Sunday, 24 February 2008

The American Dream Meal

Help, someone just ate my American Dream. It got consumed - just like that. One minute I was standing there just checking out the display and the next minute there was a stampede. Consumers were everywhere taking numbers, forming lines, and shuffling around like they were in the colour guard at Arlington National Cemetery. The American Dream meal I am referring too is ice cream. Yes, I got to hand it to these guys; they sure make some good ice cream. But then not all of them would know that. Because in the new American Dream more is less, or less is more, or less is less, or chocolate chop cookie dough is more, or, hang on, I am so confused. Where was I? Oh yes, why wouldn’t all of them know that. Well, they are too busy avoiding the good stuff in an effort to save a gram here and a point there.

Visit America, you will witness a nation of consumers like never before. I never thought that consumption had anything to do with organic substances. I used to think that "consumers" referred only to cars, televisions, stereos, clothes, computers, etc. Well, when it comes to consumption food is it. The quality-quantity struggle is so evident in this industry sector. The American people appear to be consuming more and more food. Not only are the portions from another planet, but everything is labeled with big stickers highlighting the fat content, kilojoule intake, calories, carbs, etc. Forget dieticians, you need to be a mathematician to eat right in the United States. Everyone is adding and subtracting and calculating. Talk about the numbers. This is quantity in a cookie dough of a nutshell.

The American way is all about convenience, and fast food drives this point home in a big way. People are seen to be rushing around everywhere with something in their hands, something edible, something low on fat. You see, the less the fat the more you can eat. This is a 100%, no-doubt-about-it, trade-off between quality and quantity. It seems people would rather eat lots and lots of low fat, no taste, zero substance, non-existent texture, basically, nothingness type food in an effort to eat more and more. In short, people are eating so many more times a day. If this trend carries on like this we are going to be eating every hour on the hour. And on the converse side, the food we eat is going to become more and more like cardboard. Why not have a few quality meals a day instead of eating a dozen times from the time you awake until the time you go back to sleep. Don’t the words breakfast, lunch and dinner mean anything any more? Perhaps the problem is not obvious. Maybe in this era of high-pressure and technological bombardment we simply don’t have the time or the patience to sit down and have a family oriented meal?

In these times of fast food and slow digestion it appears that more is less. Or is it that less is more. I am getting more and more confused. I would rather eat a great supper of substance than a whole bunch of slimmer’s snacks. And here is the real kicker. If everyone is so weight conscience, then why is that 1 in every 3 people in the US is overweight. I figure that if you eat 300 kilos of rice cakes you are going to weight 300 kilos more, even if they have zero fat content. You can't cheat nature.

If the three basic meals become commoditized then I really am frightened to imagine what will be next. There are somethings in life that we cannot let slip. Sitting down for dinner with friends is one of the most soulful and simple forms of human contact. This is qualitative relationship building in its purest form. If we replace this with fast food we are going to destroy the moral fabric of society or what’s left of it.

This Western culture of fast food and instant gratification is all about quantitative living. If a simple human pleasure like eating, and a more important social activity like bonding, becomes a numbers game then I think the only winners are going to our new friend, "globalization".

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Well oiled machines

If your car engine misfires you take it to the garage. It either runs 100% smoothly or you get it seen too. You get it fixed. The same should apply to everything else in life. But, this is the paradox of our times. If our car backfires we call the garage, but if our body aches we generally carry on and ignore the pain.

So much of our aches and pains are caused by stress. We don't sleep well at night, we don't rest, we don't relax. And so much of this stress is caused by the office. When it comes to a business either the engine of people is well oiled or it starts to misfire; and, if it does not run 100% smoothly then you need to get it fixed. A small misfire now become a big headache later. Yes, you sort out your car the moment it makes the smallest strange sound or starts behaving oddly, the same should go apply to your business.

Don't leave things. Be proactive!

If you stay in reactive mode just now you will be in a crises situation. Your company needs to run 100% smoothly. Any misfires need to be sorted so that the engine can run 100% smoothly. And if the engine runs smoothly then our stress levels drop.

Simple story really. But, as it has often been said, common sense is not common practice.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Saturday, 16 February 2008

The American Dream

What exactly was the American Dream all about again? Let's revisit the progress paradox or the purpose-money continuum or the quality-quantity struggle or whatever you wanna call it. Yes, let's think once again about what is important in life if we are to understand what our uncle named Sam had in mind when he spoke of this fantastic dream. One of my hero’s, a spirited and humble man named Tony, once told me that making a living is not as important as making a life. Tony, can’t you have a chat to Sam?

