“The better you understand the world, the more you can be at peace”

He was only fifteen years old when he started his very first company. Two years later he quit school and now, a decade later, he can call himself one of the most prominent entrepreneurs and the internet expert of our country.

How does a 25 year old Amsterdam guy with no diploma manage to become a prominent entrepreneur?

At the age of 12 I took up volunteer work at Het Net, one of the first internet service providers in the Netherlands. That’s where they were creating the internet back then. Or at least that’s the way it felt. Nobody knew much about the internet. Companies didn’t have websites yet and there were only a few companies in the nation who brought the internet into people’s living rooms at the time. My father was one of the earliest internet users because of his job. I thought that was amazing! Even though the internet was still very small at the time, I realised this would become a portal to the rest of the world. The moment I got home from school, I’d switch on the computer and look at everything the internet had to offer. This was my training ground. During my days at Het Net, I discovered the beauty of the internet and developed a passion for the interaction between people and technology. After a while, I started my own little programming company. I was actually doing things backwards: I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur, because I didn’t have a plan. I’d just started doing something I enjoyed and I became good at it, which made people want to pay me for it. Work became busier and busier and more and more fun, and school became more and more dull. I clashed with my teachers more often, and the teachers argued among themselves too, because they didn’t know what to do with me. At some point that became very taxing, emotionally and physically, and three weeks later I was no longer in school. Don’t think that was easy, though. Everyone was against it, but exactly for that reason, I thought: ‘why is this a subject that makes everyone collectively give me this kind of zombie-like response?!’ It was like the world was going mad. After my fifth year I eventually quit and started focusing on my company. After I received various awards and distinctions in 2008 and 2009, I was suddenly approached by several CEOs from large companies. They asked me to analyse their company, website and online strategy. It made me insecure, I thought: ‘how could someone like me help those people?’ I also often encountered legal issues for which I needed to hire lawyers. Those are very expensive and much of the time I wasn’t happy about their work. Moreover, I couldn’t check on them. If a business jurist would say: ‘it can’t be done, because it’s not allowed’, there was no debate. I didn’t have the knowledge. That’s the reason why I took up studying jurisprudence. It’s great! The nice thing about being a student is that it means you’re connected to an IV drip, as it were, which occasionally seeps a little drop of intellect into you. I think the better you understand the world, the more you can be at peace with the way things are, and the happier you can be with it. Eventually I started the company NewTeam. It’s a consultancy firm in the area of technology, media and communication. It’s run by teenagers and people in their twenties and by now we work for 30 (!) of the 100 largest companies in the Netherlands.

What is a day in Danny Mekić’s life like?

Nobody ever taught me how to structure my day, I always just improvised. Although I have to say they’re fairly structured these days. Mornings are sacred, that’s when I want peace. That means no appointments, no phone calls or bustle. The morning is mine. I often spend it writing reports and following the news. For what I do, it’s important to know what’s going on: what are the latest technologies and developments, where are the opportunities? In the afternoon I’d rather be travelling as much as possible. I’ll be ‘en route’ and trying to work as efficiently as possible. By which I don’t mean ‘economically efficient’, because I think you should only do that after you’re done with your own personal development and you’ve really started to make your career. I don’t take myself seriously enough yet to lead a life like that. You should do what helps you to advance. That’s also the reason why I often decline assignments: I don’t want to do the same trick ten times in a row.

What is it that makes your company, NewTeam, so successful?

We like doing things once. If it’s a success, we’re happy and we move on. We don’t endlessly repeat the same things for everyone who shows up with a bag of money. You need to want to move forward as a person. That’s what separates NewTeam from other consultancy firms. The competition is largely driven by money. While that kind of company often has a minimal number of profitable hours, we actually have a maximum at 70 percent. You’re not allowed to work more than 70 percent billable hours, because if you spend more than seven out of ten hours working for the client, you won’t spend enough time working on yourself. As a consultant, you need to not only know very much about the things you advise people on, but even more importantly, you need to know very well what subjects you don’t know much about. That’s really the fun thing about this company. NewTeam is successful in the sense that we have a smaller supply than there is demand. One of the reasons why our clients keep coming back is that we’re a small company with an uncomplicated team. There are ten of us and we have different areas of expertise. So clients know which subjects we’ve gathered expertise and experience about. In our case you’re not hiring a company but a person, and the way we work is adapted to that. In our company you can’t pass on your responsibility, which means everyone has similar activities from a different vantage point. Everyone is part account manager, and does some of the administration, marketing and project management. It’s much more fun that way, it’s one big training ground.

To what extent do you think social media pose a threat to the privacy of internet users?

Social media make their sites into a sort of candy store, tempting you as a user to show more and more of yourself. Because of this, we are the greatest threat to our own privacy ourselves, because anything you don’t put out there on social media does not exist and cannot violate your privacy. Incidentally, companies do try to stretch the boundaries of privacy protection. Consider Streetview by Google for example, we should be wary of that.

