Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten, Founder & CEO, The Next Web
What’s Next? The Next Web’s Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten on the Future of Media
The future of media, if not the present, probably looks a lot like The Next Web, which is odd considering co-founder Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten says it’s not even really a media company.
The Next Web instead thinks of itself as a tech company, firing on multiple cylinders at once, including international conferences, ecommerce, online courses, and of course, one of the most influential and trafficked news sites on the web. Soon they’re even opening up a brick and mortar space in Amsterdam that will serve as hub for technology startups.
“For some people it’s sort of weird, ‘What, you’ve got a conference and a website and now you’re opening a space? That’s a totally different thing,’” Veldhuijzen van Zanten told Foundr (we’ll just call him Boris from now on).
“For us, it’s a logical next step, instead of losing focus or branching out into different areas. They’re all connected by the brand and a curiosity in technology and the future of technology.”
The Next Web actually started as a conference host. Its annual event in Amsterdam draws some 20,000 international attendees.
However, The Next Web is probably best known for its tech news site. That branch of the business is staggering, drawing up to 8 million visitors a month. But with its conferences expanding, its growing online marketplace, and
Boris and his partners always looking for the next opportunity, the most impressive thing about The Next Web is how it merges such a wide range of services to meet the needs of its loyal community. And they do it all with a relatively small staff and a squad of remote contributors.
“Everything is part of a circle that is growing stronger over time,” Boris says. “Part of our revenue comes from advertising on the sites with all the traffic we have, an important part is the conference, and now the ecommerce part is growing stronger.”
Next could be research, consulting, video, anything within reason that the people who have come to love and trust the company might want. And that’s the secret to The Next Web’s success. It’s not a company that makes a product—it’s a network of people.
One Thing Led to Another
The Next Web’s community-centered, tech startup approach makes a lot of sense considering it all started as a tech startup throwing a conference.
In 2006, Boris and his partners owned a small company called Fleck.com, based out of their home in the Netherlands. They didn’t have the budget to attend a big tech conference to promote it, so they figured they could just host their own. Maybe they’d break even and that would be a nice and easy way to get some exposure.
As anyone who has ever thrown a conference knows, that was a silly idea.
“It turned to be a lot harder than we thought, and it took longer than we thought, and it was more expensive than we thought.”
But when the dust settled, it had turned out to be a success. One attendee said in the aftermath, “Oh of course you’ll have another conference next year, that’s how these things work.” Every conference is an investment in the next.
“So I walked over to my business partner and said, ‘Well apparently we are in the conference business because you can’t just do one,’” Boris says.
If this was going to turn into a regular thing, they would need a website. So they made a blog and hired a writer to do some posts, and maybe that would boost attendance. Traffic started to pick up.
“We figured, we might as well hire another writer, and then another, and pretty soon it started blowing up.”
Conferences continued growing as well, and as the site became more well known, editorial staff became more ambitious, tracking the Technorati list of most influential blogs and watching the site climb the ranking from the millions, to the 100,000s, and then one day, the top ten.
“It’s one of those stories where one thing followed after the other, versus that we started out with this world domination plan. We figured these were the logical steps to take,” Boris says.
The company now has about 50 full-time employees, headquartered in Amsterdam but working remotely, plus writers contributing from all over the world. They only recently moved a single writer to their physical office space.
The Next Web events have expanded to Sao Paolo, and they just held their third conference in New York, which is growing each year, he says. They’re almost entirely self-funded.
“That’s a good thing and a bad thing. It makes you less powerful and less flexible. But we have a thing called Dutch efficiency, where we’ve been hosting these international events with a very small but competitive team. … Apparently we are doing something well, and the freedom that not being funded brings with it is very appealing to us.”
The Next Media Moguls
If you were going to choose a profitable field for a tech startup with a small staff, conference organizing might not be your first choice, and the news business would certainly not be your second.
But that’s the route they went, and Boris has the exact opposite of the pessimism you often hear from the media industry. Many prestigious news outlets are scrambling as the market floods with content, ad prices plummet, and readers grow accustomed to a reality in which everything they read is as free as air. Oh, and people are now mainly reading news on their phones.
“It’s a very interesting time to be alive if you’re interested in that stuff, and the global landscape is changing enormously. I think if you see all those changes as opportunities, you could have a great time. We’re having a great time. Every platform that comes up, we see as an interesting opportunity to play around with and see what we can do with it.”
