“Entrepreneurship begins at not taking the world around you for granted”

How did you encounter entrepreneurship during your childhood?

That’s a good and interesting question. After all, what is entrepreneurship? Most people would think of starting a company, but to me entrepreneurship is something much more fundamental still. Entrepreneurship begins at not taking the world around you for granted. Seeing opportunities for improvement and then trying to realise them, creating value for other people or companies, for a reward or otherwise. I’ve done that since I was little. To my high school teachers, I was always a little restless and troublesome: I always asked the difficult questions, like asking why. At a young age – I was 12 – I took up volunteer work at Het Net, one of the first and largest internet service providers. They were building the internet as we now know it, and there, asking why was a useful question: it generated interesting discussions. It taught me to think in terms of solutions rather than problems. Personally I really enjoy to always go looking for improvements. This has been my main motivation to become an independent entrepreneur. At the age of fifteen I started my first company.

Did your parents always give you room and/or support with this? 

My parents quickly got the impression that I thought differently about things. They tried to get me onto the normal road, but they also saw I had a lot of fun creating my own path: I was doing things that I really enjoyed and that interested me. Soldering, programming, constructing computers — in the mid-nineties those were very unusual things for a young teenager to do. When they noticed I was difficult to keep on track, they tried the opposite instead and tried to channel my energy into the right direction by having me do certain activities: for example, doing volunteer work. And although we didn’t have computer classes yet at my grade school, I got to repair the rector’s computer when it broke down.

But in high school I realised I wasn’t learning what I wanted to learn, and that what I did outside of class hours — working with technology — was more fun, and I could even make money with it, too. Sometimes I also wasn’t allowed to answer the teacher’s questions in class — which I did often — because it made the other pupils answer questions less. That didn’t really help for my motivation, of course: I started to feel less welcome. Then I discovered that compulsory education only lasted up to the age of sixteen at the time. Meanwhile my company was starting to really grow and I started to believe that maybe I could also get by without high school. At some point I also ended up in a situation where things weren’t going very well in school: I was constantly clashing with teachers who wanted to help me, and others who thought that ‘Danny of all people’ ‘should (be able to) follow the regular education programme’. It created an enormous tension and I didn’t want that any more, I didn’t like the regular education programme, I liked the training I’d built up for myself: I wanted to quit school. My girlfriend at the time and my parents were strongly opposed to that. But I did it anyway. When they saw my conviction, and after I’d thought through what I’d do if my plain would fail and made a concrete plan B — going back to school — they decided to support me after all.

In an article in De Telegraaf, you say that “Facebook has much more power than we users think”. Could you explain what this power consists of and should we take this as a warning? What do you think needs to change?

What we see is that startups, particularly ones from Silicon Valley, some of which have by now grown into companies worth billions, have become an integral part of who we are as a person. They’re no longer tools, but have become extensions of our brains. We’re not the same person any more without our laptops or smartphones, whereas in earlier times it would have been fine to leave your pen or pencil at home for a day. We’ve grown dependent.

We all know the story of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. He gave us the solution to make our social lives simpler, clearer and more relevant, by bundling them together onto one platform. We now see that social platforms like Facebook are playing a more and more important role in society. We’ve grown so accustomed to it that we don’t realise that the magnitude of those platforms, and with it our average level of dependence, has drastically increased. By buying the messenger service WhatsApp, and earlier Instagram too, Zuckerberg wants to ensure the preservation of his position in the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Meanwhile, great amounts of our information (and information about us) are being saved in databases that are (or can be) linked to one another. What I worry about is that this has put the autonomy of individuals in jeopardy. ‘Autonomy’ in this context means that nobody is allowed to know more about you that you know about yourself. It means having control of your own life. Facebook, but definitely Google as well, knows more about the average user than that user knows about themselves. The problem is that we are currently not collectively powerful enough to demand or switch to a privacy-friendly alternative. The danger is that Facebook knows what ‘facts’ need to be overturned in people’s perception in order to change certain opinions en masse — that makes it into a giant ‘opinion engine’. I worry that we will turn more and more into the person Facebook — or our ‘friends’ on it — wants us to be, because that can be lucrative. At the present moment there is no one who keeps the algorithms of the Googles and the Facebooks of the world in check, which are being used to present seemingly objective information. We do not know how this selection is done. There should be an ‘algorithm’ or ‘Big Data authority’ that protects us from our data.

