Thursday 27 December 2007

I don’t buy it

Who of you out there are there are sales-men? Or sales-women. Ok ok, sales-people. And does it really even matter. Now, if I had asked this via e-mail then thousands of people would be e-mailing their opinions back and forth about whether it should be sales-man or sales-person and whether I was a sexist or the sexiest or whatever. I know you get the point.

E-mail is an amazing thing. It allows us to communicate something with someone at light speed. It allows people who have never met to moan at each other and complain like never before. It allows people who live on opposite sides of the world to get into fights and arguments and generally drive each other mad. Yes, it really is a lot more incredible than you think. And yes, I am sounding very cynical today but I am really fed up with reading so many boring, self-indulgent e-mails that are over-flowing with emotions and subtext. Enough is enough.

Oops, I got side-tracked. So, who of you are sales-people? Well, I got news for – everyone one of us are sales-people. Anyone who ever tried to convince someone of something is in sales. We are all selling – all the time. Making a sale or closing a deal does not have to involve a payment. When someone buys into what you are saying then a sale has been made. Every time you convince someone to do something then you have closed a deal. When you get someone to lend you something you are selling. When you get someone to go out on a date with you then you are selling. When you get someone to give you their time then you are selling. And it should be clear that selling is something that people do to other people. How does e-mail close a sale? How can e-mail be used to get to know someone? How can e-mail help you to see another person’s point of view? Yes, e-mail does allow us to swap facts and figures – but that’s it. And don’t forget this. Just think of the last time someone CCed, or even worse, BCCed you on some piece of e-mail to someone else. Think of the last time you had to waste time explaining a situation because someone misread their e-mail or misunderstood a situation. How many times have you heard people you hardly know give you their opinions on a subject when you never knew it concerned them – well, it doesn’t concern them! What is going on in the world? All this technology has made us stupid. Do we really need to have 101 different people send us their opinions via email before a decision is made? Is this what all this technological advancement was meant for. Yes, this is the progress paradox again and again.

People sell to people. And to get this right we need to either pick up a phone and talk. Or better still, get together and speak face-to-face. You can use e-mail to set up the meeting time, but that’s it – don’t fall into the trap of letting rip in your e-mail message. Set up the appointment and then wait until the meeting. I always see people saying things in e-mail like "Just thought I would give you my 2 cents worth." Keep it. If it was that important then pick up a phone and tell me.

The CC and the BCC can be bad news – avoid them like the plague. Never before in the world have opinions been so popular. Everyone has something to say these days. On every subject under the sun. No wonder no one has any time on their hands any more. I don’t need, for example, to read a dozen emails on where people think our company should hold its next Christmas party. A few years ago someone had the responsibility of organizing this party – let them do their job and get on with your own. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that people’s opinions don’t count. And I am not saying that what someone has to say is unimportant. But if you feel strongly about it then show some conviction. Pick up a phone or talk face-to-face. I am sorry, but e-mail just shows such a lack of effort. And for all I know it may be someone else sending it. Remember that e-mail is faceless. It is devoid of emotions. It is impersonal, cold and static. And it all too often overflows with subtext and lacks context. Be careful. Good news as well as bad should not be communicated within an organization via e-mail. Get together and celebrate the good stuff. And pause and reflect when it comes to the bad. E-mail can seriously dilute the importance of a message.

E-mail cannot sell anything – it should not be used for emotional things. And selling is all about emotions. Let me say it again: e-mail can be used to set up an appointment, send facts, or share a joke, etc. But it cannot be used to sell - e-mail is not convincing, it is convenient – don’t confuse the two. Selling is about relationships. E-mail is about efficiency. Being effective is something totally different. Don’t trade quality for quantity. E-mail is about quantity – there is very little quality in this medium. The biggest irony in my ramblings today is that someone actually e-mailed me a great article that explains the perils of e-mail. I hope you can see the humour here.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Thursday 20 December 2007

The progress paradox strike again

I have been referring to the progress paradox and the purpose-money continuum and the quality-quality struggle for quite some time now. Lately, I have been more and more discussions and debate about this curious paradox. Simply put, the paradox of our time is that we live in an age of incredible prosperity and convenience - life has never been easier - we have all kinds of machines and devices to help us; yet, our ability to cope with life seems to be deteriorating with each technological advancement.

