Friday, 30 November 2007

Vottle vroooom ...

We broke the one million mark this month for number of page impressions! There is lots going on in Votteland - here are some highlights:

  • our outdoor guerrilla style marketing campaign will be fully underway from January - we are hoping this gives Vottle some even bigger momentum
  • we now have all our neighbouring countries featured on Vottle - you can now make a posting at a country level in Southern Africa - one can even post an advert using their native currency when making a posting from a specific country
  • we now allow users to upload an image to their profile - this can be a personal picture in the case of an individual, or, it can be a company logo in the case of a corporate - this is a move towards a more social environment
  • our comments system will be enhanced in the month ahead; the profile image will come into play there - the aim is to move to a "forum" type environment when it comes to our comments environment
  • we are experimenting with "Vottle specials" - we currently have specials from and - we will also be rolling out with Exclusive Books in the next couple of weeks
  • we are currently experimenting with Rapleaf

Posted by the Vottlers

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Please read the house rules before entering

We recently explored the 3 big questions: Why, how and where? As in, why does a company exist? How does it exist? And, where is it going? Purpose describes why a company exists, ie, what a company actually does. Values describe how a company actually lives its purpose. Values can be thought of as the house rules of an organisation - values define the way that you operate.

A successful company continues to live its purpose by a set of values that are rock solid. These values make up the "how" part in the three questions. How defines the behaviour and attitude of a company’s people. There is no universal accepted set of correct core values. You discover "how" by looking within. You cannot fake values. You either have them or you don’t. Values are not open to change – they must stand the test of time.

A company typically will try to articulate about five things that it holds sacred. At Internet Solutions we believe in professionalism, customer service, integrity, empowerment and fun as our core values. We strive always to be professional, both internally and externally. We endeavour to be customer focused, always acting with integrity. We attempt to empower our staff by listening and by sharing. And we try to work hard and play hard. And we always stand firm in our beliefs, never compromising what we represent, and never violating our integrity. We are very passionate about our company and what it stands for. Our intense belief in our value system and our purpose is what drives this passion.

Like many companies today, the organisation I work for is largely a people business. It is about people sharing ideas with people, it is about people proposing solutions to people, and it is about people working together. It is about relationships. We practice professional behaviour at all times, both internally with staff, and externally with customers. And we always strive for win-win relationships.

I have learnt who works for whom in our organisation. Whenever someone joins our company I have to work harder and listen more. I want all of the people who come on board to win. If they win, I win. It is that simple. And for them to win they need to be empowered. Their ideas need to be heard. And they need to make a difference. My job is to make sure that they can make a huge difference.

Products and services evolve over time, leaders pass away, markets change, new technologies emerge, and strategies come and go, but our values remain the same. A company’s value system is the glue that binds all the people together. And there is no set of right or wrong values. You discover values by introspection. A company should never change its value system in response to market changes but, rather, it should change markets if necessary. It must always remain true to its core values. Again, your values should be authentic; you can put this to the test by asking: if you got out of bed tomorrow and were financially independent, would you continue to hold those values as sacred as the day before? Can you see those values being as valid for you well into the future as they are today?

Making money or maximising shareholder wealth is always the grey, uninspiring, off-the-shelf mission statement that will be heard in those circles where a core purpose has not been identified. We could make money in our organisation by selling people technology they don’t really need. But this would violate our purpose and it certainly would contradict our value system. It would not be in the best interests of our stakeholders. The end users would not win in this case, and ultimately, neither would we. Trust is the fundamental building block in life, and it is needed to build any win-win relationship. The more we are true to our mission, the more people will trust us to help them well into the future. The more we make a positive difference to people’s lives, the more all of our stakeholders will win. That is what win-win is all about. And this should serve to guide any value system.

Our company’s values may only be meaningful to the people within our organisation, and there is nothing right or wrong about that. If someone does not agree with our code of conduct then they may decide not to join our organisation. You cannot force values onto people. Values are something you feel and hold sacred. You find them inside of you. If you don’t believe that customer service is a value, for example, then you may choose to work in an organisation where customers are not part of the day to day modus operandi. Sony, for example, does not view customers as central to its core value system. And this makes sense when you think about it: when was the last time you bought something from Sony directly? You didn’t. You buy products from consumer goods stores. Sony does not deal with you directly. And perhaps that way of thinking is what you believe. Either way, there is no right or wrong here. It is what you genuinely believe deep down that is fundamental.

You never want anyone to undermine what you stand for and you always want to retain your value system. So, if people within a company do not fit in, then let nature run its course. People who share the same value system and purpose often do not necessarily all look or think the same. Artists and talent come in all shapes and sizes. A company is a world filled with diversity and with different viewpoints and ideas.

The people within a company need to commit to the organisation over the long term and a well defined value system can help in defining who is in and who is out. A clearly articulated value system attracts to an organisation people who buy into the company’s ways of thinking, and conversely, it will repel those people who do not agree. You cannot make people believe in something. They either do or they don’t. And if they choose to leave because they find that they are incompatible with the company’s core ideology, then welcome that outcome.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Monday, 26 November 2007

Don’t listen to agree or disagree - just agree to listen

I am going to kick-off today with two great quotes. The first from Stephen Hawking who said, “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.” And the second from Aristotle, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Today’s VLOG is about the process of learning.

I once heard a Rabbi give a talk. He said that modern audiences do not listen to learn. He said that they listen to see if they agree or not. If they agree they listen more, and if they disagree then they switch off.

Now, in previous VLOGs I have said that leaders need to listen more than anyone else. I have said that money and motivation have nothing to do with each other. So, how about this then: It does not take a great idea to start a great company. In fact, starting a company based on an idea might actually be a bad idea.