Near the end of last year, supermarket chain Albert Heijn introduced their new discount card. It immediately received considerable criticism because that card would violate people’s privacy. What’s your opinion on this?

It was very fascinating that Albert Heijn was presenting this new discount card as something new. The ‘new’ discount card is just like the ‘old’ one, a plastic card with a bar code. There’s nothing new about that. The main reason for Albert Heijn to introduce a ‘new’ discount card was to try to get more users’ personal information — most of the users of the old discount card used it anonymously. They also noticed users often exchanged discount cards, which meant the profiles they were building up were qualitatively less valuable. So the new discount card has been a marketing ploy — which I think was pretty much a failure — to get more people to use a personalised discount card, in order to make that card actually personal. Albert Heijn wants to use this personalised card to offer its customers tailored discounts and trinkets based on their shopping behaviour. So the new discount card is actually about collecting more private information about customers and then also linking that information to their purchases. Albert Heijn wants to use this discount card to find out what kinds of special offers you are susceptible to. I don’t have any problems with this card at all, because you’re free not to use it.

However, in Great-Britain, at Tesco — a major supermarket chain — something is happening that I am not okay with at all. Besides a discount card, the Tesco Clubcard, Tesco has also started scanning their customers’ faces. It’s not clear, or at any rate impossible to be sure, what exactly they do with that facial data. I hope all they do is analyse whether you are a man or a woman, young or old, and then show you tailored advertisements at the cash register. But if they’re really up to no good, they’ll register your purchase with your face. And if you buy your groceries there every week, then after a year they will have 52 snapshots of your face.

They’ll be able to tell if you’ve been gaining weight, or that you’ve been on a holiday — you were gone for a while and returned with a tan. Whether you shop on your own or with your girlfriend, or with a different woman every time. Furthermore, they’ll know what exactly you buy over the duration of a whole year. The information they have about you is so extensive that they’re able to get you to buy things you didn’t actually want to buy. So in that situation, our autonomy is being limited.

In your replies to various articles from The Economist, you discuss the effects of the development of technology on human labour. We are becoming more and more dependent on technology. Do you welcome these developments, and if so, what are the flipsides?

Technology is seen as autonomous, like a little plant: it’s getting bigger and growing up until eventually it will be a tree, that’s how nature works. We talk about this development like it’s an unstoppable whirlwind beyond anyone’s control. Of course that’s not true: we ourselves control technology and its evolution, and that’s how we should see it.

Still, I think technology is a very wonderful thing. It’s a bit like art, and there can be beauty in it. Technology helps people to do more in less time, and to do it better too. It reduces your dependence on other people. This is great particularly for sick and poor people, because it can drastically improve their quality of life. But there is also a dark side: particularly large companies, governments and secret services can take advantage of it.

So on the one hand I am a fan of technology and technological progress, and on the other hand it bothers me that the evolution of technology is unstoppable, or seems that way, or is portrayed that way. In the area of labour, the advance of technology seems unstoppable too. Scientists have predicted that half of the jobs in America could be automated and digitalised in the near future. But what nobody is talking about is whether we want that. Nobody is talking about where, in the end, we want to go with these technological developments. 20 years from now, would the contents of this interview be injected directly into your brain, will we be sitting around all day and not do anything physical any more? Will there no longer be ‘jobs’ as we know them — will a computer system give us assignments all day, for example, in exchange for points we can spend to pay for our needs — and will craftsmanship be gone? If we don’t start seeing technology differently, like more of a tool, then that could be our future. What we should do is first imagine what an ‘ideal life’ would be like, including every possible technology, and imagine what an ideal day in an ideal world would be like. Is that really a world where human efforts and thoughts and autonomy no longer have their place? I think nobody wants that.

