determined and believe in yourself

I was lucky, I wasn’t a victim of the Trap. What so many people don’t understand is that I could have been. Hard work, drive and discipline aren’t enough to break free of the Trap. You need to believe you can break free — to look beyond your current circumstances. In my experience, that seemingly simple mindset shift is the biggest hurdle to overcome. It’s more complicated and pervasive than you can imagine.

Two things showed me a different way. First, my mom got me bursaries at Holy Rosary Convent and then St Benedict’s College. I was surrounded by rich white kids, full of privilege, and it struck me that here were the same talents and opportunities, but with a wealth of aspiration in the mix.

Related: Self-Made Millionaire At 24 Marnus Broodryk On How To Build A R1 Billion Business

That was the real difference — not ability, but recognising that ability and having the aspiration to do something with it. It was eye-opening. The second was meeting my best friend, Lebo Mothibe. Lebo, or Shugasmakx, as he’d later be known in the music world, had one foot in the privileged world, and one foot in our world.

His mom lived in the hood, his dad was a wealthy entrepreneur who lived in Illovo. And Lebo straddled both worlds effortlessly, and with humility. But he looked beyond the limiting beliefs held by many of his neighbourhood peers.

Find people to inspire you to reach success

His dad was also the first self-made, wealthy black man I met. But when I heard his story, I realised that it wasn’t overnight success. He’d slept on Lebo’s mom’s couch while he slowly but steadily built his business. It gave me an understanding that success is earned. You need to work at it, and push on against adversity. This had a huge impact on me.

Lebo was the ying to my yang. Even though we didn’t think of each other as business partners, that’s what we were, from the age of 12. We formed Skwatta Kamp, we hustled and shook up the music industry together, and changed the face of rap music in South Africa.

I was the dreamer, the visionary, and Lebo was the executor. He found a way to make my crazy schemes and ideas come to life. This is exactly what a partnership should be — helping each other grow, and complementing diverse skill sets.

Build your success, one step at a time

We built our success, brick by brick. I entered a TV show competition, Jam Alley, and won. I used the cash and Dions vouchers to buy recording equipment. Lebo’s dad helped with speakers and a keyboard. My brother, who was studying IT, downloaded software and helped us with our recording quality. Everyone pitched in with what they could. 

Be your own biggest cheerleader

We tried the recording contract route for a while, but realised that the only people who cared about our success were us. And so we hit the streets — hard. We had street crews, we sold our own CDs and negotiated with music stores to carry our albums.

Recording studios kept saying they’d sign us, but they never had a studio available. They just didn’t see the value in rap and hip hop. They didn’t believe there was money in it in South Africa. We needed to prove there was.

Gallo finally approached us and signed us after we won at the South African Music Awards (SAMAs) as an independent act. We used real guerrilla tactics to get our name out there — on stage, with that platform, we told our fans that if a music store didn’t carry our album, to burn it down. We wanted the attention — that’s how you build a name.

Related: Entrepreneurial Powerhouse TBO Touch On How Success Is Built From Small Acts

Our first album went gold, and we used that to push the idea of rap into mainstream media. If 20 000 people bought the album, another 200 000 had bootlegged it. There was money here; and slowly brands and advertisers started realising we were right.

Drive a movement with your business

We were musicians, but first and foremost we were driving a movement, and that meant we needed to be businessmen as well. We hosted end of year parties, and got brands on board, realising we had a captive audience that aligned with their target market demographics. We started our own label, Buttabing Entertainment.

Our goal was to find and nurture young musicians from the hood to get them established in the industry, and show other kids in the Trap that it could be done: Anyone can create their own destiny. One of the things I’m proudest of is discovering a kid in Katlehong, Senzo Mfundo Vilakazi, who would develop into Kwesta.

He’s doing phenomenally well, and recently appeared on Sway in the Morning, one of the biggest hip hop shows in the US. Our success spilt over into Kwesta, and now his meteoric rise will hopefully inspire a whole new generation to dream bigger than they ever thought possible.

