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Chicken Licken: George Sombonos

It hasn’t been an easy journey but it’s certainly been an interesting one. George Sombonos, founder of Chicken Licken, shares his story.

Juliet Pitman



George Sombonos of Chicken Licken

If you have moments when, standing on the precipice before you take that leap of faith for your business, you question whether it’s really true that capitalism rewards risk, think of George Sombonos. The story of how this son of a Greek tea-room owner grew a roadhouse on the outskirts of Johannesburg into a R600 million business that boasts the biggest fried chicken franchised brand outside the United States, confirms that big rewards can follow big risks.

Although he was serving customers at the age of seven and knew the difference between a close corporation and a Pty (Ltd) by the time he was 11, Sombonos never expected a cushy rise to the top of the family business; he always knew he’d have to work very hard for a small salary. “The only thing that kept me there in the beginning was the fact that my father and my uncle sent me to North America once a year. I would go to Brazil for a wonderful holiday and then on to the States,” he recalls. Determined to improve the business that he was eventually tasked with managing, Sombonos spent this time in America exploring the fast-food industry and tasting every type of fast food he could afford to buy. “Wherever I was, I’d find the fast-food strip and make my way along it, sometimes eating ten hamburgers a day,” he says. It is not surprising that he was frequently ill.

But the exercise paid off. One day in Waco, Texas, Sombonos tasted fried chicken that was so good he knew he simply had to learn how to make it. Presenting himself to the business owner, he begged to be given the recipe. “I showed him my passport and explained that I wasn’t from the States so that he knew I couldn’t go into competition with him.” The owner asked for $5 000, a hefty sum in 1975 when a cup of coffee cost eight cents, but after much negotiation, Sombonos got the price down to $1 000. It was all the money he had and he gambled it on a recipe that he had no guarantee was even genuine.

“I had just enough money to get to the airport for my flight back to Brazil and then nothing for the week before my flight back home. But I couldn’t tell my father what I’d done because he would have gone berserk,” relates Sombonos. It was while sitting homeless and penniless on a bench in Brazil that his first big risk met with a little bit of luck, albeit from an unlikely source. He smiles as he remembers the story. “There was a kind girl who saved me, a prostitute who was looking for business. But I had to explain to her that I was in more dire straits that she was. I guess she felt sorry for me because she took me back to the brothel where she worked and got me a job for a week serving drinks to clients.”

Sombonos got home, but his worries were far from over. “I was terrified that my father would find out about this crazy thing I’d done buying a recipe for $1 000,” he recalls, so he mixed the chicken recipe and hid it under his bed before secretly introducing it to the roadhouse menu. “At about that time Kaizer Motaung of Kaizer Chiefs fame and his gang started eating at the roadhouse. When people saw Kaizer eating at our place they wanted to eat there too. And regardless of the Apartheid laws, we served everyone, no matter who they were. My father thought I was mad and that we’d lose our licence but my grandfather told him to keep quiet and count his money and leave the selling of the food to me.” The results were nothing short of astonishing. As Sombonos relates: “By changing the recipe and giving people some dignity, we went from taking R25 000 a month in 1972 to taking R200 000 in 1978.”

To what his father attributed the sales growth we’ll never know, but it certainly wasn’t to his son’s genius. Sombonos’ request for a 5% profit share was abruptly turned down with a reminder that if he wasn’t happy with his lot, Dad could always bring up a nephew from Bloemfontein to run things. Living in a tiny flat in Doornfontein, he struggled on but the threat planted a seed. “The thought of someone taking over everything I had worked so hard for was terrible,” he recalls. So when the owner of the property offered him the lease while his father was away on holiday in Greece, Sombonos jumped at the opportunity. It was another big risk but as Sombonos explains, “I didn’t know it then but I wanted that shop so badly that I was prepared to die for it. This is perhaps the difference between an ordinary person and an entrepreneur – that you want something so badly you’d do almost anything for it. I never told people how I felt because I was afraid they’d think I was mad, until I heard a Martin Luther King quote earlier this year that if you don’t find a cause to die for, you’re not fit for living. Then I realised I wasn’t abnormal in wanting something so badly.” His father was so angry on his return from Greece that, as Sombonos relates, he didn’t speak to his son for a full three months.

