Alice Kahrmann interviews global entrepreneur and cofounder of Best Of All Worlds as well as A Small World, Erik Wachtmeister.

Skype interviews are a funny old beast; time differences, technical problems and fuzzy video images – all things which have never in my experience provided ideal circumstance for a scintillating interview. However there are times when the chance to pick the brains of a world wide entrepreneur a the top of their game more than outweighs the disenchantment with said technology: case in point Erik Wachtmeister; global entrepreneur, Count (in the aristocratic sense of the word), the 4th most influential digital man in Britain (as voted by the readers of GQ), and the brains behind both social networking site A Small World (which he ceded control of in 2009) and new ‘invitation only’ Best Of All Worlds – the social network that aims to bring together the world’s top 1% of the world’s population - ‘key connectors’ looking for a high spec, well designed and intensely personal world in which to conduct their business.

So why so much excitement? Well primarily because I was one of the original alumni of A Small World – the gilded network that in its heyday was possibly the most sought after ‘invitation’ on the web, but which sadly lost its sheen in the mid-noughties, tarnished by a swathe of ‘euro-philes’ who saw the world as their playground and subsequently brayed about it – alienating all manner of other users in the process. It was however a brilliant platform, that took the concept of social networking to a new, decidedly more exclusive level (my current flatmate was sourced from the site - natch). But first things first, is there a danger – with Best Of All Worlds (the site now has 30,000 members) that Wachtmeister might fall into the trap of creating a network almost too exclusive for its own good? ‘There’s a reason to be invitation only,’ he says from his hotel room in Thailand – where he’s currently on a family break. ‘It’s not just to be a cache of being exclusive. It’s really to deliver something that’s intimate and trusted, where the profiles are authentic and where people have lots of mutual connections, both professional and social… And the core is that we are focusing on our members passions and interests in life,’ he adds.

What exactly is the difference then between the two sites then – given that the ethos seems remarkably similar? ‘You could say that the difference is that we’re going after a more mature audience. It’s not so much about parties and nightlife… it’s more about your social and professional connections with a focus on passions and intents.’ Wachtmeister is incredibly up front about the reasons behind the failure of A Small World; ‘I unfortunately let go of the company a little bit too soon. Really not losing control of your baby I think is a very important lesson that I’ve learned.’ A quote from investor Harvey Weinstein further illuminates the process leading to its demise: ‘In business, one of my all-time doozies was when I first started the Weinstein Co. I bought controlling interest in an internet company called A Small World… I ignored the technology and went after the bottom line.’

But leaving the past behind where it belongs - boy has Wachtmeister and wife (‘soul mate’) and business partner Louise put the lesson to good use. The pair are now rigorously involved in each and every detail of Best Of All Worlds and its accompanying app; global travellers who aim to bridge the gap between pre-existing social networks (‘this huge world wide web of noise’) and a more unique user experience. But does the world honestly need another social network? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ – as long as there’s a serious USP. ‘The way I like to explain how we’re different is by looking at the landscape in social media. As I see it – there are four different graphs - social (that Facebook pretty much has monopolised), professional (that LinkedIn has been extremely successful in capturing); then interest-based graphs, which are either niched communities or very specialised (the Twitters and Pinterests) and then location-based services, like Foursquare and Sonar. So what we do, we fuse these four graphs and capture all four at the same time.’

‘You may be in Thailand,’ Wachtmeister continues. ‘You may have the same intent [as other members] to play tennis, or have a play date because your kids are the same age. We’ve built, really, a global matching engine – not for dating, but more for people who share the same passions and interests. You’re actually capturing this extended family, and giving them a platform to interact. There is a need for this, and I think people are looking for it. What we’re trying to achieve is filling that vacuum.’