We read reports about attacks on governmental websites and bank websites every week. Aren’t we far too vulnerable to such attacks? What measures will need to be taken to limit / prevent this?

Technology and the usage of it isn’t one hundred percent safe, and it never will be. On average it’s actually becoming less and less safe: there is more technology, it’s used more and used more often, it’s attacked more often, there are more (versions of) software applications that the developers all simultaneously need to keep safe. There are different kinds of devices: not just computers, but also laptops, smartphones, tablets, smartwatches and Google’s Glass. So we’ll see more and more of the downsides of technology too, in part also because we are being confronted with the fact that technology doesn’t always do what we want or what we hope for. A recent example is the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines aeroplane MH370. We’ll probably never know what exactly happened to it. More than ever we’ll need to take into account the possibility of failure or malfunctioning of technology that our society and our private lives are increasingly reliant upon. That’s why I advise my consultancy customers to also arrange a ‘plan O’, a plan Offline. This means that as an organisation, besides everything you do digitally and electronically, you should also be able to switch to an offline strategy with limited costs and within a limited time. This means that governments should be able to serve citizens offline and banks should still be able to issue banknotes or enable financial transactions in some way, even when the systems don’t work. In many places there is no offline alternative any more. At some point in the future, that’s going to go wrong.

Besides working for your own company, you have also worked part-time as a paralegal for the law firm SOLV for a time. What do you remember most about that time?

What I thought was very nice to see at such a specialised law firm was how important the customers are and how important your knowledge is. Both of those were in focus there. In the corridors and during lunch breaks, the conversations were always about business, new laws, recent verdicts by judges and how to help the client as much as possible. I was very happy to see that. This is an aspect that is missing for major companies, banks and insurance firms: not all of the conversations there are about improving their services. Another thing I saw was how important co-workers can be in an organisation. I got to work with such a wonderful and well-motivated team. I also remember that it was incredibly hard work, but in life you should really do something that you like so much that you want to do it every day. And you need to discover what you are passionate about; that is, what you love so much that you want to devote every day of your life to it, and would even be willing to occasionally get up or go to bed at 5 AM for. However, our current educational system is all about knowledge and abilities, but it’s never about what students actually want. So you can only discover that on your own, by sampling things, trying things and going out there. I’ve had a very good time at SOLV.

What’s your greatest passion besides entrepreneurship? 

My piano, and playing it, which is something I think I should do every day too. Whenever I’m abroad, I try to stay as much as possible in hotels where they also have a piano. I also love photography very much and lately I’ve been experimenting with videos.

Do you have any tips for students?

Don’t apply to a job or function, but instead try to find the person you want to work for. It won’t be a recruiter, unless you want to become a recruiter yourself, but it could be for example a director, manager, entrepreneur or head of department. Try to get in touch with him or her, figure out ahead of time how you could help them, and then try to discuss with them that you would like to do that for a while to prove yourself. As a volunteer. That way you’ll soon discover, mutually, whether you would be a suitable match. And whether they have work to do that makes you happy, that you are good at and in which you could and would want to grow.

Once you’re in the company you’ll have to slowly take root there by networking, making sure everyone know you, doing your job well. Making sure they enjoy working with you and that you are highly valuable. If they need you, they’ll give you a job. If they don’t have the budget to hire you right away, you’ll still be one of the first people they call to apply.

Danny Mekić (1987) was declared ‘most successful young entrepreneur in the Netherlands’ in 2009, and is a jurist and an expert in the area of technology. At the moment, with his third company, NewTeam, he works as a management consultant for the Boards of Directors of major organisations in and outside the country, but also for governmental institutions such as the FIOD (the Fiscal Information and Investigation Service) and the CJIB (Central Judicial Collection Agency).

This interview was conducted by Jurist in Bedrijf of the Maastricht University for their magazine “JiBulletin“.

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