On 1 January 1981, the signs for the old Dairy Den were taken down and replaced with the now-famous Chicken Licken signs. A legend was born and Sombonos was on his way. He started franchising soon after even though he admits he knew nothing about it and that his father, who saw the business opportunity, thought it was far too risky and advised against it. But Sombonos went ahead anyway. “I had a friend who had a Golden Egg franchise and I borrowed his franchise agreement and copied it from start to finish. The first franchise owner was in Zola, Soweto, but we needed to build a shop and I had no architects, nothing. I asked the sign painter who had done the Chicken Licken rooster head to draw what the shop would look like and we built the second Chicken Licken from those drawings,” he explains.

It would be nice to relate how the business went from strength to strength, but Apartheid politics raised its ugly head and the townships spiralled into a state of unrest. Sombonos remembers this as a very bad time for business. “You couldn’t take anything into the townships because the people were burning all the delivery vehicles. We got a panel beater to beat up some small trucks for us so that they were inconspicuous and we took supplies to the shops at night.” Sombonos had sunk all his money into two township stores but as the unrest grew and people were afraid to venture outdoors at night, sales plummeted. “All of a sudden where under normal circumstances the shops would be thriving, I had major cash flow problems.” It was time for another leap of faith.

Sombonos’ attorney put him in touch with a group of private farmers who could loan him the cash needed to make the repayments to the bank. “I gave them everything,” he remembers, “I pledged my house, all my shares, even the jewellery on my wife’s fingers. At Christmas time in 1985, I couldn’t even buy a toy worth R5 for my daughter. We lived hand to mouth, just working and saving but the unrest continued and there was no peace.” Again the risk paid off and the business started improving in 1991.

Looking back on that time, Sombonos says he pulled through for two reasons: “Firstly, I had no alternative and secondly, I was fortunate in that some kind people, including my bank manager, took risks on me and put themselves on the line to give me time to pay back.” Although some of his competitors might beg to differ (he drives a hard bargain and is a frequent thorn in their side), forging good relationships with people is something Sombonos has done well. This is particularly evident when it comes to staff; many of his managers started out as chip fryers and have benefited from his guidance and investment in their development. “The people can make you or break you in this business,” he says, a statement that refers to both staff and customers.

And Sombonos has been in touch with his customers from the word go. “It’s what has differentiated us. We did things differently by giving the market what it wanted. When KFC first came to this country, they didn’t serve chips, only mash and gravy, which was the American standard. But, coming from my background, I served chips. If you are in the shop every day, you know what the customers want. You know what sells and what doesn’t,” he says.

He believes his customers were also loyal because they knew they would be served good quality food: “I was told initially that because my customers were black, I must take smaller pieces of chicken. That was the mentality in those days – that black people must get inferior quality and off-cuts and left-overs. But I insisted on the same quality for everyone. And once, when I banned Kaizer and his gang from my place for misbehaving, they went to eat at our competitor but came back after two weeks and promised to behave if they could only eat our food. That’s when I realised the power that good quality gives you.”

As the company grew, this connection to customers was to prove vital in building and strengthening the Chicken Licken brand. Although he knew nothing about marketing, he approached an ad agency to shoot a range of television commercials for Chicken Licken. “We decided to use Joe Mafela who played S’dumo from the television series ‘Sgudi ‘Snaysi so we went to the producers but they wanted a lot of money for the rights. I didn’t have it all so I agreed to pay them in three instalments.” That was three instalments of R180 000 each – a lot of money in the late 80s. But again, Sombonos went with his gut and took the risk, and again it paid off. The advertising campaign with the now legendary “It’s good, good, good, it’s good, it’s nice” jingle aired in May 1989 and was a marketer’s dream. Sales went up by 47%. “It was like wild fire, the response was unbelievable,” he remembers. “I wasn’t sure, to be honest, that the advertising campaign would work as well as it did but I liked the idea and everyone was watching the programme at the time. Even Nelson Mandela while he was in jail said it was his favourite programme.” Suddenly, suppliers like Rainbow Chicken sat up and took notice, as Sombonos relates. “They used to tell me I was Mickey Mouse but suddenly the joke stopped and they were saying, ‘Your sales are up, George.’” Today, Chicken Licken has some 230 stores across Southern Africa, a serious competitor to global brand KFC.