The search for purpose in a pay-cheque will always be an important subject for discussion as more and more people are searching for spiritual upliftment and meaning in life, especially in their working lives. We are all so over-stressed and no one seems to have any spare time on their hands. All technology has ever meant to do is make our lives easier by saving us time – but we never seem to have any spare time these days.

So, what exactly was the American Dream all about? I grew up with American influences, like the rest of us in the Western world, and I used to think that it was all about quality of life and the ability to reach the most of one’s God given potential. But since the dot com gold rush the capitalist world appears to have been brainwashed to believe that almost everything in this world is about money. I said almost.

In the new economy, as it has been described, greed seems to be the main driving force. And there I was thinking that the dream was to make a difference in the world. Well, I have always thought this and always will. I never will be a numbers man. To all you cynics out there, yes, I will be the first to admit that it is great to have money and it is really great to be able to spoil the people you love, and to help people, and to invest in other people and their dreams. But that old expression "money is the root of all evil" really fits the bill these days. And yes, I know my friend Leor said that "But then a man needs roots". But what he said was meant to make us laugh and love life and not strive to squash everyone in our path.

The American dream was about romance. It was about soul. It was about quality. Well, that is what I always thought. I think that the world may have met its quarterlies or something. Now, more than ever before, there is a much needed return to the fundamentals as the world starts to realise that the only true success stories are those that were built as a labour of love. As I sit here, in front of my small Sony laptop, staring out the window of my hotel room, I see snow everywhere. And I mean everywhere. It looks like some of fairy tale land. And I start to dream and ponder. It is about dreaming, isn't it? And it is about following your dreams.

Here is something from one of the most inspiring motion pictures I have seen. "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. Medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, art, romance, love – these are the things we stay alive for. You are here and life exists and you have identity. That the powerful play goes on, and that you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?" Watch this film again and again. It is what the real dream is all about.

We all know that dreams can be real, but who ever thought that reality could be a dream. I would like to end off now with a quote from George Bernard Shaw, "You see things that are and say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’"

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Jerusalema in Berlin

Tonight the South African made movie, Jerusalema, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and by all accounts it was a great screening! The energy in the 650 seater cinema was intense, and there wasn't an empty seat left. The mood at the event was amazing. Wow!

Have a look at the film's web site: This one should break some ground, we hope.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Thursday, 7 February 2008

The G spot in SA

Yesterday I attended the coolest meeting I have been to in ages. I guess the word meeting is not even the right word to use here. It was more like a soulful gathering. So, it turns out Google SA is based at the same place we are based at, the Campus - very cool. And it also turns out that the main man there, Stafford, I have known for years. Small world, good world! There were 6 of us at the get together and it was high energy.

The Google guys gave us some funky stuff. T-shirts and pens, ala Google. The pen I got is one of those clicking pens and I start to click it like mad, and drive everyone crazy. Eventually the one guys looks at me with this painful look: "Stop it already!" But I could not, I explain. Because it is all about "pay per click" ;-)

Ok ok, I know ... but this next part was the best. I lost the T-shirt they gave me. Not a problem - we fire up our laptop and do a search on Google. Can't find a thing. So much for all this search technology. Turns out the shirt fell behind the desk. Go figure.

Yes, perhaps we should think of using the name Giggle. Was a fun meeting. I am looking forward to our next gathering.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Chicken Kiev

Wow, it is amazing how the mood in Johannesburg suddenly got all negative. These power outages are really freaking people out. I am even hearing black people talking about leaving the country. None of this is good. And I was in such a good space. I had the most incredible adventure in Kiev this past holiday period.

I went to Ukraine this last year end with this very intriguing guy called Jacques Duyver. I have known Jacques for about 2 years now but I really got to know him on this journey to Eastern Europe. I learnt a lot from this man and I was very impressed with his insight and entrepreneurial spirit.

Both of us were in awe of Kiev. The place runs like New York. It seriously doesn't stop; 24 hours a day there are restaurants, clubs, bars, discotheques, and they are vibing! The jol was world-class and the energy was inspiring. There are 5 million people in the city and the place is seriously under construction. You think the national bird of South Africa is the blue or yellow crane, well, you should see the cranes in this place. They are building everywhere. The place is pumping. We were also very fortunate to have met some solid citizens who gave us the low-down on how things work. It all started with one of Jacques' Harvard colleagues who was from Kiev. Yes, we had our own inside man who then networked us with other entrepreneurial Ukrainians, and what we learnt was mind-boggling.

