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“I remember the relief at the end of the first conference where we really felt like we pulled something off that was way bigger than we had ever done.”
Part event, part website, The Next Web is among the most influential blogs and can easily be described as an online juggernaut. Founded in 2006 as a technology conference (which now runs annually), the popular TNW blog was launched in 2008.
There are few overnight successes in business, but the positive reaction the then 24-year-old Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten and his colleagues Patrick de Laive and Arjen Schat experienced following the first conference (for instance through email and LinkedIn profile updates) showed them that they had created something, “In a way it seemed like the brand established itself and we were just hitching along!”
“The first one was really a low budget conference, 260 people, and it was a lot more expensive than we thought. Someone suggested we should get a sponsor and have booths and booth babes but we looked at it and thought there was no way we could afford that with the money that we raised.”
Rather than get sponsorship, the first TNW conference was paid for out of their own pockets, “Someone said why don’t we organise our own conference, and we thought ‘how hard could it be?'”
True to the entrepreneurial spirit, the juggernaut was born…
How Hard Was It?
“30 days before the conference we hadn’t sold one ticket and we had 80,000 euros in costs that we were responsible for. It was a very scary time.”
It seems that Boris and his team soon found out just how hard it could be. With a month to go before the conference, they had failed to make any money back…
“We just started organizing — you have to sign for location, production, for everything — and 30 days before the conference we hadn’t sold one ticket and we had 80,000 euros in costs that we were responsible for. It was a very scary time.”
Where most people might have shut themselves away in a cupboard, a different approach — one that perhaps crystallises the nature of being an entrepreneur — was found. Boris and friends had the opportunity to book a really great speaker, one that would draw attention to their conference.
But it would mean spending yet more money.
“I remember that the sun was shining and we were on our bicycles on the way to the office and we stopped on a bridge and said ‘what the hell are we going to do?’ and then at one point I said ‘Fuck it – let’s go all the way, the only way!’ we were going to spend the extra money on the guy and it was a lot of money and we’re going to try to lower the cost just a little bit, and the only way to do it was to go all the way.”
Boris agrees that it is this type of thinking that enables the entrepreneurial spirit. The problem is that it doesn’t stay around forever.
“As you grow up or your company matures, it gets harder to have that attitude, ‘let’s risk everything’. But I think it is a very healthy attitude. You think about the downsides, but you get risk averse as you grow and I think it is healthy to think that way.”
The Next Web Blog
“When they told us we were still too small we simply showed them our stats, and drew a line into the past which indicated that in 6 or 10 or 14 months we would be big enough, so why not just start talking now?”
Over the years the website has increased its standing and is now receiving 7.2 million monthly visits (and 9.5 million monthly page views) from a vast audience of developers, specialists and influencers. This success has cemented The Next Web as a pantheon of technology news about a range of topics and particularly about venture capital and startups, development tools, among other things.
But let’s rewind. After the first TNW conference, Boris and his team started a blog. In order to give it the support it deserved — “we just thought it would be a neat little marketing channel to promote our conference through the year” — Boris hired his first employee.
“As soon as we hired a full-time writer we realized that we should be able to turn it into a business. It quickly turned into a beast of a blog and now the conference and events seem to be just one of the pillars of The Next Web.” Certainly The Next Web is more than just a conference and an accompanying blog; if the statistics above weren’t enough to convince you otherwise, the existence of four conferences (TNW Conference, TNW Mobile Conference, TNW Bowlr and Kings of Code), and TNW Games should.
Despite the initial success of The Next Web’s first conference and the instant audience that was attracted to the blog, there was always going to be the all-important matter of funding and investment to arrange. If The Next Web was going to grow, money would need to come from somewhere.
“The main question was how long it would take, and whether we would have deep enough pockets to fund it until profitability. We started talking to potential advertisers and partners pretty quickly. When they told us we were still too small we simply showed them our stats, and drew a line into the past which indicated that in 6 or 10 or 14 months we would be big enough, so why not just start talking now? Not everybody was convinced, but a few (enough) people were.”
The Bluffing Game
“It almost feels like playing poker, seeing it as a game, bluffing your way into meetings. But that’s the interesting thing about an entrepreneur, we say we’re going to be successful but in the back of your mind your saying ‘I have no idea what I’m doing’.”
There is a brazen audacity in that approach, much like the decision to throw the remaining conference money at one last gamble. Is it a game?
“In a way, it almost feels like playing poker, seeing it as a game, bluffing your way into meetings. But that’s the interesting thing about an entrepreneur, we say we’re going to be successful but in the back of your mind you are saying ‘I have no idea what I’m doing’. If you were totally honest with somebody, you wouldn’t get very far. With the conference, we didn’t know how to do one, and it turned out harder than expected.”
Looking back, Boris recognises that they were naïve, “but that can be very healthy. I remember an interview with one of the founders of Intel, and he said that ‘looking back I realise why it was impossible, and if I would have known then what I know, I wouldn’t have started. But we didn’t know it was impossible, so we just did it.’ I thought that was one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard, it helps to be clueless about stuff and just do it when you encounter problems, and that’s really the way to do it – don’t think about things too much, don’t plan ahead too much, just do it.”
Thanks to this steel nerve, The Next Web has been able to expand, although Boris is careful to note that they have “always invested more than we made into the blog.”
“Every dollar we made we used to hire more people or build new technology. I don’t see that changing in the near future as the opportunity to change the ‘news’ landscape is just huge.”
One of the most notable things about the new wave of online success stories is that there is a split in the approach to staffing. Many big names rely on an office-based approach (such as Huffington Post, The Verge and Mashable) while successful newcomers like The Next Web prefer a more distributed approach, which Boris believes works better for a blog.
“At this moment the whole company has close to 40 people spread all over the world. Our team is very distributed. I think it works well for a blog and less for technology businesses. A blogger or writer works on a story and might spend anywhere between 20 minutes and 3 days on a story. After that he shows the article to an editor in chief who approves it and then it is published. A story might need a tweak or two, but that’s it.”
Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten: The Entrepreneur
Seven years after starting The Next Web, Boris and his colleagues have had success building the website and the conference into an influential brand in the technology arena. The big question, of course, is whether it’s possible to bottle the formula. What does Boris think makes a good entrepreneur?
“I think there are no universal rules… just like good and bad parenting. The bad ones are easy to spot but defining good ones is harder.”
Budding entrepreneurs reading this interview might like to go from this with that last thought in mind. Doing so, however, might miss the point. There is a little more to it than ignoring the rules.
“A successful entrepreneur is in touch with the world around him, on all levels. It is important to be persistent, but also listen to signs that you are on the wrong track.” Listening to opinions and inputs from partners is important: “You can’t just be focused and persistent.”
Whether you’re going into business alone or with partners might determine how you modify your approach, but remember:
“In the end you will have to look at your own qualities, the market you operate in, and the time you live in and then find and create your own kind of entrepreneurship. I guess that means that the best entrepreneurs are the ones who redefine what it is to be an entrepreneur.”
Keeping a watchful eye on Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten and The Next Web’s development might also teach you a thing or two…
Image Credit: Julia De Boer