What's up everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com, where I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of how they got to where they are today. Today I am talking with Pieter levels, the founder of Nomad List. Finally! Pieter I'm so glad to have you on here.
Pieter levels [00:00:22] Thanks for having me on your podcast!
Did you know you are the first person that I ever reached out to to interview for Indie Hackers? I did like a fake one with myself, and then my girlfriend, and then I reached out to you. I DM'd you on Twitter.
Yeah, and it took a while, it took a long time.
Yeah, well I think your first response was like, "I don't do interviews anymore." (Courtland laughs) You were like, "Oh that's great, sounds like a cool site."
No! (Pieter begins to laugh) It was because it was getting really crazy and I had a lot of interviews where — and I think it's a common thing now — you have an interview where the journalists, they rewrite the entire thing you said. It happened to me so many times, and then the article's maybe not positive or they'd just change my answers, and I was like, "That's not what I said." And then I got really burned out from doing interviews, and I was like, "Well, why do I need journalists or podcasts? I'll just write a blog post and then I can control what I am saying," you know?
I think people are always trying to spin a narrative around whatever it is that you say, because they need to raise the stakes, they need to get more eyeballs, and so whatever you say…
Well they need to get pageviews right? The truth is very boring, and if you go on Twitter and you follow everyone, you see that the truth of startups is mostly boring. Where you just ship things, every day you make a small feature… that's boring, and only some of that sounds interesting. But it's a daily boring thing, so that stuff doesn't sell on the media.
Yeah it really doesn't. You need to be backstabbing somebody, or you need to be going down in flames, or you need to have some kind of fiery passionate belief. You can't just be doing the normal thing, otherwise they are going to change what you say.
But that's why I like Indie Hackers, because what you're doing is really special. You're telling transparent true stories. They might be negative or positive, but they're definitely real, because you share all the data and stuff.
I think you were doing that well before Indie Hackers started, too, because the reason I created Indie Hackers was in large part, reading the comments you would leave on Hacker News and the stuff you would post on Twitter where you would just say, "Here's what's going on behind the scenes," or "Here's how I felt when this happened." Nomad List was a huge inspiration for Indie Hackers in a lot of ways, and I think that's why I was like, alright the first person I need to get on here is Pieter Levels. So you didn't do the interview, but then you said it would be okay if I kind of clipped together my own interview, so I went around, finding things that you had said.
I sound so arrogant, but I'm not arrogant, but it's just you get a lot of… you get it too now! You get so many DMs and it's just insane. If I answer everything like, "Oh sure, let's do it!" I won't be able to ship anymore and I'd go bankrupt.
(laughs) Yeah exactly. You gotta keep your eye on the ball. I didn't think you were arrogant at all. I was just happy that you let me do the interview, this fake interview with you. Then when I launched, you were the most effusive person. You were like, "THIS IS AWESOME!" and maybe because the interview wa just clips from your blog post. It was your actual words, rather than the contortions of a journalist.
My own personal philosophy is Indie Hackers pretty much. I'm not ass kissing, it's just true. It's just exactly that.
Well you were certainly one of the most inspiring indie hackers out there, for me, and I think for a lot of people as well. I wish I had prepared more for this podcast. We scheduled it kinda last minute, but on the flip side we also had, months of preparation where we said we were going to do it and just hadn't gotten around to it.But I'm sure we're going to have a ton of things to talk about because you do a ridiculous number of things.
I think probably the best analog to you is Mubs, Mubashar Iqbal, who is another prolific maker…
Oh I love Mubs.
Yeah, he's a great guy. I had him on the show.
He's more prolific than me.
He's nuts. He's releasing a new project every other week.
Yeah, it's amazing.
Product Hunt finished their November Hackathon about a month ago, and I think he had maybe four or five different entries to this one hackathon.
It's insane and I feel strong competition with him. He's a really nice guy. He's the number one Product Hunt maker. He shipped forty four products. He 25,000 upvotes (laughs), and I'm like number eight or something.
I want to be number one because I'm competitive, so I told Mubs I'm gonna ship ten products so I get about 10,000 votes, and then I'll be bigger than you. Then he's like, "Wow, but you think I'm not going to ship anything anymore?" (Courtland laughs) So I think now we have a competition.
You might have to sabotage him.
He's just so fast.
I mean he was Product Hunt's Maker of the Year last year, and I think you had the title the year before that. But the primary difference between the two of you guys in my mind is that for Mubs, this is more of a hobby. He comes home from work and builds things for fun. He doesn't really charge for them.
Whereas you are primarily focused on building revenue generating businesses, so you charge for pretty much everything you make. I consider you more of a prolific bootstrapper than a prolific maker. I don't know if that's the best way to describe you, but that's kind of how I envision it. How would you describe yourself?
I think Mubs also does some studio [work] for startups, he does work for them and stuff, it's really cool.
Yeah, so for me, I was working at a call center, a really shitty job for me back then, and I had to sell these financial products to people and I didn't really like it. I knew I didn't want to do that kind of job again, so for me it's always been that I need to make money to pay my bills, or I won't be able to do what I want to do.
I don't really want to work for other people. I don't want to get instructions from other people, because I'm too stubborn. I usually think, generally, that [my opinion is] better… because of course it's my opinion, so of course it's better, for me at least. I'm just a very stubborn person and in that respect it is very hard for me to work for other people. It's also luxury and a privilege…
But I need to make money. I need to charge people, because I'm not raising capital. That's why I'm always triggered when people on Twitter say "How dare you charge money for your website?" It's like, come on man, I'm working everyday on my website to make it better. I make every little pixel, and little button, and image, and video, and everything. I do the marketing. So come on man, let me charge. I'm like a corner store, and I charge for these sandwiches. Please pay for them when you like them so I can continue making them.
It's funny, people on the internet have this classic attitude of… they're just so used to getting so many things for free from, I don't know, VC-funded companies put out things for free, other people on the internet do open-source stuff for free…
Pieter Levels [00:06:23] Facebook, Google…
Yeah, so they're like, "Everything should be free!" And then it's like one person's making something and is like, "Actually, I'm going to charge you." And honestly you get a lot of complaints, but it also works out surprisingly well. I know you are doing very well from a lot the things that you've made, and you've got a huge fanbase of people who are more than happy to buy the stuff that you've made.
Yeah, and let's be honest, it's loads of money. The revenue for me is ridiculously high. I think for any person with a salary it's ridiculously high, and I save most of it. And I'm not embarrassed by it. It's really hard work. And yeah, just charging people helps, and you will always get hate for charging.
I think that's one of the big things for starting makers, newbie makers, they're really scared to charge. It keeps coming up. They like to make something and they spend weekends on it as a side project, then when people start using it they will charge like $2 or $3, and then… it's like, no no no, you need to charge, like, maybe $30 a month. Because you can't even charge $10, because Netflix charges $10, but that's a billion dollar company so it has a lot of high volume. You're a small maker. You maybe need to charge $30 a month or $100 a month if it's B2B, right?
You need to pay your bills. You need to pay your rent. I mean, come on.
Exactly, and for whatever reason people get it backwards like, "Oh, I'm small I can't charge more." Well it's the exact opposite. Netflix can charge very little, because they are taking advantage of economies of scale. When you're tiny you can't do that. You have to charge more.
Absolutely, yeah. What I learned in business school is that the price is not about the cost. You need to decouple price from cost. What you put in as time is important, but what's more important is the value that a user gets from it. How do you change the person's life? Does he or she save two hours of work every day? What's her hourly rate, $100? Okay you saved her $200. Then you can probably charge $150, right? Because the margin is $50 for her.
That's such an unnatural way for so many people to think. I want to get into that and talk about how you have put that to work in all the different things that you've launched, but let's introduce yourself to people who don't know who you are.
You've worked on a ton of different apps. People might know you from one thing and might not realize that you made another thing that they love and that they use, so can you describe kind of a breakdown of your life today? What are the things you've made, what are the things you're working on, and if you don't mind sharing, what's the financial breakdown of how much revenue your apps are generating?
Okay so my main things are Nomad List. It's kind of like a database of cities. I collected data on 1,000 cities in the world, and I collected all this data about the weather and the internet speeds. I started because of digital nomads.
I was a digital nomad in 2013. I wanted to travel, and I was working a little bit. I was like, "Which cities can I go to that have fast internet?" because it was so important to have fast internet to work, and where it's kind of warm, and where it's kind of cheap, because I didn't have a lot of money back then.
I made this website called Nomad List, and now it has almost a million users a month. The revenue ranges from $15,000 to $25,000 a month. It's mostly subscriptions or memberships, so you can join the website and have access to all these social features to meet other digital nomads, remote workers, travelers. You can put all your travels in your profile. It's kinda like a social network for travelers and remote workers.
And then I have another website called RemoteOK.io. I started that because I saw a lot of people around me, they wanted to become a nomad, or work from home, or do remote jobs, and it was very hard to find remote jobs back then. Because they were all dispersed and on different job sites… like normal regular traditional job sites.
So I was like okay, I'll just aggregate. I used the API of all these job sites to use… I wrote a function to see which jobs are remote and I borrowed some filter words or whatever, and then I took the job, put it on my site, and linked back to them, to their site, so they would get traffic, and that worked really well. Then I started selling my own job posts on Remote OK, and that makes about $5,000 to $10,000 a month just from job posts from people.
