If you were born before the dot-com bubble, read this! — from the Dutch book ‘Ondernemen in 2020

Technology is developing fast, very fast. Many entrepreneurs are having trouble keeping up. Understandably, because most entrepreneurs were born before the internet. Young entrepreneur Danny Mekić advises large companies on their online strategies. “The roots of large, established enterprises don’t adapt easily.”

Talking to Danny Mekić, you’ll realise that times have changed irrevocably. In ‘the old days’, young people were considered inexperienced, green. Like blocks of stone that needed some more chiseling before they’d be ready to take on the grown-ups’ world.

But if you look at today’s major American companies, you’ll notice they were all founded by people in their twenties. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook. The CEO of each of them was – or in Facebook’s case, is – still ‘wet behind the ears’. But in spite of that, they apparently understood how the world works. And that world is digital.

Danny Mekić is young too. Born in 1987, quit high school at the age of 17 (due to the success of his web design company), and by now he has a CV to be reckoned with. He and his company NewTeam give advice on internet activities to some tens of the one hundred largest companies in the Netherlands, for example, and he’s a popular guest lecturer, he’s known in the Netherlands as that one young guy on the talk show De Wereld Draait Door, he’s a university professor about entrepreneurship and other subjects… Well, just read his Wikipedia page to see the rest of his CV.

His advice to entrepreneurs is: get information into your company, involve young people, and think of IT as a means to an end, not as an end it itself. “Humongous amounts of money are being spent on systems like electronic health records, road pricing and the public transport chip card. Even though no one is really happy with those systems.”

IT as a seeing eye dog

Twenty years ago, email and surfing on the internet still had to be discovered by the general public, but nowadays the internet is ubiquitous. Mekić: “We used to have a lousy telecommunications network, really. During the past years, the owners of those networks have been making only the most indispensable investments, and nothing else. But in late 2012, the 4G frequencies were auctioned: the telecom companies are now assured of their ownership of those frequencies for future years. This means they’ll be making significant investments into the network. The 4G networks will be ten times as fast as the 3G networks, and can handle ten times as many connections at a time. That means individual connections will become cheaper, because the total capacity increases. Simultaneously, their use will become more expensive, because the speed of data traffic increases.”

So soon the internet will be everywhere, always, and incredibly fast. You’ll be watching TV on your phone. Surfing the old-fashioned way, using a browser on a PC, will be completely replaced by apps on mobile devices. And because of the cheaper connections, more and more devices will be connected to the Net. That development is called the Internet of Things. Your fridge will let you know when you’re out of milk, and the cat door will send you a notification when Whiskers goes outside.

This will permanently cement the place of technology in our lives. The fourth generation of IT, Mekić calls it. “The first generation of IT systems were direct translations of the existing situation. Like a job agency using IT to replace the physical filing cabinet of potential employers with a ‘digital filing cabinet’. So the customers would be ‘in the computer’. The second generation of IT made it possible for the job agency’s staff to edit and share data. In the current, third generation, we tell computer networks what to do, and they carry out our orders and answer us.”

The fourth generation consists of systems where the directions are reversed. “It’s not the person who initiates contact with the computer, but the other way around. People being guided by computers. It sounds scary, but the first examples are already here: your computer sends you a little note when you get an email, your navigation system tells you when to turn right. Dependence on convenience applications will increase more and more. You occasionally hear stories about people who end up stranded in the middle of nowhere because their navigation system broke down and they have no idea where they are. Basically, we can’t go out without a computer any more. We’re blind and relying on a seeing eye dog.”

And as a black box

IT will partially replace human thoughts and actions. Scary and threatening? Not if your navigation system can find you a parking spot and reserve it. Not if Facebook devotes itself to dating for people who make a good match.

But Mekić too sees a flipside to this. “Networks of computers have made our lives more difficult too. The world has become overly complex because of these developments. The natural equilibrium of checks and balances has been disrupted. We’ve gotten the idea that with all our knowledge, we can solve any problem. That we can control natural processes. There’s a beached whale? A hurricane breaches the dikes? We’ll solve it all!”

So we think we can do anything, but we’re actually losing sight of all the complexity. “The result is that we know relatively less and less. It’s an information overload. It’s not only consumers that suffer from this.  The people who occupy the board rooms now were educated twenty years ago. To them, IT systems are mostly just a black box. And to them, IT has become an end in itself. Humongous amounts of money are being spent on systems like electronic health records, road pricing and the public transport chip card. Lots and lots of money are being invested even though no one is really happy with the system.”

With NewTeam, Mekić helps decision makers to make better decisions about IT.  “The roots of large, established companies don’t adapt easily. They’ve ended up relying on their structure and their system for guidance. These companies seek stability and look for solutions to new problems within existing frameworks. On top of that, there are often major vested interests at play: multinationals try to stay big. For example by keeping others small, and by using patents to create barriers to shut out newcomers.”

Mekić believes the main challenge to large companies is spotting new trends in time and judging their value. But unfortunately for those large companies, smaller companies are a lot more effective when it comes to change and innovation. “To them, change and innovation are part of the plan. Small enterprises outdo multinationals by remaining flexible and agile.”

Mekić believes a system of open innovation is crucial, both for enterprises and for the Dutch state. “There are roughly 70,000 Dutch people working in Silicon Valley. You’re not going to find a job there if you don’t bring along your own innovative knowledge. If you ask those Dutch people why they went there for work, do you know what they say? It’s not because of what’s so great about America, but because of what’s missing in the Netherlands. In Silicon Valley, the core business is to change the world. What the Netherlands lack is ambition and space to work on those changes.”

Experience = old economy

What is it that makes a company successful? Mekić believes the essence of it is the ability to judge whether a decision is right or not. For that, you need to be well-informed and have an open-minded attitude: “‘Gee, I never thought of that’ is a valuable basis for making a good decision.” In short, it’s not about experience, but about an open system of entrepreneurship. “Experience is inherently about the old economy.”

For that reason, Mekić advises entrepreneurs to listen to young people; they’re the consumers and the employees of the future. Not to mention they understand the latest technology a lot better. “There are no multinationals in the Netherlands that allow people in their twenties into their Board of Directors. Companies shy away from giving young people a responsible, relevant position. And yet their insights can be very valuable.”

To help companies overcome that inhibition, NewTeam created the ‘Young Board’: a shadow board that matches young people to their counterparts on the ‘proper’ Board of Directors. These two boards will be discussing the same issues, and exchanging their knowledge and vision.

“Young people often realise they lack the required managing experience to actually be in charge of a big organisation. But that can’t be a reason to shut out their point of view. With the Young Board, older and younger people become each other’s mentors: the younger ones are coached about their leadership skills, and the older ones are supplied with innovative insights.”

“The essence of success is the ability to judge whether a decision is right or not. Whether it’s about a societal problem or a decision within an enterprise, in either situation decisions need to be made based on available information. If entrepreneurs create an open system that acquires new insights, it will lead to better decision-making. ‘Gee, I never thought of that’ is a valuable basis for making a good decision.”