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Internet Solutions: Ronnie Apteker

Frenetic, intelligent, eccentric. These are some of the words used to describe South Africa’s youthful Internet pioneer Ronnie Apteker. Becoming a millionaire many times over has given the Internet Solutions founder the freedom to experiment.

Monique Verduyn

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Ronnie Apteker of Internet Solutions

The year was 1993. Schindler’s List was showing in cinemas, humans were cloned for the first time, the European Union was formally established and at CERN, just west of Geneva, the birth of the World Wide Web was announced.

In Johannesburg Ronnie Apteker and Thomas McWalter, two Wits University graduates, were dabbling with the Net and discovering how easy it was to access real time solutions to IT problems. The Internet was being used largely by academics to swap documents but Apteker believed it would become an important business tool. He began persuading South African companies to incorporate it into their business systems, and thus Internet Solutions was born. In 1994, Apteker graduated cum laude with an MSc in Computer Science. Technically, he and McWalter excelled, with Apteker’s knowledge and selling skills opening doors for him all the way. But their debt was rising, so Alon Apteker and David Frankel were brought in to turn the finances around. The company focused single-mindedly on providing corporate customers with Internet access, a factor which enabled IS to dominate the market from the beginning.

In 1996, when most organisations were embracing the concept of the corporate website, IS needed to grow, and it required the finance to do so. A deal was concluded with networking giant Dimension Data, which bought 25% of IS. One year later, Dimension Data bought the remaining 75% of the company, paying its directors Apteker, his brother Alon, David Frankel, Thomas McWalter and Andras Salamon R300 million. Today, IS provides e-business services to more than 80% of South Africa’s top 250 listed companies and has over 4 500 customers.

Entrepreneur: What was your vision for Internet Solutions?
RA: At that tender age we did not have a sense of purpose, but we wanted to do something magical with computers. We were involved with corporates from the start, but we first focused on dial-up home users. After six months we realised that we wanted a people-oriented business and you don’t get close to people when you have a mass consumer business like a dial-up Internet service provider (ISP). With corporates we could grow relationships and we could invest time and resources in building things like online banking, reservation systems, media archiving, payment gateways and complex security solutions.

E: How did you identify the market opportunity?
RA: It wasn’t so much about identifying the opportunity as it was about doing what we loved. We were crazy about technology and we knew the Internet would be something everyone would want to explore.    

E: How did you finance the company?
RA: We used furniture from home, our own computers and whatever we had lying around to set up the office. It was a tight and humble operation and didn’t need too much money to start. The biggest cost was the fixed line infrastructure from Telkom. Fortunately, Telkom supplies a service and only bills you months later which helped us from a cash flow perspective. Start-up finance for a new venture is largely about attitude. You can start a new business in your garage, or you can sign a five-year lease in some fancy building in Sandton and before you know you will be in the hole for a small fortune. Having fancy offices doesn’t make a company better.

E: What were the most difficult obstacles you faced as a start-up?
RA: We were all very young and didn’t know what it meant to lead people. As we grew we started getting older people on board who had more world and work experience and who were more set in their ways. The biggest challenge was to align everyone. On the business side, there was competition all around us. We had to be smarter than the rest, and we had to work harder to carve out more market share. And that we did. IS is still the dominant corporate service provider by far. The company’s culture plays a central role in this. There is a drive and a determination that goes back to the issue of alignment and purpose. We wanted to win, all the time. Complacency will kill any business and as a bunch of young leaders we were never satisfied. We always tried to stretch ourselves, month on month, and we never took “no” for an answer. This, coupled with chutzpah, a sense of humour, a love for technology and some sharp skills made for a selling and marketing tour de force.

E: Can you identify what your big break was?
RA: Our big breaks came from our first few customers who included Price Forbes (now known as Alexander Forbes), Sasol, Times Media (Johnnic), Q-Data, The Argus Group (Independent Group), ICL, IBM, Sybase and a host of others. As the virtual online community grew so we formed a critical mass of Internet users. Also, our timing was really good. We were there from the start of the global Internet phenomenon. Many people say we all got lucky, and yes, we all admit that we were there at the right time, with the right people. But luck did not make the venture work. Making IS work was about hard work, sacrifice and risk taking. There was competition all around us. We were selling people on e-mail, but, who were they going to e-mail? Well, I volunteered for the job. Yes, every time we got a new customer up and running, the majority of emails they would send and receive would be to and from their new IS friends. And so the online community grew.