An inspiring young man named Gareth first sent me this text. Here it is in its entirety. Yes, it reads very funny but the truth is that its realities are very disconcerting. "The Paradox of Our Age: We have taller buildings, but shorter tempers; wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints; we spend more, but have less; we buy more, but enjoy it less. We have bigger houses and smaller families; more conveniences, but less time; we have more degrees, but less common sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more experts, but more problems; more medicine, but less wellness. We spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry too quickly, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too seldom, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and lie too often. We've learned how to make a living, but not a life; we've added years to life, not life to years. We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor. We've conquered outer space, but not inner space; we've done larger things, but not better things; we've cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul; we've split the atom, but not our prejudice; we write more, but learn less; plan more, but accomplish less. We've learned to rush, but not to wait; we have higher incomes, but lower morals; more food but less appeasement; more acquaintances, but fewer friends; more effort but less success. We build more computers to hold more information, but have less communication; we've become long on quantity, but short on quality. These are the time of fast foods and slow digestion; tall men and short character; steep profits, and shallow relationships. These are the times of world peace, but domestic warfare; more leisure and less fun; more kinds of food, but less nutrition. These are days of two incomes, but more divorce; of fancier houses, but broken homes. These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one-night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill. It is a time when there is much in the show window, and nothing in the stockroom. We live in an age where people desire to be envied rather than esteemed."

If I am not mistaken these words originally come from the comic genius of George Carlin. And with that I reckon it is safe to assume that he meant it as a joke. But it’s not funny. I mean it is funny, but it is not. Does this make any sense? So many things do not make any sense these days. Why is it that people are dropping out of university to start businesses when the very reason they went to university was to learn how to do something special in the world? Or was that the reason? As Stephen Covey points out, perhaps too many people are simply there to get a piece of paper so that can seek employment somewhere. Yes, I will be the first to admit that when I was 18 I had no clue what I was doing at university. I probably went there because my parents thought it was a good idea. And hey, I didn’t think it was a bad idea either. But the truth be told, none of us had any real idea what it meant. If I look back now at my academic career, it was truly wonderful. I was very privileged to be able to build up a network of inspiring and knowledgeable people. I learnt how to articulate arguments and to write documents. I learnt how to communicate and research facts. And I learnt how to lead. Ironic isn’t it that people are dropping out of business schools to take leadership roles in start-ups. We gotta learn to grasp the fundamentals above all else, but, sadly, it is the basics that seem to be lacking in these times of fast money.

There is a limit to how many people you can put on hold, and to how much e-mail you can reply to in a day, and to how many SMS messages you can send. Sending messages all over the place and making 101 calls a day is all about quantity. The paradox of our age is about a world that is being controlled by the very technologies that are meant to be helping us. Why is it that house-wives clean there houses more these days than they did 30 years ago? Even with all these new cleaning technologies we still spend more time doing this. Why? Because our houses simply keep getting bigger and bigger. This is quantity in a nutshell. The idea of a cozy, charming house is not high on anyone’s agenda these days. If the paradox of progress continues we are going to all be a statistic very soon. Kinda makes sense. Statistics are all about numbers and quantitative life is a numbers game. Well, George, at least you gave us a quality laugh.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Saturday 15 December 2007

Power play

What is the point of making more and more money? If you are financially independent, then what is another million dollars mean to you? And if you say it is about power then think about this: to your children you are a God – show them your power – be a better parent. Don’t trade quality for quantity. Spend more time with your kids instead of making more money that you don’t even need. If you can do this then you are more powerful than you could ever imagine. Real power means putting others ahead of yourself. Your children and family need you – they should be ahead of anything or anyone, especially any amount of money.