Thinking about what the wise Rabbi said, I am going to ask that do not read this from the angle of whether or not you agree or disagree. Don’t read to agree or disagree. This stifles learning; instead, give your full attention to understanding. If you fully understand and you disagree then that is your right. Having understood a different viewpoint, you are entitled to disagree. One has to learn to understand viewpoints with which you don’t agree with. You don’t have to hear what you agree with – what you agree with you know already. What one has to study and learn are viewpoints with which you don’t agree.

In the book Built to Last (which is a must read) the authors explore how many of the great companies of our time began. Some of the most inspiring and visionary organisations started off with no great idea for a product or service. Instead a group of people got together because they wanted to do something exciting. They wanted to change the world in some positive way. They wanted to make a difference, and they wanted to leave a legacy. And these are the same reasons why so many companies are formed. Just think of two people who get married because they fall in love, as opposed to learning to love each other. In a business if you have a love affair with a concept (a product or service say) and the concept fails (perhaps the market changes or technology makes it redundant etc.) then you are likely to abandon the company. If your love is for the company itself then it does not really matter what ideas are explored. The point is that a company will outlive ideas, and, products and services.

A company is really a grouping of people who come together because they like each other and because they share a common vision. They pool their different skills and they challenge each other’s thinking. Together they are stronger. This is what a marriage, a friendship, a sports team, and a business are all about. If you start a business because you are in love with a product then you will be in a volatile position. Things change. All the time. Legislation changes. Technology changes. Trends change. Your tastes will change. If you loose interest in the product you fell in love with then it is highly likely that you will loose interest in the business altogether.

The visionary companies of our time, businesses, soccer teams, marriages, cities and countries, all have got to where they are because they love the entities that they have created. And if you truly love something (or someone) then you will work at it continuously. The great brands we all know and love in the world today were born from people who loved the idea of inspiring their audiences. This is a never-ending mission. It is something beyond a clearly stated purpose. It goes to the very heart of what makes the world special. Visionary companies are built by special people and although charisma and charm always help, they are not a key ingredient. As the above mentioned book states, the visionary leaders of the past century concentrated more on architecting an enduring institution than on being great individual leaders. They sought to be clock builders, not time tellers.

This VLOG has been all over the place. I am probably over excited again or something. Perhaps it is something in the air at this time of year. Today’s VLOG really is about trying to understand as opposed to arguing. Think about why you want to join a business and, more importantly, why you would want to start a business. Think about the legacy you wish to leave behind as opposed to the profits that you want to accumulate. Think about the people you could bring together as opposed to the products you could enhance. Think about the relationships you can build as opposed to the services you can supply. Now all of this may be a lot to digest this fine summer day so let’s end off like we started, with a funny, provocative quote. I don’t know who wrote this. Whoever you are, you are right on, or off, the money. “Many people quit looking for work when they find a job.”

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Friday, 23 November 2007

A closer look at purpose

At some point in your life you are going to think about the following 3 questions: Why, how and where? As in, why does a company exist? How does it exist? And, where is it going? Purpose is concerned with why someone or something exists, and specifically for today's VLOG (Vottle Blog), why a business exists. Any business. Especially yours. A value system describes how a company exists. And goals describe where a company is going. Purpose describes what a company, your company, actually does. Values can be thought of as the house rules of an organisation - values define the way that you operate. And goals are the milestones you constantly set and aim for.

I am going to jump right in with a quote from the son of the founder of Merck, one of the world’s largest corporations. In 1950, George Merck II said, "We try to remember that medicine is for the patient. We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been." This description of Merck’s purpose captures the spirit that I am trying to share with you here. Merck saves life through medicine. And the more they do so, they more they make. It as simple as that. Merck would not sell a placebo that didn’t help anyone, even if it meant they could boost the bottom line. People trust them because they stand for something more than making money. And as a consequence of them being true to their mission they make money. People trust them because they are trying to make a difference in the world. The compelling wisdom that stems from this is as follows: the more of a difference they do in fact make, the more money they take in.

Purpose is something you can never realise. Merck can never complete the mission of saving life through medicine. Why? Because there are always new illnesses in the world and everyday more and more people get sick and need help. Purpose is something that does evolve over time but it can never be completed. Disney, another visionary company, can never complete the mission of making children smile. Everyday children should smile, and there are always more and more children coming into the world. The fundamental never ending nature of purpose is captured in an inspiring comment from Walt Disney who in his last years said, "Disneyland will never be complete as long as there is imagination left in the world." Imagination is the key to purpose.

The Disney Corporation is worth some deeper exploration. This is a fascinating company whose purpose has evolved over time. Over 50 years ago Disney had the mission of making cartoons. So, where do theme parks, for example, fit into their purpose? It didn’t 50 years ago. But today, the mission of making children smile incorporates cartoon making, the Mickey Mouse club, Disneyland, Euro-Disney, The Disney Stores, etc. Purpose evolves over time but can never be completed.

The purpose of Disney also warrants a closer look. If you heard that Disney’s mission was to entertain people you would probably not have thought to question it. But Disney does not exist to entertain people. Just think for a minute. People include adults. And adults smile at some pretty hectic things. Sex and violence is not something children should see. Purpose, if stated correctly, should serve to guide an organisation. The word children is key in the case of Disney. Their mission is about youth and innocence.

What is it that differentiates two companies? In the book, Built To Last, the following companies are explored and compared: Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, Disney and Columbia, Hewlett Packard and Texas Instruments, Sony and Kenwood, Merck and Pfizer, IBM and Burroughs, General Electric and Westinghouse, Procter & Gamble and Colgate, Ford and General Motors. All of these examples have very similar missions within their respective industry sectors. What is then that makes one company more successful when compared to another organisation in the same arena. The word is authenticity. The visionary companies of our time have always stood for something far more inspiring than making money. And is very interesting to note that any business that focused purely on profits never out performed a competitor who stood for something more significant and humane.