You are currently writing a book called ‘Entrepreneur in a Week’. What qualities do you believe a young, successful entrepreneur should have?

The first sentence in that book will probably be ‘Haha, that’s not even possible, you numbskull!’ The first chapter is the most important chapter and is about the question every entrepreneur should ask themselves: Do I really want this? Do I realise how taxing this is going to be on me, on my partner, on my children, on my studies and on my being? At the same time you need to realise you have only one chance to do this. A lot of people think that by thinking, they can make something happen, but that only happens inside your head. To the rest of the world, nothing has noticeably changed yet. That’s why my strategy with starting entrepreneurs is often just giving them a little push. Because I think anyone who can have a regular job can also become an entrepreneur. In the Netherlands there are one million entrepreneurs, including freelancers. If you want to be a better entrepreneur, you’ll mostly have to look for ways to hone your talents, which is very un-Dutch. The Dutch educational system mainly looks at what you’re no good at, and then emphasises that. So everyone becomes better at the things they are worst at. As an entrepreneur, you need to ask yourself: What am I good at? What do I enjoy? What do I need? In the end, you need to make sure you excel at those things. We remember people for positive things and I think entrepreneurs realise that very well. I do need to add that nobody is going to ask you difficult questions if you’re an entrepreneur. You work for yourself, so you do need to have discipline. For that, it’s very important to know yourself. I know about myself that if I drink a lot of wine, the next day will have much less to offer for me. An employee who thinks his job isn’t all that interesting has absolutely no problem with lazing about for an evening. I on the other hand have had the chance to do what I really enjoy, so if I want to be at my best because I have important appointments, then I have to take care of that myself.

You try to encourage entrepreneurship among young adults. What are the main advantages for young entrepreneurs?

When you’re young, you have much more room to do things. You’re not restricted yet by obligations like having your own house, a partner and children. In other words, you have much more freedom on various levels when you’re young. On top of that, young people get away with it much more easily when they do something clumsy or make a mistake. When I was young I wrote software, and if that occasionally gave an error message, people didn’t mind at all. But if I sell myself as a big name and charge people 400 euros and hour, then what I deliver had better be flawless.

What is it that still stops young people, then?

The greatest pitfall is you. I would assume that if you take up entrepreneurship at a young age, you will have thought through whether your plan is feasible and not too risky. If you’ve talked to people and everyone says it’s a responsible plan, then it is. There will always be some risks. You have to limit them as much as possible. There are countless ways to do this, for example by reducing your scope. The greatest pitfall is underestimating yourself: thinking ‘there’s no way I can do that anyway’. If you do that, you’ve already cut it short before you’ve even tried it.

During your career, you’ve received a number of awards: Hotshots Under 40 Years (Quote, 2008), one of the 50 Greatest Talents of the Netherlands (Elsevier, 2009) and Most Successful Young Entrepreneur of 2009 (Sprout). Has this affected your career?

I got those awards thrown at me. It was something the world had decided about me and the things I did. Before that, I was a complete nobody.

I had my own company, employees and clients. But when a few journalists find you, put you on a pedestal and print your name in the media in large capital letters, then you’ll suddenly have a presence in the world outside too. So the most important result was that the world suddenly discovered me via those publications. That was also when I discovered that the world is actually incredibly lazy. All those journalists just started copying each other. Once I was on one of those lists, there followed another one and another one. I still get emails asking me if I want to join some contest.

I’ve received three awards. And then I figured that was enough. You always need to ask yourself: ‘why do I do things?’ Imagine I’d get an award every month. To the rest of the world it would almost seem like that’s what I’m doing it for. But that’s not true, of course. When it comes down to it, you’re doing it all just for yourself, but of course I did think it was very flattering. It meant very much to me, because it took away a bit of insecurity that I’d had ever since I decided not to finish high school.

What’s your advice for the students of Tilburg University? Dare to dream! Don’t let other people stop you from doing that. By nature, humans are fearful creatures. But if you really look at the world, and definitely the Netherlands, then practically everything you might be scared of has been made safe. There’s a sort of safeguard built into it. Now suppose I’m not scared, but you are scared of what I’m about to do. You’ll say: “Danny, is that really such a good idea? Are you really sure? I’d be way too scared for that!” So we try to scare each other. Hence my second advice: don’t let that get to you. Be cautious, but not afraid. Aside from that, it’s important to think about the position you want to take in society. If you want to be at the forefront and make a career quickly, you’ll have to give a lot of thought to what really makes you different.

You’ll need to think about a unique vision and about how to distinguish yourself from everyone else. In my experience, people want to work with unique people. We’re all unique, but we don’t always realise it. Finally, it’s very important to guard your own place. Make sure you have your own views and opinions. No matter where you end up, whether you’ll be an employee, an entrepreneur or a freelancer: make good arrangements and make sure you’re always able and allowed to be yourself.

This interview was published in Faces, the magazine of Asset, the Faculty Association of the Tilburg School of Economics and Management (TiSEM)

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