Entrepreneurs could become a lot sharper in business if they learnt a thing or two from comedians. Comics have to close a deal under a spotlight in front of an audience every 15 seconds or they die. Start-ups operate in a hostile environment and have to close sales regularly or they perish. Just a few nuggets from “Funny Business”, a new book by Ronnie Apteker and Gus Silber. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Ronnie Apteker has this funny story about Richard Laubscher. When Laubscher was the head of Nedbank, Apteker was doing sales for that little company, Internet Solutions, and wanted to speak to Laubscher about business. But how do you get past the gatekeepers to speak to the man?
No problem for Apteker. When he got Laubscher’s PA on the line he said he was phoning about the blow up doll that Loubser had ordered. He wanted to know where it should be delivered.
Like “Funny Business”, the book that steps inside Apteker’s mind, a breakfast in Hyde Park with the founder of Internet Solutions and Gus Silber is a non-stop laugh fest punctuated with kvetching, confessions and real gems. A serial entrepreneur who always says he’s made his last movie, Apteker’s currently busy with rewards portal Randgo and “Material”, which is another movie. Apteker says this one has a magic story which is about a smart local stand-up comedian who followed his heart.
Apteker’s been burned in the movie business. Really badly. “I have had so many failures. Sjoe. I had failure in America with the first movie project which was quite a traumatic thing. It taught me to never abandon my good judgement, which is why I got into trouble in the first place. I thought I knew better and I carried on and on, when I should have pulled the plug.”
That’s not something Apteker’s been shy about this year. In 2010 the Internet wunderkind-cum- angel investor-cum-movie producer, pulled the plug on a few projects. “The chance of success was so small and the chance of me dying from a headache was much bigger. It is always about people. You get involved with the wrong people. If someone is going to cause you a headache get out. And you can tell relatively early on. But you ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen? Well, the worst that can happen is that you can age. You can get an ulcer. You can embarrass yourself. You don’t sleep. You have nightmares. You don’t get a slap on the wrist. When I failed in America I was so traumatised I was in bed for six months and I was covered in sores for a year.”
But Apteker has also enjoyed incredible success and the story of how Internet Solutions was started, and grew to dominate the corporate connectivity market has been woven into local web legend. The fact that Apteker’s experienced huge highs and lows makes him the perfect subject for a book about being an entrepreneur. “Basically the book is all about looking inside an entrepreneur’s mind. Well, as much as you can do that. It looks at what motivates, and tries to figure out what drives an entrepreneur to carry on after they’ve failed,” says Silber, who conceived the irreverent business book after reading a blog Apteker had written about how entrepreneurs could learn a lot from stand-up comics.
“Ronnie talked about a salesman having to close deals like a stand-up comedian. A stand-up comic has to close a deal every 15 seconds. If he doesn’t have the audience in the palm of his hand and if they are not laughing every few seconds – 15 seconds is the benchmark – he’s losing them. Likewise an entrepreneur has this huge pressure to sell ideas,” says Silber, who’s written a number of books including “It Takes Two to Toyi-Toyi”. Everyone knows Silber as a respected journalist and humorist, but what few people know is that he’s a song lyricist. He’s also worked with Leon Schuster as the screenwriter for a number of projects including “Panic Mechanic” and “Schuks Tshabalala’s Survival Guide to South Africa”.
Everyone who’s ever started up a few businesses will know that success isn’t always evident. Failure is more common place. “A lot of people become bitter and twisted after they’ve failed,” says Apteker. “I never did. Why, I don’t know. I did become a bit more nervous, a bit more circumspect and bit poorer. I listened to my gut a lot more and didn’t abandon my judgement as fast.”
What Apteker did sacrifice to failure was his sense of romance. “I am more excited about the next film than I am about to make than any of the other films I have made, but I am not talking about it all day. Not like the way I used to talk about “Crazy Monkey”. If it happens, it happens. That doesn’t mean I am not inspired. I am just not as romantic, for which I’m thankful because you can make a fool of yourself and I have done it a few times.”
Watch Ronnie Apteker being interviewed by a gaggle of MBAs:
Silber and Apteker agree that failure is important because it’s a way of learning and anyone who has built a major business has failed in some way at some time. “An entrepreneur who gets into business with romantic ideals, fails and never gets up again, isn’t really an entrepreneur from my perspective. It is the idea of dusting yourself off,” says Silber, who proffers the example of Donald Trump as an example of triumph in the face of repeated failures, but Apteker chips in. “I really don’t understand this new world order. This notion of being a business celebrity. To me something isn’t right about it. Trump is a different animal with a larger-than-life ego. He could still have shit businesses and come out on top. I could be wrong though. He could be a genius and work really hard.”
That’s the sense one gets with Apteker. That he works it. If you want to test this hypothesis, try mailing Apteker late at night or over the weekends. You’ll get a response in a matter of minutes. It’s like he’s always switched on. Sort of like a comic who’s wired, fully alive and under the flood lights of that stage.
“The biggest lesson you can learn from stand-ups is that there is a certain magic to doing comedy. Just like there’s a magic in writing and there’s a magic in business. In stand-up, when a joke isn’t working, comics change direction faster than the audience can realise that they have failed and that something has gone wrong. That is the biggest part of their magic,” says Apteker.
Apteker says if your business starts failing you can’t take a month off or retire to some back room to figure out why things are cocking up. “You have to sort things out seamlessly. A person who is quick on their feet in business has a significant advantage over someone who isn’t. But here’s the kicker. Comedians are listening as much as they are talking.”
Apteker believes that listening isn’t easy and that it takes real talent and skill, and that like stand-ups, businesses who want to be successful need to listen intently to the cues and signals that will show them where they are going wrong. “If you don’t listen, you’ll go out of business. The staff will start quitting, the customers will be unhappy and you’ll be building something that no one wants, is a fad or that no one wants because you won’t be listening to what people want.”
Silber expands, “If you watch a good comedian like Robin Williams, it is very hard to pin them down. They are like butterflies flitting from one subject to another. If you analyse them, they have ADD. He seamlessly leads the audience on this journey and entrepreneurs I find rarely stick to one idea. They may stay in an industry, but they are constantly flitting around pollinating one idea after another. They are also obsessive in nature much like stand-up comics,”.
And as he says this, right next to him is Apteker. Sending another email from his iPad and leaning out of the open restaurant area to briefly have a conversation with someone he knows before flitting back into our interview.
“The entrepreneur’s mind doesn’t settle on one thing for too long,” says Silber. “It is always open to new ideas and opportunities.” Apteker steps in and says what underpins this all is preparedness. “The best stand-up comics are prepared. It’s not off the cuff. The best comics are well prepared just as the best leaders are prepared. They spend the weekend thinking about strategy, how to motivate staff, how to maximize the bottom line, how to delight the customers. They don’t just arrive at work on Mondays and switch on.”
Silber and Apteker agree. It’s like that old Jewish joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer is with practice. Lots and lots of practice. DM