I guess an important question to ask is how does one measure success? A successful business is not a business that doesn’t go bankrupt. And in the same light, a successful marriage is not a marriage that doesn’t land up in divorce. A company can continue without succeeding. Many companies are still running, filled with unhappy staff and miserable customers. Money is not the only way to measure the success of a business. And all the companies listed in the paragraph above make a lot of money. Anyone reading this VLOG would call all these companies successful. But what makes one company visionary? What makes one company stand out from its competitors? If you used your imagination you could up with so many different criteria to measure success. One could look at staff turnover, number of awards won, customer satisfaction, staff growth, number of smiles in the building, and so on. In the history of the business world, it is fascinating to note that all the visionary companies of the past 50 years out performed their competitors by at least 10 times on all possible criteria specified, including profits.

Here is some text I found floating around the Internet. Its wisdom continues to guide me. Work like you don't need the money; love like you have never been hurt before; and dance like nobody is watching.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Money and happiness

If one is losing money or oif ne is down and out then it is hard to feel excited. It is hard to have fun when you’re losing money. But, if you are making money it doesn’t mean that you are gonna feel excited either – making money doesn’t mean you will feel fulfilled. You have to find your groove!

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

So, you want to make a contribution?

An entrepreneur is someone who makes a contribution to the world as we know it. And for this they get rewarded. Sometimes in kind, sometimes in love, and of course, sometimes in money. I know that many people in the world think that it is all about money, but again, this view can definitely be challenged. Making a contribution to the world does not always have a number or prize attached to it. Sometimes the rewards are not things we can see.

Entrepreneurs always display the following 3 qualities: they are positive, they are curious and they are decisive. Entrepreneurs always see the glass as being half full. They want to learn, continuously. About the industry they are in. About the law. About technology. About life, people, relationships, spirituality and religion. And entrepreneurs always move ahead; even if they take 3 steps forwards and 2 steps backwards, they make decisions and they grow from them.

True entrepreneurs continually dream of doing something different. Of giving something back to society in some way. I think that many people miss the point in business though. The real challenge is to make a difference in the world. And if you make money doing so it simply means that your contribution was valued. Think of that old saying that the best way to receive is to give. Entrepreneurs are very giving. Of their time, their ideas, their energy, and their enthusiasm.

I once heard Adrian Gore from Discovery Health give a presentation where he described an Entrepreneur as someone who jumps of an airplane without a parachute. Instead of the parachute he has a backpack filled with silkworms and he prays that they are over-achievers. This captures the spirit of the entrepreneur. When the book says it can’t be done the entrepreneur does not know this and does it anyway. There is no great strategy when it comes to innovation. Entrepreneurs just keep trying until something works.

Furthermore, you don’t need to start your own organization to be an entrepreneur. Yes, many entrepreneurs in the world are famous for starting visionary institutions, but then, there are also many entrepreneurs who have joined a company and made greater contributions than the person who started the business in the first place. Jack Welch, for example, is considered to be one of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs, yet he never started General Electric. Someone could join the organization I represent tomorrow and make the greatest contribution ever. Think about it. If a person joined our IT company and revolutionized, say, a technological construct that changes the world then that person would go down in the history books.

Again, you don’t have to start a company to prove that you are an entrepreneur. It’s only ego talking if that is what you think. And if you do feel that you have to start your own corporation to make a contribution then answer this: Where does this egotistical behavior end? Do you then have to start your own country? Yes, perhaps you will then to need start a new planet, a world, in order to make the greatest contribution ever. You may think that the idea of starting a new world is bizarre but this is not a new idea. Many James Bond villains have tried. They all try and kill everyone and start a new improved society either under the sea or in space. Talk about big egos.

Contributions and entrepreneurial activities come in all shapes and sizes. They may be about new products and services. They may be about brilliant marketing. Or they may have to do with the way a company is structured. Entrepreneurs have to be more in touch with the spiritual aspects of the work they do. Today, more and more people are looking for the purpose in their pay-cheque, and a great entrepreneur may simply initiate a new leadership style that centers on personal growth and individual empowerment. Empowered people can make contributions.

True entrepreneurs are typically driven by deep belief in what they are doing. The contributions they can make and the emotions that can feel from their customers and the people around then are what inspire them more than anything else. Profit maximization is not a major driving factor here. Listen to people in truly great companies’ talk about their achievements - you will hear very little about earnings per share. And as it has been pointed out through the ages, the best and most dedicated people are ultimately volunteers, for they have the opportunity to do something else with their lives. The book "Built To Last" articulates the spirit of an entrepreneur very clearly when it highlights how the visionary companies of our time stood for something other than just making money. Yes, profits are important, but they are often not the primary motivation for the soulful entrepreneur.

Let’s end off with the following thought: there is a difference between a moneymaker and an entrepreneur. Someone who makes money for themselves and others might be considered an entrepreneur but this is not really true. An entrepreneur’s contributions are far more significant than money. A financial machine may give us fish, but an entrepreneur will teach us how to fish. And finally, money does not bring anyone true happiness. When your efforts help others then that is the fulfillment that gets you sleeping more peacefully at night. None of this is set in stone. Clearly, there are different kinds of entrepreneurs with different motivations, but in my view, the basic philosophy needs to be one of making a positive difference to other people’s lives. As Henry Ford once said "A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business."