The problem with a certain set of old school publishers is that they often see technology as a necessary evil, fixated on how the Internet is costing them money. “So they’ll have a website, but you can just feel that their heart is not in it. And that’s a group that has a very tough time now.”
He recalls a conversation with a publisher who used to run a popular print magazine 10 years ago that he built it from the ground up and was effortlessly making him millions a year. Of course, that business went up in smoke.
“He doesn’t look at the Internet or technology as something cool. He just thinks back to the millions he’s losing by having seen that market evaporate. For us it’s different. We’re just new to this. We like technology. We come from technology. We see everything as a technological challenge. And that gives us a lot of strength.”
Key to that optimism is developing new, diverse sources of revenue. To rely primarily on advertising or even on your media content itself seems extremely dangerous to Boris. And while their multiple endeavors might seem disparate, they make perfect sense to The Next Web team: They are tied together by the community.
Even their original product, the conferences, puts a heavy emphasis on the attendees, trying to make it more like a mixer or a party than a stodgy series of speakers. Those people might attend their conferences, they come to trust their blog content, they might buy something The Next Web recommends at their store, and they might take an online class to fill out a skill set.
“We think that’s an interesting way to look at the future of media companies,” he says. “Everybody is looking for the business model, and the business model really is that you have a community.”
To be clear, The Next Web is not likely to replace The Guardian, or Reuters, or the New York Times. It mainly traffics in opinion and analysis blogging about tech trends as opposed of deep reporting. But you can see elements of the strategy that The Next Web has mastered in many of the successful digital-age publishers, old and new.
“We’re always looking for the solutions, and of course, we produce great content. The challenge is bigger than just producing great content.”
Jack of Some Trades
As a company with a relatively small staff talks about taking on more products, keeping up with the growth and expansion into new fields can be daunting. That’s especially true considering so much of the staff is working remotely.
“It’s something you’ve always got to keep attention on, and it’s very easy to get distracted by stuff. But I don’t think we’re doing that much, and the things that we’re doing, we have teams that are very dedicated to the solution or the service that they’re working on.”
And again, Boris sees the different priorities as a strength. The key is to establish teams and give them ownership over their realms. Boris says The Next Web tends to hire people they trust, and give them a lot of space to do their jobs. As with many distributed startups, Slack has been a boon for company communication, allowing people to stay in touch, but also to develop company culture.
That’s not to say it’s always easy. Boris finds that as they grow, it’s harder to keep everyone on the same page or to make sure everyone is on top of the company’s next move before reading about it in the news. You wouldn’t know it from Boris’s unflinchingly cool demeanor, but things can get chaotic behind closed doors, he says.
The company’s come a long way. When Boris attended his first of The Next Web’s New York conferences, it was the first interaction he had had with the operation. Ten years ago, he and his partners were handling everything themselves, every chair, every pot of coffee. Now his team was running it entirely without him.
The Next Web has clearly evolved tremendously since that first conference, and it’s hard to say what’s next for the team. But its success will likely hinge on how far they can scale that original spirit of community they first got a taste of back in 2006.
“The best compliment we got was when we had an event with 2,000 people, and a journalist wrote that it still felt like a private party by Boris and Patrick (de Laive),” he says. “We thought that was a great compliment, because that’s exactly what we’re going for.”
Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten’s Advice for Entrepreneurs:
“My advice is, don’t listen to advice too much and follow your own heart. We started our company. We were ambitious and we had dreams and a vision of what it could be. But mostly we went with the flow. We looked at the opportunity, and we listened to our audience to see what problems they had and what solutions we could offer. This is different for every industry and every time.”
He also highly recommends the book Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston.
“Every story is different and every piece of advice you get is the complete opposite from what the entrepreneur in the previous chapter said. And it sort of shows that every industry is different, every entrepreneur is different, and every time is different as well. What worked 10 years ago might not work today. Or it might not work for you, or it might not work for your industry. So you’ve got to find out what works for you, today, in your industry.”
- The subtle details behind what makes a great event that everyone loves
- How to conduct the best interviews with notable influencers
- Boris’s number one tip on generating amazing content
- The tools that every startup should start using
- The key to keeping everyone in your company aligned to the same vision
Full Transcript of Podcast with Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten
Nathan: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the “Foundr Podcast.” Wow. I have to say that me reading out that episode, I had to have a bit of a chuckle, because what can I say? Boris’ full name is a little bit of a tongue-twister. But always about the challenges and it’s, you know, it’s safe to say you guys are in for an absolute treat. This guy is an absolute weapon. As…you guys are entrepreneurs, you guys are founders, you guys are listening to this, I’m sure you would have heard of the infamous famous tech website The Next Web.