I have a lot of these side projects that don't really make money, like I just released Hoodmaps, which is a neighborhood mapping app. I was in Amsterdam and my friend was going to visit Amsterdam, and I'm from there, so she asked me, "Where should I go in the city?" My problem was there's always people going to the tourist places in cities and they don't really get an idea of the real city.
I was like, "Okay, I'll just draw you a map with colors," like this tourist area is red, the hipster area is yellow. I sent it to her and she said it was really useful because I could find the place where to go and the areas where completely different. I was in very local areas in Amsterdam and it was cool. So I made that into an app recently, and that works really well, and it gets like 400,000 users a month. It's just a crowdsourced map pretty much.
So I have all these little side projects, but only Nomad List and Remote OK make the real money.
That's a lot stuff! Most people will never build even one of those apps, and you are rolling them out. It seems like every year you've got another thing…
Pieter levels [00:11:19] Yeah over I think two or three years, but I've made a lot of stuff that just disappeared because it just didn't get any traction. I think nine out of ten things didn't get any traction.
I want to talk about all your failures, that's my favorite thing to talk about. What didn't get traction and why? I think its funny, I wanna have more people on to just talk about what failed, but it's really hard to do because people don't wanna come on and just talk about failure.
Yeah, I want to talk about it, but the thing is, I forget it You forget when something is painful.
One of my biggest failures was my first project, it was called Tubelytics, because back then I was YouTuber. I had a music channel for YouTube, and YouTube was paying me as one of the first partners in Holland and Europe, and I was getting like $1,000 to $3,000, $4,000 a month, just from this music channel. And it was [unintelligible] bass music, like electronic music, but also house, and techno, and all these electronic kind of music.
But the problem was I had 12 channels, and I couldn't see the view count everyday. I had to log into every account. So I was like, okay, I'll just scrape the API of YouTube figure out for myself how many views am I getting a day. So the electro house channel would get 20,000 views and together all these other channels would get 200,000 views a day.
I just wanted like a summary app, so I made that. Then I was like okay, these YouTube networks were coming up back then, these multi-channel networks. I was like, they could use it, so I made it into a real app. I spent way too much time working on it. I spent like a year working on it.
I couldn't code. (Courtland laughs) I knew basic PHP from WordPress right? I had a WordPress blog before. I mean, I wasn't completely new, but I definitely didn't know anything about code properly. So I learned MySQL database, and I made this analytics platform that would simply just connect to the API and get all the views for every single video you have for all your channels.
So I did it for my channel. The database would fill up in like a week or something with hundreds of thousand rows, and I was like "Wow that's a lot of data!" Then Vice emailed me and said, "That's a cool platform, can we use it?" like Vice Media. Super big.
Yeah, that's huge.
Like, oh my God it's happening! So I enabled this for them and then I got like, millions of rows in my database and my database was stalling and my server was stalling. I had no idea what was happening, and I started getting problems.
On YouTube you will have view corrections. So you will get 50,000 views… let's say you upload a video Monday. You get 50,000 views on Monday and on Tuesday you get another 25,000 views. So YouTube would only show back then the total views which was 75,000 views. But then Wednesday it would sometimes correct the viewcount, like, okay, there was 30,000 fake views so now you have 75,000 minus 30,000 which is uh… I dunno, whatever. But the problem was I would have to show the difference right?
But the difference would sometimes be negative, because YouTube was correcting the data. So then Vice was emailing me, "Why is there a negative view count on all our videos?" and I'm like "I don't know? Like people are reverse watching? I don't know." No, it's a stupid joke, but I didn't know. Well I did know, and it was because YouTube wasn't giving me the data.
So I emailed YouTube, can you please give the daily viewcount? They said, sorry, we don't support it. So I thought maybe I could correct it with like data (unintelligble). It all started going to hell from there.
Was Vice paying you for this?
Not yet, no, but they wanted to pay, they wanted try it out and then see if they could pay. Then after a month they just stopped responding and they didn't log in anymore, so they obviously didn't like it. The funny thing is the guy who contacted me and used it at Vice contacted me two years later like, "Hey I was the guy from Vice using Tubelytics, that app. Now I know you from like, 12 startups and the bootstrapping startup world." And so we met again on the internet.
That's really cool.
It was a total failure, and I spent a year of my time on it. On an app that doesn't work. (laughs)
So how did you feel at the end of that? Were you not discouraged? Because I think that a lot of people of people would be like, "Alright I'm done."
No, I felt like… you know when you shower you always think about stuff? For a year I was only thinking about this app and everyday was like a new problem. It was just horrible. I didn't know how a database worked. Everyday I needed to learn something new, but I was like okay, I'm just going to do this. Then after a year, I just gave up.
Then my YouTube stopped making money, it started decreasing, my revenue. So my revenue was at peak $8,000 a month from YouTube ads and then suddenly it was like $1,000. It was dropping by about $200 a month, so I knew it stop in about five months if it were to go in that same rate, so I needed to find job.
I started applying to jobs in Holland. This is just after I have been traveling for a year, being a nomad a year, and I went back. I was in my parents' house sitting at the dinner table at 4am with coffee, on my laptop like, depressed and supper anxiety, panic attacks. My money was just decreasing, and I was applying for jobs at Coinbase, but I wasn't a good enough developer because I was still like, the shitty developer person that can barely do a MySQL database (laughs). So how can I help with a Bitcoin platform in 2014?
And that's when I did the 12 Startups thing. I wrote a blog, because I was travel blogging for my mom, so I have been travel blogging all my travels that year for my mom because she wanted to read and post photos. I would just write a blog about this situation, like I need to set a goal for myself because I knew, my dad always said when you're depressed… You know, if you're clinically depressed, obviously you need to go to doctor or psychiatrist.
But if you were depressed like me, he said you need to get a shovel form the garden and you need to get some sand and then you start digging in the ground, and you take the sound and put it on a mini mountain. I don't know the English word. Then you put it back in, and you keep doing that, and slowly you'll start feeling happier. So I was like, "Okay, I need to do something!" That was his point, you need to do something.
I think most people in that situation… you're kind of at a crossroads. One thing I can do is get a job, know I'm going to actually make money and yeah, I'm gonna have to get better at programming to get the job that I want.
Then the other side you have this really risky decision which is, let's just keep doing startups. Even though this one failed after working on it for twelve years, how did you decide to take the second path rather than the more conventional one?
Well it wasn't even like startups. I was blogging this thing and the title was "Twelve Products In Twelve Months" and then for like a joke I backspaced products and I said "startups", because it was around the time that word startups started changing a little bit.
I remember Patio11, which is your friend also. He was my idol he is the reason I'm doing all this. He never acknowledged my existence when I got close to him unfortunately. He is my big inspiration like super fanboy, anyway, so I was reading his posts and that was bootstrap stuff. So I was like, I kind of just like startups right? So I just backspaced the 12 Products and I'll just call it 12 Startups and it was a smart press trick I found out, like something the press could write about. From that point it was like, April 2014, my life just changed.
So what was 12 Startups? How did it work exactly?
So it was a blog I wrote. I was gonna do one startup or one project a month, finish it, launch it, and just force myself to learn this startup thing because I was so bad. I knew because I spent one year on this Tubelytics app and that didn't work so I was like, okay I shouldn't have spent so much time. I should have done more startup stuff just ship, and deploy, and launch, and validate, this is my idea and this was definitely new or my perspective on it was new, validate by launching. You don't know if the app is going to work but you need to launch it, see if it's going to work and you need to understand that most apps won't work. I knew that, so I was like, "Okay I'll just do a lot and I'll see what sticks." like throwing spaghetti at the wall and then I started making one thing a month.
It's cool how you're building off of this knowledge and experience. What were some of the apps that you ended up making?
The first thing was Play My Inbox which was my friends, we're always chatting. We were always emailing each other songs so I would log into their email with a robot and I would check the URLs and I would put songs in playlists. I launched it. I think it wasn't Product Hunt but I didn't even know Product Hunt back then so somebody launched for me. A lot of music journalists started using it and it was kinda fun but it didn't make money.
I think the second thing was Gif Book which was animated gifs on flip books. I found a person in Malaysia who printed flip books and I said "Okay, can I just send you frames of an animated gif?" which I would cut up in PHP and would email to him and he would get some money out of this money and it worked. A lot of people got animated gif flip books but it such a small margin, I gave up on it.
There was Go Fucking Do It, which was the first app that went viral. It was the app where you set a goal and you put a price in it like, "I want to quit smoking by January 2018" and If I don't I have to pay $50. You enter your credit card and that was the first time I used Stripe. It was very easy to set up for a basic coder like me, and so there was a person who would check if you would quit smoking or not so your friend would get an email, "Did Courtland quit smoking on January 2018?" and your friend would be like "No, he didn't." Okay, I would do a Stripe charge. Everybody asks, "Where does the money go to? Does it go to the friend?" No, not to the friend because that would be subjective right, it would go to me. I started making a few hundreds of dollars a month, my first revenue from this Go Fucking Do It app. It was really funny.
How did that feel? Did you keep working on it or did you decide, "I'm done with this."
No I just let it run, but it was really funny. Maybe I make $300 a month from this. Theoretically I could go live in some cheap place and get out of my parents' house, because I was still in my parents' house, and I was getting more depressed. It was a small little town in Holland. It was very depressing for me.
