Meet the creators of media site and tech event TNW
ehind every widely read and shared media outlet is a founder (or pair of founders, in this case) with the determination and passion to empower the many voices in their field. The story behind TNW, co-founded by Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Patrick de Laive, serves as inspiration and a blueprint for future media innovators, and entrepreneurs in general.
Amsterdam’s startup ecosystem is certainly making its mark on the world stage. One of the drivers behind Amsterdam’s growth in startup innovation and tech is TNW, the popular media outlet and tech event that’s become synonymous with the Dutch capital’s robust entrepreneurship ecosystem.
TNW co-founders Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Patrick de Laive were introduced to one another by mutual friends in the startup ecosystem who thought their shared interest in early internet projects would make the two a perfect professional match. They immediately liked working together, went through a failed pre-mobile venture, and returned soon after with a new startup.
In 2006, the pair tried to find a tech event to showcase this new startup, and when they couldn’t find an ideal event, decided to host one themselves. TNW began as a small meetup to showcase their startup and grew into a global digital brand, with a mission to inform, inspire and connect people.
TNW is nowadays known for its media outlet, thenextweb.com, and its award winning tech event, the TNW Conference, which attracts thousands of people a year to Amsterdam. Boris and Patrick’s now enormous project also incorporates a coworking label across Amsterdam under the same name, the global startup database (TNW for Startups), and creates innovation programs for corporates and governments (via TNW Programs).
We sat down with Boris and Patrick to learn more about their journey from their initial meeting to becoming the faces of a widely-recognized conference and media brand.
This conversation has been adapted from the print version of Startup Guide Amsterdam.
What were some of the early struggles you faced in creating TNW and how did you overcome them?
Patrick: We originally struggled with budgets and finance. One of the issues we encountered was that investors were not always interested in putting their money into a media company. We had to grow from our own resources.
On the one hand, that was a pity, but on the other hand, it gave us the freedom to do what we thought was right at the time. If you receive a lot of money from a VC, they may push you in a certain direction that’s not always right for the company at the time.
So we were always very independent and hands on. I think a lot of the time in the beginning we did everything, and then at some point we needed to let go a bit more. We had to trust others who we thought were better than we were.
Boris: We tried to focus on our strengths in the beginning. There are so many options at the start, and you kind of want to do everything. You start noticing that certain parts of the business are taking all your attention, so you put some things aside. I remember we had a software event where at one point Patrick said, "I know it's fun, but I don't think we should do it anymore." Focus means saying no to a lot of things.
What do you believe was the biggest mistake you made?
Boris: I always feel that running a company means constantly adjusting and fine-tuning. It's very normal to make a decision on a Monday, because there has to be a decision, and, on Tuesday, realizing that it was the wrong decision.
I think the mistake we made, and that we're still making, is that Patrick and I are fundamentally good guys. And every now and then, it's just more constructive to be more critical and demanding. I don't think we've done that enough. It’s not necessarily a mistake we’ve made, it's just something that we realized much later than we could have, and that we could have adjusted much earlier.
Patrick: We believe in our people and our team. We might not guide them enough at certain points because we don’t want to be the dictator who says we're going to do it a certain way. But in reality, your team expects you to make a call and give direction, so maybe we've been too nice at times. Then again, our board is convinced that it’s exactly what has brought us so much over the years. People are happy working for us, and our speakers are really happy and keep in touch with us. There are benefits and advantages to being really nice.
I always feel that running a company means constantly adjusting and fine-tuning
What do you believe has been your best decision?
Boris: I think the best decision was to have a long-term vision of where we wanted the company to go. Early on, when Patrick and I sat down and realized this was going to be a company, we envisioned how we could build a company so rewarding and so challenging that we’d want to work there for the rest of our lives.
Our conclusion was it had to be diverse, scaleable and international. We were surrounded by companies who were just always thinking about their next exit, and we wanted to build a company that would outlive us.
Patrick: It was mainly an exercise in thinking about what type of company we’d like to work for long term. If you project ten years down the line and work back until the present, you get what you need to do in order to get there. We started adding more business models to our mix to become a future-proof media company.
If you could go back knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently?
Boris: At one point we started seeing that it’s a great investment to hire really good people for key positions. I think in the beginning, we were mainly trying not to spend money and we were thinking we could do things ourselves.