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Leaders listen

One of the biggest challenges of leading people lies in the art of listening. Yes, it is an art. Just think about how many ways there are to listen. How often have you been on the telephone while reading your e-mail in the background? Are you really listening? How often are you just dying to have the last say when someone else is speaking? Empathic listening needs to be mastered and appreciated. When you really and truly listen to someone else it implies that you are ultimately being very generous. To genuinely listen to someone you need to give him or her your time. This is what you are offering someone when you say you will listen. Giving time to anyone or anything is not an easy task. No one ever has enough time.

We all like to think we are good listeners but we are not. Why is this? Have you ever stopped to think about the script we are living? We spend 12 years in school learning how to read and write. We learn how to present information and how to perform orals. Yet we never get taught how to listen. Listening is a skill that one needs to learn. It does not come naturally - especially in this day and age where technology keeps interrupting our lives. Just think about the last time you were in a meeting explaining something critical only to be interrupted by someone’s cellphone. Can you imagine telling someone the most important thing in the world and as you get to the conclusion they say "Excuse me, I have to take this call." Were they really listening? Were they really interested?

You learn nothing from speaking. Sure, people will argue that the best way to learn is to teach. Think about it – what do you learn by listening to your own voice? If you want to grow and gain new perspectives you need to listen to others. If you want to lead people, be it in a business or in a family or in a community, then you will need to listen to those around you. Their ideas are valuable. Their input is important. We all speak too much. Myself included. God created us with 2 ears and 1 mouth, and there is a reason for this ratio.

Parents need to listen to their children, to understand them, to guide them, and to encourage them. Parents have more perspective and more wisdom than their children, and their job is to use their knowledge to teach their children, who will one day most likely be parents too, a better way. This is accomplished much more effectively when one understands the challenges that children face. In the same way, new people who join a business are looking for guidance, knowledge, growth and happiness. A leader’s job is to teach and guide them and ultimately, to create future leaders. Listening is fundamental in this continuing process.

What do leaders have that make them stand out? How did they get to have these attributes? A leader generally has more perspective and wisdom than other people in an organisation. The only hierarchy that really exists in the world is one that is characterised by knowledge. People at the top simply have more perspective and insight about where the company is going, and about why the company does what it does. If you want to grow in an organisation you need to learn as much as you can about why the company exists, how it exists, and where it is going. And the best way to learn is to listen. Listen and learn. And lead. Effective leaders are generally better listeners than most.

I have heard of many people saying how they want to grow in their respective organisations and how they want to become managers eventually. Everyone wants to manage people. I have learnt, though, that you should never want to manage people. You manage things. And you lead people. You manage a sale, inventory, money, but you lead people. You listen, and you teach and empower them. You show them the way. Just like parents who show their children what’s right and wrong, and how to be better than they were.

Empowerment means showing people the way. It means teaching them how and allowing them to ask questions. Simply telling people what to do without any chance to explore why is very dis-empowering. By not listening you dis-empower someone completely. Trust is the fundamental building block in any relationship. Trust is built by empowering one another. By respecting one another. By appreciating difference. By exploiting diversity to everyone’s benefit. By listening.

Here is some text I found floating around the Internet. Its wisdom guides me daily.

You are not listening to me when: You say you understand me before you know me well enough; You have an answer for my problem before I've finished telling you what my problem is; You cut me off before I've finished speaking; You finish my sentence for me; You feel critical of my vocabulary, grammar or accent; You are dying to tell me something; You tell me about your experience making mine seem unimportant; You are communicating to someone else in the room; You refuse my thanks by saying you haven't really done anything.

You are listening to me when: You come quietly into my private world and let me be; You really try to understand me even if I'm not making much sense; You grasp my point even when it's against your own sincere convictions; You allow me the dignity of making my own decisions even though you think they might be wrong; You do not take my problem from me, but allow me to deal with it in my own way; You hold back your desire to give me good advice; You give me enough room to discover for myself what is going on; You accept my gift of gratitude by telling me how good it makes you feel to know you have been helpful.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Who’s the boss?

Everyone wants to be a boss. Everyone has had this thought at some point in his or her life. But have we really thought this through carefully? Being a boss is not easy. Because, fundamentally, if you want to be a good boss then you need to stop wanting to be a boss. Confused? Read on. First of all, the word boss itself is a horrible word. I hate it. The real word should be leader. Yikes! Are we saying that being a boss means that you have to lead people? Wow, this sounds like hard work. This sounds like too much responsibility. And secondly, being a leader means that if you are good at it then you will work yourself out of a job. But this is the whole point! Being a leader means that you grow people in effort to make them independent, not dependent. As Ralph Nader once said, "The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not followers."

Parents are leaders. They lead their children with the sole mission of creating independent decision making adults who will one day become parents themselves. And this is the continuing cycle that has created me, you, and all of us. Sure, it has its challenges, and yes it is often not easy to understand, but the principle is straightforward. Leaders are meant to listen to the people they lead. They are meant to teach them how to be effective and how to communicate. They are meant to grow them. They are meant to guide them. And they are meant to help them to discover what their strengths and weaknesses are. Leaders ultimately facilitate a journey of discovery for the people they lead. All of us need to discover what we are good at and what we need help with. And we need to play up to our strengths. It is those leaders who exploit their strong points that gain respect. And those who try to be someone they are not generally end up with negative results.

Managing people is about leadership. Many philosophers have said that we manage things and lead people. So many people speak of wanting to be a manager. What they really want is to do is to control things. And people are not things. People do not want to be controlled. People want to think and feel. People want to be heard and they want to tap into their ideas and imaginations. People want to be respected and people want to belong. This is what all of us need. People need to be affirmed. And managing people like objects does not result in positive situations. Being a manager, or a boss, means that you will need to lead people. And like a parent, a leader in business needs to facilitate growth in the people he or she leads.

