Interview for the 23th Almanac of the Utrecht Law Society (JSVU)

Danny Mekić’s enterprising spirit has been apparent from an early age. At the age of twelve he started doing volunteer work for internet service provider Het Net, he’s worked for the (international) Eurovision Song Contest as a photographer and programmer and he started his first company at the age of fifteen. In 2009, the magazine Sprout declared him ‘most successful young entrepreneur’. With his company, NewTeam – a consultancy firm staffed by teenagers and people in their twenties – he is an interdisciplinary expert for non-profit organisations, educational facilities, governments and commercial organisations. On top of his regular activities, he also regularly appears in the media. He’s also a consultant, a speaker, a day chair, a mediator and a teacher.

Your enterprising spirit has been apparent from an early age. Has the environment you grew up in played a large part in this, or have there been certain people who did?

“My grandfather, who was a teacher in mechanical engineering, and my parents have been a major influence. My father let me get to know technology at a young age, and it was love at first sight. My mother is a typical Amsterdam woman, but my father is from the former Yugoslavia. In the ’90s – during the third Balkan war – the landlines were cut in that area, making it impossible to contact my grandpa — who showed a lot of perseverance during that time. My father is a radio communications enthusiast, and we had a large radio tower on the building we lived in. That allowed us to still contact our friends and relatives every night. There were other people who came by our place too, so they could talk to their relatives by radio. That’s where my passion for technology began. It can mean so much to people and to their lives. When I was a volunteer at – where I worked since I was twelve – I learned to program. Technology really came to life for me during that time.”

“One thing that’s very important is to let everyone you meet in life inspire you. Everyone has something they can teach you, if you listen and look long and carefully enough. You need to draw inspiration from your entire environment. And you should beware of too many ‘yes men’; you need people around you who dare to be honest and to criticise you. If you only gather people around you who are only ever positive and enthusiastic and applaud any minor success, then when you’re doing something stupid, you have to find out about it yourself. So you’ll basically be all on your own.”

Your decision to leave high school prematurely is something not many of your peers would dare to do.  Have you ever been afraid of possible consequences?

“You have to be afraid in order to be daring. It was mostly my parents and my girlfriend at the time who were worried about me quitting, I wasn’t as much. I wasn’t just quitting on a whim. That decision was the result of months of deliberation, and I’d saved some money and had a growing company to fall back on. In order to follow your heart, you have to dare to take risks. And you have to dare to ask for help: my friends were an enormous support for taking this step. And always have a plan B: my school said I could come back any time if I wanted. Fortunately I haven’t had to take them up on that offer, but things could easily have gone differently.”

“My journey, or my career if you like, branches off in all sorts of directions. I learn much along the way. High school lacked enough sophistication to hold my attention. I was restless and distracted by my work. I was working as a programmer for several different companies at the time, but I also worked for the Eurovision Song Contest. There, I got a chance to gain international experience at a young age, which I appreciated very much. Many assignments I became involved with had a legal component; that’s where I first came into contact with the legal system. The development of the laws and jurisprudence surrounding the internet and technology was speeding up enormously; studying jurisprudence was a sensible choice. But the problem was that I had quit high school in my fifth year. A way to still be allowed into an academic programme is by means of a colloquium doctum, which is an entry exam that gauges whether you can handle the academic level of performance. However, the University of Amsterdam made the mistake of letting me take the exam at the age of twenty, while the legal requirement was twenty-one. I took the exam and passed, but was rejected when they found out I was too young. With the help of a lawyer I was eventually able to call upon the hardship clause, which turned out not to have been necessary in hindsight: the university signed me up as a student by contract, for which there are no entry or age requirements. I’m glad I took up this subject: it lends sophistication to the world and it makes you able to look at the world in a more autonomous way. Right now I’m taking interesting courses from the subjects Communication Sciences, Psychology and Economy. These are sciences that often came up in the work I do, and I wanted to be less dependent on other people to be able to form opinions on them.”

You are now working for NewTeam as a multi-disciplinary expert for various organisations, institutions and governments. Why did you decide to found this company?

