Interview with Avenir, VU University Amsterdam

Danny Mekić (26) first became an entrepreneur at the age of 12, literally working from the attic of his parents’ house. Fourteen years later, he is working on his third company, a consultancy firm run by teenagers and people in their twenties, and he’s replaced his parents’ attic with the board rooms of 40 of the 100 largest organisations in the Netherlands. He’s employed by the management of banks, airline companies, investigation departments and hospitals, and also works as a lecturer or guest lecturer at universities. He was awarded in 2009 by magazines such as Sprout, Quote and Elsevier, and was asked by the Dutch ministers of Education, Culture and Science and of Economic Affairs the next year — in 2010 — to join an advisory board as the youngest member. Who better to ask for their views on and advice for those starting out on the job market?

“Companies have a very strong need for young people. But motivated, skilled young people with vision.”

Why do companies need young employees more now than they did 20 years ago?

“As a result of the possibilities and influences of technology, society is changing more rapidly than ever before. There’s more of us now too: in 150 years’ time, the population of the world has increased from 1 billion to 7 billion people, and more and more often they all have different wants, and expect different things of organisations. Large, unwieldy organisations — I sometimes compare them to oil tankers — adapt to these changes too slowly. Sometimes they don’t know what direction to take, or what their new market or business model will or should look like, but often it’s also that they’re just too big. How does one get 85,000 employees to all change course into the same new direction? Exactly, for that too, technology can help, which is something our generation of ‘digital natives’ is needed for very badly.

Another reason is the fact that by the end of this decade, more people will be leaving the Dutch job market than our schools and colleges will be supplying, while the level of ambition among Dutch students is still one of the lowest in the European Union, according to a study by HEGESCO. So there will be less of us and we’ll need to do more work, but we’re not that ambitious.

I was at a students’ meeting recently with a member of the board of directors of a major bank. It was a meeting for ambitious and excellent students. Of the 500 students present, only 10 were interested in developing their careers towards a position in the board of directors of a major company. Who will be in charge of the major companies later?

Those who didn’t raise their hands, by the way, mostly named as a reason the fact that they didn’t want to spend too much of their lives working. I respect that choice, but that attitude does make a career more difficult. That’s something we should be telling each other.”

What are the most difficult problems facing companies these days?

“Intense competition, being challenged more by startups, margins under pressure, outdated laws and regulations. Vacancies they can’t find suitable applicants for: in Eindhoven they still need 30,000 technicians. And that’s also the number of Dutch people living and working in Silicon Valley, having joined and making a living with one of the wonderful startups there. The Netherlands are ruled by a culture that isn’t enterprising and innovative enough, which is partly caused or at least not helped by the politicians running our government. While the soil is this infertile, the challenges are greater than ever before: constantly having to adapt to a technology-driven market, and the fact that young adults are an incredibly difficult target demographic to cater to.

A good example of this is in the automotive industry. Recent studies have shown that our generations cares less and less about ownership, but values having access to things more instead. Automotive manufacturers therefore face the problem of how to get our generation to continue buying new cars.

However, the fact of the matter is that new technology enables flexible ways to rent cars when you really need one. And that suits our needs better. Only that means there’s no prospect of selling more new cars in the future, especially since the birth rate here in the West has been on the decline over the past few years. When will the first manufacturer stop trying to sell cars, and instead entirely switch to making them available in flexible ways?

But think of the automotive repair and insurance industries, too: when the driverless cars catch on, those will no longer be needed. How should a company in those fields handle this?

But good advice is useless to a company unless it actually offers a solution to the challenges and problems they face. Words won’t change an organisation. Advice needs to be carried out and given a place within the organisation: that’s where things often go wrong. We at NewTeam enter into the organisation of our client and work within it for a while, sometimes with the authority to make decisions. During the previous months I’ve realised more and more often that this approach to managing consultancy suits our generation very well: we have a need for substantive responsibility, but preferably in an environment created for us.

Our clients tell us where they need us and that’s where we get to work, but we are also expected to enter a department if we think something could be improved there. This is how you generate support within a company, rather than imposing changes in a top-down way. Consultancy is more than just giving advice. It’s actually more like corporate entrepreneurship. But you don’t have to be an independent entrepreneur or a consultant in order to suggest an approach like this, of course: I think many major organisations would free up a position like that if you’d approach them with a good perspective and a good plan to improve their organisation, or to solve their specific problems.”

