Danny Mekić (1987) is a born entrepreneur. He started his first internet company at the age of 15. After winning a number of awards in 2009, he started appearing in the media more and more often. This caused him to end up in the phone books of the ‘éminence grise’, who invited him to all sorts of inspirational and strategic meets.
His personal passion is about two types of companies. Firstly, there are the large oil tankers. They need to keep going ahead, because everyone expects them to. But they can have trouble with that, because it’s difficult for them to alter their course in times when the waves are very changeable. His other passion is in encouraging entrepreneurship. Hence, his second company is an investment company that focuses on startups. He’s looking for ‘disturbing innovations’, ideas that could challenge the establishment and that show that things could be done entirely differently and much better. They often don’t have enough money to be interesting to a bank.
By now he’s ready for his third company, NewTeam. It’s a consultancy firm staffed by teenagers and people in their twenties. At the moment they’re employed by 40 of the 100 largest organisations in the Netherlands. Their goal is to change organisations from inside, to challenge them and improve them in the areas of technology, media, communication, entrepreneurship and law. The idea of the company is to first look for good people, instead of pushing your proposition on your clients. The difference between them and other firms is that their advice doesn’t automatically come with a proposal to take care of it themselves. And that’s exactly what makes them trustworthy.
What are Danny Mekić’s thoughts on notions like trust, transparency and authenticity? We went to his office in Amsterdam to ask.
In the past, there were small banks, small insurance companies, small bakeries, small stores. In the past few decades, companies have grown tremendously. You can see that to accommodate for this larger scale, large organisations have started ignoring individuality. People believed that at a larger scale, it would be necessary to have one central point of contact for all the customers. And that only works if you nullify individual freedom. For example, if you call the help desk of your phone provider and ask a perfectly sensible question, you’ll be told that it’s impossible. If you then ask why it’s impossible, they’ll tell you it’s impossible because it doesn’t fit into the system. In recent years we’ve seen that, due to the crisis (which it would honestly be better to call a turning point), large organisations have been trying to save money on service and customer relations. After all, all the other large organisations are doing it too. Aside from that, due to digitalisation, companies are challenged by a new type of startup that takes an entirely different approach. These startups are able to revive the values of the small town bakery.
Moreover, a sort of trap has been created by consumers finding each other on social media and comparison sites. With individuals collecting small bits of information and being connected to one another via the internet, you’ll get a reliable idea of how an organisation works in practice. Consumers are finding out that their trust in organisations is less well-deserved than they thought. That leads to decreasing trust. This is made worse still by the aftershocks of several industries where all sorts of scandals have come to light. Think for example of politics, financial institutions or the retail sector.
Organisations will therefore need to change in order to be able to regain people’s trust. That starts with being honest to yourself. What do we really do? Do we really treat our customers well? Can we satisfy them? If that’s not feasible, you should do something else. Investments are retroactively being made in customer satisfaction, but companies rarely ask themselves whether they as an organisation really deserve to be trusted. What’s striking is that in the people in the various board rooms often say the same things as their competitors. If you ask them why customers choose them, the answer is almost always: ‘we provide good service.’ And ‘good service’ is then defined as ‘slightly less awful than the competitor’s’. So when it comes to trust, organisations convince themselves that it’s all not so bad. When the employees at the help desk are only allowed to say ‘no’, then there may be a service channel, but customer satisfaction is still zero (as is the motivation of the help desk workers). Trust is therefore something organisations need to build up again. It’s not just about a trustworthy demeanour; people need to feel it. Trust exists in relation to the other person.
Transparency used to be something a company could grant. Nowadays, it’s something that happens to them. They are less and less in control of it themselves. The consumer’s consciousness and knowledge has grown enormously in recent years, as a result of the rise of the internet. In order to be able to retain the consumer’s trust, organisations should not resist this transparency.