Although it has established itself as one of the biggest fast food brands in South Africa (it was rated second biggest in the Sunday Times Markinor 2004 Brands Survey), the company still faces some uphill battles, the most recent one being with shopping malls. “Getting into the malls is vital, vital, vital,” says Sombonos. But time and again his applications for store space have been rejected. Explaining the reasons why, he gets first indignant and then angry, “People think Chicken Licken is a downmarket business that sells downmarket food to downtrodden black people. Their idea is that we are going to bring ‘undesirables’ into their centre. They hide behind LSMs but in reality it’s a race issue.” He’s been told on at least one occasion that Chicken Licken is ‘too black’ for a particular mall and explains what he thinks is the cause of such responses: “A lot of the shopping centres are controlled by pension funds which are controlled by people who don’t understand or don’t want to see that South Africa is changing. Malls are seeing customers from all race groups. Our customers have disposable income. A Chicken Licken store costs R1,8 million to R2 million to set up.”

But slowly, the company is winning the battle, getting space in upmarket shopping malls, and Sombonos is well on his way to achieving his goal of making Chicken Licken a R1 billion business by 2010. When asked if he ever imagined success of this kind, he answers: “I always believed in Chicken Licken but in the beginning I just wanted ten shops. I discussed it with my father a few months before he died and he said, ‘Georgie, if you have ten shops you’ll be the richest Greek in Johannesburg!’ What I didn’t realise was that I was in the right place at the right time with the right product. And as the townships were liberated and people had freedom of movement, Chicken Licken just grew.” About the tough times, he says, “Determination was my biggest success factor. I would rather have died than give up.”

It’s something to remember. So the next time you’re faced with the decision to take a risk, step off the edge of the precipice. Take the leap. Think ‘Chicken’.

The three most critical factors that have determined the success of Chicken Licken:

  • Flanking the opposition by going into the uncontested townships first and expanding fast. If you’re the first to get into a market, you have the opportunity to create a strong foothold, develop customer loyalty and ‘own’ that market. This is what Chicken Licken did.
  • The determination to build a brand from day one. Without any formal training, Sombonos understood the value of a brand. He has fought court battles with KFC, who accused the Chicken Licken brand of capitalising on its ‘finger licken’ good’ pay-off line but each time he has won. His vision for the first Chicken Licken adverts paid huge dividends and built a brand that South African consumers could relate to.
  • A unique chicken taste that has never been changed and attracts new customers every day. The old Texan chicken recipe, originally hidden under Sombonos’ bed, has stood the test of time.

Sombonos’ advice on:

  1. Starting a business:
    Have a simple business plan and develop a thorough knowledge of the business you want to start, preferably practical knowledge.
  2. Franchising a business:
    You should own the first franchise and it should be successful before you even consider franchising. Then become an expert in your field in order to lead the franchisees to success. Your franchisees must be successful for you to be successful.
  3. Staying focused and motivated in the face of challenge:
    Believe in yourself; believe in your concept and idea and believe in the power of focus.
  4. Competitors: Competition is good for you. It pushes you to keep improving with research and gaining new knowledge. Strategy will keep on changing as circumstances change and new trends emerge. Your burning desire to keep on moving will ensure your continuous success.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Th?nk !ndustr!es

    Feb 2, 2015 at 09:45

    Th?nk !ndustr!es Founder, read this.

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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.






Vital stats

  • Who? Neil Robinson
  • Company: Relate Bracelets
  • Position: Managing Director
  • Visit:

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

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

Max Lichaba finished school with a Grade 10 and no prospects, except for a burning desire to do more with his life than become a miner like all the other men in his community. This is the story of how he started a jewellery business, lost everything, and painstakingly built it up from scratch again.

Nadine Todd




Vital Stats

I grew up living in the garage of a friend’s house in the small town of Virginia outside Welkom. My dad lived on the mines, my mom had five kids and nowhere to live, and he gave us a roof over our heads. It was a mining town, and I was expected to become a miner. But, my mom wanted us to have an education. She never blamed anyone for our situation — she just tried to make a plan. School was one of those plans. But, it needed to be a school close to home, and free — or as close to free as possible. That left only one option: A remedial school in Virginia.

Looking back, it had its pros and cons. I got to work a lot with my hands, and discovered I was really good at it. But the school ended at Grade 10, which meant I would never matriculate, and my maths and language literacy skills weren’t great by the time I left. I was never challenged, and an unchallenged mind doesn’t grow.

