Saturday 31 May 2008

Stick to what you know

In 1900 there were over 3000 car companies in the United States. By 1930, that number dropped to less than 100. We had the roaring 20s and then came the Wall Street collapse and the Great Depression. At the turn of the last century there were over 10,000 DOT COM companies in Silicon Valley alone. You know the rest of this story.

Yes, so many of those colourful start-ups are now no longer. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a DOT COM that was a year or so in existence, with no real track record and non-existent profits was not going to become a real institution (I am still not sure what a virtual business is all about). I am pretty certain though that in the 1900s there were no such terms as “exit strategy” and “global domination”. These are the terms being thrown about by our new generation of zealous 20-something year olds when it came to building these virtual corporations. But they are not alone. Stockbrokers, money managers, financial advisors and analysts are all on the bandwagon.

I remember my first few years at university in the late 80s. Sometime in 1987 I bought some stocks with the money I had saved up from working as a waiter. I had no idea of what I was doing but the buzz on campus was that everyone was making money on the stock market. I remember what my statistics professor told me. He said that when you get on the bus in the morning and the bus driver tells you how his portfolio is doing then you know it is time to get out. I never quite understood this until about 6 months after that when my R5000 investment became practically worthless - it did go up and up for a while and I kind of thought I was some kind of genius at the time; was I surprised when things went south. Seriously, my investment dropped to around R300. I have never been much of a gambler, and I have never really understood the world of share trading. But I did know that at the time I flowed along with the tide and got washed up onto the rocks. I remember my parents came to my aid and helped me out. And I learnt a real life lesson then – stick to what you know. There is no easy money in this world.

I also remember this conversation between a wise Stanford college professor called Ben Fisher and a young zealous dreamer called John Elias. Ben says, “You little start up punks understand the reward and the glory. But what if something goes wrong, and it will. Are you ready to be at the wheel, so to speak, of a company with other people's futures riding on your every move?” A startled John replies with, “You sound just like my father. He just wants me to go get a job.” And Ben goes, “Sounds like a wise man. What does he do?” John answers Ben a little aggressively, “He's a human rights attorney - Bernard Elias. He's a real hero, my dad, but he knows nothing about technology … “ And Ben cuts John off and says, “I've heard of him. I read an article in the New York Times about his work with inner city kids. He may know nothing about technology, but he knows people. He fears for you. He's seen the worst of human nature, and wants you to be safe.”

Yes, running a company is not as easy as it looks, although I know that I am stating the obvious. Interesting thing, hey. The obvious far too often escapes us. It looks like the wisdom gained from the DOT COM domain has shown that logic often gets discarded. You can always expect this when greed is the driving force. Stephen Covey reminds us of this when he states that common sense is often not common practice.

We can learn a lot from this our fictional friends Ben and John. Playing it safe is not such a bad thing. Wouldn’t you like to reverse some of those high-tech investments you've made? Perhaps leaving money in the bank is not such a bad idea after all. I have met so many people in my life who left good jobs after being with a solid company for many years to join one or other DOT COM start-up because of enticing share options and promises of riches. And now, the vast majority of them are unemployed. Stick to what you know. And remember the fundamentals. The most successful ventures in this world were all a result of a labour of love.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Wednesday 28 May 2008

Don't confuse kindness for weakness

I was always taught that it is better to be interested than interesting. When meeting new people, ask questions; don't talk non-stop.

I have been very privileged in my short working life to have met some powerful and intelligent people. Many of them are very humble, and, also, good listeners. I often wondered about that. How come they are keen to listen to me? I should be doing all the listening. Turns out that are wise men! I am glad I am becoming wiser (I think) as I get older.

The thing about being interested and about being a good listener (which I am not) is that it is easy to confuse a person like this with someone who is soft. But this is not the case. Don't ever confuse kindness for weakness.

The other thing I have learnt is that one can be tough minded, but not hard hearted. Yes, make small decisions with your head and big decisions with your heart.

Everything we do is about people. We don't invest in things, in business plans, in software, in technology. We invest in people. This is very different to gambling. If you know the people you back then it is investing; you invest in people, not in web sites. But, if you don't know the people then it is gambling. Yes yes, I know, I am summarizing a lot into this short VLOG here, but you get the message.

I just had some insights I wanted to share.

Lastly, I was watching that movie American Gangster this weekend. There was a line in there that went "Quitting while you are ahead is not the same as quitting". This really got me thinking. Let's end of here. You can work the rest out.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Friday 23 May 2008

Get a new compass

If money is dictating your path in life then turn to your conscience. And if your conscience has a bad sense of direction then read on. Hopefully my blog entry here today will give you some new ideas or at least something to think about.

