Ronnie Apteker: Seven secrets to becoming a successful entrepreneur

Back in the early days of South Africa’s internet, I swapped lots of notes with my pal Ronnie Apteker. He was one of the original pioneers who together with brother Alon and David Frankel started and built Internet Solutions into the country’s leading ISP – big enough to be bought for top dollar by mushrooming tech group Dimension Data. Frankel has gone on to become one of New York’s leading tech investors and Alon has multiplied his wealth through smart investments in his homeland. Ronnie remains a maverick, having put a small fortune into supporting local comedy and SA-made movies, including the hit Material, with four of them set for release soon. Featured as one of the inspirations for Mercantile Bank’s advertising campaign featuring entrepreneurs, Ronnie’s latest endeavour is A couple years in the making, combines Apteker’s business building experience with a wacky sense of humour and undeniable tech smarts. We’re delighted to be able to feature its content on Biznews – starting with this superb piece written by Ronnie himself. A must read for any wannabe business owner.  – Alec Hogg

By Ronnie Apteker*

As long as I can remember I loved to tell stories. And also, I am always captivated by a good tale. I make notes of all the compelling and colourful adventures that people share with me. I have found that entrepreneurs accumulate many many stories. Each chapter is another story: the chance taken, the moments of tension, the celebration that never ended, the pain that never lets go, the lessons learned, the ground covered, the mistakes we made, the people that we got close to, and the folk that are no longer there. Entrepreneurs are natural storytellers. Yes, not every entrepreneur is going to stand-up and make a speech to rival Barack Obama (that man sure can talk) but they all have loads of stories to share.

I have been working since I was 16 years old. At the big Hyperama in Sandton, representing Frank & Hirsch, punting Atari computers, during my last couple of high school years. Every Friday afternoon and every Saturday morning. To my 7 years of being a waiter, and the adventure of selling ties, caps and t-shirts, at the flea market on the weekends, when I got a driver’s license and realized that a car can be filled with stuff that one could take to the market and sell. Then there was contract software development when I was a Masters student at university, and of course, at the end of it all, was the start of Internet Solutions (IS). I was still waitering and working in the flea market when IS began, but stopped shortly afterwards. And through it all, the one thing remains constant: sell, sell sell, That and storytelling. All underpinned by hard work.

The first and foremost fundamental: ABC – Always Be Closing

Persuasion sits at the centre of all business activity, and life in general. Convincing customers, inspiring your colleagues, getting people to agree to things – this is what selling is about, and it is a never ending mission for and each and every one of us. Whether you call yourself a salesman or not, we are all in sales, all the time. And yet, given how important this is, most people struggle to communicate, let alone inspire. In the business world, we too often get lost in the details of company speak. PowerPoint slides, long formal e-mails, and dull corporate communications. Getting people’s attention and capturing imaginations is not as easy as it would appear, especially in this day and age of warp-speed texting and endless digital distractions.

Selling, convincing, inspiring, persuading, is what we strive to do every day as entrepreneurs. Firing people up, getting them to buy-in, gaining support, internally and externally. Inspiring your co-workers and winning over new clients is what we must do.

Learn to make notes of lessons you learn along the way, of milestones, things you tried, missions that that went good and also, the ones that gave you a hiding. Share those stories, and listen to other people’s experiences too. Stories are what make a life, and the most inspired entrepreneurs have many stories to share. In your efforts to break the ice and get through to people, embrace storytelling. Engage people’s emotions – the key to the heart is story. Inspiring people with story is about uniting an idea with an emotion. In a story, you get to weave a lot of information into the telling and also, you have a chance to stimulate your listener’s emotions and energy. If you can fire up people’s imagination and tell a good story, then you can get people’s attention and perhaps their buy-in – that is always way better than have them yawning and ignoring you.

In the famous movie Glengarry Glen Ross we hear ABC, Always Be Close. That is what selling is about. Although this film was very on the money, well, er, about selling for money, the real art of selling is not about making money. It is about persuading people to see our point of view. When people share your passion and excitement, a sale has been made.

We can’t all be great speech makers, and that is fine. But we can all listen, and selling is more about listening than anything else. That is something else I have learned. So, yes, tell a good story, and be real, be human, be vulnerable, but also listen to other people’s stories. We bond over the shared moments, the common ground, the struggles that we are all familiar with.

People are what it is all about

Ideas don’t build business, people do. As my one mentor once said, “I would rather invest in a bad business with good people than in a good business with bad people.” Of course, a good idea with good people is first prize, but without the people nothing will happen.

Thomas Edison once said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Yes, good ideas are important and they are hard to come by, but finding good people is more challenging.

Personality opens doors, but character keeps them open. A person’s character is their destiny. We are the choices we make. When it comes to finding good people always look for those who say what they mean and mean what they say. The cornerstone of character is this: keep your promises. Dropping the ball and not giving a continental kind of people are easy to find – people that take ownership and responsibility are not the norm (not from my perspective). Proactive people are hard to find so when you find a rock solid person, someone with a good attitude, then stay with them. Good people stick together.

The best way to receive is to give. Another mentor friend often reminds me of that. The more I give the more I seem to win. Call it karma, or call it whatever you like – the bottom line is that being kind is a good thing. Be generous in spirit and in pocket – it always comes back to bless you. That is my experience.