If your organisation doesn’t offer transparency itself, someone else will do it for you. And that almost always has negative consequences. For example, the Dutch government is not known for having the most innovative approach. We often read news reports about failed IT projects. However, that’s not how things really are. There’s a great amount of innovation within the Dutch government. But they’re not transparent about it. The media fill in the blanks left by that vagueness. The government would therefore do better to make those innovations publicly known and let people discuss them. This can lead to good suggestions for improvement. That’s why for organisations, the question comes back to: how well are we really doing? If you claim for example that you offer the best vacations, with the best air travel, the best hotels, the best service and also the lowest price, you’ll have to deliver on that promise. But that’s often not possible, because that combination doesn’t exist. That’s when organisations are caught in a lie.
In some situations, however, transparency is unnecessary, or even undesirable. When an airline company never has any accidents, you don’t ask about the maintenance of their aircraft. Or when an asset management company yields a twenty percent return year after year, you don’t ask how they do it. In that situation, you want transparency in another area: what’s the price for getting to work with you? Basically, the use of transparency is mostly to compensate where trust is lacking. This goes both ways. When there’s one hundred percent trust, people won’t require transparency. And vice versa: when there’s no trust, people will demand one hundred percent transparency.
For an organisation, authenticity should be a constant variable. There was a Facebook conversation involving the Dutch airline KLM that appeared in the news, for which KLM was lauded for its authentic reaction. ‘KLM my man, I need you bro!’ That’s a rough equivalent of how Willem Nout started his message on the Facebook page of KLM, writing in Dutch street slang. He wanted to fly to San Francisco, making a stop in New York to go ‘chill’ there. Willem wanted to know how to get there as thriftily as possible. The airline replied with style. ‘What up, Willem! The Big Apple is mad awesome for sure.’KLM recommended booking an extra flight within the country. That’s nicely done, of course. But in order to call it authenticity, you should also be able to make a post in the Frisian dialect and get a reply in Frisian back. Or in The Hague’s regional slang, et cetera. Only when this is done by default can you call it authenticity. In order to implement that properly, messages in slang or dialect should actually be sent to a department where there are employees who speak that language. Incidentally, when I sent them a message in street slang a week later, I received not only almost a hundred likes from people who saw it — but also a reply from KLM written in standard Dutch.
It’s interesting to see how various terms like trust, transparency and authenticity used to be mainly used for people, but now we judge companies in the same ways. At the moment, companies primarily see this as a commercial opportunity. However, the consumer discovers more and more often that it’s just a trick, which makes them consider those companies unauthentic. That’s detrimental to trust.
In order to be authentic, you need to be autonomous. Being autonomous means being free in your actions. It means not being restricted by a strict system. So it starts with the freedom of the employees that make up the company. But the company should guide it. If an employee working at a funeral insurance company would reply with ‘what up, Willem’, it wouldn’t have the same effect.
Meaning is an immediate answer to the question ‘why’. Why should people become customers of our organisation? Many organisations still think customers like being customers. Think of the financial sector for example. We don’t like being customers of a bank at all. We have to be customers of a bank. If you really want to be meaningful as an organisation, then you need to contribute to someone’s life in a positive way. People need to feel that they want to be your customers.
But there’s more and more competition. Think of airports for example. Twenty years ago, there were three major companies renting cars. Nowadays, there are twenty of them in a row. They all offer the same type of car for roughly the same price. The only difference is that one might be just one euro cheaper than another or use pushier marketing tactics to compel their customers just that little bit more. These companies have become interchangeable. They’ve lost their meaning. On top of that, feeling the pressure of the 24 hour economy, the average time a consumer is willing to spend thinking about a decision has dropped drastically. That’s why it’s important for an organisation to be emotionally meaningful to its consumers. Functional meaning isn’t that important to us any more. Anyone can provide that. We just don’t have time to think about that any more. That’s why these days people feel more personally connected with a company like Apple than a chip manufacturer like Intel.
