Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten, the Dutch serial internet entrepreneur is an amiable, softly spoken man who gives the impression of thinking out loud.
Questions are frequently greeted with a series of ‘ums… aahs… I think… let me put it this way…’, beginning a thought, stopping, trying another, and then another.
Boris is very different from most people in technology his colleagues tell me. With a lot of people the conversation is about how they are going to make more money.
With him it is more of ‘how can we figure this out.’ He began his first company, V3 Redirect Services, in 1997 and two years later sold the business to Fortunecity.com.
This was just as Fortunecity was to go public on the Neuer Markt, then Germany’s market for technology shares and other supposedly high-growth stocks, often described as the European equivalent of the Nasdaq in the US.
The exchange enjoyed its heyday during the technology-led boom of the late 1990s, when German investors piled into Neuer Markt-listed firms.
It closed in 2002 when the combined market value of the 264 firms listed on the exchange had fallen by 96% since early 2000, when the internet stock bubble began to deflate.
In 2003, Boris started a Wi-Fi Hotspot operator in the Netherlands called HubHop, which he sold to KPN, the Dutch landline and mobile telecommunications company.
He is one of founders of The Next Web Conference, Blog and Incubator. He co-founded PressDoc and TwitterCounter.
- Boris, when the internet arrived did you see it as the digital equivalent of the non-stick pan or the self-lighting match as a sort of novelty or did you buy into the idea straight away?
- My first reaction was ‘Oh no, I missed it!’ I was very aware that I was born slightly too late to take advantage of the PC revolution.
I was born in 1971 I had seen the PC arrive on the market and remember by father telling me about the introduction of the Macintosh and later on how Steve Jobs was kicked out of Apple.
It made an impression but also frustrated me because I had the feeling I was too late to play a role there.
Then when I first got online and found out about the Yahoo founders my first conclusion was that another wave had happened and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had missed the boat so to speak.
I shrugged my shoulders and decided to see if there were any scraps left for me. Soon I started realizing that I was still in time to make my mark and help advance this extraordinary phenomenon. To not only be a tourist or someone watching from the sidelines, but get really involved.
- Would you take me back to when you started your first business V3 Redirect Services, how did it start and was there a moment, which turned out to be pivotal?
- I dropped out of school when I was 15 and joined the Circus school. I graduated as a professional juggler two and a half years later.
After that I applied to an art academy and graduated there, 5 years later, cum-laude and was quickly accepted to a good post-graduate art academy after that.
During my stay at this institute I really started getting involved with the world wide web and it seemed to me that working on this new thing, as an artist, would be more interesting for me than just being an artist.
That was not an easy process of course. I had some simple projects and tried to sell a few ideas to bigger companies. I remember a concept for an online phonebook for email addresses, a site to sell your house on and I had a site where I made photos for people on request; the ‘Photo Delivery Page’.
Things turned more serious when I read about a teacher from Iceland who had registered http://This.is and was selling URLs like this.is/bjork and redirecting them to people’s homepages.
The breakthrough for me was that this guy managed to look at technology and not just see it for what it was but could see through it and turn it into something else. I thought it was almost poetic to come up with this and could see myself doing similar things.
Then I found out he charged $1000 a year for the shortened URLs which was almost more than hosting your own domain name cost.
- Did you start immediately to think how to make money out of selling names?
- Yeah, that is when I though ‘that guy is very poetic, and that is great, but he lacks business-sense’ and I decided to improve upon his concept by using .TO domains, from Tonga, and start with giving them away for free and showing ads for a business model.
I found two partners and we just started. After 2 years of a lot of hard work and long days, we had given away more than a million addresses, which received an average of four visitors per day, which amounted to 4 million pop-ups with banners in them, and a healthy cash flow for us.
- Since V3, you have created and developed a number of businesses. What have been your biggest successes and failures? What do you remember as being the most frustrating things early on?
- I have always made it a point to just try things out and fail fast. I love Winston Churchill’s quote ‘”Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”. Once you adopt that philosophy failure, as in trying and moving on, failure does not become as much a problem anymore.
Having said that; there is always disappointment when you hope for the best and something does not work out. We have tried to aim high with certain projects, raise funding and ‘do it right’ from the start and those projects usually fail miserably.
