Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten is a serial entrepreneur, blogger, speaker — and a guy who likes to "link to things that inspire me or make me laugh."
What else would you expect from a man who went to the circus school when he was 15, and once, in 1987, held the distinction of being the only person in The Netherlands who could juggle 7 balls?
He's also co-founder and CEO of The Next Web (TNW), a company that manages several initiatives focused on international technology news, business and culture. More recently he startedTwitterCounter.com, which he describes as a combination of Feedburner and Google Analytics for Twitter.
Starting companies is apparently something the Amsterdam-based businessman just likes to do. In 1997, he launched his first company, V3 redirect services, a redirect service that was acquired by Fortune City in 1999. In 2001 he founded HubHop, a WIFI hotspot service, which was acquired by the Dutch telecom operator KPN.
An Idea Man
Veldhuijzen van Zanten said he spends a lot of time keeping up with new trends on the web, Internet and in technology in general, as well as looking for opportunities.
In his spare time, he participates in the Startup Europe Leaders Club, an organization set up by Neelie Kroes within the European Commission to stimulate a better startup climate in Europe and to create role models for startup founders. Other members are Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon (Spotify), Kaj Hed (Rovio), and Niklas Zennström (Skype / Atomico).
We caught up with him recently to discuss innovation, start-up and transforming idea to reality.
Sobel: When I think of the phrase "serial entrepreneur," I think of you. Can you talk a bit about the companies you founded and the journey that got you where you are today?
Veldhuijzen van Zanten: As Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford Commencement Speech "you can only connect the dots looking backwards." When I dropped out of school at age 15 I didn’t foresee ending up where I am today, but looking back it was a very logical and helpful path of choices that led me here.
I learned to be ambitious and disciplined in circus school. Then I attended art school, which taught me to look at the world differently and not be limited by what other people think or see. So when I started my first company, there were a lot of things I didn’t know and I didn’t have a lot of experience, but I worked harder than most others and had a fresh look on things that turned out to be my competitive edge.
Sobel: You and I met back in 2008 when I was in Amsterdam on business. We talked about some of your businesses and the fact that you were very excited about the future of TNW, which at the time was primarily a European version of Mashable. How have things changed at TNW over the past six years?
Veldhuijzen van Zanten: We soon recognized that our growth depended on being a global player. So we focused on news from all over the world that would be interesting for people from all over the world. Then when Twitter and Facebook and social media in general really took off, we caught the wave and rode it.
Sobel: One thing that has always impressed me about you is your ability to juggle many projects at one time, including your most recent projects like TwitterCounter as well as your various advisories, pro bono work and your growing family. How do you do it all?
Veldhuijzen van Zanten: I think it helps to know what you are good and what not. You can spend and waste a lot of time on the things you are not good at. But generally the things you are really good at don’t take much energy or time. I’m very honest in what I’m not good at and in a lot of meetings you’ll hear me say, "I don’t understand that" or "I don’t know what that means." Some people get insecure when they are confronted with something they don’t understand and try to compensate. That can cost you a lot of energy.
Sobel: Everyone talks about the future of the web — the impact on everyday life, whether it’s communication, commerce, health or education. What is your definition of The Next Web?
Veldhuijzen van Zanten: I love that question, I really do! I wonder about this almost every day. There are stories that are typical TNW stories and that everybody recognizes as having our tone of voice and subject matter. But I still don’t know what defines that. There's a childish curiosity and bewilderment with the world as it is changing that I recognize in everybody that works with us. The Next Web is what makes us go "Wow, have you seen this?" and I’m lucky enough to work in an industry where you experience that feeling several times a day.
Sobel: ln a recent blog posting entitled “I Used to Steal Newspapers,” you talk about your kids, education and the fact that nobody likes to do things if they have to do them. Can you elaborate?
Veldhuijzen van Zanten: I’m not striving to take away all pain or hard work in life. On the contrary. But it really helps if you know what you are doing something for. I see the same thing with my kids. They can move mountains and are naturally curious about the world. But if they don’t understand why they have to learn, they see it as work and boring. History can be extremely interesting, but if you are just memorizing dates it quickly becomes boring.
Sobel: In the article you state, “I have two kids of my own and I see how hard it is to motivate them. I see how their teachers are struggling to make kids learn, and how a good teacher makes learning interesting and seemingly effortless, while a lesser teacher invokes an adverse reaction in kids. I can’t help but think that I’m lucky that nobody ever told me I had to read books. That would have probably taken away my appetite for reading in a heartbeat. That never happened so I ended up reading more books than even most of my more ‘educated’ friends.” You went on to talk about a new online service called Slack. Can you talk a bit about your thoughts on education in the 21st century and the importance of applications such as Slack?
Veldhuijzen van Zanten: Slack is an app that fits in a category that doesn’t really have a name yet. On a basic level it is a tool for group communication. But it also replaces email. I think we have more communication in Slack now than we had in email, so lump sum I’m spending more time reading and replying. But email feels like work and a full inbox feels like I’m losing a battle against email. Slack makes communication feel more natural and seamless.
Sobel: Your next TNW Conference will be in New York City on Dec. 10. The theme will be “Where Business And Cultures Collide.” The conference will discuss the latest web technology trends and best business practices. Can you tell us a bit more and why our readers should consider attending?
Veldhuijzen van Zanten: Most people who keep track of these things agree that technology will stay the fastest growing sector in the world for the next 20 years. And in 20 years there will be more people online than we have people on the world right now. You can ignore these facts or take advantage of them. You can wait to be disrupted or become the disruptor. If you want to be a part of the future, you need to attend these kinds of events to know what's happening.