So there’s the readership – but what of the business model – in a world where even Facebook is struggling to monetise – how will Best Of All Worlds survive? ‘There are, I would say, four distinct ways,’ Wachtmeister says calmly. ‘The first is advertising where we basically get paid for branding,’ – with Best Of All World’s exclusivity becoming its calling card, allowing all manner of upscale as well as emerging brands access and exposure to the site’s movers and shakers. ‘The second is lead generation, where the site is paid on actual results where there are leads that are being generated.’ Local listings is another, ‘a global Yellow Pages’ where Best Of All Worlds can charge selectively for delivering rich content. The fourth is premium services ‘where we can actually start charging for certain services from our members,’ though what these services will be remains to be seen. To summarise it’s all about ‘looking for that win-win: for the members, for the brands, and for the company.’ Because at the end of the day ‘I’ve always said that if you have an active web community, with a lot of interaction and engagement, there are a lot of ways to monetise – in a way that should never be disturbing or compromising for the members.’

Wachtmeister certainly speaks with authority; in fact his Swedish drawl is positively hypnotic. This is a distinguished man from a privileged background with ‘competitive advantages.’ And he’s the first to admit that ‘I have lived a life where I have been a son of a diplomat working in half a dozen cities around the world. I’ve become a global citizen and been very comfortable in that. That’s given me the ease to do what we’re doing.’ But what of the entrepreneurial streak that has driven him forwards? ‘My great grandfather was an entrepreneur. His name was Sam Eyde and he was maybe the most important businessman in Norway. He industrialised Norway at the turn of the last century.’

Wachtmeister’s own journey began in the world of high finance. A degree at Georgetown swiftly followed by five years in investment banking and then an MBA at hallowed business school INSEAD, ‘Which I think lends itself to what I’m doing here.’ The early nineties saw him break away from traditional employment, though success really came when he teamed up with wife Louise. It’s incredibly moving hearing him talking about her, ‘She’s really the female brain behind the man behind the brand,’ he smiles. ‘She’s very big on female entrepreneurship.’ But how does it impact his relationship being in business with his wife? ‘Tune out, basically,’ he laughs, ‘it’s easier said than done! Now when we’re on holiday – it’s difficult to say we’re not going to work or take any interviews like this, or have any board meetings like we had last night over the phone. Actually, I think it’s quite fun and relaxing anyway to be able to mix it up a little bit.’

Mixing work, play and business is really what Best Of All Worlds is all about – the kind of global 24 hour living that turns the traditional 9-5 working model on its head. ‘It’s not like you’re working and you don’t like working. It’s more like work becomes fun.’ It also affords Wachtmeister the same freedom; ‘It’s really great to be able to travel with our kids. That’s super exciting: to expand their horizons and see how they grow. It’s a lot of focus on family besides business.’

Nevertheless ‘business’ is always at the forefront of his mind. He finds it ‘super exciting to be in this era when everything is turned upside down. You have small companies that come out of nowhere that are competing with giants that have been established for a hundred years. Everything is up for grabs.’

And then Wachtmeister (clearly a pro at talking to the press) pulls out a killer parting sound bite: ‘There’s this notion called ‘Alone together’,’ he says, clearly moved. ‘You feel that you are part of something but you’re terribly lonely, because you’re actually living most of your life online. And really consuming other people’s yesterday. It can certainly be entertaining and useful, but down the road I think how useful is it really, looking at other people’s vain pictures etcetera? For me, that represents maybe ten percent of the usefulness of social media. I keep saying: “Would you rather focus on other people’s yesterday or your own tomorrow?”

For Wachtmeister the answer is clear. One final question pops into my head - how does it feel, I wonder, to be the instigator of so many relationships, almost Godlike perhaps? Which provokes a smile; ‘It’s a fantastic feeling. It’s quite often that I talk to people that I don’t know who say that they’ve found a job, found a flatmate, found a girlfriend/boyfriend, found an apartment, they did a business – it’s extraordinary. A lot of people I meet did all of those things through what we’ve created. It’s very gratifying.’

Interview by Alice Kahrmann 

February 2013.