Nomad List

Pieter Levels makes over $30k/month helping digital nomads find the best places to live and work remotely. Here's how.

What is Nomad List?

Nomad List finds the best places in the world for digital nomads to live and work remotely. It collects over 50,000 data points about 500+ cities around the world, from cost of living, to temperature, to safety. With that data, the site tries to make a good estimate of where you, as a digital nomad, should go next.

Who's behind it?

Nomad List was created in 2014 by Pieter Levels as the fourth startup in his 12 Startups in 12 Months project. He's written that lurking on Hacker News since 2010 motivated him to learn to code and start building things, and that reading patio11's posts was particularly inspiring.

What were things like in the beginning?

Pieter has written extensively about how things got started. The idea came to him by solving a problem of his own:

While traveling and working from different places in the world I met lots of other people doing the same thing. They were freelancers, remote employees or startup founders. I knew some cities had entire communities doing this like Chiang Mai, but it was hard to figure out what other cities would be suitable... I thought we needed a city index for remote workers.

One of the first things Pieter did was to get feedback and help from others:

So I wanted to make a simple list of cities that were good for this kind of lifestyle. The primary factor for people that take part in this lifestyle is cost of living and quality of living. So I started collecting data on this for different cities. I knew I couldn't collect 50 indicators for 50 cities myself, as that'd be 2,500 data points to complete. I also knew I had to start out as basic as possible to test demand first.

Instead of building a site first, I simply made a public Google spreadsheet to collect the first data and see if there'd be interest for this at all.

I was slightly stunned by the response. Apart from filling in all the data, people started adding columns for different indicators, like level of safety, coffee shop density and LGBTQ-friendliness...

The initial launch sort of happened by accident:

On June 24, I posted the link to the spreadsheet on Twitter. About a month later on July 29 I had to reboot my Linode server and since I had accidentally uploaded my local nginx.conf file to my server, suddenly the site went live. I didn't know until I suddenly started getting lots of tweets. The same day, a feature on TechInAsia about me went live. Then without me knowing, Emiel Janson submitted it to Product Hunt...

It turned out to be the #5 most voted Product Hunt ever... Then I submitted it to Hacker News and bam, it went straight to #1 there too... Since it's hard to see referrers these days, I have to estimate based on the referral data I did get. Hacker News gets you about 50,000 unique visitors and Product Hunt about 12,000.

How much revenue does Nomad List generate?

According to Pieter, Nomad List is nearing $400k/year and growing:

The main site was always free and that became kind of a lead generation / acquisition funnel to have people sign up and become paid members. What they pay for is a chat group and forum (and some extra apps I made for digital nomads, like a trip planner on NomadTrips.co). The price now is $75/year.

I simply started by adding little features (like a chat), I charged $5 one-time first, because I was getting a lot of spammers. Even with $5, people kept joining. So I kept raising it, to $25, then $50, then $65, and then in April this year I made it annual and recurring. Sign ups have remained the same and even grow.

About $80k of the annual revenue comes from the remote job board RemoteOK.io that Pieter later built and connected to Nomad list. Also, ads make up about 25% of the total revenue.

He had this to say about settling on $200/mo pricing for posting on the job board:

I usually start with a low price and then slowly raise it until I see a big drop off. Not scientific in any way but it works for me.

How does Nomad List grow?

Pieter doesn't spend any time on advertising, marketing, or PR. Nomad List is growing entirely via word of mouth:

The main site that's free (https://nomadlist.com) keeps being covered in mainstream press like Time, Times and HuffPo. I don't do any PR or marketing. So my CAC=$0. It also ranks very well in search as it's linked to by so many other sites. Also not actively worked on that, it just happened because people liked my site. I've tried FB ads last month but only saw 4 conversions. So I think organic acquisition works best for me. Which means: Make a cool site, add paid features, make it recurring. Win.

Through it all, Pieter has hired at least 4 part-time contractors to help. Regardless, he still does the vast majority of the work needed to run the business, saying "95% of work is still just me."

What have been some of the biggest challenges?

At first, one of Pieter's biggest concerns was user retention:

I built the site, but then I thought, omg I'm going to lose all these users once they leave. So I added a MailChimp email box, then a chat group, a forum and kept making more for them. That's how people kept coming back and finally paying money.

Pieter has also written about the hardest parts of his journey:

I think early on capturing a new market quickly, keeping it while lots of competitors (including funded ones) keep coming in again and again and try to copy everything you did but do it better. And then hopefully don't get traction, haha. Also dealing with the hate you get when you charge for an online service requires you to grow a thick skin.

How has Nomad List handled competition?

I mostly try to ignore competition and stubbornly make what I would like to use myself. It helps that I am a "nomad" myself, so I know kinda what they need.

I think BECAUSE I work almost 100% alone, I work faster than big teams (the mythical man month thing). The stuff I make isn't top-notch, but it works just good enough for people to enjoy using it. It's not super hip flashy designed, but it does what users want it to do. I see many other (especially funded) startups build really flashy stuff with huge 20+ people teams. And it looks great but it's not simple to use for people.

What tech stack does Nomad List run on?

It's HTML, CSS, JavaScript and PHP. It's hosted on a Linode VPS on Ubuntu running NGINX.

Most of the site is written in plain simple code by me without any frameworks. Nomad Forum uses an off-the-shelf forum app which I heavily customized called Discourse. The chat runs on Slack.

Where can we learn more about Pieter and Nomad List?

Pieter posts regularly on Hacker News.

He prefers to be contacted via his Twitter account: @levelsio.

He also posts on his personal blog.

Last but not least, be sure to check out Nomad List itself!

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