I remember reading an interview in the newspaper with Janet Reno a few years ago. She said that she was sick and tired of the American tax payers moaning about the fact that so much of their tax dollars are going towards building prisons. She said that the real problem is not about rising crime. The real problem is that the kids of today never see their parents. They are misguided and unloved. She said that if we spent more time raising our children properly then we would not have to build prisons. She sounds smart!

Switch off those cellphones. Stop being controlled by technology. Stop trying to increase the numbers. Quantity is going to get the better of you if it has not done so already. Give quality a chance. Stick to the fundamentals. This is what made companies like Boeing and IBM a success. We seem to be going backwards when it comes to relationship building. We use e-mail, for example, to connect with people. And it is not working. Email, faxes, cellphones, and so on are about more effective communications. They don’t build relationships though. Think about this paradox of progress. If you want people to do business with you. If you want people to trust you then spend quality time with them and do it face-to-face.

I have noticed that so many people use their cellphones when they are driving. This is not only causing more and more accidents but I am amazed at how much people have to say. Also, here is the sad part, I have seen so many parents on the phone with their child sitting next to them in the front passenger seat. Why don’t you talk to your children? Why not use that time to listen to them and do some relationship building. And who are you talking to all the time? The office? Is it business you are talking while driving? Is this what your kids must hear, business and money, business and money … no wonder kids are going into business at younger and younger ages, without any guidance or understanding of the fundamentals. They just sit there and this is what they are exposed to. This is brainwashing. And it is anti-social. Hey, listen to your kids more – switch off those damn cellphones! Especially when you are driving.

I found this story on the Web. This is a sign of our times. It is called R1000 an Hour. A man came home from work late, tired and irritated, to find his 5-year old son waiting for him at the door. "Daddy, may I ask you a question?" "Yeah sure, what is it?" "Daddy, how much do you make an hour?" "That's none of your business. Why do you ask such a thing?" the man said angrily. "I just want to know. Please tell me, how much do you make an hour?" pleaded the little boy. "If you must know, I make R1000 an hour." "Oh," the little boy replied, with his head down. Looking up, he said, "Daddy, may I please borrow R100?" The father was furious, "If the only reason you asked that is so you can borrow some money to buy a silly toy or some other nonsense, then you march yourself straight to your room and go to bed. Think about why you are being so selfish. I work long hard hours everyday and don't have time for such childish behaviour." The little boy quietly went to his room and shut the door. The man sat down and started to get even angrier about the little boy's questions. How dare he ask such questions only to get some money? After about an hour or so, the man had calmed down, and started to think he may have been a little hard on his son. Maybe there was something he really needed to buy with that R100, and he really didn't ask for money very often. The man went to the door of the little boy's room and opened the door. "Are you asleep, son?" he asked "No Daddy, I'm awake," replied the boy "I've been thinking, maybe I was too hard on your earlier," said the man. "It's been a long day, and I took out my aggravation on you. Here's that R100 you asked for." The little boy sat straight up, smiling, "Oh, thank you Daddy!" he yelled. Then reaching under his pillow he pulled out some crumpled up notes. The man, seeing that the boy already had money, started to get angry again. The little boy slowly counted out his money, then looked up at his father. "Why do you want more money if you already have some?" the father grumbled. "Because I didn't have enough, but now I do," the little boy replied. "Daddy, I have R1000 now. Can I buy an hour of your time? Please come home early tomorrow. I would like to have dinner with you."

Share this story with someone you like - but even better, share R1000 worth of time with someone you love. It's just a short reminder to all of you working so hard in life. We should not let time slip through our fingers without having spent some time with those who really matter to us, those close to our hearts. Spending quality time with those you care about is what real power is all about.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Monday 10 December 2007

Does an education slow you down?