E: How did you build your client base?
RA: We were relentless. We knocked on every door we could find. We also asked our customers to help us. We learnt that happy clients multiply. I remember in the early days asking a customer if they were happy. When their face lit up I would then ask them if they would help us get more customers. All corporates have partners: auditors, IT providers, advertising agents, furniture suppliers, landlords, bankers. We made it our mission to connect everyone in the chain, and so the virtual network grew. When you love what you do it is not work any more. When you love your products and services it is not a sale any more. We were simply out there evangelising with anyone who would give us five minutes of their time.     

E ;What are your views on leadership?
RA: A key thing we learnt at IS was “who works for whom”. Leaders work for the people they serve, not the other way round. When you hire 10 people, it means you have to work 10 times harder to grow and inspire these people. And of course, your ultimate job is to develop them into future leaders. We went on many leadership courses and we sought enlightenment all the time. We learnt that leaders command respect, whereas bosses demand it. We learnt that leaders lead through goodwill, where as bosses lead through authority. We learnt to say “we” instead of “I”. Another key and fundamental element we embraced early on was how to have fun. It is important to celebrate victories. Remember to laugh, often. Having fun is the most important aspect of any venture. If you are not loving it then something is fundamentally wrong.


E: What was your key sales strategy?
RA: Selling is about listening. I am not a good listener so this was an interesting realisation for me. We learnt that the more we listened the more we would get business. I remember going to a presentation at Edgars over 10 years ago. The CEO there loved to talk. I was the guest speaker at their corporate lunch. After a minute of my presentation I said “Sir, I would be more interested to hear your views on how you see the Internet playing a role at Edgars.” He perked up and started going on and on. After an hour he said that was the best presentation he had ever been to. I had hardly said a word, but while he spoke I wrote it all down. When we sent our proposal, they said that we seemed to know so much about their business and their strategic direction – of course we did, the CEO told us everything.

E: What is the most important lesson you have learnt about sales?
RA: If you are waiting to close a deal and it is not happening then one way to find out what the problem is, is to ask the customer “What do we need to do to get your business?” But then, also offer that prospective customer a set of answers, like a multiple choice exam. There are a bunch of reasons there could be a hold up. Perhaps they can’t afford the service. Or perhaps their budget cycle is six months away and they can only commit the funds then. Or perhaps the guy you are selling to needs to get sign off from the board. Yes, there are a bunch of common reasons that generally strike a chord when trying to close a deal. Then there is one big fundamental question: does the person you are selling to like and trust you? If you don’t know that answer then all bets are off.

E: What was your marketing strategy?
RA: Like our selling strategy, it was relentless. When we started IS we never had big budgets to spend on marketing so we had to be as vocal with limited resources. What emerged was a creative culture. The Internet was an intriguing place in the early 90s. We would get calls from people asking us why “they should Internet”. We weren’t selling IS as much as were selling the benefits behind networking technology in general.

E: How did you differentiate your marketing?
RA: We learnt to become story tellers. The more we made people feel comfortable, the more we established trust, and the more we did that the more the business grew. People were afraid of this new technology and what it would mean to their business. So we made them laugh. And we told them colourful anecdotes about people who would call us up and tell us that they wanted to buy the Internet. I have a friend whose husband thought he had broken the Internet. I remember people asking Dave Frankel and me for discounts. And we would say “I’m going to have to check with the board.” What we didn’t tell them was that we were the board. Of course, the board always said no. Paul Harris once told us that when they started RCI (Rand Consolidated Investments) they would call people and say “We are calling you from our Johannesburg office.” What they didn’t say is that there weren’t any other offices. The name of the company was also a big bonus. When Time magazine ran the first big Internet story at the start of 1994, with the word “Internet” in big letters on the cover, a lot of people thought they were writing about us.

E: What was your growth strategy and what it is now?
RA: When I was at the helm our growth strategy was to work seven days a week until we collapsed. We continually tried to find new leaders and we always empowered people to make their own decisions. In effect, my task was to work myself out of a job. I have done this quite a few times now in my life. Now I am quite removed from the running of IS. I am there helping out on a few ventures and cultural activities. The company is stronger than ever and the CEO, Gus MacRobert, is the greatest guy, with the biggest heart. The business is in a new and inspiring chapter in its history.

E: How do you develop your knowledge and skills?
RA: You learn by listening. I have developed my knowledge and acquired new skills by spending time with inspired people. A mentor is always an asset. I have been very privileged in my life to have had some humble and brilliant mentors share their wisdom with me. At IS we also bought a lot of books – on leadership, values, purpose, business, you name it. We loved sharing and swapping books. We also would organise a lot of team building events where people went on leadership courses. We were always looking to be provoked.