I was like 26 or something and I was like, "Alright, come on, I graduated already." You can't live, well you can live with your parents but I… in Dutch culture, maybe American culture too, it's not super normal? Maybe it's getting more normal, but I didn't really want to live with my parents. I wanted to be in the world because I had just been traveling. I like traveling. I like to be outside. I didn't want to go back to my small town especially since I was living in Amsterdam for eight years studying there and stuff.
But I was happy I was making money. And then I kept shipping and, it was a really amazing, life changing moment that I saw money in the Stripe account and then to my bank account. It was just like, phew, a sigh of relief, maybe this is going to work out.
I think one of the most interesting things about your story so far is that you had this conviction. Before you even started 12 Startups in 12 Months, you knew that most startups fail and you told yourself that you would work on each idea for one month and that was it. Whereas I think most people put all their hopes and dreams kind of like, they put all of their eggs in one basket. They're like, "This is my pet project. It's gotta work."
Absolutely! That's the biggest mistake you can do. I see it all the time. I see it every single week.
Yeah, it's crushing, because when the thing doesn't work out, then not only are you a lot more surprised and depressed then you would have been otherwise if you'd believed from the beginning that this thing probably was going to fail, but you also don't get to take as many shots in the end. I mean you were launching new products every single month. If somebody quits after the first month or if they persist on working on the same doomed project forever, they're not going to be in good shape.
But also a lot of people spend a lot of money, right? They spend a lot of money because they're not programmers, or they're not designers, and they don't do everything themselves like me or you, so they have to hire people. So they spend all their money, or they raise money, and then it doesn't work. And then it's like, what do you do?
I mean that's it. You're done. You're out of money and hopefully you didn't hire anybody.
Your savings are gone, maybe. It's a really hardcore situation when you run out of money and you're… What are you gonna do now? Okay, find a job? Good, okay but, now you're in a job again, and now how are you going to get back to where you were?
Yeah, it's tough.
If you want to run a company for yourself… It's really tough, it's depressing, it's horrible. We always forget, and we talk about these maker things and startup things like it's really fun always, but these are life-changing things, man. This is soul crushing, depressing. This can destroy friendships, family, relationships.
Paying your bills is important! It's a crazy thing if you can't pay your bills; it's poverty for a lot of people. I have backups, like I could go to my parents' house and live there, and they don't really care, they just feed me, you know. They are just like, "Okay, you're back? Okay. It didn't work out? It didn't work out traveling the world making money? Well just come back and we'll cook food for you, and you can make coffee here and just enjoy, or use our wi-fi." It's a mom-and-dad coworking space. (Courtland laughs)
A lot of people don't have this back up. A lot of people, they can't go back, they need to make this work. Dude it's hardcore shit.
Yeah. I think that's a really good point. I don't know what the best word for it is… this whole difficult period where you're first trying to get off the ground and you don't have a company. You don't have anything that can sustain you, and if you don't have that backup…
I never went back to my parents house, but I had been a programmer with a CS degree, and I could always fall back on the fact that I can get a job. No matter what I can take any risk, because worst case scenario I can get a job. Maybe I'll have to leave San Francisco, and I can't pay these overpriced rents, but I will be able to land on my feet.
If you're not in that situation then you're completely right, it's way more stressful.
100%. We talk a lot about this privately, but I think it's really good to be aware of that. What I don't think is you should hate on people for, like that I have a fallback to my parents. I was just born, I can't help that. If you have it be grateful for it. It's really special.
I think a lot of people that are listening now maybe are in that situation where they have a job, they want to be a maker, they want to do something themselves because it's a very aspirational podcast right? This whole scene is a little bit aspirational, and so a lot of people make it work and a lot of people don't. I don't know what to say, but I would say I just completely respect how incredibly hard it is. It can be super hard. And I've been there a little bit.
How did you decide to move on from the last thing that you built that was, what was it, Go Fucking Fund It?
Go Fucking Do It!
Go Fucking Do It.
Go Fucking Fund It, that's funny (Pieter and Courtland laugh) San Francisco has gotten to you.
I know it's gotten to my brain.
"We don't do things, we fund things!"
That's it, we just fund things. (laughs)
Yeah, (laughs) that's amazing. Well I kept shipping stuff, so around May I'd been in Holland for like, five months. I heard about this coworking space in Bali called Hubud in a place cold Ubud, and I saw a video, and I was like, "Wow, this is like a bamboo coworking space with monkeys…" It sounds really weird, maybe YouTube it if you're listening. H-U-B-U-D.
So I went there, I was like okay, I'm gonna continue this travel thing, and now I have these few hundred dollars so I can pay for a hotel. But I had to keep shipping, so I started making a new idea I had. I had been traveling around this place, mostly around Asia: Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, of course Bangkok, Chiang Mai, those places, Bali. I was like, okay these places are pretty cool to live for a while and you can really focus on things.
It's a very different life than in SF or Holland. First of all SF is very expensive. Amsterdam is also almost at the same level, very expensive. So you can't eat out a lot, at least I can't, back then especially. And the life I had in Asia was mostly just you're in a coworking space, you're working, you get coffee, then you get some food. Food isn't very expensive: you get a $3 sandwich, you get $2.50 dinner maybe. So I could save a lot of money bootstrapping with this money from Go Fucking Do It.
The thing is I wanted to see if there is more cities like this, more places where it was like fast and tense, a little bit cheap, and warm. It had to be a little bit warm. Because I'm from Holland, and I don't really like the temperature in Holland. I like it to be more like California temperature, and it made me feel happier and stuff. So I made a spreadsheet of 10 places I knew, and then I shared it on Twitter like, "Do you know any other places that are cool like this?"
Because literally nobody knew. There was no… the digital nomad scene wasn't really existing so much as now. People didn't know remote work. Remote work was literally hardly on Hacker News. Digital nomads were definitely not on Hacker News. I remember in Chiang Mai — the nomad hotspot now — there there was only like 20 people back then doing this stuff.
We all knew Tim Ferris, but it wasn't a big thing at all. Tim Ferris had been in 2007 with his Four Hour Work Week, but it had kind of tapered off, this is the word I think. So I was like, "Okay, where can we go?" There were some blogs that were talking about different cities but there wasn't quantified data. So I made the spreadsheet, shared it on Twitter, and I was like, "Okay, maybe some people will add." But then hundreds of people started adding and then there was I think over a thousand people added data, also about the cost of living and stuff.
I was like, "Wow this went very viral, this is very interesting." This is like, like an anomaly it's just, this is not normal.
How did you get a thousand people to find this spreadsheet that you created?
Pieter Levels [00:28:51] Well I tweeted it and then people started sharing it on Reddit, people started sharing it in… I don't know because there was no real chats about nomad stuff. I honestly have no idea. It only got three retweets, but it somehow filled up.
And also, I kept filling it up of more data. I started Googling cities and stuff. I remember the one of the first we found out about was Medellín in Colombia, which had the same kind of characteristics as Bangkok and Chiang Mai and Bali. It was warm and cheap. And then normal cities started showing up, so San Francisco, Amsterdam. Within a month it was very filled with data.
I was like, "Okay this is cool, but we need to have this as a website." So I made a table… I just copied the data from the spreadsheet and I put it into a HTML table, [and] I found some photos of the cities.
At first it was called TechNomad.io, because it was like, a cool name cause I hated the word "digital nomad." It was a horrible name (Courtland laughs) And then I remember talking to Marc. Marc from Beta List, Marc Köhlbrugge. Also a Dutch guy. I asked him, "What do you think about the name? Should I do Tech Nomad?" And he said, "No, no, no, maybe like Remote List like Beta List." I said, "Like Nomad List?" And he said, "Yeah, Nomad List works."
So I made Nomad List, and then I went to Product Hunt, because Go Fucking Do It had been on Product Hunt, and I was a big fan of Product Hunt and Ryan Hoover and stuff. I checked that logo and it was a round circle with a "P" in it. So I'm, "Okay, I'll just do a round circle, but I'll make it more red," and I put a backpack in it. It was first like a world icon.
Anyway, and then I made— I just copied Product Hunt's layout, but with cities. (Courtland laughs) I kept copying Product Hunt until today, just everything they do, but I do it for cities. But I'm honest about it. I tweet Product Hunt and Ryan Hoover, and I think they like it. But yeah, super inspired by them.
So I made this table. I made this website and then, this is super funny: I deployed it on test on my server. Like the nginX config and stuff, and the server config. But it wasn't live yet. And then my server rebooted cause Linode, my hosting company, had maintenance. And somehow the server config got loaded and the site was suddenly up, and I had no idea.
Then I remember I was in Manila and I was at this… we were having cocktails or drinks or something. And I remember checking my phone, and I started getting hundreds of tweets. I was like, "Whoa what's happening? Oh God, I accidentally deployed my site!" (Courtland laughs) And then I think Emiel, this other Dutch guy, he submitted to Product Hunt and then he went to number one, and meanwhile I was drunk.
I was drunk at 4am in Manila in some taxi, on my phone, checking what the hell was happening. I was trying to tell people in the bar like, "Guys, girls, look at this! I don't know what's happening!" But they didn't understand (laughs) why this was very integral key point in my life at the time. Because I could see this was really… Like the sheet goes viral. The site went viral without even me posting it. It's insane. I went to Product Hunt #1, and I was like, "Oh my god, this is ridiculous. This is gonna change everything."
You know what's cool is the fact that you're so prolific, and you're launching all these startups. Because I mean at this point you've launched at least four or five products out there. I think that experience make it much easier for you to tell when something is really catching on.