So this is pretty much a fully fledged media company, one of the top 2,000 websites on the internet. It generates tens of millions unique visitors every single month. These guys are a legit media company. And what they have built and what Boris has built is something of scale that I’d like to achieve with Foundr as a media company. It’s always really interesting to hear people that are building similar kind of businesses to you and seeing how they approach it. And you know, Boris shares a ton of gold around what it takes to build a successful media company, content. And also, you know, he really breaks the myth that you can’t build a successful media company. And me and him think alike, you know? I feel really privileged and glad to say this and happy to say this, that me and him think alike of the way that we approach the business model of a media startup. So yeah, a fascinating interview, really cool guy. You guys are in for an absolute treat.
So if you are enjoying this interview, please, please, please do take the time to leave us a review. It helps more than you can imagine. Please do tell your friends if you are enjoying this. If you can tell a couple of friends, spread the word of the brand. That helps us big time, too. All right, guys, that’s it from me. Now, let’s jump into the show.
I’m gonna ask you the first question I ask every single person that comes on to the show, and that is how did you get your job, Boris?
Boris: I created my job, because it didn’t exist yet. And that started when I started my first company, and then of course, when you start your company, you’re everything: you’re the developer, the designer, the sales guy, and the CEO and the CFO. So that’s how I got started.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. So can you tell us about, like, how The Next Web got started and when you founded it? And run us through the story of how it all come together. Because, you know, I’m a massive fan of what you guys are doing. You’re one of the top tech websites in the world, a leading authority. So how did it all start?
Boris: It started about ten years ago when we had a company ourselves. And we wanted to launch it at a conference, but we couldn’t really afford to go to a conference, because our funding was very limited. And at one point, my business partner said very naively, “Why don’t we organize our own conference? And then, you know, if it runs break-even, it’s still cheaper than sponsoring somebody else’s conferences.” And we figured, like, “How hard can it be?” And of course, it turned out to be a lot harder than we thought, and it took longer than we thought, and it was more expensive than we thought. Actually, I think, we lost some money on the first event.
But the interesting thing was that we suddenly noticed that we had a great network and that it was relatively easy for us because of the position we were in to start a conference. So at the end of the first conference, I spoke to another entrepreneur and I said, “You know, this was really cool, this conference. I think we’ll do another one next year.” And then he said, “Well, of course you’re doing another one. Nobody just…one conference. Every conference is interested in the next one.” So I walked over to my business partner and I said, “Well, apparently, we are now in the conference business, because you can’t just do one.”
And in the second year, we noticed that it was, you know, difficult to get media partnerships, like, negotiated. And we also saw, like, on the blog we maintained for the conference, we saw a drop-off in traffic, like, after the conference. Because people were living in sort of two worlds, the conference, and that it happened and you have no reason to visit the conference blog anymore.
So we sort of made a calculation on the back of an envelope and we said, like, “If we hire one full-time writer, how much would that be, and then how many tickets do we have to sell? And do we believe that if we write eight stories a day and get traffic from that, that it will sell an extra 60 tickets?” or something.
And we figured, “Yeah, that would probably work.” So we hired our first writer, and he started writing maybe six or seven articles a day. And we saw traffic starting to pick up. So at one point, we figured “Might as well hire another writer, and then another.” And pretty soon, it started, yeah, blowing up. And I remembered at one point, that our editor-in-chief said…like, at the time when I was still the list of most influential blogs in the world. And I think we were at, like, six million out of 200 million. And he said, you know, “My goal is to break through the 100,000, and one day, end up in the top 100.”
And I remembered thinking that was like the most unrealistic thing I ever heard, because we were, like, in the millions out of 200 million, and the top 100 was so impressive. But in a year, we broke through 100,000, and then a few months later, we went through 10,000. And eventually, we ended up at number 8 or something.
So it’s one of those stories where sort of one thing followed out of the other logically versus…that we started out with this plan of we figured “These were the logical steps to take.”
Nathan: Yeah, wow. And out of curiosity, how many conferences do you guys still run right now?