Fist of all, there are almost 50 million people in Ukraine and they are highly educated. Then, there is very little credit card penetration in the Eastern block and just about everyone there deals in cash. Banks are not widely trusted and the mattress is the place to store one's loot. But, we are pretty sure the mattresses in Kiev are not very lumpy because the average salary, for someone with a respectable job, is just under a thousand US dollars a month. In terms of the prices, well, it is not London and it is certainly not Moscow. I would say it is slightly more than South Africa, which makes hotels and eating out more palatable. Taking people out for dinner in London is a very scary proposition. Then when you get to Moscow you wish for London prices. But, back to Kiev. The restaurants we ate at were stunning. And people were living life to the full. How though do they survive earning under R7000 a month with prices on a par with South Africa? Well, everyone is on the take. The place has a black market economy which is pervasive and this is the way it works. Everyone has an angle and one has to be on their toes at all times. But, you won't get stabbed or mugged. You may though get hustled a few times.

There appears to be little regard for intellectual property; piracy is rife. And, like the rest of the emerging markets, the brands rule. From the high fashion labels to the cars and iPods. Ukrainians are lapping it all up. They are not snobs though like you find in Moscow or St. Petersburg, where, these days, you have to super rich to fit in. But they certainly do look to the brands as their new Gods. And, when it comes to online, well things like Web-based retail has a different slant there. Because credit card penetration is so low, things like are not that convenient because making an online payment with a Visa or MasterCard is not so simple. So, a new solution presents itself. What they have there are PostNet type of stores, whereby you can go into a general purpose store, surf the web on a PC in the shop, pick out something from Amazon, and then the store orders it for you on a community style credit card. You then pay the store in hard cash and a week or so later you return back to the store to collect your goods. The exciting new local online retailer could really do great business in a place like Kiev. I will tell you more about WantItAll soon – this is a highly compelling offering – something fresh and innovative here in South Africa. But back to Kiev for now; they even have a virtual type of money for online transactions. Not that dissimilar to Nigeria, where they use cellphone airtime as currency.

It is safe to say that Jacques and I were amazed by all these trends, and our minds were racing with regards to the opportunity. I think media giant Nas Pers deserves some attention on this point; think about the positions that have gained in Poland, Russia, China, Brazil, etc. The emerging markets are cooking, and from my perspective it represents massive opportunity in the online space. Sure, there are challenges (like the mafia), and culturally there is a lot to absorb, but when one considers the numbers it is quite overwhelming. For example, if you take Russia, Poland and Ukraine, you have a population as big as America. And credit cards are coming there. In the next few years it is all going to change and the entrepreneurs who take the gap are going to clean up. The world is changing fast. Our world is changing fast. If I just think of this past month here in South Africa I would say that change is happening at light speed. Talk about fast times!

I am going back to Kiev this month, and I can't wait. I am actually going to Berlin because our latest film project, Jerusalema (, got invited to the Berlin film festival, and we are all going over there to support the film makers and to celebrate. And from Berlin I am going back to Kiev to do some more exploring. And of course, to eat some chicken. Yes, we did in fact have a tasty portion of the famous Chicken Kiev and it was cool.

Lastly, I know what many of you are thinking. Yes, the women of Ukraine. Well, have you ever seen pictures of Yulia Tymoshenko. Is she a fox or what!? Who has ever heard of someone being turned on by a country’s prime minister. I think that says it all.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Friday, 1 February 2008

Vottle Carnival

Richard and I are in Sao Paulo and we are speechless. Yes, like in Seinfeld, we are without speech. No speech.

Where was I? Ok, I got some sense back. Yes, this city is overwhelming. The size of the place really captures your imagination in a big way.

From what we have learned there are over 36 million Internet users here and they spend a lot of time online every day. Today, for example, we met this very cool entrepreneur who was telling us about a venture he is involved with. It is an astrology portal and it delivers a daily horoscope to all its members. We were wondering, how big could this be? Well, they have over 5 million users and about 3000 new people sign up every day. This is extraordinary!

We are looking to bring Vottle to Brazil, as well as some other online properties. The key to our moves here will be to find a solid partner on the ground, and then, to secure a marketing ally. Spreading the word will be the most important work. As I sit here, staring out the window at the vast concrete jungle, I am scared, but also very excited.

Tonight the carnival begins and our host Charles is taking us to see the action.

Viva Brazil!

Posted by Ronnie Apteker