I always ask new people who join Internet Solutions the following question, "Who do you work for?" Many of them say that they work for themselves. Some of them say they work with each other. And some say they work for me. One day someone said, "Actually, you work for me." That was a very enlightened moment. And it was a day of profound realisations. Parents work for their kids. And I work for the people I lead in the company I represent.

Leaders work for the people they lead. When a new person joins our company someone needs to show that person the ropes. Someone needs to organise that person a desk, chair, telephone and a computer. Someone needs to organise that person new business cards and so on. Someone needs to educate that person as to how the company operates. Someone needs to share with that person the company’s visions and values. Someone needs to guide that person. Someone needs to do quite a bit of work for that new person.

When a baby is brought into the world someone has to start working more. Again, parents work for their children. And a great part of this work, as for leaders in a business, is developing leadership abilities in those young, impressionable minds, until one day, those people can go forth, or fifth, and be leaders themselves.

I think many people are living a script in the world today that describes a situation whereby a boss sits down on his or her backside while others do all the work. Perhaps a hundred years ago this was the case. But less so today. How come so much wealth is being created so rapidly in these times? Why is the rate of change so incredible in this past decade? How come businesses are growing at faster and faster rates? Perhaps the world is starting to embrace a new way of thinking when it comes to leadership. And perhaps the paradigm shift that has taken place in the last century has resulted in a more empowered person with a greater sense of resolve.

So, what about bossy leaders? Well, there are many of them around. And as paradoxical as this sounds, I think that most leaders I have met are pretty bossy. They need to listen more. But let's leave that for a rainy day. Listening is perhaps one of the most difficult skills to master. Especially for a leader who gets so caught up with their own ideas that they forget that others may have something to contribute. Great leaders listen better than most.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Inside and out

Let’s explore the philosophy of Yogi Berra for a minute: If you get to a fork in the road – take it! Opportunities are all around us. Seize them. Follow your dreams. And follow your destiny through to its conclusion.

I think a real challenge in the business world is that many companies, especially young organisations, become very introspective and start focusing way too much on internal things as opposed to external factors such as market trends, legislative conditions, technological developments, changing market places, and so on. I am not saying that internal things are not important, but far too often they are all that people focus on.

Do you see yourself as a business person? Do you see yourself as an entrepreneur? If so, then you will need to start looking outside the walls of your organisation. I am not saying that you must ignore the people within your company. But I am saying that you need to look inside and out. You need to explore the world internally and externally. Simply stated: You need to listen to your customers, your suppliers, and your business partners as well as your fellow staff.

I have seen many start-up companies filled with young, enthusiastic, and aspiring minds, spend so much time on internal issues that the real macro challenges just pass them by. It is the external factors that are the real struggle. As many great leaders have said, "There is no progress without struggle." One needs to be challenged in order to grow. And externally are where some real challenges lie.

I came up with a compelling exercise a few years ago to highlight this point. Call a group of people together in a company and ask them to write down 3 positive and 3 negative things about their organization. I will bet you that on both sides of the scale the issues that are highlighted are practically all inward focused. Typical positive issues would include things like: great culture, friendly people, exciting products, good pay, and so on. Negative issues, on the other hand, would include things like: too stressed, not happy with my pay, poor internal communications, some arrogant co-workers, and so on. I think you get the picture. But what about external factors? What about someone saying, "Hey, our services and products are good enough to compete on the global market!" And on the flip side "Hey, I think this new legislation is going to set us back 5 years!" Seriously, what about external factors?

The people issues are fundamental to any organisation’s success. After all, what is a company but a collection of people. But one has to be careful not to fall into the trap of only focusing on the people within an organisation. One needs to listen, both externally as well as internally. And one needs to have a strong sense of resolve. You cannot please everyone. If someone has an idea that no one buys into then that is the way it is. That is what a democracy, or partnership, is all about. I have seen too many start-up companies’ battle with internal problems because difference and diversity could not be exploited to everyone’s benefit. Instead, people speak about other people and happenings (gossip and office politics are really destructive for an organisation), rather than of ideas.

Think about this for a minute: if your organisation goes bust then all those internal issues will disappear. And you don’t want that. That is no way to solve things. Balance is key here. Again, you need to be looking externally as well as internally.

This exercise also provides a good lesson in perspective. If someone in your organisation thinks that the worst thing in the company is their parking space, for example, then I would have to say that such a person lacks some serious perspective. I have seen this in many companies. I have heard people talk about good and bad things with such an internal perspective. If the fact that your parking bay is the furthest from the elevator continues to drive you mad then I would say that your life lacks some real challenges. The real excitement is out there in the market place. On the other hand, if someone thinks that the best thing about their organisation is the view from their office, well, I will leave this conclusion to your imagination.

What I am trying to illustrate here is that long term business challenges that are pertinent to the continuance of an organisation are just as much out there as they are inside the walls that surround you. Don’t be trapped by these walls. You need to tap into the collective ideas, perceptions and talents of as many people in a company as possible. I guess a real challenge here is that of strategy and the question that goes with it: who drives the strategy of an organisation? A sales person, for example, might turn around and say "Hey, I am not running the company so how could I suggest a direction or strategy for this business to take?" Yes, perhaps in an autocratic organisation, but not in a more enlightened company. Strategy is driven just as much from the bottom as it is from the top. The people on the ground are out there, listening to customers and suppliers, and their input can be very valuable. Their ideas should be exploited. And when your company’s staff are out there, talking with your business partners, the ideas they come up with are going to be largely external – tap into this.

