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He was one of the three founders of Internet Solutions. He’s been involved in the South African movie business and was a key member of the ‘Material’ team, and more recently the film ‘Vaya’, which was selected for a Toronto film award. His other adventure is Coolfidence, a unique website full of tools, techniques and advice on ways of breaking the ice, kickstarting conversations and capturing imaginations. Below, Ronnie reflects on all he’s done, and unpacks the four characteristics of an entrepreneur in is eyes. See if you’ve got what it takes. – Stuart Lowman
by Ronnie Apteker*
I have been an entrepreneur ever since I can remember. I did not know what this word meant when I started my journey, but as I sit here now, and write this, I understand it well. And I still have a lot to learn. Being an entrepreneur means you never switch off.
It sounds like so much fun to start a business. Some people will say it means that you are free and the world is your oyster. Perhaps they are right. In my experience, starting a business is anything but fun. Sure, it can be exciting, and often there are some amazing moments, but don’t expect to get much sleep. Sleeping late is fun. Being an entrepreneur means you and your pillow won’t be the best of friends. It is a full-time journey and obsession is fundamental.
Investing in a start-up venture, on the other hand, is something different. As one big time Silicon Valley investor once said, “I’m in it to mostly have fun. If I wanted to do unpleasant work, I’d have my own start-up.” But don’t get me wrong – I would not change a thing. Entrepreneurs make things happen. The world needs more entrepreneurs.
That is what entrepreneurs do – they take risks. And in my view, it is not only about money. As my one mentor often reminds me, “Risk everything in life but your reputation”. Yes, the stakes extend far beyond hard cash. When we try something our confidence is gambled. Also, our credibility may be on the line. And if we win then everyone wants a part of it, but if we lose, well, then we are on our own. One has to be strong.
The risks are also passed onto other people. When you bring on board new inspired souls to join the mission they too may be risking something. Perhaps someone gave up a solid, well-paying job, to join you on the mission. Being an entrepreneur often means being responsible to others.
In my view, one of the biggest risks we take is when we get new people to join the team. Remember, you invest in people, not in ideas. You build a business around a person, not an idea. A person can make or break a venture, especially in the early start-up stage. People make the difference. People are the swing.
Risks are the norm. Financial, emotional, reputational. Entrepreneurs believe in themselves. They are taking a bet that they can do it. And often the venture fails. But when it does work then there is no better feeling. Risks and rewards. That is the entrepreneurial way.
The trouble with the French is they don’t have a word for entrepreneur
George W. Bush once said this about the French.
Entrepreneurship is definitely a product of culture and circumstance. My parents were entrepreneurs. They won and they lost. But they never stopped trying. And they were always laughing. The nature of an entrepreneur is an optimist – it is about believing in what you are doing, and more importantly, it is about believing in yourself. And this has a lot to do with one’s surroundings. People with low self-esteem, for example, are less likely to become entrepreneurs, in my view.
Everything in life is about people, not things. People make us happy, and people make us sad. When building a business the people are what make the difference. People nurture us, or people drain us. People are the key to everything.
Whether you’re managing a team or starting a small business, at some point you’ll need to make important hiring decisions that can make or break your company. Hire slow and fire fast. This is the wisdom I have leaned over the years. And stay away from French food – it is expensive. Put your resources into the venture, and into people.
Making something and selling something are two different things. People that create things are often not entrepreneurs. Inventors, innovators, artists. They can be entrepreneurs, but that means they have to embrace people, internally, and externally. Entrepreneurs are said to always surround themselves with good people. Yes, again, it is all about people. And the one thing that entrepreneurs need to do is to sell to other people.
A product or a service typically doesn’t sell itself. As the founder of 3Com, Bob Metcalfe, once remarked, “I didn’t make money from inventing the Ethernet; I made money from waking up early in cheap hotel rooms all around the world.”
Selling, selling, selling and more selling. That is what it means to be an entrepreneur. Knocking on doors, breaking the ice, winning friends, and influencing people. These are all part of the package.
Selling is a fundamental part of an entrepreneur’s journey. We are all selling, all the time. Internally and externally. Inspiring, motivating, sharing. We love what we do, and we do what we love. It doesn’t always love us back though. And this is where character comes into it. Being an entrepreneur requires strength, and grace.
When you sell something you love you are just doing what comes naturally. It is a labour of love. It is not a hustle. Hustling is when you have to sell something for money — not for love.
Passion is the word you always hear when people talk about start-ups and entrepreneurial ventures. But it is not enough. Just like talent is not enough. It is all about your attitude.
It goes without saying that one has to be positive. Adrian Gore once said that being an entrepreneur is like jumping out of an aeroplane with silkworms instead of a parachute and hoping they’re over-achievers. But again, this is not enough. It is about 100% focus — Adrian will tell you this too.
A rabbi once said to me that the secret to life is to live life gracefully. And to be an entrepreneur is an exercise in grace. Well, that depends on your character. If you do land up losing (and I have lost many times) then, yes, you can be sad, but don’t be angry, or ugly. Find strength, learn to laugh, and try again.
When people join the mission it means you will have more to worry about. Yes, you can delegate work, and there will be others to help, but if you are sincere and you care, then you will have your plate full.
As an entrepreneur and a leader of people I have learned that you can pay people to be busy but you can’t make them do good work — that comes from the heart — because you are into it. Passion and attitude are fundamental.
Hard work, crazy work, obsession, yes, these are absolutely required. But so is luck. If you have bad luck, then all bets are off. But, as the old saying goes, luck truly does favour the persistent. You can influence your luck. Obsessed people, in my experience, tend to have better luck.
Underpinning everything entrepreneurs is hard work. Nothing comes easy. Taking risks is not for everyone, but without entrepreneurs we will never change. Entrepreneurs change the world. Many fail, and the strong ones try again. I have never met an entrepreneur who has never failed. People who win the lottery should not be confused with being entrepreneurs.
Taking risks – that is the path. Entrepreneurs would always rather ask for forgiveness than for permission. Yes, entrepreneurs take chances. Do it.
- Ronnie Apteker is one of the three founders of Internet Solutions. His latest business endeavour is coolfidence.com – click here to see what it’s about. You can follow him @RonnieApteker.
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