I remember very well a specific moment where I had to make a presentation, and I thought I'd just ask our designer for advice.
The next day he showed me what he’d made, and it was so much better than what I could ever do myself. That was a real breakthrough moment where I thought: that is the way you run a company. You find people who can do things better than you could ever do yourself.
Patrick: I think the question is difficult because the world is changing. When we started, there was no access to capital at all, but now there is plenty. If you would start a company now with the same ideas we had then, it would be easier to raise capital. In hindsight, it would have been nice to be better on the finance side so that we could have invested more in what we wanted.
Speaking of investments, in 2009, we changed from .org to .com, because the .com domain was being auctioned off. We managed to get it for a lot of money, but if we hadn’t paid it, we would have probably had to change our name.
Boris: There were several moments in our history where we knew what we wanted to do but we couldn’t afford the investment. We just had to gradually take each next step. The most recent case of this was with video. Media companies like Mashable and Buzzfeed were spending a ton of money investing in video, and it was frustrating for us at first because we were more on the sidelines. A year or two after that, it seemed that a lot of these companies threw away hundreds of millions of dollars for no reason. We were glad we hadn’t taken that risk.
Everything takes longer and is harder than you’d expect, so unless you're doing something that you really enjoy, that you are really interested in, there's no point in doing it
What professional advice would you like to give new entrepreneurs today?
Boris: Everything takes longer and is harder than you’d expect, so unless you're doing something that you really enjoy, that you are really interested in, there's no point in doing it. You should want to work on something for ten years, even if it falls on its face, because then at least you have a good ten years of working on something you love. An easy ticket to fame and fortune doesn’t really exist.
Patrick: It comes down to passion and resilience and thinking through the structure of your company. You have to make your company interesting over time, especially if you know you have to do three to four rounds of actual investment. Also, you should know the impact of what you’re doing.
How would you describe the culture and ecosystem in Amsterdam?
Boris: I think the standard of living is very high in the Netherlands, and in Amsterdam in particular. The fact that I ride my bicycle to work every day is amazing. It's this old town where most people know each other. It's very easy to meet people, even people from the biggest companies. We have a word in Dutch, gezellig, which means cozy and homey, which I think is visible in the ecosystem here. Even when you’re building a company, it’s still gezellig. It’s clear that we’re all just people.
Patrick: Amsterdam is an international and manageable city. Because it’s so small, you can go from meeting to meeting in ten to twenty minutes on a bike. In London or Paris, it could take you one and a half hours within the same city. Basically, Amsterdam is a great city to live in.
We have a word in Dutch, gezellig, which means cozy and homey, which I think is visible in the ecosystem here. Even when you’re building a company, it’s still gezellig. It’s clear that we’re all just people
Where do you see media fitting into the innovation landscape in the future?
Patrick: One of the ways to reach an audience is obviously through media and journalism, though there are other things you can do with that audience. If you look at some of the very successful tech-company business models, there is a product, and then on top of that there’s a bigger editorial team than we have creating content to drive interest in the product.
Media companies of the future can do the same thing, but the other way around. Media companies have to get better at building other stuff aside from media. When we get really good at creating products as well as media, we can leverage the same audience with two different business models to grow the markets, drive revenue and create brands.
Boris: Media companies of the future focus much more on the end user, where the opportunity is. It's the interaction with the audience. You can see that in our company, that instead of just saying we're writing articles and seeing what gets the most clicks, we try to see the journey of the end user. When a reader has a certain interest, we want to offer them more.
If you like digital tech, you might also want to come to the conference, rent our space and then receive help with your innovation idea. I think building a brand now sort of means that you're thinking more about helping clients, instead of just saying here's a product to buy.
Patrick: We can be the entry point for people to learn more about a topic. People then become users, customers, sponsors and then even lifelong partners.
Since the original publication of this interview, the Financial Times has acquired a controlling stake in TNW. After 15 years at the helm of TNW, Boris has made way for the new female CEO Myrthe van der Erve and taken on the role as a board member. Eager to evolve and continue innovating, Patrick has also departed ways with TNW and has stepped down from his role as CPO.
TNW Conference 2019: Dan Taylor Photography
All photos: Cindy van Rees / Startup Guide
*This article was originally published on December 10, 2019, and updated on March 29, 2022.