“At my first company, I was asked more and more often to make an analysis of how other, often large companies were doing in the area of technology and the internet. I’d visit a board room once to have my brains sucked dry in exchange for a bottle of wine or a book token, I didn’t ask for payment for it back then. Only I wanted to stay involved longer, and I wanted to learn from it too. I started doing longer projects, like being an internet strategist for a local police force among other things. And Raj Patel, who was then the director of Exact, asked me to work on the basics of their online line of products, and to occasionally join the meetings of their Board of Directors. I was very happy to do so, but I did miss having my own, direct colleagues. And those days I saw more and more young, independent entrepreneurs advising companies in similar ways. It seemed a good idea to try working together and taking on larger projects as a larger group. This is eventually resulted in the creation of NewTeam.”

“Today’s problem is that the major challenges facing the organisations of tomorrow are yesterday’s solutions. In other words: the innovations that are being made aren’t sustainable enough. We at NewTeam specialise in those strategic issues and challenges of tomorrow, in many cases. We do so with expertise in all sorts of areas, such as technology, media, communications, entrepreneurship and law, and working mostly for large commercial companies, but also for the FIOD (Fiscal Information and Investigation Service, the Dutch anti-fraud agency), the national tax administration or the judiciary. We also sometimes serve as (shadow) advisors to large consultancy firms and communications agencies, whom we titillate and nurture with knowledge about and experience with our areas of expertise.”

Are you happy about the way your career has progressed so far?

“I’m very grateful for the work I currently get to do and for the journey that took me here, and I definitely plan to continue doing it for another few years. It’s still very edifying, but the more you learn about a specific subject, the more difficult it becomes to learn new things about it (because more complicated insights take more time and attention), and the greater the risk of developing tunnel vision. You need to avoid that. Fortunately, working for large organisations keeps us down to earth, and often lets us play an important role in the state of society, where there are many challenges and you’ll have the most diverse discussions, with different people every time. That’s very valuable: the more people you know, the more powerful your position is.”

“Still, four years or so from now I want to take a break and go travel the world as a pianist, just living leisurely for a while and thinking about things. That just sounds amazing to me. It’s a very relaxed way to meet a lot of people from all walks of life. And it’s also a challenge: leaving with a few hundred euros and making a living playing the piano. And if it ends up not working out, I don’t want to fall back on the people I know, like clients in the hotel business. The challenge is to build up something from nothing, and to see the world the way it is. The only way to learn from other countries and other cultures is by experiencing them.”

What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?

“That could be Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, authors of the book ‘The Social Construction of Reality’, which presents the theory that the way we see things largely depends on the environment we grew up in and live in. Our perception of reality is coloured by our convictions, backgrounds and experiences. This book made me realise that in order to understand the world, you need to try to see it the way it is – for example, a judge’s robes are just a black dress with long sleeves if you were raised in an African tribe – and then see the interpretation we impose on it as a separate thing. This gives everything two layers: the perception, and the value we project onto it. It helps for understanding your environment.”

Do you have one last tip for our law students?

We are probably going to have to work for fifty years before we get to retire, if there’s any such thing left by that time. That makes it more important than ever to enjoy your job. But in order to do what you enjoy, you do need to know what you enjoy, and you also need to be the best candidate for the job. You now have the opportunity to explore side tracks; for example, you could follow a summer course every year. It’s very interesting, often affordable – be bold and ask for extra poor-student discounts – and it only takes up a few weeks. It’s an opportunity to meet new people. And also try to discover what gets you going, what you are passionate about. Look into things to see if you enjoy them, and then continue to discover new things about them. Always challenge yourself to do something that’s better than what’s already there. And if you currently don’t have a part-time job, or you work the beer tap at a café: you’ll gain more relevant working experience working in an organisation.”

“Furthermore: everyone you meet is willing to help you. Give them your attention and share your knowledge. Try to make meaningful contributions to other people’s lives, when asked or of your own accord. Don’t immediately look at this from a financial point of view. Money is often a motivation, but in the long run, a large network and demonstrable working experience will be more valuable. I’ve done volunteer work for Het Net for years, but that company has been a client of mine for many more years still.”

“It’s also important to learn to form your own opinions. The educational system teaches us to accept and then defend other people’s opinions, but in the world of science it’s important to question established insights when needed. Publish writings often, it’ll help you learn to write better. You have to create challenges for yourself like that. Be curious, ask ‘why’ as often as possible. Accept things when you agree with them; if you don’t, talk about it. It’ll make you into a better you, and the world into a better world.”

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