Danny Mekić (1987) went a different way than the usual one at the age of 15. He dropped out of school to be an entrepreneur. ‘I was always being defiant in all sorts of ways. It’s the same defiance that I’m being paid for now: coming up with other solutions, asking that other question.’
“All companies want to use the internet somehow. But in those quoted companies, often set in their ways and with eight different layers of management, that’s not an easy task. There’s barely any room for those much needed gut instincts that distinguish creative people from the masses. In that situation, it’s important to enable young people to do that anyway. Google, Apple, Twitter, Facebook, all of them were founded by people in their twenties. That’s why we founded NewTeam, a consultancy firm run by teenagers and people in their twenties. So that we can do something that’s relevant and contributes to the world.”
“Everyone has good ideas. The question is: how do you present those ideas and get them to the right people? Well, it starts with understanding the question. They say I’m good at that. At the Dutch airline KLM, one of my colleagues was part of the brainstorm where ‘social check in’ was invented. We dreamed about that a lot of times before at our office: one time during a long flight to the USA, I was seated next to a married couple of doctors, and we had so many interesting things to talk about for both sides. I left the plane with so much energy that I thought: all air travel should be like this. Providing not only food and drink, but also the ways you feel on a human level. That’s how ‘social check in’ came about, where you book a seat next to someone with similar interests. That’s what makes my job so much fun. Being able to do something. I really love what I do now.”
“My days are divided blocks. ‘A’ blocks are early in the afternoon, when I’m at my best. I’ll be with clients, or giving lectures. This is a ‘B’ block, for example. A bit more laid-back. ‘C’ blocks are for reading, or for learning. Outside of that time, I like to play the piano, pay my parents a visit, see my friends. No matter how busy we are, we always manage to keep the same time slots free in our agendas, so we can meet even without an appointment.”
“A while ago, my sister needed me, right before an ‘A’ block. I cancelled all my appointments, because I suddenly realised I have the freedom to do that. That’s one of the most wonderful gifts the world has given me. I heard later that the client I had cancelled on – an elderly man – found it touching. He didn’t think young people cared for their relatives that way any more. He also said he thought I gave priority to the right things. It reassured his faith in working with me.”
“I was an energetic kid. Always on the move, talking a lot, singing, asking questions, always wanting to understand things. I was always done quickly in school, even with extra assignments. And then I’d start bothering people, being a pest and testing boundaries. I criticised things a lot, even then. I didn’t learn until later that it’s better to say things like that after class, rather than in front of everyone.”
“I’ve been tested twice, because they didn’t know what to do with me. A whole day of playing games and making up stories with dolls. They concluded that both my IQ and EQ were exceptionally well-developed, which is a strikingly rare combination. But nothing in the results was a reason for treatment or medication. They just had to deal with it.”
“I took that file with me to high school. Initially things went well there, I fit in, I was popular. But I didn’t join any groups, because the more people you have, the more shallow you have to be. I preferred to seclude myself with one or two friends. One morning, two of those groups had planned a snowball fight. I was walking into the schoolyard unsuspectingly when both groups turned against me. Besides of the bruises on my face, it was the start of repeated bullying. That made me very unhappy. I went to school more and more reluctantly.”
“I didn’t take my school troubles home, because we had much bigger problems there. I was taking care of half of the housework. My mother was ill, my sister was little, my grandpa was old and had just fled Bosnia, and my father worked long days. To him it was helpful when I would have dinner ready and he could share that long, rough day with me. I know now that I never learned to ask for help myself that way. You don’t ask for help from people who have it much worse than you. You learn not to ask for help with your own needs, because you can take care of them very well yourself too. Only you don’t realise you could never process and resolve issues as well on your own as you could with friends. I had to learn that afterwards.”
“I didn’t want to be different at all. I wanted to be myself and still be accepted. But I was the difficult kid from the troubled family, who didn’t agree with the system. I was always being defiant in all sorts of ways. It’s the same defiance that I’m being paid for now: coming up with other solutions, asking that other question. I didn’t see the point of brand name clothing either, this idea that everyone wears one particular kind of shoe. I just looked at value for money and showed up at school wearing shoes with a little panther on them. From that day on, they called me Panther. A while ago I ran into someone from that time. ‘Panther!’, he yelled. I still can’t laugh about it, it hasn’t lost its derisive feel.”
