How Boris Veldhuizen van Zanten creates space by creating a perfect working ecosystem

Happyplaces Stories (video)

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So, how do you create space for new businesses, new industries? And how do you create space for people to flourish in a company, your company? How do you juggle between everything you do and where you are involved in and be so genuinely nice and humble? These were some of the questions I had for Boris. He is a succesvol ‘serial entrepreneur’ and currently the CEO and co-founder of The Next Web, and involved in a lot of other initiatives that involve technology, startups and more. He is quite the character: he went to the circus school when he was 15 and learned to juggle 7 balls, graduated cum laude from art school and now organises, amongst other things, the annual The Next Web Conference, with over 20,000 attendees in 2016 it is one of the largest tech conferences in Europe. Fascinating.

‘Technology not only changes, it changes faster and faster. Once you realise this, you will realise that it is useless to resign yourself to technology. You have to take into account that everything continually changes, and that these changes occur at an increasing pace.

When I first began to use the internet in 1996, I felt like I was too late. I went online and noticed that Yahoo was live. Two young students had founded this index in their spare time. At that moment, Yahoo was already the world’s biggest website. My first thought was: “Shit, I am too late”. Because I had already read about the computer revolution, and I thought: “Wow, it must have been so exciting to experience this”. There were no computers yet and people noticed this. They saw an opportunity and they took it. I was aware of this and felt like I had missed out on this opportunity. And then the World Wide Web gained popularity. And I thought: “Shit, I am too late. I missed it again”. So… In 1996, I felt like I had missed out on this revolution. But then I started working with it and I slowly began to realise that I had not actually missed out: I was still on time.

And for me, this is what is most exciting. It is a revolution that is taking place right now. Not only can I enjoy this revolution as a spectator, which is already extremely exciting but also as an active participant, and even as some sort of pioneer. I not only spectate, but I also create. This is also how new things are usually created. So, I see how this medium changes and I witness the creation of new technologies.

A large part of my work is to simply read what is going on. You will see connections: historical connections. Or technologies you can re-apply. And usually this is how new things are created. But also from frustration. I sometimes notice that I do this manual thing, that there is a rhythm or repetition in something I do. It makes me wonder: if it is repetitive, why is it not yet automatized? Or I do work which I don’t feel like doing. And I think: Why can’t I move the focus of my work to someone else? So it is, I think, a combination of an abundance of things, historical awareness and the realisation that you can change anything. But also your expertise and witnessing the every-day developments.

The Next Web is my ideal company. That is how you could say it. I have founded and sold multiple companies. It is always a challenge to found and a pleasure to sell. But at one point my partners and I said: “What changes should be made to this company so that we will never want to sell it again?”. And that it grows to be a business that will still be the best place in the world for me in thirty years from now. The Next Web is slowly turning into such a company. Because if you think about it like this, you begin to wonder what your talents and wishes are and what you want to achieve in life. How do I build sort of an ecosystem around me in which everything functions optimally?

One example of this. We were in Sao Paolo, where we organise conferences. And I always have to remind myself that this is a business trip. But I constantly make a slip and say that I am on a vacation. So I’d say: “In two weeks I’ll be on a vacatio… I mean business trip with The Next Web”. To me, it feels like a vacation. And, I think, some people work very hard and have boring jobs so that they can go on vacation to Brazil. While I am walking around Brazil thinking: “This is my job”. I am here as a part of my company. Once you have achieved this, travelling around the world with your company, you will never have to go on a vacation again. This is how the company grows around us. It would be great if, in a few years, my co-founder would say to me: “Are you going to Saudi-Arabia next week? We’re having an event there”. And then I could say: “I’ll pass, but I am going to Moscow next month, because I’ve never been there before”.

I constantly see opportunities and possibilities to build things. And then you can start thinking: what are the ideal circumstances to build new things? You will need a number of things, or components: You need money, reach, people who support you. So I also hope that The Next Web will grow in these components. So that we can say: Okay, we have a new idea. Let’s take two programmers and have them help out. We have a designer whom we can ask to develop a logo, and we will have gathered everything in one week’s time. And then we can start building this, we will launch it on The Next Web. And then it is actually more like content for The Next Web, interesting to read about. And if it becomes successful, we spin it off so that it can begin to lead its own life. For as long as it remains interesting, I can occupy myself with it and study it. And, add my talents to it. But meanwhile, we are in an ecosystem where anything goes, really. I look at it as a self-reinforcing unity. Because all these components enhance one another. I think the blog is more entertaining to read especially because we do projects of our own and sometimes write about these. And then it is equally entertaining to read about something that succeeded, as it is to read about something that failed. Both are useful when you are an entrepreneur, or when you are interested in reading about technologies. Both the things that succeeded and the things that failed.

An important difference between, a boss and a leader, I think… I remember selling my company at KPN but remaining in office as a manager. One morning, my secretary told me, —I had a secretary— she said: “He, that boy, only came in at 09:05 today”. And I said: “Em, okay?” And she told me: “You have to say something about it to him”. And I thought: No way I am going to talk to him about that, why would I? She said: “If you don’t talk to him about it today, he will show up at 09:10 tomorrow and the day after at 09:15…” I didn’t think: Oh, I have to do something now. I thought: I have to get the hell out of here. This is not the type of company I want to work for. Where people handle their jobs like this. I also think it is important to preserve this feeling. I am not the type of boss or manager who tells you what to do. Rather, I am someone who says: “I think it should more or less end here in six months”. And I work with people who then either become inspired and say: “You are damn right and I am going to make sure that we achieve this”… Or they say: “This is a bad idea”. And they give pushback. After which we will discuss the project and might end up cancelling it. But I think the moment you have to tell someone: “You have to do this because I am your boss” you have already lost. That is the wrong type of energy if you want to motivate people. So I never feel like I am a manager. It feels more like I work with a group of people who all want to move forward, but who may not always know if we have to take a right or left. Then it is good to have someone who is fully confident and says: “No, we really have to go right”. Even if I am sometimes hesitant myself, it is important to keep going forward. So I think that you will see companies where a manager is needed, but I really hope that manager won’t have to be me.’