Why do we go to school? Or university? What is all about? Does anyone remember? Is it just about getting a piece of paper? Is it just about becoming an authority on a subject? Or is there more to it? Isn’t it also about developing leadership abilities? And isn’t also about tapping into your creative energy. And what about learning how to manage processes? And what about learning to listen and absorb knowledge? And what about the opportunity to network, meet people and build relationships?

I was reading an article in a business magazine that was very intriguing. It was a short and well-written piece and it did make me a little nervous. It hinted at the end of the academic system, as we know it. University professors are earning commissions for identifying talent. Perhaps I misunderstood this but it sounds like students are being encouraged to launch start-ups long before they graduate. Young people are dropping out of top universities at faster and faster rates to get into the IT start-up domain. My question is: is it healthy? And when does this end? Is a boy in a school, say, going to drop out at age 14 to start a company? And what next? Is a teenager going to become a billionaire? Is this clever?

Yes, I have a loft of questions on my mind at the moment. Not only are people experiencing extreme pressure and stress at younger and younger ages but soon there is going to be pressure to drop out of university. I mean, if everyone else is doing it then what is wrong with you hanging around campus when there is a revolution going on out there. Furthermore, you continually hear the term "exit strategy" which appears to go hand-in-hand with the majority of these new start-ups. What exactly is an "exit strategy"? Let’s see. 10 years ago we never had so many business oriented publications. We never had students dropping out of universities to launch start-ups. And we never heard of the term "exit strategy". Do you know that it is actually a military term that first surfaced in the Vietnam war – do the job and get out. Yes, guerrilla tactics have come to business. If everyone has an exit strategy, and I mean everyone, then who will actually do any work? I mean, who will be left to do the work if everyone exits. Yes, war has exit strategies because in that you take no prisoners. Is this what business has become? A war? Who is the enemy in this new war? And who are the champions? Perhaps I am getting carried away here. The enemy is quantity again. And quality, our poor understated hero, is really getting pushed aside.

When I was a kid my parents had a car which stayed in our family for over 10 years. These days we change our cars every other year. And the cars are more robust and reliable than ever. This is classic quantity over quality. Let’s look at these in another way. If education = quality and money = quantity then the world seems to be becoming more quantitative each day. Are our values changing? Surely we should become leaders and get educated before we get rich? Surely this will help us cope and it will help us to make a difference. It is not surprising though that quantity rules over quality. We have become a world that ranks everything. Numbers are the order of the day in this the times of the Forbes Rich List, the Fortune 500, etc.

I remember when a Professor was someone with a pipe who had a certain intriguing mystery to them and now they are becoming investment bankers and recruitment brokers. Perhaps I am over-reacting. Perhaps this is just a phase the world is going through. And perhaps technology is not controlling our lives. And perhaps cellphones will stop ringing in cinemas. Perhaps people will stop being slaves to their e-mail. And perhaps the Rand will strengthen.

Sorry. I really lost it there for a minute. My cellphone rang, new e-mail arrived, my fax went off, and my answering machine took a message all at once. Kinda threw my timing out. Oh, and my laptop said it was running low on battery. That really scared me. Where were we? Oh yes, education. I read this somewhere once, "Many people quit looking for work when they find a job." I used to think that people graduate and go on to find a job. But from what I have been seeing out there it looks like there may be a new trend that inspires youngsters to quit school before finding, er, discovering puberty. Sure it is great to have young entrepreneurs in the world. And yes, it is great to have successful kids. But what about dysfunctional kids? And what about people who actually build something they believe in? What about making a difference in the world? These youngsters are talking about exit strategies. Money seems to be the driving force here. Is greed motivating us these days? I really hope not.