In what ways could a student be valuable to a company, without needing a ton of experience?

“Companies are having difficulty retaining their positions as market leaders. Market leaders come in four different types. There are companies that attained their status through some accomplishment in the past (such as Dell), companies that use aggressive legal tactics to make innovation impossible or illegal (such as the music and film industries), companies trying to make expenses for startups as high as possible or actively getting in their way, for example using lobbyists and defensive legal strategies, and companies that consistently buy all startups that could threaten them, like Google for example. They all want to and need to preserve their existing business by lacking any innovation and creativity or room for innovation and creativity within the organisation, often as a result of what’s called the law of the handicap of a head start. It takes new people, fresh pairs of eyes and outsiders to break through that in every layer of the organisation.

A lack of experience is often regarded a bad thing, but what is experience still worth in a lost economy that’s been labelling itself ‘in crisis’ for the past six years? (By the way, ‘crisis’ derives from an ancient Greek word meaning ‘turning point’: a turning point doesn’t go on for six years.) Also think of the S&P 500 for example: the list of 500 American companies with the greatest market value. In 1930, being on that list meant a company would last for 90 years on average. In 2013, that life expectancy has been reduced to 18 years, and the list is populated more and more often by new, technology-driven organisations. I’m not so sure experience with the old economy is always an advantage; there’s a reason why people like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates founded their companies when they were in their twenties. A lack of experience isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

A requirement in order to make it in an organisation or as an entrepreneur is to learn to be distinct in a unique but visible way.

When talking to successful people in my circles, there’s a number of things I notice. They often get up early and read a great amount about things that could be valuable to them — a year of getting out of bed one hour earlier than usual gives you 15 extra days of time. You could say they’ve developed a way of life that enables them to do what they do as well as possible, and to also simultaneously stay up to speed on the ways the world is changing. That takes order and discipline.

People who are good at writing have that skill because they just write a lot. That’s why you should try to demarcate your area of expertise and decide what skills you want to develop, by asking yourself what interests you and in what ways you could be valuable. Don’t hesitate to ask an expert (or maybe actually a completely unbiased layperson) whenever there’s something you want to know more about.

And finally, it’s very important to develop a skill set that lets you be a worthy conversationalist to the people in the circles of your choice; in my case, that’s the members of boards of directors. You need to speak their language, to understand their world and the world inside and outside their organisation, but you also need to know when not to go along with their established patterns. Extracurricular activities are an example of a good way to develop and distinguish yourself.”

And then, how can I convince a company that I’d be valuable to them?

“You could apply for a vacancy, of course; but a published vacancy often means that this is a position that couldn’t be fulfilled by suitable candidates the company already knows. When a manager already has or knows a suitable person for the job, they won’t bother publishing a vacancy: that takes too much time and money. The best jobs are to be found within organisations, or they’re the internships or positions you create for yourself. You need to make yourself known. I’ve never seen a student approach a CEO at a public event and say: “Dear sir, I’ve made an analysis of your company and I’ve reached the following conclusions. I suggest the following solution or way to handle these issues. I’d very much like to spend the next two months as part of your company, working on this in this capacity. You’ll only need to pay me for this if I succeed. Furthermore, here’s my letter of motivation, my curriculum vitae, my contact information and a concrete proposal. I prefer to hand you these in person, to be sure they aren’t lost in the stacks on your secretary’s desk. Thank you for listening, I hope to hear from you!

Putting yourself out there in this way is something you wouldn’t learn at the university, but it’s incredibly effective. In my case, I started doing volunteer work at the ISP Het Net (now known as KPN) at the age of twelve, and to this day they’re still a — now paying — customer. By taking a curious and proactive stance, you will easily generate goodwill and create your own safety net. You don’t have to take the highest diving platform right away. Be ambitious, set a goal for yourself and take the smallest possible feasible step towards achieving that goal each day. That way you’ll have an achievement every day and a lifetime of successes.”

This interview was published in Avenir, the magazine of the study association of economics and business administration of the VU University Amsterdam.

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