Here is some text I found floating around the Internet. Its wisdom continues to guide me. Small minds discuss people; Average minds discuss events; Great minds discuss ideas.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Exit strategy

Do fund managers have an exit strategy? I don’t have a clue. I don’t even understand what a fund manager does really, except, manage funds of course.

Ok, I am being silly, again. The real question I want to raise is this: Do you exit something if you love it ? Did Walt Disney or George Merck or William Boeing have an exit strategy ? Does a marriage have an exit strategy ? Do you leave your partner after 20 years, say, and find a new one ?

I am not expert on marriage. I have never been married. But I have been in quite a few business ventures. And each one, the good ones, are like a marriage. There is a sense of purpose which can’t be switched off.

When it comes to business in these fast times then perhaps if your goal was to build a company to sell it to another company, then, yes, an exit strategy makes sense. But, a labour of love is not something you can really ever exit.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Money and motivation

Let us think of the words that one could use to describe a motivated person. Excited. Inspired. Passionate. Driven. Enthusiastic. Thrilled. Challenged. Energized. Happy. Committed. Eager. Stimulated. Keen. Pleased. Ecstatic. We could go on and on.

You can’t pay someone to like something. Yes, you can’t make someone like something if they are not motivated. Money does not create motivation. But it can produce movement. If you pay someone to do a job and their hearts are not into it then they won’t be motivated.

Yes, their hearts may not be into it, but they will put in the time. That is what happens when people do things they don’t really like. Think of the words that one can use to describe a motivated person – they typically don’t apply to people who do things for money.

Money and motivation are not linked. If people don’t like the work they do there must be a reason. They may be doing it because they don’t have a choice; because they have to food on their table. Or, as George W. Bush puts it “it is every American’s right to put foot on their family”. We needed a slight comic break there because this is not an easy subject to digest. The reality is that most people work because they need to feed their family and pay the rent and one has to respect that. Loving your work, finding purpose in what you do, is a real privilege. One cannot role down the window at an intersection and ask the poor person begging on the street there what their purpose is. That would be disrespectful. People who are desperate are not thinking of purpose. They are thinking about survival.

But, in these hard and fast times most people I seem to encounter only go on about money and more money. Seems that looking for purpose in a pay-cheque is not that important in these times of hedge funds and asset management. So, I guess we could summarize and say that there are 3 kinds of people in the world: those who understand the numbers, and those who don't.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Life's secrets

What does it mean when you call someone and they go "Sorry, I can't talk to you right now, I am in a meeting". Why do they answer their phone if they can't actually speak?

But wait. It gets even more curious. I actually had someone call me the other day and go "I can't talk to you right now". What? They called me! Crazy shit!

Are cellphones making us more stupid? Is the progress paradox laughing its ass off? Perhaps the secret to life is hidden somewhere in your phone. And speaking of the secrets to life, I recently learnt that there are 2 secrets to success in life: Number one: don't tell people everything you know.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Quality VS quantity

Just a decade ago farming used to be all about producing the best crop. Now it is about the most crop. It is all about the numbers. That is what this era represents to me – numbers. In the previous decade the world clearly shifted from quality to quantity as we saw the commoditization of everything that used to be sacred. From clothing, to sports cars, to cocktails, to dance music, to perfumes, to food, to travel, to entertainment, to high fashion magazines. You name it.
Last time I wrote about cellphones and email. I said they were efficient but not effective when it comes to romance, and building relationships. Cellphones and e-mail are all about quantity. You can e-mail hundreds and thousands of people all at once. But it is meaningless. You can’t outsource purpose, passion and love to some cold keystrokes. Real conviction comes from face-to-face communications. You can’t lead via remote control. You have to be hands on. There is very little quality of communications in this new age of digital diversity.

The digital world is unromantic. It is all about quantity – the digits – yes, digital is all about numbers. Everything was assigned a number in the 90s. The stand-up comic Chris Forrest reminds us that even food bares a number. He said when he goes into MacDonalds he always orders a number one. But last time he swore it looked more like a number two. And MacDonalds is still counting; 100 billion served – yes, it is all about numbers to them. Quantitative existence is the name of this game. And qualitative life takes a back seat while this is going on. The American dream used to be about putting bread on the table. Now it is all about getting a bigger table. That is what the movie American Beauty so magnificently illustrated to the world. But no, instead of embarrassing America, instead of our Western friends doing something about their dysfunction, they would rather give their work of art the Oscar award. They celebrate their great movie, and they move on to the next thing they can commoditize. Weird world we live in.

I remember going overseas when I was a teenager. I remember how all the passengers clapped when the plane touched down in New York. These days no one claps any more. There is nothing sacred about air travel any more. It is like catching a bus. And let me tell you, I would rather be traveling relaxed with peace of mind at the back of the plane then be up in first class with the world on my shoulders. Yes, economy-class may be uncomfortable but it is only for 8 hours or so. I would hate to carry the world on my shoulders the whole year round. Take a look at these late 20 to early 30 stressed out yuppies that travel in business and first class. As soon as the plane lands their cellphone goes on, and their stress levels peak. These guys sure are trapped by the intriguing paradox of progress. They are living quantitative lives. Quality of life is a mystery in this day and age. The progress paradox reminds us that with medical technology, for example, we have added years to life but not life to years.

I remember when fashion had pretentious names and it came from Italy and France. And now we have the American flag as a fashion statement. I remember when TV had huge audiences that were engrossed with shows like Dallas. And now we have reality TV, where scripts and been replaced with humiliating the guy next door. I remember when casinos used to be classy places to go to. People used to dress up and make a night of it. But the days of putting on a dinner suite and going out for an evening of sophisticated entertainment are over. These days casinos are everywhere and they will take your money whether you are in shorts or wearing beach slops. I remember when a camera made clicking sounds and then you waited with excitement to see how your pictures came out after dropping them at the photo lab. And now it is digital camera, without a clicking sound, and there is no excitement of getting back prints. The digital world and this era of quantitative commoditization is all about instant gratification. I remember when people used to write letters. Now they send e-mail. There is no romance. No mystery. No intrigue. Everything is rushed. Everything is the same. Everything is mediocre.