A lot of people are stuck in this situation where they don't know, "Should I keep working on this? Is this working? Is it gonna work, or should I move on to the next thing?" But if you've done five things and one of them is way better, then you're like, "Alright, this is clearly on a different level. I should stick with this."
Dude that's completely it. It's intuition. I really believe in intuition a lot, and you know when something's special. It's just like when you a boy or girl whatever, and you fall in love right? You're like, okay I know this… well, it's not always accurate but uh… but I know this might work out. Its same when something like this goes viral. "Oh my god, this is completely crazy."
And I remember I woke up the next day and Twitter was full of messages. I got all these emails. I think then I went on Hacker News the same day or that week and it went also #1 there. And it was like dude, the site was nothing. It was like an HTML table with cities (Courtland laughs) and the costs on it. It wasn't even special.
And if you launch something that's so "not special" that goes like this, then you're like, "Ohhhh, maybe this is not about the product, maybe it's about the trends." I was like, okay, so maybe this digital nomad trend is finally moving from where it was, which was like Tim Ferriss' Four Hour Work Week — a little bit sleazy, I think, internet marketing, virtual assistants bullshit scene, to be honest, that's what it was — towards Hacker News people.
Hacker News people are remote developers, engineers. People that are just doing really cool shit, right? That's changing people's lives. It's a little bit cliche to say, but it's true. They're making these giant apps that are all over the world being used like Lyft, Uber, Facebook, Google, whatever. Apple, right? It was arriving there.
It wasn't ready in 2007 yet, and I think it wasn't ready because the internet speeds and a lot of stuff. But now it was finally ready. I think the financial crisis of 2008 had something to do with it, this delay effect of, I dunno, we want to have a different life.
How much were you thinking about this stuff back then. Were you putting a lot of thought to figure out what is—
I was! I was thinking a lot about it. I was thinking a lot, because I remember blogging about bootstrapping startups in Asia back then and then it kept going to Hacker News. Me, or I think other people also, were submitting my posts and they kept going on the front page of Hacker News.
So I was like, okay this is… this is definitely something Hacker News likes. And Hacker News, and to be honest this sounds very arrogant, but Hacker News is always out of trends about three or four years from the mainstream. Bitcoin, Dropbox… well Dropbox they were negative about, but it turned out to be fine. Always when something is happening at Hacker News my mainstream friends are gonna talk about it within three years and my mom and dad are gonna talk about it within five years. To be honest because that's just how it works for me.
So I was like, okay if Hacker News likes it, this is gonna be a thing. I need to like, you know, how do you call it, go full on this project? So I went, and I think I launched a few more 12 Startupsm but I didn't finish the project to be honest… in that year at least. I think I finished by now (Courtland laughs).
But back then I was like, okay I have two choices. I leave this site kind of like basic and not maintain it. That would be super stupid, but then I can continue the 12 Startups. So I went one hundred percent on the project and I just started like, adding data, adding features.
I knew I needed social features because I read something: If you wanna keep people coming to your website, you need to make the site sticky. so you need you need to either ask them for their email or you need to have social features that they sign up [for]. I didn't know how to make a login form or user database stuff, it was really hard, so I was like, okay: Slack was coming up back then, and so I was like, okay, I'll just use Slack. I made a Slack group, and I started inviting my friends and that grew within a month… it grew to like, 500 people and then 1,000 people.
I kinda connected it to the website, but it was really shitty again (Courtland laughs), like it hardly worked. It was a Typeform. And then I remember getting spammers on this Slack cause everything was free, so I charged $5. With Typeform you can add a SAtripe box really easily, and then the spammers were gone. And then there were more spammers again so I charged $25 and then $50 and then $99 dollars. So I kept charging more.
And then suddenly I was making money from Go Fucking Do It, and I was making money from Nomad List and it wasn't basic money. It was starting to pass $1,000 dollars a month. I was like, "Oh my god." And it kept growing. I was like, this is super simple, because if there's more users and they're gonna pay then you know I could maybe get this to like $2000, $3000, as my income or salary, it would be amazing.
And it happened. It happened way faster than I thought.
How long did it take?
This took a few months but I remember the first week of Nomad List launching I got an email from Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress.com, at least, and he said, "Can we sponsor the website?" I said sure, so he was sending me a few thousand dollars a month. Immediately that started making money as well, so now I had memberships, a basic sponsorship, so now I was at maybe $3,000/month and it was great.
That's crazy how fast you got to that milestone and I think it's interesting because you had this huge launch on Hacker News, obviously your Twitter was blowing up, it was just this tremendous launch out of the gate. For a lot of people, that's where it ends, they get a lot of traffic and it just dies down, and they can never get it back to where it was, but you were able to keep it sustained… how did you do that?
The key part is adding social features if I didn't the site was gone.
So it was the community forum, really, that helped you capture all that traffic that you had gotten during launch?
Absolutely, like I have 900,000 visits a month now but only two hundred people pay and sign up a month, so it's like zero-zero-zero-zero something, it's very low, but those people give money which keeps me working on the website. Also, they talk about it and they tell other people to join.
There's the concept of lurkers, you know on Reddit I think 99% lurk, I think that's definitely true, so on social platforms, there's a lot of lurkers and there's a few content creators or people who post forum topics. On Indie Hackers you must have data on this, how many people post a forum thread and how many people watch?
Yeah, it's like the vast majority are lurkers just reading stuff.
Yeah, so based on that I think you have to add sticky features. What I would have done differently I would have programmed them myself but maybe it wasn't that stupid because that would have taken too much time so I needed to immediately make it social. It still took a month or two to add Slack and stuff.
Is this something that you spend a lot of time looking at metrics and measuring exactly what parts of Nomad List are sticky and have high retention, or is it more like… gut feeling, I know I need social features so I'm just going to put the best social features that I can think of, and is this something that you have kept doing since you launched Nomad List or is it kind of upfront you put them there and since then you haven't had to do much in that area?
I used to check a lot of analytics and now I hardly. This is funny because I think I spoke to Mark from BetaList and he also hardly checks it, and it's just guts. I realized that I don't want to make a website for everybody. I just want to make a site that I would love to use, which means you have to make choices that are against what people say, so you might decrease your page views but you just make a cool website. If you follow all these metrics, not necessarily but kind of, you will make things for… I don't want to make a site for metrics, I want to make a site for humans.
I was a musician before this if you make a song that everybody likes, sorry, that's a really shitty song, generally, but maybe not, Justin Bieber's got kind of good songs but in general I want to be the indie artist. I want to make Radiohead's kind of music, that's weird, and ahead of the curve, and it's edgy. I want to make a Radiohead type website where it's just like, why's this site so weird but it works? Like how can you see the analytics? If you follow the analytics then you're always going to be behind, because maybe in two years it will go down but you don't know why. Maybe mine will go up because my gut was right because I had the Hacker News gut which is always three years ahead, I don't know, maybe it's arrogant but maybe it's true.
Yeah I think also it's much better for if you have a handful of people who really love or hate what you're doing, then have a ton of people who are lukewarm about whatever it is that you're building.
That's it, it's better to have all these haters as well. You're totally right but I think what I did do is I would launch features and I would look at the database or something, like okay, are people actually adding their travels to this? And they did, and now it's a really big part of the product of Nomad List. I would definitely test the features.
It's also cool that you are a Nomad List user yourself. I mean you're a digital nomad and you started this entire thing because you were traveling and you wanted to know what the best places to go were, which gives you a lot of insight into what features to build, especially compared to somebody who might just be working on this who doesn't really travel and live that lifestyle themselves.
Totally, I feel like Patient Zero, I feel like Nomad's number zero and the site has to be great for me. I think that's a very good question and an integral part of bootstrapping… it's better to make things for yourself and solve your own problems, it has limitations as well but it means you're the expert on your own problem.
The majority of people are trying to solve other people's problems. I've tried that too, it hardly works for me because I don't know their problem. Last year I was living in Holland for a while in the summer and I forgot what nomadding was, and what's important, and I kind of made the site worse. Then I started traveling and I was like, this site is unusable on mobile.
Why are all these buttons here that are not important? I'm literally standing in the middle of nowhere now, I want to know: where is a place to work, where's the hotel, where's this and this, what's the price of this, so I changed the website to fit my needs again, so being the customer of your own product, like dogfooding is so super important for me.
That's such a good hack. I wish I could do that more easily with Indie Hackers, I made Indie Hackers for similar reasons to help me solve my own problem, it was really to help me come up with an idea for something to work on and help other people do the same thing. Once I got something to work on I wasn't the ideal user anymore for a long time until I built the forum.
It's a traditional fall for companies, that they forget who they were making things for, who's their audience? You see so much with VC funded startups… Nomad's for example if Nomad List was VC funded. The VC would call me in month two saying, "Nomads are a small market, you need to go for the general travel market"
Like woah dude, I didn't even validate the nomad market, it's month two… then he's like "No, you have to go into all these different verticles." then after three years I'm selling furniture or something, it's just too broad. It's insane, don't do that. Make it for yourself.
Let me ask you, how do you keep your eye on the ball? Because the entire time you're building your company you're going to run into snags, you're going to run into issues where you want to grow and maybe something's holding you back, or you might change as a person, so how do you make sure you're always building Nomad List for yourself?
