When The Next Web covered Jobspotting on launch day, my heart did a little backflip. Anyone who knows their tech journalism won’t be surprised by my coronary gymnastics. The Next Web is one of the largest tech blogs in the world and their coverage meant that our site would be under the eyes of thousands of people globally.
Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten co-founded TNW along with Patrick de Laive, but he didn’t take what one might call the traditional route – if there is such a thing – into tech. journalism. A graduate of art and circus schools, he was at one point the only person in The Netherlands who could juggle seven balls. He would go on to juggle serial entrepreneurship, a wildly popular tech blog and conference series with the same creativity.
I caught up with Boris to talk about the value of creativity and persistence, the difference between luck and serendipity and how nobody really knows what they’re doing.
The Next Web is one of the biggest blogs in the world, but you’ve said that there wasn’t any strategy for this as such. If not a grand master plan, what do you think was key to its continued success?
That comment was made by me to make people understand that growing a business is as much about seizing opportunities as it is about developing strategies. We were always ambitious and saw opportunities, but we also just worked hard instead of sitting in front of a whiteboard staring at the ceiling and thinking about our strategy. Sometimes I’ll speak with aspiring entrepreneurs who think they need a well thought out business plan. In those cases I like to emphasise that most companies pivot at some point so that too much planning is just a waste of time.
Where did the idea for TNW come from?
At the time we were building our own online service and we thought about a good way to launch it. A conference seemed like a logical place, but that was also expensive. We decided to organize our own conference then as that seemed cheaper. That was a very naïve idea but it turned out very well. People loved the event and even though the service never launched the conference became very successful. We’ve grown from there to a worldwide network of events and a successful blog. (proves my point about pivoting!)
You’ve said that the real breakthroughs come as moments of “hey, that’s funny!”. Does that mean that success is largely down to luck and experimentation?
Success is mostly hard work. I don’t really like to use ‘luck’ but rather talk about serendipity. The difference is that luck is a very passive concept. You either are or are not lucky. With serendipity you create the optimal circumstances to get lucky. It is a more active form of lucky. I like the idea of being in charge of my own destiny and being able to control luck that way. I consider us very lucky but we also worked very hard to become lucky.
You advocate that people take a “stop planning, and start dreaming” approach to entrepreneurship. Do you think that’s a credo that also applies to more traditional careers?
There’s a very inspiring talk by Tim Minchin that explains this very well. He tells people that it is important to look at the small opportunities that present themselves every day around you. If you plan ahead too much you mind find that you might miss the small opportunities. It seems contrary to what I wrote because I said ‘start dreaming’ and he says ‘stop dreaming’ but the idea is the same: allow some room for serendipity, fun and luck and you might be surprised at how far you can get. Not every step has to be in line with your grand goals or has to make sense in excel.
You have a very varied background across the arts and tech, two fields that often tend to be boxed separately. What do you think has spurred on this renewed understanding that tech/science and the arts aren’t mutually exclusive?
For me personally my art (and circus) school education is what gives me my competitive edge compared to my fellow entrepreneurs. I found out I have a different perspective on things. We now live in an age where we are confronted with technological advances every day. All these advances are tools that are looking for new applications. It takes a geek to invent a technology and an artist to invent new way to apply these tools. Or a creative geek, or a nerdy artist. That’s also what I love about my work; we see all these new platforms, technologies and business models and with each new development the new combinations you could make increase exponentially. Who knows what the next Instagram or Whatsapp or the Apple Watch is going to be? I don’t know right now, but I’ll be one of the first to know, because that’s what we write about daily on The Next Web. It is amazing and exciting to be living right now, to be a spectator but to also be involved and be able to play a part in a world that is changing so fast and in mysterious ways.
On TNW’s staff page, it says “they get paid too!”. Do you feel like the creative sides of business, such as writing and visual art are often undervalued?
It used to be undervalued, and there are still businesses that don’t value their creative people enough. But times are changing and more companies seem to realise that being creative can be very efficient and make economic sense.
It’s notoriously hard to build a successful blog and create a business from it. What do you think are the key components in pulling it off?
Persistence. I could tell you all about how smart we are or how creative but really the main thing is hanging in there and proving to your potential audience that you are here to stay. So many writers give up after a year or two. It isn’t until you’ve been around for 4 years or more that people start having faith that you are a source they should start coming back to on a daily basis. We continuously invest in good independent writers and build unique services for our most loyal readers like TNW Pro, a paid ad-free environment with features that promote our readers’ thought leadership. An intelligent and growing audience attracts commercial deals, not the other way around.
What advice would you offer to people who are just starting to embark on their careers? Have you any nuggets of wisdom for how to nurture a fulfilling career?
I heard Ricky Gervais say that he wished that someone had told him ‘nobody else knows what they’re doing either’ when he was younger. So that is what I would love to tell people. Not just younger people though but everybody. You might think you don’t have enough money, are too old or too young, don’t know enough people, don’t have the skills or maybe that you are too late to the party, but that’s all bullshit. The party is just getting started, nobody has any idea what they are doing, and if you start today and work really hard you can still build something great. When I first got online, in 1996, my first thought was ‘Damn, I’m too late’. Yahoo was already popular and I thought I missed it. Go figure.
Blogs and content marketing have become a big part of company strategies as they vie for space online. Do you think this is a healthy thing for online content?
I think the world is changing so fast that it makes sense for companies to keep track of what’s happening and how they can take advantage or that. Good storytellers attract an audience and providing relevant content might increase your trustworthiness in your industry, but you’ve got to keep it real. A website or a blog is not the ultimate answer to everything. I’ve spoken to companies and told them to not even bother with a website or online shop because it didn’t make much sense for their business. But ignoring everything can be dangerous as well. We recently launched a service called TNW Index, the tool allows you to keep track of news and companies that are of interest to your business.
Across your spheres of interest in tech and the arts, who do you look to for inspiration?
Inspiration usually comes from unexpected sources. I don’t search for it as much as stumble upon it. I do read a lot. Both online but also books. And talk to a lot of intelligent people, like the speakers of our events. I always enjoy listening to comedians as they seem to have taken the role artists used to have in the past where they give us a different look on things while at the same times they criticise society.
As you’re an artist and a juggler, can you recommend an artist that our readers should check out?
I enjoy visiting art academie shows where I live as you can see the work of young and promising artists there. But the classics are also great to look into. Man Ray was an extremely innovative photographer who was always playing around with technology and finding new ways to make art. I also always enjoyed Jeff Koons look at being an artist and how he brought economics and business into the art world. We also invite artists to our Conferences. At TNW Europe last year the artist Dadara did a performance about Connectedness in the Virtual Age, which I found very enlightening. You can watch it here.
One last question: I saw your business card suit on your website. Was it in any way inspired by Bernard Black’s “rather smart casual jacket” that he crafted from his tax returns?
Ha no, I didn’t know about that one. It just goes to show that original ideas can quickly become obvious. It isn’t so much about who came up with something first but more about who executed the idea best. When Youtube was bought by Google lots of people thought it amazing that Google paid so much money for such a simple idea; video online. But there were 17,000 youtube’s before Youtube. 17,000 sites that tried to implement that idea. But only youtube managed to execute it as well as they did. And that is why they became as successful as they did.
All images kindly provided by The Next Web.