I’ve only recently completed some financial literacy courses so that I can run my books and understand my numbers. I’d left that to my accountants, and learnt it’s unwise — you have to be on top of your numbers. I didn’t have these skills from my youth, so I needed to go out and get them, ten years after starting my own business. But, if you’re serious about growth, it’s never too late.

By the late 1990s I was 16, helping my mom sell fruit and vegetables on the side of the road, and my school career was over — but then another opportunity presented itself. Harmony Gold owned the mines in our area and had developed the Harmony Gold Jewellery School to upskill the local community.

I wasn’t satisfied with my Grade 10 qualification. I didn’t want to be a miner, and I wanted more than selling fruit and veg on the side of the road. I knew I was good with my hands, and I saw the jewellery school as an opportunity.

Related: How To Build A Disruptive Attitude

I applied late, but that didn’t stop me. Every day I went to the school, and sat in the waiting room, determined to secure a spot if one opened up. There was one student who hadn’t pitched at the start. I pestered the registrations office to let me take her spot. I was relentless. One day I received the call: “Fine, the place is yours. When can you start?” I replied that I was on my way.

Everyone at the school had completed matric. I was the youngest person in the room with the lowest qualification — but I was good with my hands and hungry for success. Six months later I was one of the best in the class. I spent all my time there, practising and getting better and better at my new craft. I realised that I wanted to make beautiful things I could sell — I was already thinking about a small business.

As we were finishing our course, a local jewellery manufacturer, Regal Manufacturing came to the school and asked for two of their best students. I was chosen, which secured my first job in the sector. The company manufactured jewellery and exported it to South America. With 3 000 employees, it was a major employer in our community, predominantly of women. After nine months, I had the down-payment for my first car, and had just moved into my first flat, when we arrived at work to closed gates. Overnight, and with no warning, the company had closed down. We were all given a letter, stating that we would receive our salaries at the end of the week, and that the business had been liquidated.

Finding a light

max-lichaba-entrepreneurThe women around me — many of whom were the sole breadwinners in their households — were kneeling and wailing in shock. I was also in shock, coupled with a good healthy dose of anger. And then I started thinking. I had no dependants. No children relying on me to be fed. I was 19 and I’d find a job. But what about these women? I couldn’t help everyone, but there were four gogos I knew. In my community, gogos are the backbone of everything. I didn’t hesitate, I just said to them, let’s start something together. Let’s meet at my house tomorrow. We can make this work.

Here’s the problem. A machine costs between R50 000 and R100 000. We didn’t even have R5 000. We needed to start small. Putting our heads together, we realised that the simplest thing — and one we could afford — was beads. We needed to start bringing in cash, and this was the fastest, simplest way.

Between us we collected R1 000 to buy beads and start working from my flat. The local Nigerian market loved them, and then we had a stroke of inspiration — we approached church choirs, offering to make each member a unique set of beads that they could wear at competitions. This became a steady source of income.

We spent 18 months focusing on beads, and then I started looking at our growth opportunities. The business was very hand to mouth — we used our cash to buy more materials. There wasn’t room for expansion, and after a year and a half I wasn’t any closer to buying machines. So, what could we do?

Related: 20 Quotes On Coping With Change From Successful Entrepreneurs And Leaders

After researching SME support programmes, I found SAB’s Kickstarter competition and we entered. We won in our region, and with the R20 000 prize money were able to buy small machines. We didn’t have an innovative business, but we were operational. I believe that gave SAB faith in our business.

Start small, but start — that’s the key. I could have gone out and tried to figure out how to raise R100 000 for fancy machines. I didn’t do that. Instead, I focused on trading — bringing in cash to feed and support us.

The equipment took us to the next level, and I was able to look for our next opportunity, which was a programme run between the Free State Department of Tourism and the Dti that helped local manufacturers market their products overseas. There were many forms to fill in and our capacity to deliver if orders came in was checked, but eventually we were approved for the programme.

We were still in my flat, and we needed more space — but we couldn’t afford rent. We found a tiny shop and convinced the landlord to let us move in, if we agreed to start paying R500 per month as soon as we could. Always ask — you never know what the answer will be. If you’re polite and friendly, people often want to help you — or at least give you the benefit of the doubt.

When everything goes wrong

kwa-lichaba-founderWhile we were gearing up for our first foray into global markets, I concentrated on local growth — and that meant Joburg. I didn’t have a car, and couldn’t afford transport, so I hitched rides, wearing a suit and tie. I had a jewellery business and needed to look the part. I made sure I was always the smartest looking guy in the room. If you take yourself seriously and project where you want to be, others will take you seriously too.