That's my biggest fear to be honest because, in terms of nomads, I'm a different nomad than I was the first month I did it right? Like 2013 in April I was so naive, but it was also exhilarating, everything was exciting.
Now it's still amazing for me but now I want to stay in places pretty long, I want to stay three to six months or maybe nine months, I don't know, I want to have more of a base maybe. It's not just about age, it's about like… I know how it is to travel every two weeks to a different continent and it sounds cool but it's ridiculous. You sit in airplanes and everything starts looking the same and that's not the point of travel, that's the difference from me four years ago.
The question is, who are my users? Is it me or is it these new people? I need to focus on both but it's not sure, it's a big challenge man.
How do you know, are you just talking to people in your community or were you doing surveys, or just tweeting stuff out and seeing what the reaction is?
Absolutely. I talk to a lot of people I meet because if I go to a co-working space in a nomad spot I will get recognized, which is really funny. They'll be like, "Oh I love the website, I use it a lot" and I'm like yeah, but what do you really think? What don't you like about it? He's like, "Honestly, these buttons are ridiculous. You need to change them." I'm like, okay cool, what else? I'll try to get the negative stuff, it's most important. Get the fanboy/fangirl stuff out of the way and ask, what's bad about the website… what do you hate and why are you not using it? A lot of nomads they're like in [unintelligible] just not using it, why are they not using it? Should they use it or have they already found their spot? There are people saying I don't need your website because I'm already in a co-working space where I meet friends and people and stuff, which is one of my site's goals right? Well, that's a very good point, maybe that's better right? Yeah, you have to talk to people and also solve your own problem, but yeah it's hard.
It's pretty cool because you're in a good industry where's it's maybe even a little easier to talk to people because traveling, on one hand, can be really lonely but on the other hand it's kind of social if you have these meetups with people who are Nomad List users, and they go to Bali and they want to meet other people like them who are also nomads, you can just go literally talk to people face to face. Whereas so many other people launching businesses will never once talk to a customer face to face.
Absolutely. I remember Patio11, he made an app called Appointment Reminder right? He would go into barber shops and he would say hey, what's your biggest problem? I don't know if I would have the guts to go into a barber shop and ask… they would be like, "What are you doing here man? You need to get your hair cut or you get out." For me, it's easier. You know what's also interesting? You need to be sure that the local knowledge you get, it's very different than the internet knowledge, it's a lot of hate but it's also way more honest and real. On Reddit they upvote the most important thing they say about your website, they will be like, "Nomad List sucks" on Reddit, then the top vote says. "Yeah, this and this and this sucks" Well in a co-working space or in real life you'd be way more nuanced, but there's probably a lot of truth in both and I think there's more truth in the Reddit's top comment which has, "Pieter why is this wrong with your website?" It's so radically honest.
People are afraid to offend you in real life so when they see you in person they'll be much kinder, which is nice on one hand, but then you have to filter and be like, "What do you really think?"
But then the opposite happens on the internet, they're like, "You are a terrible person, I hate you!" and you meet in real life and they're like, "Sorry I said that but I had six coffees that day and I was a little outraged." but I can understand the hate. On the computer we're different.
So let's talk about travel for a second while we're on the subject of meeting people abroad. How do you get so much done while also living this digital nomad lifestyle? I have this image of you on a jet, with your laptop open, cranking out features on the plane and being super productive, and meeting people. Whereas when I'm traveling, I get very little done. I'm completely discombobulated, the process of having to constantly pack things up and unpack them makes it hard for me to get work done. So I'm curious what you do to counteract that?
Me too on a plane, first of all, I hate flying and I feel horrible and sick after. It takes me about seven days to get to normal, usually four days, but something like that. I think the misunderstanding which is very radical is that nomads are me. They travel a lot. I don't travel at all a lot. I might even travel less than you. Definitely, in the beginning, I would fly every few weeks or something, now I prefer to stay in place for months. Like I just flew from Holland to Bali in Indonesia, and this was like a month ago, so I took a few days to recover and then I've been shipping solidly like I launched Nomad List 3.0 here and I've been shipping solidly from here.
It's exactly like normal life. I think we need to get rid of this idealization of travel like fast travel is absolutely terrible for you. Holiday travel where you just go someplace for seven days is, come on, it's fine, I understand what it is because especially in America people work… what do they get like a week Holiday I think? By law in Europe it's much more, I think it's six weeks. The problem is when you finally feel recovered you have to go home again, that means a lot of people will try nomad stuff and they will do it really fast, then they'll say it doesn't work for me. I'm not feeling psychologically stable, I don't feel physically stable, you go crazy. So my advice would be is what I do, I stay longer in places.
I've never done the long vacation thing but honestly that sounds like the right way to do it. Another thing that I've heard you say that was actually pretty cool, I think you were giving some sort of talk about how to be a bootstrapper or how to get a startup off the ground, and you were talking about ideas and how one of the cool things about traveling is that it kind of gives you more ideas, because you're seeing all sorts of different things and unique experiences other people aren't.
People in San Francisco might be all reading the same books and blogs, and having the same conversations about the same cultural events, and they're like "Man, I can't think of a unique idea everything I think of is already taken" but when you are traveling and visiting these faraway places in Bali or South Africa and you're interacting with all these different peoples and cultures, suddenly you have a lot more material to work with in terms of being creative.
Yeah absolutely. I learned this in business school, where there's a word called "international arbitrage" and it's a very broad word, but you can also apply it to products. Like my friend, he's British but Hong Kong ethnically so he'd go to Hong Kong a lot. He said in Hong Kong the biggest selling thing now is a little doll to wrap your headphone cord around for your iPhone.
I thought, of course, that sounds super logical. Why don't we have that? Slowly starting to come here is like, I have a metal ring that sticks on the back of my iPhone and makes me never drop it. I don't have a case, I just have this ring, and now it's finally getting to New York and America, and I think Europe. That's called an economic advantage of the information you have over other people in your country or your area that they don't have because they haven't traveled.
It's weird to me how slow information will spread sometimes, or not spread at all. I kind of expect it to be instant, but it's not.
Absolutely, with the internet?
Yeah, it's like if people have a good idea somewhere I expect it to catch on everywhere else, but it doesn't.
No, I think it has to do with culture. For example, a ring on the back of your phone you might see it on Reddit the same day as Japanese people see it, but you will not like it because your culture isn't ready for it yet. It might take three years and you're like, now I get it. That kind of stuff. There's stuff you can get from South America, there's stuff in America… I visited L.A. and specific small things are completely different than in the rest of the world. The whole vibe is different. I can take that to Europe for example if I have a product or a service.
A famous executor of economic product arbitrage is Rocket Internet, I think you know them, it's a German company. They're famous. I'm not a super big fan but that's economic arbitrage. They would copy American product ideas, big startups, and they would start doing it in Europe, then in Asia and South America. Getting inspired by different surroundings but also specifically seeing different products and services, then bringing them to a country that's a famous way for entrepreneurs to get successful.
Another one that I can give an example of is singers in Europe. I grew up with all these pop singers that were singing Dutch songs, then I recently realized they were all singing the same songs but in different languages with the same instrumentals. That kind of stuff, just taking stuff from different countries. If you stay in the mainstream of your own country, or your own area, you will never realize that.
And you're also going to find it much harder to solve your own problems. I hear this all the time, people say, "I just can't come up with an idea. I don't have any problems to solve, I don't have any problems worth solving in my life." It's like yeah, you're living the same life that everybody around you is living which means you have the same problems that they have, which means it's likely that someone thought of solutions to these problems a long time ago and you're late to the game. Then it becomes hard because you have to be super creative, and find something that no one else is doing or be way ahead of the trends, or have some sort of specialist knowledge to come up with an idea.
And the more the same you are, the more homogenous you are, the less competitive advantage you have economically because you will be the same. Economics and capitalism are based on the idea you have a differentiating product. If you make the same product, and I see this every day, you will not have a differentiating advantage. You ask them, "Why's your startup different?" and they say, "Well we have this…" and it's a small detail, "…our blog post editors are better." that's not a differentiating advantage that's going to change everything. You need a significant product differentiator to be successful I think, and you don't realize that when you're the same.
You really don't, and I think a lot of people are in the situation where they know what their goals are. They know they want to be a successful business owner, they know they might not ever want to have a boss again, or maybe they just want the freedom to work on something of their own choosing that they love, even if it doesn't pay as much as their regular job, but they get stuck in this whole idea phase where it's like what's next? What will I even work on? I don't have any good ideas.
Besides the stuff that we've talked about is there any other advice that you have or have you ever been in a situation where you've struggled to come up ideas? Like how are you confident in coming up with one idea every month for twelve months?
I had a Trello board back then with different idea lists. I would have super early random weird ideas, then this might work ideas and then, planning to ship it, and shipped it, then it was failure or success. Nomad List was Tech Nomad, it was a Trello card back then, and Go Fucking Do It was in there. Now it's more in my brain, also I have less time to ship different ideas.
I have a better eye to see what works for me as an idea and what doesn't, but back then I had no idea at all so I would just write every idea I had in a list and I would do that every day almost. You can't really be judgemental about your idea babies. You just have to put them in that list and see hmm, maybe it takes a year or two to brew on it. Maybe your subconscious will change it a little bit and it finally works, but you need to collect all these ideas. It's a discipline man, getting ideas is discipline. Seeing your surroundings then finding problems, hmm, could we solve this? That's a skill you can learn.