Boris: We’ve had ten conferences in Amsterdam. That’s the biggest event we have also. So next year, the 11th edition, we expect 20,000, at the least, from more than 60 countries. Usually, more than 50% of the attendees is not from the Netherlands. So it’s a very internationally-focused conference.
But we also did events in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and we just had our third event conference in New York. And our last conference in New York, we had 1,600 attendees. And that’s been doubling every year. So New York is also growing very fast. So I hope…I expect it to be just as big as Amsterdam at one point.
Nathan: Yeah, okay, wow. And you know, it sounds like you guys are in two different businesses, because you’re in the content business, but then you’re also in the events business. How do you guys focus between the two and choose, and what are your thoughts on the direction of The Next Web?
Boris: Yeah, it’s a good question. It seems that the two are very different; it’s like online and offline. We see it differently. We think we’re a future-proof media company. We have a very trustable brand. People know that we provide quality, but we also have a sense of humor. And that translates well to other products. So we also have an eCommerce platform called Deals, where we sell stuff that we think is cool or remarkable to our audience, and it works very well.
The other thing we announced last week is that we’re opening a space. So a physical space in a huge building in the center of Amsterdam where we’ll host startups and entrepreneurs. We work together with Google and Booking.com. And for some people, it’s sort of weird. They’re like, “What? You’ve got a conference and a website, and now you’re opening a space? That’s like a totally different thing.”
But for us, the conference has always strengthened the news part of the company and vice-versa, and the physical space that we’re opening now feels like just an extension of the conference. So for a week a year, we used to bring together, like, the very inspiring people, the entrepreneurs that all recognize each other’s talents and focus. And we’re extending that now from one week a year to 52 weeks a year in the space in Amsterdam.
So for us, it’s a logical next step instead of sort of losing focus or branching out into different areas. They’re all connected by the brand, curiosity in technology, and the future of technology.
Nathan: I see. And are you guys funded, self-funded?
Boris: We’re self-funded. We raised a small informal round a few years ago. So we have a few smaller shareholders. But yeah, we’re self-funded and very independent. And that’s sort of a good thing and bad thing. It makes you less powerful, less flexible. But we have a thing called Dutch Efficiency, where we’ve been hosting these international events with a very small, but dedicated team. So we have competitors that have an editorial board that’s like five times as big as ours. But we’re still doing…they’re not doing as well as we are in the global rankings. So apparently, we are doing something well, and the freedom that not being funded brings with it is very appealing for us.
Nathan: I see. And, like, can you give us a gauge on, like, some of the metrics or some numbers around the company? How many staff, you know, how many website hits do you get per month? Are you able to share or give some insight around how far you’ve taken it?
Boris: Yeah, I’ll tell you a few things. We’re at about 50 people. These are all just full-time employees. There are some freelancers. There are people who contribute regularly. So if you look at, like, the writers on the news site, it’s a lot more than just the 15 people we have in the editorial. There’s also columnists and regular contributors, some sponsored content. So it’s difficult to say, like, how big The Next Web really is apart from, like, the full-time employees we have.
The news part, there’s about six or seven million, sometimes eight million visitors a month. And I think they visit an average of one and a half stories a day. So you can calculate the page views from there. We have about two and a half million followers on social media, and they’re spread out over Facebook and Twitter mostly, but then, we have a presence on every social network out there, really, and something we take pride in, too. Also play around with Snapchat and Instagram and WhatsApp, and really, everything that’s out there.
Nathan: I see. Wow. And when it comes to…you know, we talk about media companies. What is your thoughts on the future for media companies? Because, like, it’s kind of like…a lot of people say that it’s very difficult to build a very profitable media company, it’s a hard game. Like, what are your thoughts on that?
Boris: I think it’s a very interesting time to be alive if you’re interested in that stuff, and the global landscape is changing enormously. I think if you see all those changes as opportunities, you know, you could have a great time. And we’re having a great time. Like, we see every platform that comes up, we see as an interesting opportunity to play around with and see what we can do with it.
I think there are a lot of publishers like us that are investing in technology and doing great things. There’s also a group of publishers or media companies that look more at what they’ve lost or about to lose, and see technology as sort of a necessary evil. So they’ll have a website, but you can just feel that their heart is not in it. And that’s a group that has a very tough time now.