I really struggled to get our jewellery into local stores, but we finished the dti’s six-month programme and were considered export-ready.

Step one was making the products. The African element was popular, so we focused on that. Our choir market had grown, and we were able to use the cash to manufacture more products for export from those sales. Our first trip was to Nairobi and we received immediate orders. Our second was to London, and we realised we were onto something.

The Dti gave us an incredible opportunity. They work on turnovers, and move you into different regions based on your level. We worked with them until 2015, and gained a foundation for growth. They also helped us build up our cash reserves.

At the time, we were exporting our jewellery successfully, we’d won Kickstarter and had deployed those funds into the business. But, I was looking for more. Success makes you feel invincible, and my experiences with the Dti had been positive. Then I found another opportunity: We could open a school, similar to the one Harmony had run, and give youth the opportunity I’d received. The Dti funds initiatives like this, which meant we could give back to our youth, with government support.

I achieved the NQF accreditations I needed, and set up the school at a cost of R900 000. We were told we’d be paid within 60 to 90 days of each student enrolling, and we took the plunge.

But harsh reality stepped in. I took my eye off Lichaba Creations to concentrate on the school at a time when we’d moved into new, bigger premises to handle our increased international orders. The first payments came through 12 months later than expected. Lichaba Creations was effectively carrying the school, and the result was that we couldn’t pay rent for the jewellery business.

Related: Successful People Always Chase the Impossible – Here’s Why

After two months our landlord told us he was locking our doors. I begged him for more time, promising I’d pay him soon. I kept hoping the Dti payments would come through, but they didn’t. I was in Joburg trying to get paid when I received a call from someone I thought was my friend — he was laughing. Our doors had been locked and all my equipment was being auctioned off. I raced back to Welkom but couldn’t stop it. I owed R30 000 and couldn’t pay it. I watched my machines get sold for R300, and I couldn’t even afford to buy them myself.

At the same time, I realised that as I’d built the business, I’d paid less attention to family, and more to friends — and I was learning that they weren’t very good friends. They’d laughed at my fate and told me that they hadn’t expected my good fortune to last. I realised I was surrounded by people who didn’t truly care about me, or believe in me, and some were even satisfied at my loss. It was time for change.

One of the toughest things you’ll ever do

Starting over is one of the hardest things in life. I had nothing, and worse, I’d failed the people I had wanted to protect. They were all jobless, my old ladies and my new staff. The younger staff who hadn’t been with me at the beginning were particularly angry and wanted their salaries. I was devastated.

The one light at the end of my tunnel was the support of my brothers, who came back to Welkom from Joburg to help me. It was a stark and humbling reminder of the value of family. I’d been open and shared my story, asking my friends for assistance. They all said no. I realised these were just ordinary people, and I’d put too much faith in them. My brothers were the opposite. They each took out a R3 000 loan that they couldn’t afford to help me pay my staff and settle some debt. And they did it in faith, believing I would make a plan to pay them back. I would never neglect my family again.

I needed to get back on my feet, and I no longer had a business, or the school. I started by reaching out to my old school — could I teach there? For six months, that’s what I did. I taught and saved every cent I could. I sold most of my furniture, and slept on a mattress on the floor. When I had enough cash in the bank, I started visiting all the pawn shops in Welkom. I knew my equipment was specialised, and I had a feeling that the people who had bought it wouldn’t be able to use it. I was right — I started to find my machines at different pawn shops. Piece by piece, I bought them back.

It took eight months, but I was able to get back up and running — at a very small scale. I worked from my flat, exporting to India and the UK. I was totally focused. I vowed I would never lose sight of my core business again, even if I pursued other ventures.

I finally got the cash I was owed for the school, and paid my gogos’ retirement packages. I then made my second biggest mistake. No matter what we did, we couldn’t get into retail stores in South Africa. There isn’t enough of a funnel for gold jewellery in the local market. But, we didn’t want to admit defeat, and so we opened our own stores in a Pick n Pay centre in Welkom, in Randburg, and in Orange Grove. The money we made overseas went into these black holes — and we did it for three years. Having a personality that won’t admit defeat has its pros and cons. It’s kept me going in the face of enormous adversity, but it’s also sustained me when I should have admitted defeat and moved on. We spent too much on stores for limited returns. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to admit a second defeat so soon after the failure of the school. Whatever it was, I held on too long.