I think the same thing. I think a lot of people have this whole, wait for inspiration to strike mindset, does that really work? How often does inspiration just strike you? I think that's kind of the Hollywood narrative that isn't exactly realistic. I think it's much better to be very deliberate about deciding what you work on, and very deliberate about identifying opportunities because you'll just come up with better ideas. You and your Trello board, that's a perfect example of being deliberate.
I actually kept an idea notebook for years that I would never really read, I would just write in it when a new idea came to me. When the time came for me to actually work on something new and I was reading this idea notebook, I had to basically throw the entire thing out because all the ideas were terrible, because I never really took the time to refine them. I think you get a lot more mileage if you're very deliberate about doing this and you're going over and iterating on these ideas, prioritizing them, reading them, and working on them actively.
If you want to do it my way, you need to have a lot of ideas and most will not work out. Be less arrogant about your ideas, like I see this arrogance of, "No, this is our startup. It's going to work. Our product is much better, it's great." don't be so arrogant man. Validate, and see if it's true. Otherwise, you don't know anything. Generally, most things won't work out. Come on, it's the same with dating.You talk to most people they won't become your girlfriend or boyfriend, it's normal right? Maybe we're too used to things working out.
I think it's one thing to hear people talking about how most startups fail, or how most relationships don't work out, but then when your startup fails or when you get dumped then it's a whole different feeling.
Yeah, so it's like an illusion that you think… this also applies to relationships, you need to know if you're in a relationship maybe it's not going to work out. Same with startups, same with everything in life. Nothing is sure, you can't be too confident.
So do you have a checklist… like if you're going to work on an idea how do you decide whether or not it's worth working on? Do you have a list of criteria like, okay, I have to analyze the size of the market and see if this idea's big enough, or this has to be an idea that I really love working on, or maybe it has to be related to Nomad List in some way, or maybe you don't even use a checklist?
No, I think it's intuition in the beginning. Although now, what's switched after this Twelve Startups stuff was that I knew that I could make money from stuff. I didn't want to do non-monetizable side projects, I wanted to make stuff that I could generally easily monetize because I needed money, so I filtered it on that.
So point number one for you is that it absolutely has to make money?
No it doesn't, but if your goal is to pay bills, yeah of course.
Don't kill your babies. Generally every website, mostly, you will be able to find a way to make some money right? But your time is limited, a lot of people are trying to make things work on their savings right? They have twelve months to make something work, to become a maker or startup founder, and then they notice their savings are gone. So if your time is limited try to focus on stuff that's at least a little bit monetizable because you need the money. If you're doing it as a hobby side project, that's great. I think it's amazing, it's creative expression for sure. Then, of course, it doesn't matter, depends on your priorities.
I like what you were saying earlier about how Nomad List is really a clone of Product Hunt, it reminds me of that quote about how good artists copy and great artists steal. I think what you were really doing was stealing from Product Hunt.
I think to copy something is really to copy the surface level details, you're not really going deep, but if you steal something you're really taking it and you're making it your own. What you were doing is taking Product Hunt's features and making them your own on Nomad List and making them apply to digital nomads.
What's funny is that I did the same thing to Nomad List with Indie Hackers. Indie Hackers is really Nomad List in disguise and people don't really know this because it's not obvious on the surface, but…
Hahaha, that's amazing! It looks much better than Nomad List I think, it looks beautiful.
Haha, thank you! But seriously, there's this… the business model or maybe just the strategy behind Nomad List is so cool. When I first saw it the reason that it inspired me was that I figured, hey, I think this can be applied to a whole bunch of different ideas that aren't just Nomad List.
It's cool to have you here now because I can actually run these thoughts by you, and you can tell me if my analysis is off, but I think for any topic that people really care about but where it's also hard for them to do research, you can do all of that research for them and put it in one place, and essentially create a site like Nomad List or Indie Hackers.
And it's going to look different depending on what the topic is, so with digital nomads what you made was a grid of cities with numerical data that makes it easy to compare one city to another. With Indie Hackers it's a list of interviews with entrepreneurs who've already done what you're trying to do, and Product Hunt is just a daily list of the newest products. I think from an outside perspective, they all look very different but it's the same underlying principle of just taking data that people really care about and compiling it, putting it into a useful format all in one place.
Then phase two is once you have all this traffic, are you build a community around this information or around the people who are interested in this information. This is something that you did very early on with Nomad List with your community forum, and your ability to get people to contribute to the actual data and rankings.
Then phase three is once you have this community of people who all care about the same things you build related products that they'll also find valuable. Which is again, something that you've done a really good job of with Nomad List and I think Product Hunt's really done the same thing. Again, I think what's great about this is that anybody can follow the strategy so long as they pick the right topic and they find a valuable way to compile and display that data.
That's golden analysis, 10/10 points. That's super spot on. Not enough people realize this.
I did economics and this is economic theory, because this is the gaps that Facebook isn't filling. Facebook is a giant social platform, they can't do niches very well because you have these Facebook groups about startups, and to be honest they're all terrible. You have Facebook groups about nomads and they're all spam and self-promotion garbage.
Facebook groups are generally not so great. Then you have a dedicated website, which Facebook doesn't have the resources… they don't care about Nomad List revenue, that's peanuts for them, but for me, it's a lot. For a billion dollar company, they don't care, and they can't invest a lot of effort into making a site like this, so there's an opportunity even with big corporations dominating the internet… Netflix, Facebook, Google, whatever, to fill these niches.
Yeah, it's small potatoes for them.
They need it, normal people need Indie Hackers, they need Nomad List because there's nowhere else. I think that's an economic explanation of what's happening, which means that there's a niche for horse farms or whatever, or horse stables, or coffee cup designers, or latte art, of course there are. Maybe they're bigger than Indie Hackers and Nomad List, you don't know. You can collect all the people from the whole world in one niche, to one website, with a forum, with a chat, with some data about the products, or their topic, and that's it.
Also the cool thing about it is you can pretty much do whatever it is you're interested in. If you are an avid underwater basket weaver then you probably spend a lot of time on the sub-Reddit for underwater basket weaving and you probably know a lot about that topic, or if you're a digital nomad you can look at the Facebook groups that exist for digital nomads and say okay, why do these groups suck? Is it because they don't have the right audience or the right people, or is it because you're not providing anything of value? You can't really in a Facebook group create a database of cities with costs data and internet speed like you did with Nomad List.
Pieter Levels 1:03:11 Exactly. How are you going to do that, post a picture? It's very hard, yeah.
Yeah, exactly. And because you know a lot about this particular topic you can go out and build your own custom format, and you can present the data in a way that's way more useful than anyone will ever be able to do with a Facebook group or whatever proprietary format they're using.
That's it, yeah. To be honest, two decades ago it wasn't different. In 1996 you had all these forums and websites about topics, it's always been this way it's just more modern now, and now we call them startups. Honestly, we're just making websites right? Sometimes they're bought by big companies like yours. Startups are just websites or web apps and they do something, it just looks really flashy now but it's the same thing we were doing in 1996.
I'm glad you bring that up, about the startup thing, because really we're building websites. We always want to make the things that we're working on sound flashier, and bigger, and more impressive, and better than they actually are. I think a related topic to this is with code, programmers do this all the time. If you don't unit test all of your code, if you aren't using this framework, or this language, or this methodology, then you're not a real programmer. I don't know how many times you hear people spewing this toxic bullshit, and it's funny because you were the exact opposite. You will use whatever it takes to get the job done, you will use PHP, you'll use SQLite in production, you'll do whatever works and you don't care about being a "real programmer". Where does that mindset come from and how did you become that way?
This comes from art as well, when you see a beautiful… when you see a cool startup and you talk to the engineers like, "What's the stack you guys or girls are using? What's going on? Do you use React? What about this?" if you go to an artist at an exhibition, like paint artists, do you go in and the first thing you ask is, "Which paint brush do you use?" It's an outrageous question, it's absolutely ridiculous. What does the paintbrush have to do with it? It's about the artist, it doesn't matter, it's a medium. Most languages come from, well they all go to assembly right? That's the computer called binary, it all compiles to the same zero and ones, so why are you asking about this?
Isn't it about what's in my mind and what I'm trying to express here? So I see it more in an artistic way where it really is not important which technology you use. I think it's biological but this religiousness about technology stacks is hilarious, it's outrageous, it's absolutely ridiculous. The only exception I see here is when you build a spaceship like Elon Musk, I would definitely make sure it's safe and you use the right technology stack for it, or if you're at work and you build a giant enterprise app, there might be advantages, but if you're a solo maker or a small team, come on, why does it matter? Make sure your site is secure, do a security review, but stop being so religious about technology stacks… use whatever works for you.
I think it's toxic actually because there are things that help people and inspire people to start things. You tweeting about how you launched Hoodmaps and got to the front page of Reddit, or Patio11 writing about how he's knocking on doors and selling his app Appointment Reminder.
People probably start a lot of startups that they otherwise wouldn't have and get the courage to start by hearing these stories, but at the same time there are these other negative forces where you might have haters on Hacker News who flame everyone who makes anything that's not exactly to their standards, or you might have developers who are religious who create this toxic environment of like, you need to have the absolute perfect code before you can start.
Then people who otherwise might have started a company now won't start it, because they feel like they need to go get a CS degree before they can start anything, or that everything that they do has to be perfect, so I think you're one of the more inspiring people because you make it very clear that you don't have to do everything perfectly to succeed. You're really good at honing in on what is worth focusing on. It's not like you can build a startup by ignoring everything, some things matter.