Pivoting to further growth

All success has its pinnacle. By 2010 we had achieved so much as Skwatta Kamp. We’d brought rap music into the mainstream and opened opportunities for countless kids, as music labels actively sought rap and hip hop acts. I realised that I’d hit a ceiling. I needed to step back, regroup and figure out what to do next.

What I did was something I’ve only ever associated with privilege. I moved home, spent a lot of time lying on the couch, and wrote. I wrote my life, my lessons, my dreams, my ideas. I don’t know how I reached a point where I was able to do that, but I’m grateful. I started collecting my thoughts and understanding my purpose.

During that time I was approached to join a few marketing agencies. I had no formal marketing training, but we’d worked with big brands at our parties and activations.

Sprite was the first to recognise that they had an opportunity to authentically connect with the black urban youth through us, and so we partnered up. I learnt above-the-line marketing in a Coca-Cola boardroom, and built onto what we’d learnt on the streets about below-the-line marketing.

Take a step back, and rediscover your purpose

That experience had drawn attention, and so for a while I joined an agency. But its mandate was sponsorships, and my heart was with the black urban youth. I’d discovered my purpose, even if I’d subconsciously been living that purpose for almost 20 years.

I wanted to create a platform that gives young black artists a voice; established artists a way to reach out to the youth that other platforms don’t offer; and brands a way to authentically connect with that audience — not just to sell products, but to show black urban youth that their culture is important, that it holds value, and that they, in turn, hold value.

Related: Shark Tank’s Romeo Kumalo Weighs In On High-Impact Entrepreneurial Businesses

Adidas’s support of Run DMC in the US showed that kids from the ghetto had a message worth listening to. Big brands have the power to connect the unheard and voiceless to the mainstream, if it’s done correctly. I had the marketing experience to understand the ROI that brands need, as well as what I could do with that to support black urban youth.

All I had were dreams and a URL, but that was enough. I quit my job and launched my website, Slikouronlife.

Reveal opportunities and create aspirations with your message

This is my politics and CSI. If we can get marketing to marry culture, and change the positioning and perception of young black South Africans, we can show there are opportunities out there, and create aspirations.

But we need to put culture first and tap into the authenticity of who we are as South Africans. We need to recognise and acknowledge the mental traps that exist in our neighbourhoods, and that we are victims of limiting beliefs, and then show that there is another way.

Everyone told me I was nuts. That black people don’t go online. I did it anyway. With Skwatta Kamp we had created a market for our music. Kids supported us; my name added value — and then brands came on board. We now average between 200 000 and 250 000 unique visitors a month, which is impressive for a mainstream website, let alone a niche music site.

Ten months ago we were a team of three operating from my house with one desk. Today we’re a team of ten with one focus: To make a real difference on the ground. To give the voiceless a voice. To prove that if we can drive the aspirations of South Africa’s urban youth, the sky will be the limit.


Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Small Businesses To Watch

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Entrepreneur Profiles

How Mark Sham Earned His Suits & Sneakers

For many businesses, the biggest challenge is getting their message heard. Through Suits & Sneakers, Mark Sham is not only building a huge microphone to create awareness around his business and his vision to change education and training in South Africa, but he’s forging a network of entrepreneurs and corporate businesses to champion the cause. Here’s how he’s doing it.

Nadine Todd

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Mark Sham hasn’t just created a microphone. He’s creating a movement. In July 2015 he hosted his first event. It was called Suits & Sneakers, and 1 000 people attended. Mark was looking to see if his idea resonated with anyone else. It was clear it did.

Related: Persistence Can Beat Any Odds Says The Founder Of Rebosis Property Fund

The second event, a few months later, drew 1 500 people. Two events held in 2016 had 3 000 people respectively, and it would have been more if Mark hadn’t realised they needed to limit attendees to ensure the event was still personal.