Money should not be our guide in the continuing battle of quality VS quantity. Unfortunately, in the real world, it more than often dictates the direction we go in or it is used as a crouch to steer a course because we simply are too full of shit. Come on. It looks like vanity is fast replacing sanity. Shifting responsibility to the money Gods is really pretty uninspiring. I reckon the real reason we think expensive stuff is good is because we are lazy. Expensive stuff is popular and popular has to mean it is good, right? Using one’s imagination to come up with a better way requires effort and time. Now this is really confusing since time, as we know, is money. Perhaps this paradox will never be fully understood

Let’s take a look at the computer industry for some insight. Software can be expensive and it can be quite complex. Take a big service oriented corporation, for example, that has hundreds or thousands of customers they have to look after. They implement a customer management database in an effort to provide a better service. A lot of the time it works out but then a lot of the time it does not. Why is this? An extensive customer management database more often than not takes a long time to develop and a lot of money is spent doing so. And often, the final product is not what was envisioned. Or, the company profile has changed. Or, the initial leaders of the project have moved onto to something new. So, what happens is the database system does not get a whole lot of support and the users of the package ultimately suffer. But, they are encouraged to use the database because so much time and money was spent putting it into action. And let’s not forget the real challenge which is simply to build better relationships. In the quality quantity continuum this discussion is paramount.

So, ultimately we get encouraged to utilize some expensive software database because we spent so much developing it. And again, let me stress what the real challenge is: LOOKING AFTER CUSTOMERS. Since when has relationship building been replaced by automated e-mail? Yes yes, it is very sweet that I now get an e-mail message on my birthday but I would be a lot happier if someone simply returned my phone calls once in a while. And speaking of office automation, please, I am tired of pressing 1 for more options. Give me a human operator any day.

This really is a tough one. I can fully appreciate why it is hard to simply discard work that has taken up so much time and money. But, one needs to remember that time is in fact money, and if time is going to be wasted, er, if more money needs to be spent then a plan needs to be made. Someone very wise called Neil once told me “Some people spend time to save money while others spend money to save time.” And sometimes we need to spend more money by simply moving on. And this is what the progress paradox is all about. Moving on is about change and change as we all know is not an easy thing to handle. I could go on and on about this but I think we all have the same point of view. So, let’s summarize where we are. Time is money. Time is also precious. More precious than money. And sometimes we need to spend a little more money in an effort to free up a little more time. Which really means it is going to be difficult to find peace in this world because we can improve on everything, all the time. Every system we have we can enhance. Every service we offer we can improve. Everything we do in this world we can in fact to better. But this costs. So, let’s end our summation with a thought on competition – if you don’t jack up your act your competitors will. Seriously folk, if the bottom line is guiding you then you your next line may be the unemployment line. This big global IT shake-up, for example, that has affected so many first time stock buyers around the world happened because money guided so many people in the past decade. Stick to fundamentals is what I say.

Let me end today’s VLOG with some insights from the film industry. Motion pictures are a big part of our lives and it is this medium that influences so many people. So much can be learnt from the movie industry. But why this industry? Because movie making is like magic and everyone wants to know how to make a tiger disappear out of cage. Movies are an illusion. And so is the bottom line. And that is because a business does not exist to meet some target. If you think that is the case then the illusion really fooled you big time. A great business, like a great motion picture serves to inspire and enrich your life. Some great lessons can be learnt from the struggle that occurs when creating a motion picture. It is the identical struggle that that a big service oriented corporation faces when it has to change its customer management system.

So, if you are looking to stall the roll-out of your new service offering because you are not going to make your quarterlies then please do us all a favour and call it a day. And if you are going to delay the upgrade of that new product enhancement because the numbers are more important then just think what the bottom line is really about – customer service. Stop being guided by numbers and targets and start focusing on the fundamentals. Look after your customers and they will look after you. Look after your customers and those quarterlies will take care of themselves. Remember, the most successful ventures in this world are those that were built as a labour of love.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Sunday 18 May 2008

Vottle news

This was a big week for the Vottlers, and a big week for you, our users. Vottle got a new look and feel. All the classifieds categories are now on the home page in alphabetical order.

We also changed our data structures and logic to make managing your postings easier. We have done away with the concept of registered users. Now we have one class of user, and that is you, a Vottle user. No more "registered" and "unregistered user" classification.