As said, there are more companies than ever, and the choices to make are more complex than they’ve ever been. On top of that, we have more to do than ever before. This creates an interesting paradox: it’s impossible to make a more difficult decision in less time but end up with an equally good choice. For that reason, companies can no longer win with arguments. In other words, it’s not just about ‘being the best’. Short-lived associations can be much more powerful than being a good company. Think of car brands for example. Ask anyone who makes the safest cars and many would answer Volvo. This is mainly because they were the ones who introduced the seatbelt. But if you ask them if they’ve ever driven a Volvo, not all of them can say they have. So people don’t actually know whether it’s really the safest car there is. The power of public perception is unmistakable.
It’s all about creating positive associations in people. This all starts with expectations. Earlier we discussed travel agencies that claim to be the best but often fail to deliver in practice. For low budget organisations, things are different. The plane will be uncomfortably packed, there will be no food or drink on board, your luggage will be weighed down to the milligram, et cetera. It’s basically just awful. And yet, these organisations are gaining popularity. Because they can deliver what they promise. When you have the image of a company that can deliver on its promises, people will only remember the positive aspects, i.e. that you’re affordable. When you try something but fail to achieve it, people will only remember negative associations, i.e. that you’re overpriced. So once again, it all starts with being honest to yourself. Can we deliver what we promise? If you consistently do, and keep exceeding expectations in a good way, consumers will remember a positive association. This requires patience. Many companies don’t have time for this and want it to change immediately. But that often only leads to bigger mistakes.
Data are becoming more and more important to creating a credible image. Our society is very changeable but at the same time consumers are more predictable than ever, due to the traces we leave behind as individuals. You don’t necessarily have to take advantage of it if you know something about your customer. If you put it to use in a good way, you’ll know what to do today to become trustworthy tomorrow. What consumers like at this moment is simplicity and relevance. Suppose the supermarket would say: we promise that without violating your privacy, we will deliver exactly the groceries you need every other day. We’d say: sure. We’d be more than happy to give up our data for that. A company like Google has become so relevant that we trust them — whether we ought to or not. You’ll get a good image by doing well for a long time and continuing to fulfil your promises. This is increasingly becoming a matter of keeping your customers’ personal information safe.
Entrepreneurs need to follow developments from an international perspective. A British newspaper is going to report the same news in a different way than a German or Dutch one. This is where our current education system often fails: it teaches us only to think from a Dutch perspective. We look at other countries, but never from an international perspective. I didn’t finish high school myself. That had to do with my clashing with the system. I wanted to do things myself. Later on, by means of an entrance exam for 21+ year olds, at the age of twenty I was admitted into the University of Amsterdam, where I started studying jurisprudence. I also took up subjects at other faculties, in the areas of psychology, communication sciences and economy. Separate disciplines as we know them now, guarded by gatekeepers, programme managers and associate professors, will disappear in the future, because disciplines subsume each other more and more. Think about the doctor of the future, for example: will that be a doctor with a specialisation in IT and robotics, or an engineer with a high level of expertise about the human body?
People continue working until a much later age than they used to. In order to take on the future, the most important skill is to be able to constantly reinvent yourself. You need to try to become autodidactic. In other words, you need to be able to teach yourself new things. The world has changed tremendously in very little time. In the future it will be no different. If you want to play a role in that world, you will need to do things that have a high probability of failure. If you do that ten times, one try will work out. This is what most entrepreneurs dream of now: that one brilliant idea. But in practice, they look outside to see what’s being done and then they just join in.
The key is always to create more value compared to the status quo. You need to ask yourself: how could things be better? You need to be able to be what connects individual consumers. Entrepreneurs are increasingly becoming experts. It used to be easy to get by just ‘moving boxes’. In the future, it’ll be more about handling knowledge, data and technology. Just being a company is no longer enough in this age. Companies need to keep reinventing themselves. Every year, they should ask themselves the question: if we would start all over tomorrow, would we do things the same way? There are many large companies that haven’t asked themselves this question for too long.
Interview by Rudy van Belkom of Imagobureau TINK! and Fontys University of Applied Sciences.