People make the difference. The people that are there for us when times are tough are the people we want to be in our lives. Easy come easy go folk are all fair and well when the party is going full tilt, but when the tables turn, and they always do, then we need people of character. Honest, hardworking people who value a full day’s work, and people who don’t try cut corners. There is no substitute for hard work. People who work hard are what we need to be, and who we are looking to be with. And people who listen and are open minded, with compassionate hearts. Yes, not easy to find, but they are out there.

Recognize luck when it is right in front of you : good or bad

Luck favours the persistent. The harder you work, the luckier you get. Yes, we all know these wise words, and they are all true. But there is also real luck, and it comes in good and bad forms.

If you try and do something and there is no chance it can ever work, and you know that for a fact, then saying you had bad luck is just stupid. Like drilling for oil in the Karoo – it ain’t there. So, don’t do it. Forget what Nike has to say, just don’t. This is not about being diligent or about having a good attitude – no, this is about the facts – don’t dig for oil where there is none. On the other hand, if you want to sell beer at a ball game, well, as Nike says, Just Do It. And don’t stop doing it. But trying to selling vegetarian quiche at a football match ain’t gonna work – there is no market for that there.

Having some knowledge of the market can only help And when the warning signs are flashing, then take note. And conversely, as Richard Branson once said, “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!’ Yes, that is good luck, and when it comes, don’t just let it pass you by. We have all done this, and we never forget the ones that got away. So, seize the day, and act on luck when it happens.

There is of course no substitute for hard work. if luck strikes then embrace it, but also, work hard. Luck needs to be embraced and nurtured and worked.

Never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity – keep your eyes and ears open and don’t be closed minded. Many businesses have failed because they got into a comfort zone. Change is a part of life, and if luck presents itself, then rise up and change.

Listen to your heart

Never ever abandon yours sense of judgment. If something is not sitting right, then listen to your gut. Call it the heart, or the gut, or whatever it is – we all have that sixth sense that knows when something is good or bad. Always listen to what you know is right.

If somebody starts telling you a story, and not of the inspiring kind, of how their dog ate their homework, and about the flat tire and why they are late, then you know it means trouble. We all make mistakes, and that is ok. People don’t mind when we make mistakes, it is what we do next that matters. We all love a character, but that is different to having character. If people treat you as a fool, with disrespect, then when things explode, you knew better. And, when people go out of their way to help you, stick with them. Those kinds of people are rare.

We all get into situations where we knew better. God help a man who doubts what he know. And as Einstein once put it, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” I am convinced this applies to people more than anything. If someone keeps letting you down then make a change, or you will indeed go insane. Yes, if you can’t change the person, then change the person.

Lead by example

Get your hands dirty. Set the pace. Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing to do yourself.

Leading people is no popularity contest so make sure you don’t confuse being popular with being respected. And never be proud – ask for help when it is needed.

Be tough-mined, but never hard-hearted, and give all you can. If you want to inspire those around you then you need to work hard and you need to be sincere. And you also need to remember that money moves people, but it does not motivate them. Motivation comes from believing in what you are doing, in the mission, from a purpose. Your example will create drive – people will be motivated if you are real and honest. There are of course other considerations – listen to people, and be compassionate. Hard work is one thing, but don’t drive anyone into the ground.

Be a team player. If you want your people to work as a team, then you need to be active in the team too. You can’t lead via remote control. And barking orders via e-mail, for example, is not very effective. Efficient, yes, but that is a different thing.

Have fun and purpose

Work hard, play hard – we all know these words, but we often get so stuck on the treadmill that we forget to come up for air. It is important to re-new and to take time to smell the roses. Celebrate victories and reflect on mistakes.

Making money is fun – never forget that. No one smiles when they lose money. But it is not all about the bottom line. The inspired companies, the ones we all admire, were generally a result of a labour of love. They are driven by a sense of purpose that aligns and inspires. Making a difference does not have to come at the expense of making a profit – you can do both. And when you do manage both, then you have a lot of fun.

As Henry Ford once said “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.” It does not have to be one or the other – it should be one and the other. If you can do that, then you have climbed a big mountain. Making money, looking after people, making a difference, having fun along the way … not an easy juggling act. Especially in these fast times where everyone is wired constantly.

Communication is fundamental

It is not so much as to what you say, but how you say it. Shooting the messenger is a common occurrence and so often the words of the message could have saved so much time and aggravation. Words are our building blocks – we need to choose our words carefully, and we need to deliver them in the best possible way. Remember, people don’t buy what we do, they buy why we do it.

Just about every misunderstanding comes from poor communications. Managing expectations is all about communications and when balls are dropped and things are misunderstood it takes up time, and it most often drains us. Be effective in your communications – efficiency is less important. Focus on quality, not quantity, and be real. Sharing a victory via e-mail, for example, is not the same as getting everyone together for a celebration. And giving people bad news over a text, say, is cold and distrustful. Deal with things appropriately, and communicate with heart.

Communications remains a fundamental cause of frustration in every growing company. Make sure you do as best you can when it comes to getting a message out there, and break the ice and get stuck in whenever you need to. Communications and people – these are the two areas we all need to master. Finding good people and looking after them all boils down to good, healthy, effective communications.

Summing up

There is no such thing as a part-time entrepreneur. Yes, 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. But it is all about hard work. 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 is not constant fun. It is a full-time journey. Passion is the word you always hear when people talk of start-ups and entrepreneurial ventures. But it is not enough. Just like talent is not enough. It is all about your attitude. Selling is also 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.

  • Ronnie Apteker is one of the three founders of Internet Solutions. His latest business endeavour is – click here to see what it’s about.