Because I spoke to a magazine publisher a couple of months ago, and he told me his story about how he had a magazine ten years ago, and four people built it and produced it, and it paid him, like, $3 million a year, and it was just, like, effortless. Of course, that is a business that is now gone. And he doesn’t look at the internet or technology as something cool. He just thinks back to the millions he’s losing by having seen that market evaporate.
For us, it’s different, right? We’re just new to this. We like technology, we come from technology. We see everything as a technological challenge. And that gives us a lot of strength. So I think we are very optimistic. I know there are media companies that are equally optimistic. I also know that there are a lot of media companies that are having a hard time, and you know, I don’t think being depressed about the past is gonna help you build a better future. So that’s an issue for some people.
Nathan: So where do you think the best growth channels are for you guys in terms of…I guess building a super sustainable business model?
Boris: I think for us, the strength comes from the networks. So we have this…I’m looking for the right term, but it’s sort of a self-improving circle where we have the conferences and they have a great growth effect on the news part of the company. And then of course, we sell tickets because of the news part of the company. But then, somebody who buys a ticket might come back to the site and they’ll guy a gadget on Deals. And then we have a very powerful research part of the company where we track of all companies in the world and how they’re growing, and we’re building a database of, like, the community that is interested in us and everybody we e-mail with. So that strengthens the rest again.
So everything is part of a circle that is growing stronger over time. And we see the same…like, you know, a part of our revenue comes from advertising just on the site with all the traffic we have, an important part comes from the conference, and now the eCommerce part is growing stronger. We might go into research or consulting at one point. So video is still out there, which is more part of content, but still a very interesting field.
So there’s still so much to do and find out, and there’s so much room for growth that I’m not focusing on one revenue source, per se. It’s more like the combined revenue sources that interest me.
Nathan: Yeah, because I think you guys are doing some interesting things that, you know, a lot of publishers or, you know, content powerhouses aren’t doing. Like, you guys even…you guys are doing courses now, like, educational courses, I see. You said you have the Deals and you’re very heavy on events. You know, a big thing that a lot of publishers or media companies do is they do events. But you’re also doing, like, education and stuff like that.
I’m just really curious, you know, what is pushing you to try all these other streams?
Boris: Yeah. So if you look at the…like a newspaper publisher 30 years ago, right? They had three income streams; it was just subscriptions, people buying a newspaper on their way to the train, and the third part was advertising. And we see that that business has changed completely. You now have to find different ways to monetize, and subscription is only a small part of it. So we think that’s an interesting way to look at the future of media companies where, you know, everybody is looking for the business model. And the business model, really, is that you have a community that has an interest in a certain…in technology or maybe in a different niche, if you’re in a different niche.
And we found that a part of our readers want to become a better developer or a better designer, or they just want to get better at something. Or they need a tool, or they want to be inspired, or they want to be entertained. And really, that’s an interest or a problem that you can solve with content and services.
To us, we’re looking at the audience and seeing, “All right, how can we be of service to this audience? What problems can we solve for them?” And are those logical problems that we have a solution for, either technical or different. And that’s, I think, the opportunity. You’ve got to keep an open mind in what you’re offering, and oftentimes, we will get requests from the communities where we think, like, “All right, this is now the fifth time that somebody asks us for this particular thing. Maybe there’s more interest around. Maybe we should build something to come up with a solution to somebody’s problem.”
Nathan: I see, yeah. Look, I think that’s a great way to roll with things. And that’s what we do at Foundr. I’m just curious, like, why do you think companies like…other publishers like big tech blogs like, you know, TechCrunch don’t diversify as much as you guys? Why do you think that is?
Boris: TechCrunch is a great example, I think, of…it’s a modern company, but with a very classic mindset. So they’re really only focused on the content. They just think, “We’ll produce great content. That’s our only focus.” They don’t really care about the technology. They don’t handle the technology themselves, that’s outsourced.
So I don’t think…I think they’re more, like, classical journalists that really only focus on the story instead of thinking about the business. And in that sense, they’re more a publisher than a technology company. I think we are more a technology company than a publisher or media company. So we’re always looking for the solutions. And of course, we produce great content. But we think the challenge is bigger than just producing great content.
Nathan: And do you guys find, because you’re working on so many…like, you’re working on a lot of different things, do you find that you’re very spread out? Like, do you guys find that there’s a problem with focus or anything like that? Because you guys are working on a lot of stuff.