But, you live and you learn. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and move on.

Starting over and pursuing passions

I wasn’t done trying new things though. I’ve always loved cars. When I was at school, we learnt to fix cars. I’d had this idea for a while: A luxury car wash where you could sit comfortably and eat chesa nyama and drink a beer while you waited. I thought the combination would attract more people. At that stage, we’d closed down two of our Lichaba Creations stores and only had one still operational. I bought a plot on Vilakazi Street in Soweto and started building my dream, brick by brick. It’s a big building, and it took my whole family a year to finish. It was funded through the jewellery business, so we built on and off, depending on cash flow.

I wanted to launch in December, so towards the end of 2013 we all put our backs into getting it finished. My brothers travelled from their homes in Vereeniging every day, and together we got it ready. We opened on 16 December and haven’t looked back.

Related: 4 Success Lessons From The Entrepreneur Who Quietly Grew Pinterest Into A $12 Billion Company

Kwa Lichaba gives us incredible returns. We chose to charge an entrance fee to attract a specific clientele. It was trial and error at the beginning, but slowly we’ve shaped one of the go-to venues in Soweto, with a vibrant, loyal clientele.

We realised we had something worth more than gold: Access to a captive, middle to upper-middle class black market. It took us a year to get traction with the concept, but we now host corporate-sponsored functions throughout the year, giving brands access to our clientele. It’s an incredible model, and one we replicated in Lesotho — my grandmother’s place of birth — in 2016, and this time we didn’t lay a brick ourselves.

Lichaba Custom Rides, a car customisation and sound business, followed, reflecting my passion for cars. We also opened a refinery to recycle precious metals ourselves, so that we can supply the gold we need for Lichaba Creations, which continues to do very well overseas.

I’m in a good place. I know that life — and business — have their ups and downs, and I have no doubt there are more lessons to learn on this journey. As long as I apply those lessons and keep picking myself up, I will always have something to show for my hard work, and a legacy to leave for my children and the people I love.

Lessons Learnt


Know your numbers

This sounds so obvious, but I trusted people with my books for years — mainly because I wasn’t financially literate. I reached a point where I would no longer accept that I couldn’t run my own books, and so I upskilled myself. I took business management, bookkeeping and finance courses. It’s never too late to learn something new.

Education is everything

This is one area where I’m lacking. I’m filling the gaps as much as I can in my later life, and determined to give my children a better education than I had. I also want to help other children. Through the Lichaba Foundation, we close Kwa Lichaba on Wednesdays so that we can feed Soweto’s children and gogos in need once a week. We also have social workers and educators on site, to try and do as much as we can. Once a week isn’t enough, but it’s a start — and you always need to start somewhere.

Pay it forward

There are so many people who have helped me over the years. Never forget that you don’t achieve success alone. It always takes a village. I believe it’s our duty to give back if we succeed. We started out making boerewors rolls from the boot of our car and handing them out in townships. Today we have the Lichaba Foundation. We support the children of Soweto, have a magazine that supports local businesses and gives them free marketing, and the Miss Lichaba competition, an annual pageant for Soweto-based teens. The winner receives free university tuition, and is the face of all our businesses for a year. She is also expected to give back to her community, paying the idea of social awareness forward.

Work as a community

All of our businesses operate within a community — which is true of all businesses. You can’t operate as an island, and ignore those around you. And why would you want to? It creates goodwill, a vibrancy that operating alone could never achieve, and encourages everyone to work together towards shared goals.

Look for your own opportunities

When I look back at my life, it was tough as a kid. There was so much pain and embarrassment. Kids laughed at me because I sold fruit and vegetables at the side of the road and went to a remedial school. I was driven to prove myself. I’m a human being and a man. It’s my life, and only I can prove myself. I wouldn’t let my circumstances hold me back. I saw these things as challenges and obstacles I had to face, but also as opportunities. You need to look for opportunity. No one else will do that for you.

Listen to the podcast


Matt Brown interviews Max Lichaba and unpacks his incredible journey from small-town kid to successful entrepreneur.

To listen to the podcast, go to or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.

The Matt Brown Show is a podcast with a listenership in over 100 countries and is designed to empower entrepreneurs around the world through information sharing.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Co-Founder Of DataProphet Daniel Schwartzkopff Talks AI And How To Prepare For The Coming Change

Artificial Intelligence is set to change the way all companies do business, says Daniel Schwartzkopff of DataProphet. Those who don’t prepare for this inevitability right now run the risk of getting left behind.