“For most teacher I wasn’t a pleasant pupil, so they didn’t really feel obligated to stand up for me when I was being picked on again. It became less and less clear to me what I was doing there in school, why I had to learn that chemistry or those mathematical formulas. I asked the reacher once. The only thing he had to say was that you need to be able to explain that formula if you become a math teacher. Eventually, I became downright ill. I slept badly and didn’t want to get up, which isn’t like me at all. Apparently something more powerful than me wanted to keep me from going to that school any more.”
“I had to convince a lot of people that tearing up my admission ticket for college was the right thing to do. The intensity of the reactions I got actually strengthened my resolve; some people are exceptions who should not be spending every day between those walls from 9 AM to 3 PM. If they would have let me take internships or something, that would have been a solution. But no: we can’t make an exception for you. Well, in that case, I decided to become the exception myself. I would have been happy to read this interview back then. It would have been very encouraging.”
“At my school I was one of the first to have a mobile phone. They thought that was weird too: whizzkid, nerd. At the age of twelve I was already working at Planet Internet as a volunteer. I just wanted to be part of that. You could just feel the energy and synergy coursing through it all. And I thought: it would be so great if one day, when I’m forty or fifty or so, I could have a company like this too, where people work together on the same goals and simultaneously fulfil their personal passion. In the meantime, I had started my web hosting company, and that company was in need of closer management just as I was leaving school. ”
In 2009, I was granted a number of awards from the business world. Things have been going fast ever since, people find me. I give lectures, and preside over brainstorming sessions. They’ll be sweating into their neckties in a villa and I’ll show up in my shorts. To turn everything upside down, have a critical look, say what I think of things from a certain kind of sincerity. At first I’d get a book token or a bottle of wine, although I didn’t drink wine yet. Or I’d suddenly be paid a lot of money. I never asked for anything.
The greatest thing was when a company revealed their new online strategy half a year after one of those meetings. It was exactly what I’d said, verbatim. That’s when I first realised: they actually do something with it. And then I understood my office co-workers when they said: this is what you’re good at. This is what you should do. I had always been someone who slips ideas into suggestion boxes, without any hope that it would make any difference. Now I understand where the right people are.
I’d like to become better at playing the violin. And then learn to play the guitar. And learn a number of languages. So I’ll have something I can give the people I cross paths with. That’s easier to do if you speak their language, or with music. And I’d like to be a father. I’m very happy with my job, my studies, my friends, the role of knowledge in my life, the role of love in my life. One of the greatest things that happen to me now is that I’m able to unlock all that knowledge in people’s heads, because doors open to me. For example, a while ago I was having coffee with Ben Verwaayen, on the eleventh floor of his office in Paris, right next to the Eiffel Tower. That man has experienced so much that it turns out one hour of his time can give you a tremendous amount of insight.
And specifically the insight that once you start carrying out your dreams, those dreams stop evolving. That’s all right in itself, after all you’ll have achieved your dream. But what you should watch out for, particularly when you’re as young as I am, is that you might not get a new dream to replace the old. You’d stagnate. Make sure you have enough dreams to follow, Verwaayen said. And he’s right: if you have a vision, you can think one step ahead, and then you can breeze through all those decisions you make in a day much more easily.
I know where I want to be five years from now: at the intersection of technology and society. I also know there’s only a limited number of roles in which you can be at the forefront. I don’t know yet whether it will be as an entrepreneur, working for the government or in the media. It could be politics too, since I’m already somewhat involved in that and I realise we all have to do our part. But I’m not looking forward to that as much. Because then I’d end up in a group again, and have to make concessions with all those brilliants ideas of all those individuals, in order to come to an agreement. That’s a waste. Maybe I’ll just continue to be the underdog who occasionally shows up.
May 2012, “Talent”