Keep up the momentum

To keep the Suits & Sneakers momentum going, a weekly event, Suits & Sneakers Fixed was added. While the main events each year have four speakers focusing on completely different content, Suits & Sneakers Fixed is held every Wednesday and has only one speaker, discussing one topic. Between 100 and 120 people can attend, and you can book online. It’s a free event, first come, first served.

Related: Lichaba Creations Founder Max Lichaba’s Inspiring Journey To Entrepreneurial Success

But here’s the secret behind Suits & Sneakers. It’s not an eventing company. It’s a business promoting the benefits of informal training, and focuses on a new method of corporate training, that with enough traction will hopefully turn the current education system on its head — something Mark believes South Africa desperately needs.

The 3 goals of Suits & Sneakers

The Suits & Sneakers events were created with three goals in mind: One, to test whether Mark’s theory of informal education held weight.

Two, to bring corporates on board to his way of thinking, and to be willing to test this new training methodology in their own organisations, and ultimately support a new education system for South Africans who cannot access the current system.

And three, to build a really, really big microphone letting the country know who Suits & Sneakers is, and what the brand stands for. In a nutshell, it’s marketing on steroids. And it’s having a massive impact.

Here’s how the idea took shape, and how it’s developed within the market place.

How did a love\hate relationship with learning lead to Suits & Sneakers?

suits-and-sneakers

I’m an avid learner who is addicted to learning new things and educating myself, but I hate the formal education system. I didn’t matriculate despite having good marks; I didn’t quite fit in. I questioned everything and the traditional schooling system isn’t built for that.

I ended up spending a few years travelling around the US. When I came back to South Africa I tried to enrol at IMM to study marketing but soon realised that nothing had changed. The traditional education model still wasn’t for me. So I started my own business.

I’d been exposed to social media overseas, I was born in an era of full access, thanks to the Internet, and I upskilled myself while learning the ins and outs of business. I also knew I had a natural talent for advertising, and just needed to pull all the threads together.

R1 million in debt at 25

The problem is that I’m high-energy, and tend to have a lot of different ideas and projects on the go. I was building up my marketing agency, but I also launched an online fragrance store. My suppliers convinced me to open a physical store as well, and that was a big mistake. I ended up losing the store, and being R1 million in debt at 25.

I knew I would never be able to pay that back through traditional employment, and nothing had changed — I still had no qualifications. What I did have was a young marketing agency. I needed to find a way to really make an impact on my clients and start building that up.

In sales and marketing, you’re always looking for an in: How do you give your clients real value, in such a way that they want to do business with you, because they know you can positively impact their business. That’s the code you need to crack with every prospective company you do business with.

Share your insights with your clients

Because I was an avid learner and I’d already spent a few years working in the social media space, which was still in its infancy in South Africa, I knew I had some real insights to share with my clients. I designed and marketed a social media course.

There was a lot of interest, but I couldn’t find anyone to present it for me. I ended up doing it myself and it worked. I’d never thought of myself as a public speaker, but my passion for the topic came through.

It triggered something in me. I read a book, Inside Coca-Cola, by David Beasley and E. Neville Isdell, that’s filled with lessons I wanted to share with the marketing community. I created a breakfast event to share this with marketers, and which I could use to build relationships with them, and was invited to do the talk for corporates.

Related: 5 Answers From Digital Kungfu On Why Podcasts Are Your Best Self Development Tool

It made me realise that while the education system in South Africa is broken, there is a solution. Informal training really worked well for me. I’ve created ‘Ted Talk’ syllabuses for people. There is a real need, and maybe I have a solution. 

How did you take a wild idea that could change the world and turn it into a reality?

My talks started out well. I travelled around the country, speaking on different topics, and making a decent living.

Then I realised it was futile. I was giving one day workshops that people loved, but they weren’t putting what they’d learnt into practice. I needed to switch people on to learning and to make them hungry for knowledge and, through ‘drip’ learning, change their approach to business and life through consistent and habitual changes that together make a powerful whole.

