Start as a brush and become the canvas

4 min.

Dendermonde, 18th June 2021 (I almost wrote the year 2 AC, C designating Corona)

Damned hard work

The most difficult part of writing a book is actually writing the book; the second most difficult part is finishing it. In my younger days, I enjoyed painting. I remember that every time there came a moment when I could say: this is it. One more stroke of the brush would ruin the whole thing. It is what it is, let us call this a finished painting. I had absolutely no problem with stepping back, leaving the painting on its own, out there in the open, naked and vulnerable, to be seen, perceived and judged by others.

Writing a book seems to be more difficult. If I had to guess why, I would say that it has something to do with the overview. One can take a step back and look at a painting. Squinted eyes, a frown on your face, head tilted a little to the left, leaning backwards, your right hand under your chin and a brush held in your left. In that moment, you can almost trade places with the person who will see the painting – you are no longer the painter. But you can’t do that with a book. I can’t in any case. I don’t see the whole book. I see fragments, bits and pieces, extracts and ideas. (If you asked me where I refer to antifragility, my best estimate would be that it is somewhere in Chapter 5). I can’t step into the shoes of the reader. Whenever I try to see it through a reader’s eyes, I am inclined to write some extra lines here and there. It seems like a book is never ready to be perceived and judged by the wild wide world out there.

But you can’t keep on writing. About a week ago, I called ‘The Guide To The Ecosystem Economy’ a book. I said it was done. I had it printed in the format of a book, smiled, relaxed and promised myself that this was it. I would not touch it anymore.

The only thing I still needed to do was write a foreword. You know the ‘thank people introduction’ to the book where you have to make sure that you credit everybody who contributed to the book and try not to forget anyone. In other words: that minefield of human interactions. The book itself was finished, I hit ‘send’ and the manuscript was in the book publisher’s inbox. That was it. A heavy weight fell off my shoulders. I had not slept much in those last few weeks. A few days after saying “here you go” to the book, my body told me that it had been a hell of a journey and stole my most important instrument for a couple of days: my voice. For a while I was the voiceless keynote speaker. Nature always wins.


Today, on 18th June 2021, I had a conversation about ecosystems with Nina at Nexxworks, Jeroen and Esther at Bol.com (a company I refer to in this book) and Matthew Brennan, a renowned speaker and writer focusing on Chinese mobile technology and innovation. His book, ‘Attention Factory’ (the story of Tik Tok & China’s ByteDance), is a must-read. You can try to draw links between my view on ecosystems and that ‘attention factory’ . It is an overwhelming illustration of the building blocks and dynamics I describe.

It was the type of conversation one could have recorded to be viewed by the whole world, because it organically grew into a deep and profound session on all things related to big data, AI, algorithms, the potential creepiness of being too close to customers (who want to be treated like an individual), double flywheels, partnerships, engaged customers, user-generated content, the building blocks of an ecosystem and of course how to build one. We were five like-minded souls with the same drive and passion, inspiring each other.

The whole duration of that conversation, I knew I had to hold my horses. I told myself: “Rik, your book is finished. You are not going to touch it anymore. Don’t even think about it. No. No. No.” It was a perfect storm inside my head, but in some way I could find the very eye, the place full of calm. I was pretty proud of myself. I would not have to run to the publisher and shout out loud: “Stop the printing process, I have some new stuff that needs to be in the book no matter what.”

But just when I thought I had survived this hurricane of thoughts, ideas and insights, Matthew said one thing, one little thing, that was enough to push me out of the eye of the storm and into internal mayhem. I was dragged into the danger zone, my head spinning, my feet unable to stay on the ground, my body being lifted into the air to be thrown down to earth, bruised and battered.

What he said felt like the very summary of my book. It was the key to my struggle in chapter 9. I admit that I had originally envisioned chapter 9 as a manual, a recipe, a step-by-step guide on how to build an ecosystem. But building an ecosystem is not about following a recipe. Matthew was talking about TikTok and said: “They started like the brush, and evolved into the canvas”.

The summary

And I just knew: that is the summary. That is what my book is all about: Why and how to evolve from being a simple brush into a canvas on which anything can happen.

As you might have guessed, and as you will see in my book, I shouted: “Dear publisher, stop for a moment! There is something that needs to make the book no matter what.”

I told Matthew Brennan that, by providing me with this metaphor, I had to thank him for ruining and making my day at the same time. “Can I quote you on this?”, I asked. “I will refer to you and your book”, I said. (I almost said please, a word I hardly ever use). He agreed. In my head I was dancing.

Straight after this energizing conversation, I grabbed my computer and started doing what I had sworn I wouldn’t do: I wrote a few hundred extra words for the book that was supposed to be finished. While I was writing I received an email from Matthew.

Before I turn to the quote itself, I have to share something else that struck me in his email: “It’s in Chapter 5 somewhere”.

This quote by Alex Zhu, the former CEO of TikTok is exactly what the over 250 pages of my book are all about: “When you want to grow early on, you want to be a brush, meaning you have to be very specific; you have to solve a specific need very well… Later you want to be a canvas; you want all kinds of things to happen on this blank canvas.”