Throw away your watch. And get a compass. A watch is all about numbers. A compass is all about direction. If you know where you are going then it doesn’t matter about numbers. If you have direction then it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there. Because we always need to remember that life is a journey. And the quality of the journey is what inspires and excites. Life is about relationships, not schedules. And relationships are what bring quality to one’s life. This is one thing we cannot commoditize. Wise people will always tell you how they would rather have a few good friends than dozens of acquaintances. This is what the fundamentals are all about. Don’t get me wrong. Technology and progress have their place in the world. I am just trying to say that technology is not effective when it comes to romance, relationship building and the quality of live. All this information and all this technology should be revolving around us, not the other way around. We must control progress, not be controlled by it. Tolstoy said it best, "The more we live by our intellect, the less we understand the meaning of life."

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Monday, 5 November 2007

Our neighbours

Today we added all of our neighbouring countries (and a few others) to Vottle. We are hoping to start creating a sense of community with our site. You can now post at a county level and you can also search and view at a country level too. The potential here is highly compelling.

You can run two browser windows side by side and compare different communities. Of course, we will need a lot more data before this yields any interesting conclusions. So, please help spread the word and let us know if you find any bugs.

Happy Vottling!

Posted by The Vottlers

Love is a verb

I was busy downloading a virtual love letter cum greeting card from something called Blue Mountain when my phone rang. I was so excited to hear it was a dear friend of mine calling from America. "I can’t speak to you right now," she said. "But you just called me." I responded. Has all this technology made us stupid? I believe it has. It has also made us unromantic and expedient. Imagine a woman telling you she is crazy about you via some online virtual post-card. I mean, that must have taken a full 30 seconds of effort to send me. Come on, where is the romance in the digital age?

Isn’t love a verb? If it were really a noun then it would be implied that one could buy love, and we know this is not the case. Love requires action. And actions require time. Sending some an SMS message to wish them happy birthday lacks imagination. Virtual flowers. Keep ‘em. E-mail love letters. Forget it. And my all time favourite, the cellphone call from the car. Don’t bother. All of these are about convenience and love has never been about this. Where is the romance in this? Romance is about a journey, not a destination. Sipping a glass of wine as you glide a fountain pen on a piece of delicate writing paper is what makes the dance so worth while. Feeling the words, and thinking of how to put them together is what makes sending a letter so tender and loving. Spending quality time is what love is about. All this new technology has its place, but don’t fall into the trap of trivializing the most fundamental of human needs. Our souls need to express themselves. And sending someone you love an e-mail to share something precious with them is simply unromantic and boring. Efficient, yes, effective, no. Romance, love and passion are things that are meant to be rushed. True love is never-ending, so why the hurry?

I remember some lines from one of my favourite movies where the main character, a schoolteacher, asks his class why we read and write poetry. And he said, "We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion." Yes, it is cute to get an SMS message now and then, and yes, e-mail can be fun, and yes, cellphones can be wonderfully distracting, but they are not mediums of substance. Our teacher goes on to say, "Medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, art, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for."

What do you stay alive for? I can’t believe it is so that you can catch up on your emails and return all those missed calls. The most beautiful moments of my life are when my time has been filled with feelings of love and passion. Romance is what inspires me. Beauty is what excites me. And by beauty I am referring to more than just aesthetics. I love the beauty in an imaginative plan, a provocative letter, a naughty card, or a late night phone-call that lasts an hour. Life can truly feel beautiful when real time is given to you by someone you love. And real time is all to confused with real-time in this age of high-tech and low-patience.

Technology is not only being used as a poor vehicle for romance but it is also interrupting those who do in fact stick to the fundamentals. The next time someone takes you for a romantic dinner, switch your cellphone off, or better still, leave it behind. I often wonder if people in bed would take a cellphone call. Where do we draw the line? Yes, I am sure during love making they would not answer a ringing phone, but what about a few minutes afterwards, when our two lovers are lying there together, snuggling, and listening to each other’s heart’s beat. Do you answer your phone then? Is there no time for feeling? Is there no time for reflection? Is there simply no time, period?

Perhaps the problem is not one of a lack of romance in the world. Perhaps the problem is more about discipline. Learn to switch those phones off. Learn when not to send that email and instead wait to see him or her in the flesh. Love is about learning. And learning is what makes life so inspiring. So, try and learn to be stop being controlled by all these time saving technologies. Because, time is what you will soon run out of when you realize that life has passed you by and you did not have a chance to truly express yourself. Love is about expression. And this means using your imagination. We all have an imagination. Let’s use our imaginations more and make the world more decadent and romantic. We really need too in these mediocre times.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Head and heart stuff

Here is something I wrote many years ago for the Sunday Times. It is about the head and the heart. It is about Jerry Maquire. And it is about to be re-visited here in an updated and tightened piece.

Watch it again, and again. The main characters are Jerry Maguire played by Tom Cruise and Rod Tidwell played by Cuba Gooding Jr. An amazing transference takes place as we witness two heroes who go on a journey (motion pictures typically feature a hero who goes on a journey of sorts and whose character goes through a transformation, or "character arc"), one learning how to love a woman, and the other learning how to love the work he does. By the end of the film Jerry accepts his responsibilities as a man, and as a husband, and Rod comes to terms with his purpose – he learns to work, in this case play football, from the heart, not from the head.