At first it was a side project. I had my business and this was a pet project. I had four aims:

  1. Put together an incredible event as a proof of concept
  2. Find a way to get corporates excited by the structure and vision
  3. Get entrepreneurs and corporate execs to attend
  4. Use this whole thing to build a really big microphone for the brand, to let people know what our vision was, and how training and education can be transformed.

Get people excited about your offering

Step one was easy — I had so many incredible contacts to draw from. My goal was to pull four very different speakers together. Suits & Sneakers isn’t about one particular topic. It’s about getting people excited by the idea of learning something new. If you can trigger that, you can create a life-long learner. That’s our aim.

Securing a corporate sponsor took a bit longer. First, I needed to be able to articulate what I understood because I was feeling misaligned. Previously, you qualified with a degree and you were relevant for 20 or 30 years. Now, in two years you’re irrelevant. That’s the pace of today’s world.

The same is true of the workspace — annual training that isn’t revisited isn’t benefitting anyone. It’s like going to gym once a month for 12 hours — you’ll never be fit and in shape. It takes regular practice.

Related: 4 TED Talks To Help You Deal With Stress And Anxiety

And yet this isn’t how we treat training. It’s a bigger problem and more costly than it needs to be. Smaller, more regular doses of training that teach employees to become learners who embrace their own development is a solution to this training crisis — for employers and employees.

We needed a change of style. Podcasts and Ted Talks work for me because they’re personal, informal and entertaining — even though the content is exceptional. How could we bring this into a traditional training environment? I didn’t want presentations and slides. I wanted a visceral, immersive experience.

I didn’t have everything perfectly laid out, but I knew we needed to get started and develop it as we want along. My vision and goals were clear, even if the final product wasn’t, and I approached Sage.

There was alignment: They have a great product that is valuable to SMEs, and I could gather SMEs into one venue, and create a database. Sage could pitch their services to a captive audience, and I would have a platform to start refining my training ideas, and I would also be creating my giant microphone and brand.

Big risk, big reward

I invited Sage to the first event. They didn’t think I could get 1 000 people there. Not only did I hit my target, but 300 of those tickets were paid — the balance were free. I lost R600 000 putting the event together, but it was my marketing for the year — my giant microphone. After the second event Sage was on board.

I still run the main event at a loss, but each year the gap is smaller, and it’s our most valuable marketing tool, attracting a number of different corporates. We’ve launched the Real Life MBA, which is a charged-for event with six simultaneous speakers.

You choose who you want to listen to in person, and have exclusive online access to the videos of the other talks post the event. The conference is really the start to a 12-week learning programme.

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

We’re also creating informal learning curriculums for corporates. We collaborate with them to develop manuals, events, self-learning assignments and so on. Eventually we want to digitise and gamify the entire experience.

How is the current Suits & sneakers model feeding into a bigger vision of change?

Ultimately, we want to disrupt education. Real quality education can be free. There is so much out there; so many experts to learn from — we just need to reimagine how to learn. Our aim is to create a free education system for 18 to 24 year olds.

In 2016 I decided to sell my other businesses and focus full time on Suits & Sneakers. I’m a start-up again, but I’m finally living my vision.

Our offices are a co-working space called Impello, operating in Greenside. It’s a space for start-ups, freelancers and entrepreneurs to collaborate and work with like-minded individuals. By paying the bills with one revenue model, we can fund a training and education space that incubates small business and works as a campus for our informal university.

Tech advances are revolutionising learning possibilities, but you need a mix of classroom and online learning. Face to face is social and emotional but classroom learning doesn’t scale without adjacent costs.

So what’s the solution? Co-functional, co-working spaces. We have six funders who share the vision and understand what we’re trying to do here. That’s been the power of our giant microphone.


Related: Self-Made Millionaire At 24 Marnus Broodryk On How To Build A R1 Billion Business

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