As a member of the first generation to grow up in the digital age, Danny Mekić isn’t the only teenager who spends his spare time behind a computer. Everyone born after 1980 grew up with ‘computer nerds’ fluent in the language of programming. Many of these never lost their passion for computers and now live their lives as IT professionals, working for an employer or as small, independent entrepreneurs. In Danny’s case, things went a little bit differently. His hobby grew into a company that makes millions, a promising second company and a busy life as a consultant. Magazines Elsevier, Quote and the entrepreneur magazine Sprout declared him a ‘hotshot’, a ‘talent’ and ‘most successful young entrepreneur of the year’, and more and more media come to him for his expert opinions. It seems Danny has been handling things pretty well, that there’s something that sets him apart from all the other young internet enthusiasts. What’s his secret?
If the explanation for a success story were easy to find, then everyone would have one. In Danny’s case, we’ll have to look for a number of factors working together. Tycho van der Hoog and Sietse Bakker know Danny well, personally and professionally. Together with his sister Samantha Mekić, they tell us what they think are or have been the decisive factors in Danny Mekić’s life.
As they say, it’s a blessing in disguise to have to learn to deal with difficult things at an early age; a harsh childhood pays off later. His father being an immigrant from Bosnia-Herzegovina and his mother being chronically ill and unfit for work, Danny’s childhood hasn’t been a carefree one. Because the diplomas his father earned in his country of origin are not recognised in the Netherlands, a great career is not in the cards. Being the sole breadwinner, he works hard and works often. Whenever his mother is in hospital, Danny and his sister Samantha only have each other to rely on. Danny feels responsible, and takes care of the food and housekeeping. That never troubled him, says Samantha: ‘Circumstances weren’t ideal, but Danny is the kind of person who believes everyone has their own troubles. This was just the way it was for us. Nothing you can do about it.’
So his parents’ situation doesn’t really weigh Danny down. But daily confrontations with things being unattainable for financial or practical reasons lead him to decide early on to do things differently later in his own life. Spending his life working for someone else in order to get by is not the sort of future he has in mind.
In school, in the Geuzenveld neighbourhood of Amsterdam, Danny is miles ahead of his classmates. It’s not always a good thing: he gets picked on often. Despite having perfectly fine social skills, connecting to his peers is a problem. Danny is a loner. It’s a sad fate, but it also means ample free time to spend behind Dad’s big metal computer at home. ‘Other boys might spend some time in their attic once in a while, but Danny was there basically all the time,’ says Sietse Bakker, Danny’s best friend for ten years now. Using borrowed library books and some advice from his technologically apt father, Danny teaches himself programming.
When the Mekić family gets an internet connection, things really get going. Danny is fascinated by all the possibilities of the world wide web. He asks the CEO of a major internet service provider for permission to join their organisation as an unpaid intern. He gets permission. In a short timespan, Danny learns all about communication, online communities and the technology behind websites and online software. Together with his friend Sietse, he starts building websites, databases and applications and takes care of hosting the websites. It’s a well-paid hobby that soon starts to get out of hand. That’s why in 2002, fifteen year old Danny signs up with the Chamber of Commerce. It’s the start of life as an entrepreneur.
No traditional views
One notable moment in this stage as a starting entrepreneur is the moment when Danny decides not to finish high school. The boy who had been at the top of his classes for years, decides to quit during his fifth year. His friend Tycho says: ‘The logical thing to do for a talented guy like Danny would be to get his high school diploma, go to college and then work his way up in the business. But he just likes to deviate from what’s normal. When everyone does something one particular way, he’ll often think: all right, but what if we do it completely differently?’
In this decision not to get his diploma, the young entrepreneur’s success is also a contributing factor. The combination of work plus school is too much even for a hotshot like Danny, if only for the practical reason that a starting entrepreneur like him needs to be available to his clients during class hours too.
The emphasis of his company is shifted to providing webspace: that’s the start of what is now domeinbalie.nl. Assignments are coming in like crazy and before he knows it, Danny is in charge of ten full time employees and four freelancers. The fact that basically every employee and every client is older than the CEO of this company doesn’t bother anyone. Sietse: ‘People who initially just thought of him as a peculiar little guy soon realised he definitely did have something to say. And his clients in particular were interested in how he made it into the spotlights of major companies from his parents’ attic. It’s like the American Dream, basically.’