Boris: Yeah, so I don’t think it’s a problem. It’s something you’ve always got to keep attention on. And it’s very easy to get distracted by stuff. But I think we’re not doing that much in the stuff that we’re doing. We have teams that are very dedicated to the solution or the service that they’re working on . So I feel it’s more, you know, I see some other publishers where…like, even some of our competitors, where 95% of their revenue just comes from ads, which I think is a very dangerous position to be in. Because it means if the economy slows down a little bit, the first thing that takes a hit is always advertising. So you don’t want to have your whole business model depend on advertising alone.
I feel it’s a strength that we have different ways of monetizing our brand, if you want to call it that, and that’s actually…yeah, a strength.
Nathan: Yeah, I agree. So you guys have always been based in the Netherlands for the past ten years?
Boris: So the founders have been, yes. But from the beginning, we’ve had our writers all over the world. And only since about six months, we’ve had one of our writers at the office now. So out of the 15, one of them is in Amsterdam. But the rest is all spread out. So it feels like a very distributed team, even though the majority of the whole company is in Amsterdam.
Nathan: I see, gotcha. And, like, how do you maintain your publishing schedule? That’s something I’m really curious. Like, what tools are you using to collaborate and bring it all together? Are there any cool tools or any…like, you guys love your tech. Like, is there anything that our audience can draw on from that? Because everyone’s doing content right now. What makes you guys so effective?
Boris: Well, we talk a lot about…we use Slack a lot, and that’s a very productive tool for us. Apart from that, Google Hangouts, Skype calls. So especially the editorial team, they’re…in context, with each other, like, 24 hours a day. And it’s great to see on Slack where somebody will say, “Hey, it’s 2:00 in the morning, now, I’m gonna get sleep.” And then somebody else says, “Oh, it’s 8:00 in the morning. I just woke up. So I’ll take over the stories from you,” and then hand off to the next time zone when they wake up. And that’s always a cool thing to see, where the team is so well-organized and disciplined. Where you see…like, every time zone has a team paying attention and handing off their, like, leads and stories at the end of their shift. So it’s mostly just textual and Slack, really.
Nathan: Yeah, okay, wow. And as a founder, how often do you have meetings with everyone? Like, I’m curious, like, how do you keep like, a tab and make sure everything’s running in the right direction? Because it is difficult, because you have so many people at different time zones and all around the world. Like, how does that work?
Boris: Slack is really a life-saver for us. It makes it very easy to talk to everybody. But even more important, it really allows you to joke around, really. To create, like, a fun atmosphere where you can chat to each other in an informal and intimate way. Which is different on other platforms. That’s what I do. I keep track of every channel that we have in Slack. And some channels post hundreds of messages a day, so I can only just jump in every now and then and sort of get a snapshot of what is happening.
But I’ll jump in regularly apart from the, like, the regular meetings I have with everybody on the Skype calls. I try to sort of stay aware of everything that’s happening in Slack. And we…like, the editor-in-chief comes over to Amsterdam every three or four weeks, and then we have longer sessions to talk about, like, the future of the…like, the strategy and what went well the last few weeks, and maybe, like, plan for the next few weeks.
But I think we also have an atmosphere where the founders are very trusting, and the teams are very independent. So we like to hire people that are much better at their jobs than we could ever be, and then give them the space to perform well. So the events team is a great example of that. They’re very independent, and the last event in New York…like the first time I saw the event this winter, we walked in the morning itself, and it was a very strange feeling.
Nathan: Oh, wow.
Boris: It was the first conferences we hosted. You know, every chair that was there, I put there. We maintained the WiFi network ourselves, and announced all the speakers. And just…like, make the coffee and clean the toilets, right? Just do everything. And then now to be at a point where you just walk in the morning itself and I was still, like, opening and closing the conference, and I did one interview, but it felt like a very smooth operation, and I was extremely proud that it was so independent and they did such a great job.
Nathan: Yeah, that must have been an amazing feeling, because I know how stressful events can be. Just on that topic, you know, what do you guys do really well that makes such great events?
Boris: I think we focus a lot on the interaction between the attendees. So if you go to a conference and you meet 20 people that are all interesting, and you end up not seeing one speaker, you still have a great event. If you meet a speaker, that’s even better, right? One of the famous people who worked for me, and they’ll say it to you, you get to shake their hands.