Please keep sending us feedback. Mail us at - these latest changes were due to your input, so please keep challenging us.

Posted by the Vottlers

Thursday 15 May 2008

Love what you do, do what you love

I read this brilliant quote many years ago. Recently I have been thinking about it again. It is from Albert Schweitzer:

"Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful."

If you stick with something long enough, something you love doing, you will do well. I see evidence of this all the time. It is easy to look at a venture that is a year or two old, where money is tight, and anxiety, as well as excitement, is high, and dismiss it with "small business". Revisit that same group of people in ten or twenty years time and it will be a different story! I see this now all the time. New businesses I was exposed to a decade ago are now in good shape. People stuck to their guns, gave it their all, and now they are flying.

It has often been said that an overnight success takes twenty years.

One thing is for sure, luck definitely favours the persistent! And with that, I better get back to doing what I love.

Vottleland is very very busy at the moment. Many exciting things on the go. Check the Vottle site out; we are rocking!

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Sunday 11 May 2008

The test of time

Is a marriage that is one year old considered a success? And is a company that is one year old considered a success?

A company and a marriage are very similar. They both are built to last. Well, that is the idea.

In the "new economy" we have had a big wake-up call in the past few years as those organizations that were built to flip started to get pounded back down to Earth.

Think about this for a minute: Why do so many people always want to look up company share prices? No wonder there are so many services that offer live stock market numbers to your phone, fax, e-mail, TV, etc. If you are a stockbroker then it would make sense. But most of the world are not stockbrokers. And wait a minute, isn’t the world full of hypochondriacs too? You don't see everyone walking around with a thermometer or stethoscope? Sadly, in these modern times, the world appears to care more about stock prices than anything else (including our physical and mental well being). So, how long should one wait until selling those new hot tech stocks. A day? A week? A month? A year? Try a decade or two.

Go and read up on any real investor (I mean an old school investor, in his sixties or seventies or even eighties) and look at how long they have held onto their investments. A new company, like a new marriage, needs to stand the test of time, for it to showcase real substance. Anyone can put on a false smile and fake it for a short time. In my opinion this is what happened in the world with so many listed companies. The “fundamentals” these days are so sadly lacking and, more often than not, all it turns out to be is hype and more hype.

You can’t cheat nature. It seems we are learning this most obvious lesson the hard way.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Wednesday 7 May 2008


You only ever invest in people, not in paperwork. Think of a marriage; now that is a big investment. You are investing in a life partner. In a business, you should also aim to have a life partner; that means you have a good partner and a solid partnership. We should not take these things lightly. Taking a risk is one thing, but, committing to someone, for a long time, a life time in fact, is a big thing. I am always amazed at how people just fall in love all the time and get married. No wonder divorce rates are so high. Also, no wonder bankruptcy rates are so high too. Yes, finding a life partner is no easy thing.

It all boils down to character. Personality opens doors but character keeps those doors open.

Invest in people with character. Invest in people who love what they do. Invest in people who are genuine.

We can't pay someone to love their work, or to love another person. You can't pay someone to be inspired. You can pay them to be at work on time, but you can't make them do a good day's work. Sure, perhaps you can fire them if they don't perform but you can't pay someone to be motivated.

Invest in motivated people!

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Vottle update

April was a big development month for the Vottlers! Here are some of the highlights:

- We continued to put more anti-spam/scam tools in place: a big part of our on-going mission is to keep the Vottle data as "clean" as possible. This will be a key differentiator when it comes to competing online classifieds platforms.

- We rolled out "Featured adverts". These are postings which get featured on the home page. This is a paid for service along with our "Premium" postings, which we will continue to test this month and by June we will start charging for these services.

- The home page has a new look, which includes the above "Featured adverts", as well as corporate banner advertising. This is another service we will start selling from June.

- A big one has been the integration with Netads. We are now cross-populating postings between Vottle and Netads, which is a win/win for both portals.

- We have some new Vottlers coming on board to help with the increasing workload.

- We are continuing to refine and tweak our database infrastructure in an effort to constantly speed things up. Vottle is quick, but the load keeps growing and hence we have to try be a few steps ahead at all times.

- Our Google Adwords spend was decreased in April and we will continue to tweak and refine our Adwords campaign in an effort to bring our Google spend down. We are getting pretty consistent organic traffic and the Google traffic contribution needs to be clearly capped before the year is out.