Danny himself doesn’t think of his young age as a reason to be humble either. He knows what his knowledge and his know-how are worth, and puts them to good use during lunches with the CEOs of quoted companies and during visits to ministries. Tycho: ‘One time during a meeting with some important people from a large company, Danny was late, stuck in traffic somewhere. The atmosphere was a bit awkward, but it changed immediately the moment Danny entered. Something happened, the conversation immediately went into a completely different direction. He managed to pique everyone’s interest with ideas no one else had thought of before. Moments like that, age isn’t relevant.’
In interacting with his own employees too, Danny has no traditional views. When one of them calls in sick for the umpteenth time after the weekend, Danny calls him to have a talk, asking him to please just tell what’s really the problem. When he confesses his ‘sick leave’ is actually about a girl he’s been seeing every Sunday, they have a laugh about it. They come to a clear agreement: staying away once in a while is fine, but be honest about it and only do it when it doesn’t get in the way for the other employees. Responsibility comes first.
From the bond Danny has with other people of his generation who also earned their spurs in the intersection of areas such as technology, media and communication, the idea for a second company is born in 2010. With the newly minted NewTeam, Danny works together with nine other young people to take on multidisciplinary issues. The flat organisational structure of the new company is Danny’s answer to traditional companies requiring talented young people to spend years working their way up, while essentially being more knowledgeable about modern subjects than their managers are.
Never done learning
As you might expect of someone who does everything a bit differently, his lack of a high school diploma doesn’t necessarily rule out going to college. With a special entrance exam, Danny finds a way to enter the University of Amsterdam in 2007. In one year’s time, the high school drop-out collects 120 ECTS studying law. Meanwhile, he also takes courses in communication and psychology and specialises as a part time paralegal working with a lawyer’s office that concerns itself with information law. Samantha, Sietse and Tycho agree it suits him. Because if they’d have to summarise Danny in one word, it would be ‘curious’; always hungry for new knowledge and new insights. Danny’s wish is to spend the rest of his life studying various subjects. And why shouldn’t he? The Dutch government’s fine for prolonged studentship certainly won’t stop him.
Danny also takes courses in didactics at the University of Amsterdam, and is being trained as a mediator at the Centrum voor Conflicthantering (Centre for Conflict Management). As a teaching assistant, he helps first-year law students. Coaching other people turns out to be a second nature to him. Samantha: ‘He’s always had a knack for explaining things. By coming up with the right examples, he can often make things easy to grasp. Even to people who think a lot less quickly than he does.’ During the years that follow, Danny is invited regularly to be a guest lecturer. On his website he now offers a number of ready-made courses for universities, business and the government.
His ability to make complicated subjects understandable to a wide audience does not go unnoticed among the media. Experts in Danny’s area are few and far between; experts who know how to present themselves in a media-friendly way even more so. The camera loves Danny. And the feeling is entirely mutual, Sietse believes. He expects his friend will establish more of a TV and radio presence in the next years. At the moment, Danny is known for appearing on Dutch TV programmes like EenVandaag and Ochterndspits as an expert.
Possibly the most important secret to Danny Mekić’s approach is the amount of balance in his life. Not that it’s all perfect routine, early to bed and early to rise: one night he might work on a new idea until 4 AM, another night he might turn in early and take a taxi to the Ochtendspits studio before 6. What sets Danny apart from other young entrepreneurs, Sietse believes, is more about the way he lets his drive guide him. ‘Other people might be very bent on increasing their success as quickly as possible, but Danny can also enjoy the moment. Acquiring a new deal gives him a thrill, but the invoice can wait. And so can people who want something of him. He will not be rushed.’
Danny’s personal life isn’t that of your typical ‘yuppie’. He has his own apartment and a nice car and that’s about it. ‘Danny may have nothing to worry about financially, but that doesn’t mean he’s a big spender. Going on trips to Cannes or Monaco isn’t like him,’ Sietse says. Samantha: ‘One luxury Danny affords himself is a weekly massage. He takes good care of himself, he doesn’t take good health for granted.’
Other than that, he just has fun with friends and family like anyone in their twenties would. Tycho: ‘Having dinner together really does mean having dinner together. He won’t be distracted with work or his phone. Sometimes, we play music together. For a beginner he’s surprisingly good at the violin.’
Danny and his younger sister get along well. They get together regularly. Samantha: ‘Just being in the car together, going for a drive. We both enjoy that stillness. Sometimes we talk about the future. About each having our own families and having a nice dinner all together at one big table.’ That future is just as distant to Danny as it is to any other 24 year old. Thank goodness, says Sietse: ‘If Danny were as fast with everything as he is with work, he would have been married twice and have had four children by now.’
This profile got published in Folia this week, the student magazine of the University of Amsterdam