I have had my share of failures but I am also proud that I have had a chance to try them and conclude ‘okay, we’ve tried it but this doesn’t work, let’s try something else!’
- What big turning points happened with your business philosophy after you sold V3 to Fortunecity?
- I sold the company for some money and many shares. In my mind it seemed like the money was, a bonus and the shares represented my wealth.
Looking back it was the other way around: that money was real and those shares went from â¬19,80 per share to â¬0,04 within two years. Still, when I sold my company I enjoyed the success of turning nothing into something, something into something bigger and then selling it to an even bigger company. That process is addictive and it awakened a fire within me that has fuelled my ambitions ever since.
- Of the businesses, you launched after V3 were they planned to the finest detail or were most accidental?
- It is easy to brag about your vision and predictive powers after something became successful. I seriously think that most entrepreneurs are in a state of panic, chaos and stress until the day they sell, and then declare ‘I always knew it would work!”. Of course, they aren’t even lying, or else they would have given up a long time ago. However, I do believe that serendipity, which is a better word than ‘Luck’, plays a huge part in success. The challenge is how to make sure you can be serendipitous.
- Let us turn to The Next Web. Do you remember why you finally decided, ‘OK, enough of the thinking, let us launch this.’ Did you build the site first and then try to raise money or was it all self-funded?
- I remember that moment very well because it all happened within one day. We wanted to launch a service (which failed) and could not afford to sponsor a conference. As we were thinking about that over breakfast, my partners said, “We could just host our own conference and then we would be the main sponsor. How hard could it be?
Before lunch, I had a list of eight names and after lunch, we registered ‘The Next Web’. I think we announced our conference the next day. One of the first speakers at our first conference was Michael Arrington, the founder of Techcrunch. At the time, he had 40,000 RSS subscribers.
At our event, he told us he was inspired by what we had done and that an event combined with a blog made sense.
Two years later he invited us to his event. We sat in the audience and concluded that he was right. Then we figured ‘we have a successful conference, but not a blog yet, maybe we should start a blog too?’ and so we did.
The first year we had just one full-time blogger and I blogged a lot too. We never raised funding and just invested everything we made on ads and the conferences right back into hiring more people.
- Can you tell me a little about the way it works for example do you commission contributors to cover, re-cover and cover stories again, with each person adding something to the last person’s coverage of a story?
What I am getting at is that in these days of instant communication and 24- hour news channels, it is actually easier to miss information so the better information you publish, the more readers you will attract.
- We have full-time bloggers all over the world who take turns in finding news and reporting on it. It can be exhaustive just looking at the backchannel seeing on how many stories people are working and how fast stories are discarded because they suddenly seem old, which means older than 10 minutes.
- Can you tell me a little about The Next Web labs? Are there brand new features you are working on that you could share with us?
- The goal of the lab is to build new services for the blog but also to try out new concepts that we think are worth trying. For the blog, we have built a service called Spread. Us that makes it easier for readers to ‘spread’ breaking news via their social channels. But we also have the biggest statistics provider for Twitter at TwitterCounter.com.
I’ve also introduced TNW Magazine which is our new iPad magazine and I’m currently looking into all digital book publishing in a project called TNW Books. My hope is that one day we will have a hundred projects and several companies all working together.
- A few years ago, there was a succession of stories in the US media that deaths of bloggers were connected in some way to their life style of stress, sleep disturbance and exhaustion.
Few ‘dead tree’ journalists die from job-related factors; drink perhaps, a smack in the mouth possibly, but not stress. From your perspective, do you think blogging is any more stressful than print media?
- The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated. I think those stories applied to entrepreneurs more than to bloggers, although these people happened to be both. It is true that technology business blogging is stressful and very time consuming.
But I also think it is safe, comfortable and flexible as you can work from anywhere and on whatever you want. I never heard someone have a burn-out or get sick because they were blogging for us. I do know stories of people who have tried it and gave up within a month because they found out that blogging is a lot more work than thought.
- What would you tell someone who wanted to start their own company?
- Start today. Too many people have too many excuses not to get started. They blame the economy, a lack of ideas or something else. All of that is an excuse not to begin something.
It is similar to people who one day want to write a book. If you have something that deserves to be written, it will write itself and you will do it on the back of a business card if you have to. You will not become an entrepreneur while waiting for the right opportunity working at a big company. So stop finding excuses and get started.