Money is a curious subject. One of our IS financial wizards once said, "Money is the root of all evil. But then a man needs roots." Doesn’t an education get us in touch with these roots? Think about this before you think about dropping out of what you started studying. Money is not an easy thing to get your mind around. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying I don’t appreciate money. I am just sad to see that its power is becoming more and more into play and its competition, poor old quality, is not making any strides. Weird hey, you need money to get an education. But in these times it seems you don’t need an education to get money. Think about this strange irony as we journey deeper into the mystery that has been called the Progress Paradox.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Sunday 9 December 2007

Computers count faster but people count more

I heard this saying by a man called POD who works at SAB: Computers count faster but people count more. POD is a great guy. Hard working, genuine, humble, honest. Everything that matters in this world has to do with people. The most important thing we ever build are relationships.

This past week was intense. For the Vottlers and I, we really sweated. We were planning a platform change for months now, but we were forced to do the cut over prematurely when our baby crashed on us on Wednesday. That was a very long day. It is now Sunday and Vottle is running smoothly and faster than ever on its new infrastructure.

The man of the moment here is Richard van K. Throughout the whole stressful adventure Richard kept a cool head and a calm keyboard manner. If any of you Vottle users out there are reading this, Richard is the man to thank for the cool service that has just received a big upgrade. And there's more. In the next week we will be rolling out a more social driven component in the form of a forum like service on our comments engine. This will include the ability to upload a photograph and to interact more sociably on the comments system. Our aim here is to move a few steps closer to a community oriented platform.

Yes, it is all about people. It has often been said that ideas move mountains. But the truth is, ideas don't do anything. It is people that move mountains.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Friday 7 December 2007

Thy shall not steal

The 10 commandments are a value system. I have often used them as an annexure to a simple contract when doing a business deal. These are the fundamentals.

But, in this fasting movie material world we live in, the rules are characteristically interpreted in the physical sense. Take the most important rule, or law, of business: thy shall not steal. Now, if someone stole your money they would get into trouble. If someone stole your product you would call the police. But, physical things are not the only thing you can steal!

There are so many other more important things one can steal without going to jail. You can steal someone's sleep if you selfishly wake them up in the middle of the night. And you can rob someone of their confidence, their dignity and their self-respect. Wouldn't you rather have your car stolen than have your integrity compromised.

Yes, we live externally, and the result is that we have laws that protect what we can see and touch. But it is those inner possessions that we need to respect the most. As a leader I have made many mistakes. New ones all the time, but less of the old ones. I once raised my voice at someone in front of other people, and by doing so I humiliated that person and robbed them of their confidence.

That was over 10 years ago and I have not made the same mistake again. My current battles, or should I say, our current battles, the Vottlers and I, are with technology. IT got the better of us these past few days but I think we remained largely cool and we are now on top of our game again.

So, let me not steal any more of your time if you happen to be reading this. I think you get the point this fine summer's day.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Wednesday 5 December 2007

The good, the bad and the ugly, and then the good again

Wow, what a day. The big V had a nervous breakdown today. Yes, we had a bad crash. And, even though we have backup hardware and software, and even though it should have been a simple recovery exercise, it wasn't. In fact, we were kinda forced to migrate early to our new Linux environment. Goodbye Microsoft.

Well, the good news is that
Vottle is up and again and faster than ever. There are probably going to be a few things misbehaving as we iron out all the glitches with the move to the new platform. So, if you see any thing acting up then please let us know. You can drop us a line at

Posted by the Vottlers

Compete with yourself

Is competition a good thing? We are all scripted to believe it is. People often say things like, "We welcome competition." Is competition a natural thing? Is it a product of society or is it something inherent in all of us? Animals don’t compete. They try to survive – there is a big difference. Animals certainly don’t try and better each other in the process. The leopards, for example, are climbing trees, not the corporate ladder. It’s not about eating more, or catching the antelope faster than the next guy. It’s about eating, period.

