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?