No, it definitely matters, but I also like to make myself look like more of an idiot than I am. I'm not as stupid as I look on the internet, I make myself look stupid to show how, if you're stupid you can also do it because I do use stupid technology. Yeah, it needs to stop and I think it is toxic, it's very toxic to new people.
I think that's very dangerous. Let's not keep new people out, you need to be inclusive and welcoming of new people, come on man, let them write whatever they want to write and make whatever, and be a little bit nice about it, don't be so religious because it's very, very, very toxic. You know what the worst is? The people hating are enterprise engineers, they're not individual makers, they're not startup teams generally. Startups know makers as well, they know how hard it is, they are usually tech stack ambiguous. It's the enterprise engineers and maybe they're listening, and if you feel like this change your toxic behavior please, because enterprise is different than what we are doing, it's a different world with different rules.
In that situation, your job… your job is to code. The whole goal is to write code, whereas when you're starting a company it's a means to an end.
Yes, exactly. They have a specification and a team. My spec changes every second because I reload the page and I don't like the button, so I put the button somewhere else. That's a different specification of what we want to do. I'm not telling Comcast how to code, or how to ship, right? Comcast, you need to ship faster. Verizon, this is incredibly slow shipping.
No, I'm just doing my thing, so enterprise is here, let me do my thing and let everybody do their own thing, it would be good for more people coming in. It's amazing if more people come in, we need more indie makers and more indie products. I think it's very healthy and it's literally the metaphor of having a corner coffee shop next to Starbucks, they exist, there's a lot of them. We need more corner coffee shop internet businesses.
I couldn't agree more. I think a big part of what you're doing with your blog and especially with your Twitter account is you're inspiring people. You're getting more people in to build these corner coffee stores on the internet, but at the same time you've built this huge audience for yourself, and it can serve as a distribution channel so when you launch a new product you can drive a ton of traffic just by tweeting about it without having to rely on getting press or getting to the top of Product Hunt or Hacker News, and I think the way that you tweet is so distinctive.
You have this free-flowing style, it's very carefree, and very informal, that a lot of people don't have, and the result is that your followers are more engaged, you get more tweets and more likes than other people with similar follower accounts. I wonder how much of your strategy is carefully considered because you mentioned earlier that you kind of dumbed yourself down sometimes to make it obvious to people that anybody can do this, but other than that do you have a Twitter strategy or is this just you being you?
Yeah, I don't know. I never understood Twitter. I'm now in a co-working space in Bali and there was a girl last year who said… anyway we exchanged contacts on Twitter and she followed me, said, "Why do you have a lot of followers?" then she asked me, "What's your social media strategy?" and my brain kind of crashed… I can not compute this question, what do you mean strategy? You just write what you think? I thought, oh, maybe the rest of the world does it differently, because I don't really have a goal on Twitter…
No, people do not write what they think hahaha. People self-censor…
Exactly, and we know people around us who self-censor a lot, and I mostly don't censor. I think what happens is I order three coffees a day and at about 2.4 coffees I start raging about things, but also positive raging, and thinking okay, like this week I was using Tinder, I was like, this app doesn't work because I have all these matches but I'm not meeting them, so I'll tweet Tinder, 1,000 matches, doesn't work, I've never met anybody, what's going on? Then everybody retweets it, and maybe next week I'll make a dating app about it based on this tweet.
That's kind of how I think, so I'm constantly thinking about stuff and I'm putting it on Twitter, so my Twitter's like my brain, it's very public. I've tweeted my meltdowns, relationship breakups, and I was crying, and I was drinking beer and crying, I don't know, it's just, I want to be a little bit transparent because life has many ups and downs.
I listen a lot to Joe Rogan, he talks a lot about transparency and honesty, that the future will be open and it'll be very hard to keep secrets in the future because of data leaks, and hacks, and stuff. I think that's already happening where it's easier for me to mostly not have secrets, and just be transparent and open about what I think.
That's a really interesting way to look at it. You're just getting out ahead of this inevitable trend toward none of us having any privacy whatsoever.
I think it's absolutely inevitable. My goal is not to have a following, I do think there is a narcissistic element to it, like I'm a little bit narcissistic so I like having attention on me. It's not always good, right? It's mostly just like I'm dumping my brain on the internet. I get a lot of haters, there's a lot of stuff where I shouldn't have dumped it but I did, and it showed my weakness of character.
Like last year, people were attacking me and I was attacking them back, and it wasn't nice, so I tried to be nicer this year. I think it's working, but yeah, I think transparency is great but mostly don't have a social media strategy, just be yourself. I don't think that works on Facebook, I don't think that works on Instagram, but it definitely works on Twitter, being yourself.
A lot of us, I think, get anxious about being ourselves online, because it feels shitty for random strangers to hate on the things that you've shared, especially if they're personal things. I personally will get defensive if people say negative things about an app they I built, and an app is among the least personal things you can share.
When you're actually sharing your opinions about how the world should work, or you're sharing your personal information or health information, or relationship news… how do you deal with anxiety and maybe the fear of people criticizing the things that you say?
I think you need to understand that it's a platform and I have a good example. I was doing YouTube, so I was a Drum and Bass DJ and I would upload my mixes, and I had a press photo which looked like a Trance DJ in Europe, it looked really mean and white [unintelligible] with headphones, it was so cheesy, but the biggest thing was it had five million views and six thousand comments, and there were about six hundred comments about my eyes.
They said, "Wow, he looks like a hammerhead shark! Wow, his eyes are so far apart that they'll almost fall out of his head, or I think he has peripheral vision." I was so shocked so I started looking at my eyes in the mirror. With my roommate, we measured out the distance between my eyes, and it was further than normal, so I got very insecure about that, but the point was that it took a few months of being insecure, but then I was like yeah, far apart, cool, whatever. The internet doesn't hate me, they just think I look like a hammerhead shark, so maybe that's my thing?
Maybe they hate your thing and it's probably alright, maybe everybody is already thinking this about you and now they say it, so it's the same with Hacker News hate. Hacker News is so hardcore hateful, you should read those comments because there's something there that's true I think. Like they don't have any tech, but it's true… probably, definitely in their perspective right?
So, I think for me it's therapeutic because I will share something about my life, or my apps, or whatever, and I see good and bad comments. I can't hide behind anything because my whole mind is on the internet. When you make excuses, like, we all have excuses about why we're not shipping, why we're not talking to that boy or girl, why we're not cleaning our room, or whatever. You can't have excuses when you dump everything on the internet, because everybody will be like, "Hey, why didn't you clean your room? Hey, why didn't you talk to that girl or boy?" it makes it actionable suddenly. This is a psychological concept I think, where the first step to curing your problem is admitting it, so I think tweeting is like that.
It's kind of like that app you made, Go Fucking Do It, except instead of being motivated by the idea of not losing your money, you're more motivated by thousands of people shaming you because you didn't do what you said you were going to do.
Totally, and everything is a feedback session. Every single action, every tweet you post, is feedback.
Yeah it is, and I think you learn more from people on Twitter much faster than you do over other channels like email or something, where it just takes so much time between…
Oh, so slow.
Yeah, it's so slow. Whereas on Twitter, you're having time back and forth conversations, and you can also include a lot more people at the same time.
Absolutely, and I believe in the crowd. I think the crowd knowledge is so powerful. Now I think I have almost forty thousand followers, so some are listening. The crowd together knows very well what's going on, so doing a Twitter poll with forty thousand followers, like last week we tried to predict a Bitcoin price, I don't know if it's true but they predicted $27,000.
Hoodmaps is all crowd-based, Nomad List is crowd-based, it's crowd knowledge, like Wikipedia man, it's crowd-based mostly. I think you shouldn't trust asking your friends for advice always, you should definitely trust the crowd. Paul Graham and Y Combinator, they always have a blog and at the bottom, it says… thanks for the feedback John, Susan, Eric, whatever, and you're like interesting, why not just the feedback from everybody immediately? Why is launching the blog post the feedback moment? It's already too late, they're not going to edit. Why not just co-write with the crowd?
That's pretty fascinating.
Like I wrote my book on Google Docs and everybody wrote it with me. I like that kind of way of doing things. I really trust and love the crowds.
Speaking of Twitter, you got a lot of questions from people this morning from people on Twitter. One of which was about your book, what's up with MAKE book, and someone asked, "Is it going to be outdated by the time it's released?"
My biggest failure is this book but it's not a failure because it's a great book and it's going to be out on Christmas, it's finally done.
Oh nice! I didn't realize it was so close.
I'm really embarrassed about it because it's not how you do things, it's not how you do a pre-order thing, the deadline kept getting extended because it's very hard to write a book properly. It's completely different from making a startup where you can change the versions, you can keep on changing it. A book is permanent pretty much, so I need to make sure it's really good.
Also, I was running these companies while I was doing this, I think I was running companies for two years, and a book just falls to a lower priority thing. I don't know, it feels bad for me because it's offensive to these people that pay for it. The good thing about it is that I have learned all this new stuff, I've done the whole chain of making a startup from idea, to building, to launching, to monetizing, to growing, to now automating, like Nomad List is automated, Remote Ok is automated, Hoodmaps is automated, they run themselves now. Which means I can write about the entire chain and maybe if I sell the company before Christmas, I even have the exit part covered, but I don't think we're there yet.