E: What have been the key elements of your success over the years?
RA: Investing in people. Empowering people. Growing people. Trusting people. Listening to people. From the first day we were aligned. The original team were aware of their individual strengths and weaknesses. Entrepreneurs always surround themselves with good people. We never had to meet and have long discussions. We met to celebrate, to brainstorm and to discuss challenges and obstacles, but we never wasted time with politics and power struggles. There was a healthy respect for each other and there was a common set of values which bound everyone together. We also learnt early on about money and motivation. A motivated person is someone who is enthusiastic, happy, passionate, thrilled, excited, energised and inspired. Imagine I ask you to wake up tomorrow morning at 4:00am and to come to my house to clean my driveway. Imagine it is the middle of winter and I will be fast asleep as you do this uninteresting task. Would you be excited or enthusiastic? Would you be inspired or passionate? Of course you wouldn’t. Even if I paid you a million rand, you would do it in a flash, but you still wouldn’t be motivated. Money moves people, but it doesn’t motivate them.


How do you define innovation?
Innovation is about attitude.
It’s about changing the way we think.
It’s an emotional construct.
Innovation is about taking risks, and doing what is in your heart.
Innovative ventures involve the most fundamental things we know: chicken, soft drinks, fashion, watches, music systems.

Making movies
Someone once asked Ronnie Apteker how to make a small fortune in the movie business. He replied: “Start off with a big fortune.” He has spent over R80 million on films in the last seven years. Apteker pumped a significant amount of money into Purpose, the first film he produced, in 2002. In South Africa it earned R175 000, although it did earn much more around the world for its distributor. A movie set during the height of the dotcom boom, it has been said to reflect his own life. In 2005, he put $400 000 into the horror flick Reeker. That year also saw the release of teen flick Crazy Monkey, Straight Outta Benoni, a film which Apteker acknowledges was not to everyone’s taste.  The budget for that was R8 million and it made around R3 million at the box office. His latest venture, Footskating 101, had a budget of just R1 million and is said to have achieved the quirkiness Apteker and co were trying to capture in Crazy Monkey. It’s due for release next year.

The business of making a film can be a lot of fun, but that of selling it is another story altogether, Apteker says. “I stay motivated because I am still inspired, still excited, still enthusiastic. But I often get anxious about the money side of things.” He says, however, that his experience in the industry is starting to pay off;  for  the first time, he is making a return on his investment in Reeker. He’s had a lot to say about the local movie industry and its shortcomings, so it will be interesting to see what comes out of his stable next.

What is your key advice to anyone seeking to start a business?

  • Having a good idea helps, but starting a business is all about investing in good people. I would rather invest in a bad business with good people, than in a good business with bad people. Arrogant, lazy, obnoxious people can take the best plans and mess them up. But good, humble, enthusiastic, honest people can take the most arbitrary plan and bring you joy
  • Don’t ever abandon your sense of judgment. If something is not feeling right then you can place a bet that something is going to go wrong. We all suffer from pride; we all tell ourselves things like “the train has left the station”. Rather pull the plug on something before the wheels come off
  • Always stick to the fundamentals
  • Mean what you say, and say what you mean
  • Be tough minded, but don’t be hard hearted. Make small decisions with your head and big decisions with your heart
  • Listen, and you will learn
  • Always remember, luck favours the persistent

Apteker vottles the classifieds market

It was American computer scientist Vinton Cerf who said: “By placing intelligence at the edges rather than control in the middle of the network, the Internet has created a platform for innovation.” Ronnie Apteker continues to take advantage of that platform with his new concept, The Vottle Project. A free Internet service that allows people to interact via a virtual marketplace, it enables users to buy and sell goods and services, to engage on a social level, and to promote local arts and culture. Vottle also includes a crime watch facility where people can report on criminal acts in their areas. “We were inspired by Craigslist in America and we are trying to establish an online community here in South Africa where people can interact, socialise, and trade,” says Apteker. “Our goal is to build critical mass over time and then roll out further enhancements and value added services. If we ever do build that mass we will be in a strong position to leverage this for further online business activities.”

Craigslist is a network of online urban communities featuring free classified advertisements. It was founded in 1995 by Craig Newmark in San Francisco. By June 2006, Craigslist had established itself in approximately 310 cities across the globe. Its sole source of revenue is paid job ads in select cities, and paid broker apartment listings in New York City. Apteker says the online classifieds space is one of the fastest growing areas of the Internet. In South Africa there are almost a dozen websites focused on second hand goods. Vottle recently introduced a payment facility that allows eBucks members to pay with eBucks currency. “This is the first facility of its kind in South Africa,” says Apteker. “With Vottle we can now test and perfect micro payment solutions.” This in itself is an important development for the local market. Micro payments are means for transferring small amounts of money electronically. Since it is not practical – or cost-effective – for individual users to charge small amounts of money to a major credit card, this method of payment is needed for sites like Vottle where low-cost items are traded. It’s worth noting that Craigslist serves over five billion page views per month. Although the company does not disclose financial information, it is speculated that its annual revenue approached $10 million in 2004.

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Rich List: 2019 Richest People In The World

They’re worth billions, and their wealth continues to grow each year. Here’s the top 10 richest people globally in 2019.

Catherine Bristow

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jeff-bizos 10. Jeff Bezos

Net Worth: USD 139,5 billion

Jeff Bezos founded e-commerce giant Amazon in a garage in Seattle, USA in 1994. He also purchased The Washington Post for $250 million in 2013.

Bezos believes in always taking a long-term view and living in the present moment.

“I think this is something about which there’s a lot of controversy. A lot of people — and I’m just not one of them — believe that you should live for the now.

I think what you do is think about the great expanse of time ahead of you and try to make sure that you’re planning for that in a way that’s going to leave you ultimately satisfied. This is the way it works for me. There are a lot of paths to satisfaction and you need to find one that works for you.”

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7 Self-Made Teenager Millionaire Entrepreneurs

These teenager entrepreneurs have already made their first million and more. How did they do it and what’s their secret to success?

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1. Evan of YouTube

evan-of-youtube

Evan and his father Jarod started a youtube channel ‘Evantube’ to review kids’ toys. The channel was a resounding success with other kids – so much so that today it boasts just over 6 million subscribers.

Evantube brings in more than USD1.4 million a year from ad revenue generated on the channel.

How did it start? With a father-son fun project making Angry Birds Stop Animation videos, and morphed into doing reviews on toys and video games. But Jarod’s dad is aware of the responsibility of Evan’s sudden fame and hopes to teach Evan about the importance of being a good role model for others.

“Most recently, we had the opportunity to work with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and were able to fulfill the wish of a young boy whose dream was to meet Evan and make a video with him at Legoland,” explains Jared. “It was a really incredible experience. YouTube has definitely opened many doors, and the kids have gotten to do some pretty amazing things.”

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Expert Advice From Property Point On Taking Your Start-Up To The Next Level

Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty have worked with more than 170 businesses to help them scale. Here’s what your start-up should be focusing on, based on what they’ve learnt.

Nadine Todd

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shawn-theunissen-and-desigan-chetty

Vital Stats

  • Players: Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty
  • Company: Property Point
  • What they do: Property Point is an enterprise development initiative created by Growthpoint Properties, and is dedicated to unlocking opportunities for SMEs operating in South Africa’s property sector.
  • Launched: 2008
  • Visit: propertypoint.org.za

Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and his team have spent ten years learning what makes entrepreneurs tick and what small business owners need to implement to become medium and large business owners. In that time, over 170 businesses have moved through the programme.

While Property Point is an enterprise development (ED) initiative, the lessons are universal. If you want to take your start-up to the next level, this is a good place to start.

Risk, reputation and relationships

“We believe that everything in business comes down to the 3Rs: Risk, Reputation and Relationships. If you understand these three factors and how they influence your business and its growth, your chances of success will increase exponentially,” says Shawn Theunissen, Executive Corporate Social Responsibility at Growthpoint Properties and founder of Property Point.

So, how do the 3Rs work, and what should business owners be doing based on them?

Risk: We can all agree that there will always be risks in business. It’s how you approach and mitigate those risks that counts, which means you first need to recognise and accept them.

“We always straddle the line between hardcore business fundamentals and the relational elements and people components of doing business,” says Shawn. “For example, one of the risks that everyone faces in South Africa is that we all make decisions based on unconscious biases. As a business owner, we need to recognise how this affects potential customers, employees, stakeholders and even ourselves as entrepreneurs.”

Reputation: Because Property Point is an ED initiative, its 170 alumni are black business owners, and so this is an area of bias that they focus on, but the rule holds true for all biases. “In the context of South Africa, small black businesses are seen as higher risk. To overcome this, black-owned businesses should focus on the reputational component of their companies. What’s the track record of the business?”

A business owner who approaches deals in this way can focus on building the value proposition of the business, outlining the capacity and capabilities of the business and its core team to deliver how the business is run, and specific service offerings.

“From a business development perspective, if you can provide a good track record, it diminishes the customer’s unconscious bias,” says Shawn. “Now the entrepreneur isn’t just being judged through one lens, but rather based on what they have done and delivered.”

Related: Property Point Creates R1bn In Procurement Opportunities For Small Businesses

Relationship: “We believe that fundamentally people do business with people,” says Shawn. “There needs to be culture match and fluency in terms of relations to make the job easier. As a general rule, the ease of doing business increases if there is a culture match.”

This relates to understanding what your client needs, how they want to do business, their user experience and customer experience. “We like to call it sharpening the pencil,” says Desigan Chetty, Property Point’s Head of Operations.

“In terms of value proposition, does your service offering focus on solving the client’s needs? Is there a culture match between you and your client? And if you realise there isn’t, can you walk away, or do you continue to focus time and energy on the wrong type of service offering to the wrong client? This isn’t learnt over- night. It takes time and small but constant adjustments to the direction you’re taking.”

In fact, Desigan advises walking away from the wrong business so that you can focus on your core competencies. “If you reach a space where you work well with a client and you’ve stuck to your core competencies, business is just going to be easier. It becomes easier for you to deliver. Sometimes entrepreneurs stretch themselves to try to provide a service to a client that’s not serving either of their needs. This strategy will never lead to growth — at least not sustainable growth.”

Instead, Desigan recommends choosing an entry point through a specific offering based on an explicit need. “Too often we see entrepreneurs whose offerings are so broad that they don’t focus,” he says. “Instead, understand what your client’s need is and address that need, even if it means that it’s only one out of your five offerings. Your likelihood of success if you go where the need is, is much higher.

“Once you get in, prove yourself through service delivery. It’s a lot easier to on-sell and cross sell once you have a foot in the door. You’re now building a relationship, learning the internal culture, how things work, what processes are followed and so on — the client’s landscape is easier to navigate. The challenge is to get in. Once you’re in, you can entrench yourself.”

Desigan and Shawn agree that this is one of the reasons why suppliers to large corporates become so entrenched. “Once you’re in, you can capitalise from other needs that may have emanated from your entry point and unlock opportunities,” says Shawn.

Building a sustainable start-up

While all start-ups are different, there are challenges most entrepreneurs share and key areas they should focus on.

Shawn and Desigan share the top five areas you should focus on.

1. Align and partner with the right people

This includes your staff, stakeholders, partners, suppliers and clients. Partnerships are the best thing to take you forward. The key is to collaborate and partner with the right people based on an alignment of objectives and culture. It’s when you don’t tick all the boxes that things don’t work out.

2. Make sure you get the basics right

Never neglect business fundamentals. Do you have the processes and systems in place to scale the business?

3. Understand your value proposition

Are you on a journey with your clients? Is your value proposition aligned to the need you’re trying to solve for your clients? Are you looking ahead of the curve — what’s the problem, what are your clients saying and are you being proactive in leveraging that relationship?

Related: Want To Start A Property Business That Buys Property And Rents It Out?

4. Unpack your value chain

If you want to diversify, understand your value chain. What is it, where are the opportunities both horizontally and vertically within your client base, and what other solutions can you offer based on your areas of expertise?

8. Don’t ignore technology

Be aware of what’s happening in the tech space and where you can use it to enable your business. Tech impacts everything, even more traditional industries. Businesses that embrace technology work smarter, faster and often at a lower cost base.

Ultimately, Desigan and Shawn believe that success often just comes down to attitude. “We have one entrepreneur in our programme who applied twice,” says Shawn. “When he was rejected, he listened to the feedback we gave him and instead of thinking we were wrong, went away, made changes and came back. He was willing to learn and open himself up to different ways of approaching things. That business has grown from R300 000 per annum to R20 million since joining us.

“Too many business owners aren’t willing to evaluate and adjust how they do things. It’s those who want to learn and embrace change and growth that excel.”

Networking, collaborating and mentoring

Property Point holds regular networking sessions called Entrepreneurship To The Point. They are open to the public and have two core aims. First, to provide entrepreneurs access to top speakers and entrepreneurs, and second, to give like-minded business owners an opportunity to network and possibly even collaborate.

“We believe in the power of collaboration and networking,” says Desigan.

“Most of our alumni become mentors themselves to new entrants to the programme. They want to share what they have learnt with other entrepreneurs, but they also know that they can learn from newer and younger entrepreneurs. The business landscape is always changing. Insights can come from anywhere and everywhere.”

The To The Point sessions are designed to help business owners widen their network, whether they are Property Point entrepreneurs or not.

To find out more, visit www.ettp.co.za

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