So we really try to keep the whole thing informal. We don’t have, like, a VIP space for the speakers, but we try to take them through the crowd. So they meet a lot of people, shake a lot of hands. We organize the floor in such a way that if you want to get a coffee, you don’t have to cross the room and then maybe stand in a small line where there are chairs nearby. So if you, like, talk to somebody in the line and they say, “Hey, do you want to sit down for a minute?” then you can. And these are all, like, subtle measures that really change your experience of an event.
So the best compliment we got was when we had an event with 2,000 people. And a journalist wrote that it still felt like a private party by Boris and Patrick. And we thought that was a great compliment, because that’s exactly what we were going for. So we as founders, we were, like, at the event in New York, we stood at the entrance because there was a queue there. And we just welcomed everybody personally. We shook hands with 1,200 people or something.
And it was a small thing to do, and it took a long time. But it was a lot of fun. And we just noticed that the whole atmosphere changes when you’re showing that you’re personally involved and they can ask you any question they want, and then the speakers see the same thing, and they’re more engaged with the audience. So that’s really one of our focus points.
Nathan: Yeah, wow, that’s great advice. You know, just on that events piece and the whole story…like, when it comes to interviews, like, I know you guys do quite a few at your events. You’re a great interviewer, what makes the best interviews? You know, you’ve done so many.
Boris: I like it when there’s a good connection between the person interviewing and the person being interviewed. And so, if they’ve known each other for a while and the interviewer is not afraid to ask silly or difficult questions. But it’s not like an aggressive interview, but maybe a bit like a teasing interview.
So we’ve seen that that really works. We like to get people together that have known each other for a while, and that can sort of, in a natural way, ask questions that maybe the person being interviewed doesn’t really want to answer. And that always works really well. And it’s also what I try to do.
So even if it’s somebody I don’t know, I’ll sit with them for a while before the interview and try to get a sort of…you know, becomes friends as fast as possible. So we joke around a little bit, tease them a little bit, and then try to take that with me onstage when we’re doing the interview.
Nathan: Okay. Well, let’s try this on you. Like, I’m curious…
Nathan: …what’s a hard question that you wouldn’t like to answer, or what’s a question that you’ve never answered before?
Boris: There’s lots. So the interesting thing about running a company is that it always looks smooth from the outside. And I have had to do this myself. I sold a company to a big company once, and I thought, “Oh, they must have everything well-organized.” And then you get inside of a bigger company, and you’re like, “Oh, it’s just as big as our company.”
And that’s a thing…you know, our company runs well, but of course, there are always issues. So those are the questions I dread, right? It’s easy to come across as confident and well-organized and efficient. But then, of course, when you’ve spent a week here at the office, and suddenly you see all the issues and the rough edges…and that’s, of course, the most interesting part. Like, “What’s going wrong?” right?
Nathan: Yeah, that’s right. So yeah, like, what’s going wrong for you guys right now?
Boris: I’m starting to regret this interview. I think two things which are the same thing, and it’s people. So it’s very difficult to scale with people. And as you grow, keep everybody informed and aligned. So when…I remember when we were still a small company with three or four people, even up to 15, everybody knows everything, right? And you don’t have to tell them because you’re in the same space, and everybody hears everything. So there are no secrets, there are no…everybody is on the loop on everything. If you get above 30, you’ve got to start thinking about how to inform people of the processes that are going on. And we are now above 50, and that means that sometimes, we’ll do stuff. And then somebody will come up to us and say, “I didn’t know about that.” And then you’re like, “Oh, but we’ve been working on it for months. How can you not know about it?” And they’re like, “Well, because you didn’t tell me.” So that’s always a challenge. Like, making sure the whole company knows what you’re doing, what you’re working on, and keep everybody informed.
And, like, the second issue is just with people, right? It’s very difficult to deal with 50 personalities. People have their own issues. There’s a saying in the Silicon Valley, like, one in ten employees will be on your to-do lists because there’s something wrong, right? They’re sick or they’re annoyed, or they have a problem with somebody else and it’s something that, as a founder, you’ll have to deal with. I think we’re doing a lot better than that. But when I heard that, it was sort of a relief because I thought, like, “Oh, I don’t have that many issues at all.”
But still, it’s something you’ve got to keep thinking about it and keep investing in, really, in order to keep your people happy and challenged, and interested.
Nathan: Especially on that…you know, the first problem that you said you had. Like, “How do you keep everybody informed?” What sort of things are you guys doing to try and tackle that? Like, I know you said you use Slack quite comprehensively. But you know, we use Slack, too, at Foundr, and I find that when you have too many channels, it’s very difficult for, still, everyone to just jump in and check it all the time, and see what’s happening for certain things. So I’m just curious, like, what else are you guys doing to try and tackle that?