Another question from somebody on Twitter is, what's your endgame here? do you want to automate everything then just retire? Do you want every website that you build to be completely running on its own, or are you just doing this more to free yourself up to work on new things?
Well, I was going to take a few months off from January 1st, because I don't know, it's hard to explain, it's been like a whirlwind from somewhere in April 2015 when I started traveling to now, it's just been insane. More stuff happened in these last four years than in twenty-seven, twenty-six years before that, it's just ridiculous what happened, so I think I need a few months off where I'm just forced not to use the computer or something, but it's very hard to sit still and I think retiring is very stupid because you need a goal, or you get depressed.
You either need to have a family as a goal, or you need something, you need something to do in your life, you can't just do nothing, you can't just sit, it's going to kill you. People that retire, they get heart attacks, because it's just terrible, so I want to keep working on new stuff. The stuff I work on is a lot of 3D stuff, for example, I scanned my whole parent's house and made it a VR, 3D object. I like hacky stuff, in the beginning, I could just sit for hours and days working on something that didn't have a monetizable goal. I want to get back to that, like this pure creativity where you just don't care, you just make.
I know you've automated already a huge part of Nomad List, but how confident are you really that you can automate the entire thing? Is there any part of you that's afraid that once you walk away the website won't crash and burn, or that something better will come along and require you to come back and update it again? The reason I ask is because I think the ability to walk away, to put your website on autopilot and still have it generate revenue, it's kind of like the whole Four Hour Work Week holy grail and yet I've talked to so many hundreds of people who started businesses, and very few have successfully done that, so I wonder what your biggest fears are around that if you have any fears at all?
I think the Four Hour Work Week idea is ridiculous because working is important. You need meaningful expression in your life, whatever that is, even if it's volunteer work for example. I'm going to try this as an experiment, I want my friend Daniel Lucker, he's a dev ops guy. He gets alerts if the server's down and he quickly fixes things if I'm not there, for example, but yeah it's a big question. Is a product ever complete, can it be done?
VC-backed companies say, "No, the product always has to grow bigger and bigger." but what if this is a corner coffee shop where I already have the coffee machine that's working fine, I have a person who can maintain the coffee machine, the customers keep coming, it's a growing market, can it work? That will be the question next year. There's a good chance I'll come back to product development, but to be honest, I think this is the site I've always wanted to build, this is everything I needed, it's got countries, cities, regions, it's got planets now, it's got co-working spaces, coffee shops, it's got the whole scale of geography, it's got everything there to be a digital nomad.
You don't even have to pay for it, it's just all the data there I'd ever want and I make decisions on it. You can always go deeper and add more data, but generally, I don't think that's the right decision. Maybe I shouldn't add any more features, maybe this is done. That's a very rare thought I see in people.
When I had Tobias van Schneider on here a few months back, at the end of the episode I think the trend that I saw and how he kind of carried himself as a founder is that he's very much a contrarian. He just did things sometimes to push people's buttons or to be different, and it ended up working out a lot of the times because he would products that were very unique and differentiated.
When I look at you and what you're up to as a founder and a bootstrapper, and I try to oversimplify Pieter Levels down to one thing, I think what makes you unique is that you're not afraid to take the leap. You're not afraid to fail and fail very publically, and you actually use that possibility to your advantage, so you'll tweet publically about everything that you're working on.
Whether it's MAKE book, or Hoodmaps, or Nomad List, and you kind of use the public scrutiny to hold your feet to the fire and make sure you're motivated to do the things that you say you're going to do, or even before that with Twelve Startups in Twelve Months you were blogging about what you were working on well before it was successful and you had no idea if it was going to turn out alright.
You even have, I think, the number one comment on the Indie Hackers forum. A while back, somebody was asking a question related to mental health, they were basically asking how they can overcome the fact that they don't have enough confidence to really launch something new, and I think that anxiety affects a lot of founders who aren't sure what they're going to do if they end up failing. Your response was that you were a big fan of exposure therapy. You force yourself to confront the thing that scares you the most, and it's horrible, and your afraid, and it sucks, but then, later on, you can look back at that experience and say, "You know, I survived that." so maybe whatever I'm facing now is a little bit less scary, and I think that really exemplified who you are as a person.
But there's a big problem with that because exposure therapy is very scary, it's literally the fastest way to solve your fear but it's the most… you're scared, that's the whole problem, so you fix your problem by going into your problem, but it's terribly scary and that's why nobody's doing it.
What fear does I think, you see this in a lot of areas, again dating is a big one, but… this is a very good example, there's this scene in, I don't really like it, the pickup artist scene that started ten years ago, I think it died out, but that was a very good example of people that are so scared to approach boys or girls, I think generally girls, that they would try to read forums, and pay money for courses, and read series and stuff about how to do it, when actually no, you walk up to a human, you talk to them, maybe they like you, maybe they don't, that's it, it's very simple, but it's very scary I know because there's rejection.
I'm not super great at it either but fear has a way to steer you away from the problem. It's like the path of least resistance, not fix your problem but read about solutions, not actually do them, buy courses, get coaches and mentors, you see this in startups too, don't actually build a startup, just read about it, that doesn't help, definitely if there's a clinical problem you need to go see a doctor, but generally with startups you just need to ship, then the action will give you the information.
For me, the startup world is very much a metaphor, you know a swimming pool? There's a lot of people standing next to the swimming pool, there's like two swimming actually, the rest are talking like, "Hey man, how do you swim? What happens?" the other guy's like, "I think, I've heard somewhere, I've read somewhere, you need to move your arms?" the other guy's like, "No, no, you don't need to move your arms you need to actually use your legs to stay afloat." one person's like, "Does anybody ever swim here?" "Well, those two are swimming, but we're not, but I've read a lot about it." and then there's another person just jumping in, and they'll just learn to swim while jumping in because otherwise, you die. The same with startups, if you don't make money… well, you go bankrupt. The easiest way is to jump into the pool and try not to drown.
Yeah, and I think the upside here is that unlike swimming… well don't get me wrong, if your startup fails it's going to suck, you're going to feel that for a long time and it's not a good feeling, but you're not literally dead, it's not the end of the world, you're not going to drown and that's it, that was your one shot, you can't go back and do it again.
It's a little extreme.
Yeah, but then the next time around it won't be as scary because…
I have very extreme metaphors…
Haha, same thing with Twitter, if you're trying to build an audience and you put your personal stuff out there, and you give it a shot, and someone says something says something negative about it, you're going to live to tweet another day. Now you're a little bit stronger.
Yeah, I think what you have is the swimming pool metaphor, then you have the lifeguard and he has this big stick he can use to get you up, and you can swim a little bit more and slowly learn it. I think you do have to do that with startups as well, but you have to jump into the pool man. You can't just wait your whole life standing next to your pool just watching. If you want to swim, you have to swim, you have to jump in.
Alright, so maybe we'll end on a more positive note rather than talking about anxiety and such. Let me ask you to picture, maybe one of your followers or maybe an Indie Hackers reader out there who's considering getting into business. They've heard this whole episode, they've heard our advice about just jumping, but maybe they're still stuck, what is your biggest thing you'd say to someone in that situation, then how do you think they can get over the hump and actually start their company?
This sounds really stupid but it's the same thing I said before, you need to do it. It sounds really basic but you need to get in the pool, or get on the bicycle, and just try. You will fail, you will keep failing, and you will keep, keep, keep failing, then one day it might work, maybe not, but I think reading about it… although, sorry, Indie Hackers can be very inspirational, but there's a time and place for Indie Hackers. I'll give you 10% of your day you can be on Indie Hackers but I want you to ship for 90% of the day when you're working.
There's something called startup porn, and you can't read too much, and listen too much, too many podcasts, you can't replace action with consuming media about startups… you have to act, which is developing, making. I would also advise, do it yourself. Everybody's hiring, you don't have money for it, just do it yourself things are not that hard.
If you want to learn to bicycle you don't have to be Lance Armstrong, you don't have to be the best, just don't fall. That's good enough. I'm not a very good designer, I'm very average. I'm not a very good programmer, I can do everything a little bit. I think being a generalist is great, but yeah, be inspired and then do. Don't just get caught up in this whole vicious cycle of inspiration and talking about stuff. We all need to do more things and be less scared, just do.
I couldn't agree more, I need to do more things myself. Anyway, Pieter, thanks a ton for coming on the show! We have a super long episode, hopefully you don't have too many things you're late for. Can you tell people where they can go to find out more about you personally and about all the different projects that you're working on?
Yeah, my main website is called NomadList.com, my blog is Levels.io, and on Twitter my username is @levelsio, I tweet everything. It might be fun, it might be intense, but at least it's real.
Alright, well thanks a ton for coming on the show. There's probably like a hundred questions people in the audience wanted to hear that we didn't get to, but maybe I can have you on another time…
Maybe a part two!
Yeah a part two! Or maybe you can come co-host the show sometime. I think that'd be pretty fun.
Is there going to be Indie Hackers video at some point?
Ahh man, that's just so much work. I think there could be but I would have to outsource as much of that as possible.
I'd love to be on Indie Hackers video, the first episode. Indie Hackers TV, that's it!
I'll remember that, IndieHackersTV episode one, Pieter Levels. Next time you're in SF stop by!
Thanks for having me man!
Thanks so much for coming on the show!
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