GG van Rooyen




Vital Stats

  • Player: Daniel Schwartzkopff
  • Company: DataProphet
  • Position: Commercial director and co-founder
  • Established: 2013
  • Visit:
  • About: DataProphet is comprised of a diverse team of skilled computer scientists, statisticians, actuaries, engineers and mathematicians who deliver actionable Artificial Intelligence solutions to organisations.

Can you give us some background on yourself? What sparked your interest in the fields of AI and machine learning?

I first developed an interest in AI and machine learning when trying to build a system to play poker against humans and win in 2011. Subsequently, it has been proven that heads-up limit hold’em poker is a solved game, meaning there are now unbeatable AI bots in this variant of the game.

How did DataProphet come about, and what does the company do?

DataProphet started as a machine learning consultancy in 2013 after noting the lack of such businesses in South Africa. This was at the beginning of the machine learning renaissance — the advent of graphic processing unit (GPU) processing had enabled techniques developed in the 1950s (neural networks and deep learning) to finally become viable. The use of a GPU as opposed to the CPU to perform the calculations necessary for deep learning brought about a 100x increase in calculation speed. This allowed companies and individuals access to the technology that only a nation-state with a supercomputer would have previously had.

DataProphet developed expertise across many industries with a major focus on insurance, financial services and manufacturing and began to develop products. It is now primarily focused on the global expansion and distribution of its Omni manufacturing product that is able to massively reduce defect rates by optimising with machine learning. This software is in production at several global sites.

One of our clients, Atlantis Foundries, the largest foundry in the southern hemisphere has been using our software since the beginning of the year and has achieved a 0% defect rate on shipped parts for several months — a very exciting milestone for us.

Is there a difference between AI and machine learning?

This is a fairly contentious question and largely depends on who you ask. In my opinion, Artificial Intelligence refers to the broader concept of enabling machines to perform tasks that previously only humans would have been able to do. In some narrow applications machines can now perform these tasks much better than humans.

Machine learning is one way to enable Artificial Intelligence and refers to the idea that machines can perform as more than just calculators, essentially discovering the underlying patterns/equations that govern a system just by providing them with enough data.

These can seem like such high-level concepts, so can you give us concrete examples of how they can affect of a business?

All industries will use machine learning as a fundamental part of their operation in the future. For example, machine learning can provide more accurate pricing models for insurance. It can reduce defect rates in manufacturing by predicting whether a part will be faulty, and then adjust the operating parameters to produce less faulty parts in future. Netflix and Amazon use machine learning in their recommendation systems to provide you with content and products that you want and thereby increase sales.

Self-driving cars are entirely powered by machine learning. For retail, machine learning can predict what a customer will buy and generate personalised specials based on anchor items that will draw the customer back to the store. It can perform more accurate demand forecasting than any linear model.

The opportunities for implementing machine learning in business are vast and most of the S&P 500 either have in-house data science teams or are using machine-learning powered products already. The only requirement is data. Data is extremely valuable and generally enterprise-size businesses have the quantity of data necessary to build an effective model.

How will these two concepts disrupt the working environment?

Rules-based professions can and will be displaced entirely by AI systems. Lawyers, doctors, accountants and so on. Jobs requiring empathy and human interaction will be the last to go, along with engineers, programmers and other professions that have a design or management element.

How should companies prepare for the coming change?

Businesses should begin to aggressively store and utilise their data. Machine learning can significantly improve efficiencies in almost all businesses.

In 1965, corporations remained in the S&P 500 Index for an average of 33 years; by 2012 this had shrunk to 18 years. In a single year, Kodak’s net earnings dropped from $1,29 billion to $5 million. All they did was fail to act on a market shift with the introduction of the digital camera. Machine learning is having the same effect on other  industries. Uber’s core business model is based around machine learning and they are effectively shutting down the metered cab businesses in every city they operate in.

Taxi businesses faced no competition for decades and grew complacent and failed to innovate. Now some of the largest cab companies in the world have split up and filed for bankruptcy protection. Lemonade Insurance Company is disrupting the insurance industry with crazy growth figures and much lower pricing because of their use of machine learning and an app to radically change the status quo. This is not the distant future. The time to engage with machine learning is now.

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