Did someone say four-ball? Golf is big in the corporate world. And I mean really big. Have you ever stopped to consider how much wisdom lies in this compelling sport? Golf is not only about having fun and staying healthy, but it is about thought, patience and searching (for the ball that is). One view on sport is that it actually represents a chance for all of us to have other human beings push us to excel. But look at the philosophy of traditional team sports. We love pitting one team against another. The victors get to feel on top of the world and the losers feel like the world has ended. What have our champions achieved in this case? Are they really the best? Perhaps they are only slightly better than the rest. In business we often get caught in the trap where we measure ourselves against our competitors. Is this a good thing? If this is what competition does for our hunger then I am not so sure. What if we end up only a little better than starving?

Let’s get back to golf. Competition is a flawed paradigm - competition promotes win/lose behaviour, which is not good in the long term. This is where golf really makes its mark. Golf is a sport where a person plays against him or her-self. If "competition" is the old way of thinking (just humour me on this one, ok?) then let’s call "stretch" the paradigm of tomorrow. Stretch is about striving to fulfill your true potential. Stretch can be described as a more advanced principle than that of competition. In golf, for example, you can play on your own. And you always try to stretch yourself. You always strive to maximize your full potential. Each time you stretch yourself you realize more of your true potential.

A business represents a group of people - a team. And this is probably where the cracks start appearing. A team should try challenging itself to continually improve on the day before, the week before or the year before. And we need teams. "We" compete better than "I". There is enough competition in the marketplace - there is no need to bring it into your corporation.

I guess we can debate whether competition is a natural principle for hours. Or whether it is it something that is a result of our surroundings and the society we have been conditioned by. There are too many obsolete and incomplete paradigms in the world. Competition is one of them.

We live in a world where we are told that competition is good for us. And it is a powerful, deeply entrenched principle that is old fashioned. It is a not paradigm of mutual benefit, but rather of win/lose. Win/lose is incomplete. All teams need to win. Take a soccer match, for example. Can both teams win? How can this be so? Dig deep into your imaginations here. If the principle was "stretch" and not "competition" then both teams could win. The game could always be a draw and each team would try to do better than they did before and they would stretch themselves and try to realize their full potential. And in the match itself you would exercise, bond, socialize and have fun. In short: we could get 2 teams to play each other and reap all the benefits of social interaction and yet at the same time we could have everyone be winners.

In the company I represent we do not try and clobber our competitors but instead we work at being better all the time (ie, at being better than ourselves, by stretching). When a competitor drops in from another solar system we will be as strong as we possibly can be. And it will take us working at our full potential to beat the unknown. Modern businesses really need to think about their value systems. If you say you value co-operation do you put in place methods to reward internal competition? If you say you value innovation, do you reward conformity? The next time you take to the golf course think about these things.

I found this text floating around on the Internet. Its wisdom guides me daily. The Many Lessons of Golf: Golf teaches that we all have handicaps and that hardly anybody knows what they really are. Golf teaches that the best courses are the ones that hardly change at all what God put there to begin with. Golf teaches that although there are a few people who are honest in golf but cheat in life, everybody who cheats in golf cheats in life. Golf teaches that even people who wear green pants deserve some place where they can go, get a little exercise and not be laughed at. Golf teaches that even though you probably don't have a shot at being the best, you do have a good shot at being the best you can be. Golf teaches that both success and failure are temporary. Golf teaches that success is a lot more temporary. Golf teaches that although practice does not always make us perfect, no practice always makes us imperfect. Golf teaches that no matter how good you are, there is always someone better and that person will usually find you and tell you. Golf teaches that when you are good you can tell people, but when you are great they will tell you. Golf teaches that although patience is a virtue, slow play is not. Golf teaches that even though the best golfers have the most chances to win, the other golfers have the most chances to improve. Golf teaches that, on some dewy morning or some golden afternoon, with the sun warming the world, we can find ourselves walking through an improvised meadow and realise we are not searching for the little white ball, but for a moment where the world of nature and the world of play are one. And then in the dew and sunshine we can understand that even though we can make a ball perfectly white, only God can make a meadow perfectly green.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker