Getting Ronnie Apteker to complete one train of thought is near impossible. His stories or explanations or the answer to a question divert before they reach a conclusion, with Apteker going off at so many tangents you need pointsmen to guide you through.
A neurosurgeon would be in his element examining all the crossed wires and neurons fizzing and popping simultaneously inside Apteker’s brain.
“Remind me to tell you about that,” he says, before telling you about something else that wasn’t what you were talking about in the first place. It makes the conversation highly entertaining, if a little fragmented.
You wonder whether he’s doing drugs to send his already revved-up personality into overdrive. No, never, he says. A joint occasionally at university, but never, ever since.
You can’t blame the chemicals then. “I’ve always been hyperactive,” he says. “Some people are lethargic, some are hyper, and some are in the middle. I’ve got friends even more hyperactive than me. We joke about who’s going to wear out first.”
Apteker can’t even give a straight answer when you ask him what he actually does for a living now. Instead, he pulls out a wad of business cards and lays them out. There’s Internet Solutions, the company he helped create before selling his shares for a vast amount of lucre to Dimension Data in 1996.
There’s Brandspank, a website design company he’s invested in; WantItAll, a website that combines online shopping orders for individuals and imports them in bulk from Amazon.com.
The latter is working well in South Africa, where residents must pay a hefty premium for courier delivery because Amazon won’t use the postal service. WantItAll is beginning to work in Brazil too, in a venture that sees Apteker spending inordinate amounts of time in very long-distance commutes.
There’s a card for Randgo, which collates online leisure benefits for companies to pass on to their employees, and a card for TrafficFundi, which does search engine optimisation. Yet another for Vottle, an online classified ads operation.
There’s even a plain white one bearing only the words ‘My Card’. That’s the one he likes to present to break the ice when business meetings grow too serious. Apteker has always been a joker and has tried his luck at stand-up comedy. But as with most comedians, there are some unfunny issues bubbling below the surface. Not sadness, exactly, but a sense of unfulfilment, perhaps insecurity, and a search for more meaning to life than he has found so far.
You get the sense he’s asking himself: “Is this all there is?” A mid-life crisis, perhaps, except with Apteker, now 42, it’s been going on for years. Apteker is colourful, a workaholic and Jewish, in a way he describes as culturally Jewish without the religion.
Yet his mother pops up in the conversation constantly, he does the Friday family dinners, and yes, he takes his washing home occasionally.
On the business front, he plays down his talents. “Contrary to what people think, I’m not a good businessman. I create things, but creating things and creating money are two different things,” he says.
“You need to create things that people want, but you have to manage and do the books and sell products to make a venture profitable.”
He launches into a tale of the early days at Internet Solutions (IS), when he was a computer programmer trying to sell the little-known concept of global connectivity. His infectious enthusiasm would have clients gasping to get online and discover this new world.
Then co-founder David Frankel would follow up and say: “I’m glad Ronnie got you excited but you have to pay, so whatever Ronnie told you it costs, it’s more, or else we’ll go out of business.”
Then his brother Alon would step in and say: “I’m glad Ronnie got you excited and Dave gave you a good deal, now I need you to sign a five-year commitment.” Apteker’s job is still evangelising and exciting people about new ventures, whether it’s WantItAll, Vottle or one of the ten movies he’s been involved in since selling IS gave him the cash to indulge that passion.
Most of his ventures involve ad hoc teams of people from IS, former colleagues and other bright young things who attract his attention. “I’m an entrepreneur, paid by myself and living on my capital. If we don’t build some self-sustaining and profitable ventures soon, that capital will eventually run out.” But he’s been saying that for years, and it hasn’t happened yet.
His movie projects have burned up a huge amount of capital, however. His first was Purpose, a story based on his experiences in the internet boom and bust days. It was filmed in Los Angeles and was a minor commercial success but a huge learning curve. Then he dived into the madcap Straight Outta Benoni, Crazy Monkey and Footskating 101. His most recent movie took him up a cultural notch to Jerusalema, for which he put in funding and drummed up sponsorship and marketing.
Apteker says after losing money on these ventures, he promised his father, mother and Rabbi he wouldn’t do it again. He surreptitiously pulls out the script for another movie he’s assessing. “The money isn’t all gone yet,” he grins.
Apteker says his ventures are not driven by ego, but by the desire to tell stories and make people laugh. “It’s a beautiful thing to hear laughter. I love making magic on a computer screen and with the movies we’re taking it to another level. We also get to be totally vulnerable and financially exposed and be lambasted in the press and make fools of ourselves when people say your film is stupid.”
Coming into so much money when he was only 29 could have been destructive, yet Apteker says all the IS beneficiaries were modest, fairly uncapitalistic men who didn’t go wild. “It was overwhelming being financially independent at such a young age but no one ran off and did drugs and went on benders. We just worked harder and harder. Everybody’s heads were screwed on right. The fact that I followed the difficult, dangerous and probably ill-advised path of movies may be silly, but I’ve had a beating. And the more beatings you have, the more you lose your confidence. I’m not weak, but I have a lot of scars and my confidence isn’t where it used to be.”
Apteker says he has a good life, but admits to spending a few Christmases alone, miserably staring out of the window because his ventures have failed again.
He’s been in love four times, but never married. “I’ll be in love again one day, but you have to be happy with yourself before you can settle down with someone else. I’m not content, and no one else is going to make me happy until I can make myself happy.”
The internal turmoil stems from a firm belief that he has a purpose to fulfil in life that he has not yet achieved.
“If I tell my mother I have a purpose, she’ll slap me and say, ‘Eat your vegetables’. But I feel that all people have a purpose, whether they realise it or not. It probably sounds silly, but the ultimate purpose is to leave the world in a better state than you found it. I think I was put on this world to create things and make the world more magical,” he says. “I want people to say I have added some colour to their lives. I’m not trying to generate cash – I’m talking about something that has pride and integrity that people respect and love.”
Respect and love. Isn’t that what we are all seeking in the end?
Ronnie Apteker has not slept. He went to bed at three am and was up at five. That’s normal for this Wits alumnus (MSc 1994 cum laude) who describes himself as a nerd and who was one of the founders of Internet Solutions in 1993.
Launching South Africa’s first Internet service provider at the dawning of the era of the World Wide Web is just one of Ronnie Apteker’s achievements. He’s also an author, public speaker, online business founder and movie producer. At the time of the interview he was about to premier ‘Material’, the South African movie he co-produced Which is why he doesn’t have much time to sleep.
“We invent things to save us time but we have less time than ever before. It’s called the progress paradox,” he says, ushering the way into his office at Internet Solutions in Bryanston. He still keeps an office here even though the company has been sold to the Japanese, along with his shares.
His office could be mistaken for a ten-year-old boy’s den, with toys everywhere, including a retro computer arcade game from thinkgeek icade. Instead of slotting money into the machine he slots his iPad, and delights in the challenges of Atari classics like Asteroids.
He’s insistent that nothing gets moved in his office; he knows exactly where everything is in the industrious chaos where cinema billboards cramming the walls speak of the 11 movies he has produced… Purpose, Jerusalema, Crazy Monkey, Straight Outta Benoni, Material…
“The world is made up of stories. That’s why I make movies,” he comments. “People think it’s fun, and making a film can certainly be a lot of fun, but selling it is another story altogether. I often get anxious about the money side of things because as the producer everything lands on your shoulders and when things go wrong, not only financial things, I mean anything, big or small, you take the fall.
“A few days ago, for example, someone with a stake in ‘Material’ was offended by something one of the cast said to him, and even though I had nothing to do with it, he phoned me and screamed at me for an hour. I listened to him and kept saying ‘I’m really sorry sir’ but he kept on screaming and I kept on listening. My attitude is that if he thinks I’m important enough to be screamed at for that long, I’ll let him vent – it’s all part of my day’s work.”
Apteker, who is now in his mid-forties, has been working since age 12 when he would wash cars for R3 apiece. “My whole family is entrepreneurial. My father started out with nothing; he was an orphan in World War II and he and my mother know the horrors of war. After emigrating to South Africa to start a new life, they opened a clothing manufacturing company in Cape Town, made a success of it and created a good life for us.”
One thing everyone needs to succeed and create a good life is “hard work and luck”, says Apteker. “I also believe in keeping your promise, never letting people down, remembering to laugh, and surrounding yourself with good people,” he says. He explores his nice guy approach to business in the books he has written, including ‘Funny Business: The secrets of an accidental entrepreneur’ which he co-authored with Gus Silber.
At the same time he emphasises that success is not all moonshine and roses. “Success is also about getting back up again when you’ve had a proper beating, which I’ve had repeatedly. I get back up again because I’m obsessed with what I do and because I have a lot of people depending on me.”
His experience of the world is that many people do not share his tenets. They do not believe in honouring their word or giving others a gap, and he harbours horror stories from the United States where he lived for a while, exploring the Hollywood film industry.
“They’ll shake your hand and smile at you, and you’ll think you’ve reached an agreement only to discover they’re out to destroy you. America is the most predatory place I have ever experienced and American greed is such that they leave nothing on the table for anyone else.”
He launches into a description of America’s so-called captains of industry who take their companies for hundreds of millions of rands, seemingly without conscience. He talks about the 2010 Academy award-winning documentary ‘Inside Job’, which looks at the behaviour in the late 2000s of giant corporates and banks such as the Lehman Brothers. Its CEO Richard Fuld took US$484-million in salary, bonuses and stock options; then filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Several years before that was the Enron scandal, a similar story and it is happening all the time.
“These guys don’t make the money, they take it and leave millions of people without work. That’s pure evil. People are getting totally screwed because they’re naïve. It’s come down to the rich and rest. And we’ve only seen the tip of it. I reckon there is far worse to come. You can’t take and take and take without consequence, and then come up with this word ‘bail out’. The world hasn’t seen the worst of it. The way things are going, they’ll be calling the Great Depression, the Great Depression I.”
Super-greed is a subject on which Apteker has been known to speak at length. “It’s destroying the world, along with the death of communication,” he explains. “The youth don’t know how to communicate anymore. Sending an sms is not the same as talking to someone. Finding online friends on Facebook is not the same as making friends faced to face. You don’t build trust, confidence or rapport that way.”
As for young people who seek his advice and when he makes time to meet with them in his oversubscribed schedule and they sms and answer their phones during the meeting…“they certainly don’t impress me”.
Apteker believes everyone is so wired today that people have become dysfunctional. “It’s destroying the soul. People are becoming disconnected and isolated and this destroys confidence.”
Technology is not the problem, it’s people allowing it to control them that’s the problem,” says Apteker adding that he and his partners were “innocent and quite naïve” when they founded Internet Solutions. If he could do it all again, of course he would, but he never envisaged how much it would contribute to the pace of life becoming so intense. “Technology fuels this intensity. You have sms’s and emails coming through at the same time as landlines and cellphones are ringing. It’s insane. And if you’re a nice person you feel obliged to respond.”
He finds himself trapped in this whirlwind, which is why one of his favourite quotes is Ghandi’s “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
“We all like quotations because we believe in them but they’re not easy to live,” says Apteker who already has three more film projects on the cards. One is a “zomromcom” – a zombi romantic comedy, which he describes as “a low budget guerilla filmmaking project”. The second is based on a compelling novel by AHM Scholtz titled ‘A Place Called Vatmaar’, and the third is about a British man who meets a Russian woman – we’ll have to wait and see what happens from there.
In the meantime South Africa will immerse itself in ‘Material’ and Apteker will know if it’s been a box office success or not.
What he likes about the movie is that it combines an entertaining story with an incredibly reconciliatory message. “We have this distorted picture of Muslims whereas this film is about a normal Muslim family in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, making their way in life with all their traditions, dreams and aspirations for their son.
“It goes without saying that I would like the movie to go all over the world,” says Apteker who applauds the team with whom he made ‘Material’. “It’s the best team I’ve ever worked with and Riaad Moosa who plays the son is the nicest, humblest guy I’ve ever met.”
Moosa who inspired the movie is, in real life, a medical doctor turned comedian and actor.
Material certainly got Barry Ronge all choked up and he described it as “such a wonderful film”, so bets on it’s going to be a giant success and earn back Apteker some of the millions he has invested in film-making over the years. “I really hope so or I’ll have a lot of people screaming at me on the phone,” smiles the man who, when once asked how to make a small fortune from the movie business replied: “Start with a big fortune”.
Labels: Internet Solutions south africa, Ronnie Apteker, Ronnie Apteker south africa