Boris: Well, I think it’s more…it’s an attention problem, not a technology problem. It’s more that I have to be aware and people in the company that have to be aware that if certain things are happening, that you have to announce it somewhere. And I…like, regularly, I’ll just do a channel update in one of the more general channels. And I say, “Hey, this is happening. You should know about it.”
But my problem is that…like, we did an announcement last week about the space, and I had informed people, like, in advance that we were doing this space. But then I forgot, like, the day before, the official announcement, I forgot to tell one part of the company that tomorrow was the announcement. They found it because they read it in the newspaper, right? So they were like, “Wow, well, you should have told us that the announcement was today.” And I was like, “Oh, shit, yeah, well, we were just so busy with everything that just…yeah, I just forgot.”
So that’s, of course, an issue, because then, people feel left out, and they think it’s…you know, they might start thinking it’s a trust issue or that maybe you know, we think it’s not important…they’re not important to share it with, which, of course, is not the issue at all, and you are just preoccupied with other things, and you forget that it’s smart to share that stuff. So that’s more the challenge for us. I think…like, I posted somewhere, people don’t have…they are busy themselves and they miss the message, then they’re much forgiving. They are just like, “All right, well, it was announced. I just didn’t read it.” That’s not the issue.
Nathan: I see. Well, look, we have to look towards wrapping up, Boris. I could talk to you all day, man. But I think a good question to ask you, because you guys…you produce so much content, and you guys are a very, very high-trafficked website, you guys are very good at content. Content is massive now. Like, what, to you, makes the best kind of content? What advice can you give to our audience around creating great content?
Boris: Well, our trick, probably, is that we don’t focus as much on the effect. And that doesn’t mean that we’re just lying or making stuff up, although we do sometimes. But we’re focusing on, like, the opinion analysis, like, the added value you can bring as a writer. Which is also the hardest part. So the effect that something happens might not be that interesting to our audience than the effect of why it happened, or why it’s awful that it happened, or why it’s great that it happened.
And what we’re seeing is that there are so many new sites out there now that…you know, when Apple announces the new iPhone 7, everybody will write something about it. But we know that the best information about the iPhone 7, you’ll find at apple.com.
But what our readers are looking for is “Should I buy it?” right? Or “Is it a worthy upgrade, like, worthy of being a 7?” Or “Which features are the killer app, and which are boring?” So opinion and analysis, I think, is what will differentiate you from somebody else. And if you have a great sense of humor and you can write funny articles about technology, then that’s much more powerful than just being the first to write about technology.
So that’s what I would focus on. If you want to start a new site or blog, like, what is your tone of voice? What do you bring to the news that’s already out there?
Nathan: Okay, awesome. Well, look, you know, that’s it from me. Just one last question, and that is are there any pieces of advice, you know, that you’d like to finish up with, you know, for our audience of aspiring novice-stage entrepreneurs, or people just getting started, or looking to get started?
Boris: Yeah. Yeah, I think my advice is don’t listen to advice too much, and follow your own heart. We started our company, and we were ambitious, and we had dreams, and a vision of what it could be. But mostly, we went with the flow. We looked at the opportunity, and we listened to our audience to see what, you know, what problems they had and what solutions we could offer. And this is different for every industry and every time.
So there’s a great book that I’d like to recommend to entrepreneurs, and it’s called “Founders at Work.” And it’s so great because every story is different, and every piece of advice you get is sort of the complete opposite from what the entrepreneur in the previous chapter said. And it sort of shows that every industry is different, every entrepreneur is different, and therefore, like, every time is different as well. And what worked ten years ago might not work today. Or it might not work for you or it might not work for your industry. So you’ve got to find out what works for you today in your industry.
Nathan: That was awesome. And “Founders at Work” is by Jessica Livingston, isn’t it?
Boris: It is, yeah. It’s a great book.
Nathan: Awesome, awesome. Okay, fantastic. Well, look, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with, Boris. Where is the best place our audience can find you?
Boris: At The Next Web, of course. But I’m also on Twitter, @Boris. That’s easy to find. And I tweet a lot of our articles that I think are interesting or funny or worth reading. So that’s also a good thing to do, follow me on Twitter.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten
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