Posted by the Vottlers

A person's character is their destiny

Telling a joke for a minute or two is one thing, but capturing people's imaginations for say, two hours, for a full length feature film, is a whole different story.

The way these visual story tellers do this is by creating characters that we invest in and want to follow on a journey. We route for these characters and want them to win. Of course, not all story telling involves a hero's journey. A thrilling page turner, for example, will also compel us to see how things unfold. The term they use in Los Angeles is "high concept". But, for the most part, the stories that do talk to our hearts involve characters that we can identify with and invest in.

Yes, it is all about character. Personality opens doors but character keeps those doors open.

For us to invest in a character the most fundamental thing is that the character has to be someone we can sympathize with. If we don't like the character we will not invest in that person.

Think of these story telling conventions in terms of our own lives. Leaders we respect are people of character. Of substance. We relate to them, invest in them, and trust them. We sympathize with them, we support them, and we want them to win.

We only ever invest in people, not in paperwork. Ideas don't move mountains, people do!

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Monday 5 May 2008

Burn rate

When was the last time you burnt rubber? And I am being literal. When did you last put pedal to the metal? This past week I have been catching up with some of my American friends and one this is for sure, the motorists there respect the law. They obey the laws of the land. Have you ever heard of that expression "crime does not pay" applying to traffic violations? Well, think about this. In the US, if a motorist gets stopped for speeding, for example, then not only do they get a hefty fine but they also have to go and spend a whole afternoon in traffic school, or perhaps even a few days.

Now, we all know that time is money. So, who has got the time to go and sit in driver education classes? Furthermore, if you don’t go to traffic school then you get a negative score on your driver’s license and this is directly tied into the insurance company that controls your premiums. So, if you don’t bother going to traffic school then your insurance payments go up. In America, everyone is incentivized not to break the law; and that is exactly how it works.

When I told my mate in Los Angeles that we had over 1000 deaths here on the roads in any one holiday season they thought I was the biggest bullshitter on Earth. I guess the way to summarize their law enforcement over there is pretty simple – you break the law, you pay. And you pay big. Maybe if our traffic fines were imposed in US Dollars (and actually enforced) then the number of maniacs on the road would decrease. And then, maybe not.

And that's it for me for today; I am going to go rip up the streets of Johannesburg. When in Rome ...

Posted by Ronnie Apteker

Thursday 1 May 2008

Nice guys will always win

It is not true, by the way, that nice guys always finish last. Remember that the best way to receive is to give. This is what today’s piece is about. If you want to be a nice person then give of yourself. Give of your time, your compassion and of your talents. Be patient with people. Listen to those around you and be polite. Remember, what goes around comes around.

I know that many cynics will shout out that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But, I think that one has to really ask themselves if their intentions are true. A lot of people will speak of making a difference and many companies will have an inspiring mission statement. In fact, two competing companies may have similar (if not identical) missions yet one will consistently out-perform the other. Why is this? It is not the uniqueness of one’s mission that determines success - it is the authenticity. As Lisa Forrester points out, "It is not the quantity of success that matters, it is the quality." Perhaps those of you who have found yourselves on the road to hell when telling everyone that what you are doing is good are not being genuine about the purpose of your mission. I have been going on about this for ages now. Don’t focus on the bottom line; don’t even think about it. Do things from the heart. And watch, the world will conspire to reward you.

Yes, there is one fundamental thing we can't ever discount, and that is luck. We all need to have luck shine on us every once in a while. One thing is for sure though, the more you try the luckier you get.

Let’s revisit one of our old inspirations, George Merck. Do you remember this man? He built a global empire that saves lives every day with medicine. George Merck and his offspring that followed gave of themselves. They practiced what they preached and they never asked anyone to do what they wouldn’t do themselves. Think about this the next time you try and get someone to do your dirty work. Let’s go back to those guiding words that Merck once told his management over 50 years ago, "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."

What is Merck saying? He is not saying anything for or against making money. In fact, money does not even enter into the equation. What he is saying is that a company’s purpose (and a human being’s purpose) is something spiritual and soulful – it has nothing to do with getting rich quick. Merck tried to help people. Sometimes he succeeded and sometimes he did not. But he never gave up and he always kept at it. He was a medicine man – that is where his talents were; his God given talents. And he put them to good use – the Merck pharmaceutical company has helped save life for well over 100 years, all across the globe. And guess what, people want their lives saved. People want to be looked after. And guess again, people are prepared to reward those who help them. Is this really that hard to work out?

Posted by Ronnie Apteker