Jerry undergoes a struggle right at the start of Cameron Crowe’s masterpiece of a screenplay where he realizes that work is the transference of love made visible. You see, Jerry loves what he does, sports management, that is, but he does not like the fact that everything is becoming about money. He cannot reconcile trading quality for quantity. He can’t sleep one night and he gets up and says, "I had lost the ability to bullshit." He sits by his laptop and writes his turning-point memo – the mission statement his company needed: Less customers, less profits, better relationships. He got fired that week.

Rod Tidwell is a man who understands the importance of personal relationships. He loved his wife, brother, and family more than anything in this world. Hence, he was looking for the personal touch in his career – he was a people’s person. After being fired from his "sports factory" Jerry becomes a sports agent with one client and the pay-off line was "In Rod we Trust." Leaving the movie aside for now, let us look at what has happened here. Two people struggle to find balance in their lives. They are deeply spiritual but they each have only half the equation. Life is about relationships, in the home and in the workplace.

This story is about quality and quantity. Jerry and Rod’s character arcs are in the opposite direction. But both are focused on quality. They lack balance though and together this transference in the other direction is facilitated. From work to family in Jerry’s case and from family to work in Rod’s. This is a compelling moment when Jerry says to Rod, "You are a pay-cheque player. No wonder you haven’t got your big contract yet. It’s because you play from the head and not the heart." The message here is about my favourite subject: PURPO$E. Do what you do from inside – play and work with love and passion – do it from the heart - and the entire universe will conspire to reward you!

So, what was Jerry saying in his watershed mission statement. Was he saying we don’t want your business? Perhaps what he was saying is that we want to grow relationships and there are only so many hours in the day. We cannot cheat nature although with technical advances in the area of cellphones and e-mail etc. we continually try. Well, Jerry didn’t buy it.

The skeptic’s movement is growing rapidly, and although sometimes one needs to be cynical at times there are those romantic stories that do come along that really do have things to say based on something more profound than sales, ticket sales at the box office that is in this case. Things that are actually worth listening to. Jerry Maguire is one of these precious gems. No, it's not perfect, and no, it may not uncover truth for every last second of its running time, but if you come away from it with a frown rather than a deep desire to take a step back and look at yourself, then there's no romance in your soul at all.

We all love the movies. Have you ever really thought why though? Sure, there is 2 hours of escapism when your body and mind don’t have to work. But there is more to it than that. Movies that really inspire us present stories where a person, the hero, goes on a journey and transforms from one state to another. Some may learn to love another person, someone may learn to forgive, someone may learn to work passionately, and so on. And this is what we all want in our own lives. We all want to change ourselves and movies present this alternate reality. They allow us to escape into an unreal world and participate on the change we seek in the world. Ghandi once said, "Let us be the change we seek in the world."

Yes, movies can serve to enlighten and uplift the world - Jerry Maguire is one such film that did so. There will be more films like this in the future, especially in a time where so many people are looking for purpose in a pay-cheque. We live in age where people in the Western world are working longer and longer hours. Stress is on the up and up. And there is a growing consciousness towards spiritual identity. People are searching for meaning and motion pictures provide for entertaining detours often with important messages. Like I said, watch this particular film again – I think it will be even more relevant in this millennium.

We always automatically read every story as a metaphor and measure our own performance and behaviour against those of the heroes and villains. Who are the heroes in this compelling movie? And who are the villains? The heroes are those qualitative people. And yes, for those villainous quantitative antagonists, we don’t want your business. Instead we want your friendship, your trust, your passion, we want to concentrate and focus on what is dear. This is the message of this great work of moving art: relationships are the most important thing in the world.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Let’s make a deal

Deal making is on the up and up. Everywhere I turn I hear people talking about the deals they are doing. Everyone seems to be doing a bit of this and a bit of that. I have never understood what this really means, but whatever it is, it seems to be heating up.

I was reading in a financial magazine recently that of the 1000 new dollar-based billionaires that were created in the past year, over half of them were in the hedge fund business. Now, I don’t even know what a hedge fund really is, but I do know it has something to do with managing money; from what I understand, other people’s money. And lots of it.

The message that this kind of publicity puts out to the youth, who all want to get rich quick, is that there is big cash to be made in the “money business”. So, if hedge fund folk become the new role models and the masses are inspired to become money managers then I have important question to ask: who is doing all the real work? If everyone starts becoming money managers then who is creating the initial wealth that then goes on to get managed?

In this world of high finance and fast deal making it seems that once again the fundamentals are being left aside. This can only mean one thing, a correction is coming. But, if you listen to the financial experts, no one seems to think that it is anytime soon. When the last bubble burst we never considered the influence of the new emerging power houses, China, India and Russia. There is so much money floating around out there for investment that it seems like the party is never going to end.

I remember when I was active at Internet Solutions. The financial guys spoke of financial year end, of profits, of performance, etc. These days, when it comes to all this deal making, I don’t hear people speaking about profits or growth or financial year end pressures. The other day I asked someone if they had a good financial year end, and they replied by saying that they had a good year. You see, profits didn’t seem to come into it. I didn’t hear any talk of a good year, just a good time. Yup, it seems that the party if still going strong. So, let’s make a deal !

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Viva Vottle

By Ronnie Apteker

We have had a record day on Vottle today, and there's still a few hours left. The traffic is higher than ever. We launched a new look and feel home page last night with some very powerful new functionality to do with regions/locations.

Our vision with Vottle all along was to be able to create a platform that lets you view two communities side by side so that you can see and compare the cost of living, what's popular, trends, etc. With the new changes we just rolled out we are a big step closer to this objective.