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Digital Nomad to Prolific Indie Hacker | Pieter Levels

Listen Up! IH - Episode 20


"Be less scared and just do more things!"

👆 That's Pieter Levels advice for aspiring Indie Hackers.

Pieter is the founder of a number of different solo companies, the most notable being nomadlist.com and remoteok.io.

As of today, both share a coveted spot at the top of the Indie Hackers product directory.

Pieter is considered by many as one of the most inspirational Indie Hackers in the scene and the IH website itself is partly inspired by NomadList.

Back in January 2018 he came on the IH podcast hosted by Courtland Allen and they talked about the 12 startups challenge, his breakout startup NomadList, and the playbook every solopreneur can follow to build companies like Product Hunt, Nomadlist and Indie Hackers.

Lessons👇

Before Nomadlist ⌛

Pieter Levels is a prolific Indie Hacker.

His Twitter Bio alone lists 10 startups that he is running right now.

2 of them are in the top 3 products in terms of revenue on the Indie Hackers product directory - NomadList and RemoteOk.

Both of them combined make north of $130K MRR for Pieter.

But success hasn't come easily for him.

Back in 2013, he was traveling the world as a digital nomad, living and working from cities like Bali, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Seoul, Chiang Mai, and Singapore.

He met many people, saw the world, and had numerous interesting experiences.

At the time he was running a network of YouTube channels around electronic music called PandaMix.

He was even making some money from these channels but was finding it hard to track the analytics of each channel on YouTube.

To scratch his own itch, he built a platform to pull in analytics from all his YouTube channels in one place - Tubelytics.

The project had three problems.
It took him a year to build and wasn't very efficient, and he didn't make any money from it.

By 2014, he was back in his hometown Amsterdam, living with his parents, and still figuring out a way to build a profitable solo startup.

His YouTube revenue was dropping by then, and he had no other way to make money. He started applying to tech companies for developer jobs.

He even interviewed for the crypto startup Coinbase back then, but with no success.

At the time, amidst anxiety and panic attacks, at 4 AM in the morning, he wrote a blog post titled - 12 startups in 12 months

That was in April 2014, and after that, his life changed forever!

12 Startups in 12 months🏃‍♂️

The 12 startups challenge was inspired by Jennifer Dewalt’s 180 websites in 180 days project.

Pieter's thesis was that most startups fail anyway, so might as well build many of them and see what sticks.

He wanted to build and ship one project every month for the whole year.

And he was actively blogging at the time as well, trying to get the most eyeballs on each of his projects.

This is a list of his startup launch posts.

  1. Play my inbox - a tool to collect music recommendations from your inbox and add them to a playlist.
  2. Go Fucking Do it - a tool where you pledge money to achieve your goals. If you fail, the money goes to Pieter 🙃 - it even made the front page of Hacker News. It got plenty of press back then and makes some money for Pieter even today.
  3. Tubelytics - a dashboard for YouTube channel analytics. He relaunched it as part of the challenge, but couldn't monetize it.
  4. NomadList - a live index of over 1000 cities to live and work remotely. With information such as internet speeds, cost of living, weather, etc.

This was Pieter's breakout startup. It was number one on Product Hunt as well as Hacker News

After this, he also built NomadJobs which eventually merged into remoteok.io

He also made Gifbook, but that one didn't work out as he had expected.

Despite his success, Pieter felt like he was at a crossroads.

Nomadlist was doing well, it was going viral.

He had a choice to make -

To continue with the 12 startups challenge.

or

To double down on NomadList and try to monetize the traffic he was getting.

He decided to go big on NomadList

NomadList 🧳

It started as a simple crowdsourced database of cities and some data points.

Pieter was looking for advice on the best cities in the world to live and work for digital nomads.

He tweeted out the Google sheet link and made it editable -

The spreadsheet started to blow up.

It was shared on Reddit and Hackernews. People were adding cities, broadening the parameters of the cities, Pieter started Googling and adding more cities to his list.

He realized that there was something to the project, that he could actually build a successful business from it.

So he set up a basic PHP-based website for it.

He copied the layout from Product Hunt and the data was from his crowdsourced google sheet.

This is what the site looked like back in 2014 -

https://i.ibb.co/mGbBjMS/Screenshot-2021-08-05-132850.png

It was on top of Hackernews and ProductHunt.

Soon he started getting sponsorship offers.

Automattic (the company behind WordPress) bought sponsorship slots for $5K a month on the site and Pieter was in business.

He realized that to make the site sticky, he needed to have social features.

This is how he describes his next step -

"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 to either ask them for their email or you need to have social features"

But he did not know how to code a login form or maintain a user database.

So he started a slack group!

He connected a Typeform to his site to invite people to the slack group and within a month he had more than 1000 people in the group.

Soon, however, he started getting spammers.

To avoid spam he charged a $5 entry fee, and the spam was reduced.

But spammers rose again, so he raised the fee to $10.

And then gradually to $100.

Right now the price to be a part of the NomadList Slack group is $159.99.

And there are more than 28000 people in it.

Pieter has been Product Hunt's maker of the year multiple times now -

He runs a bunch of highly successful internet businesses.

And Pieter is the first to admit he isn't the best developer in the world, or that he doesn't know the latest tech stacks.

Until recently, Remoteok.io was famously a single PHP file called "index.php" and was making more than $65k a month.

This was its tech stack -

Pieter's message is simple - building a business is more than writing code, it's more than the tech stack you choose, it's about knowing your users and adding value to them.

Adding so much value that you can charge for your product.

And if you know your niche, then it's not that hard to build a profitable business.

In fact, there's a playbook you can follow -

The Playbook 📕

NomadList was inspired by Product Hunt.

Indie Hackers was inspired by NomadList.

All three of them are essentially the same business in different niches.

  1. Product Hunt - A directory of the best tech products for tech enthusiasts.
  2. NomadList - A directory of the best cities for digital nomads.
  3. IndieHackers - A directory of the best IndieHackers interviews and resources for solopreneurs.

The playbook is essentially to curate the information that your audience will deeply care about.

How you curate the information will differ on the market you're working in.

It will depend on how you can add value to your user.

And it will depend on how well you know your niche.

Founders of these 3 companies, Ryan Hoover, Courtland Allen and Pieter Levels are authorities in their respective niches, they know their audience very well.

Advice for Indie Hackers 🤗

Pieter's advice for Indie Hackers is to not just talk about building stuff, but actually build stuff.

Build, fail, learn and keep building.

This is how he explains it with a cycling example -

"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."


Insights + Ideas + Inspiration from Pieter Levels' story 😇

Insights

  • You don't need a fancy tech stack for a profitable business.
  • There is value in curating niche information.
  • FB and Google serve the masses, Indie Hackers can serve the niches.
  • As communities become large, spam becomes an issue, Pieter tackles it by charging money, Courtland tackles it by going invite-only. Spam management can be a good problem to solve in the "community economy".

Ideas

  • You can build NomadList for X. Find your X
  • There can be NoCode templates for
    "NomadList for X" that people can sell as info products.
  • Openly share controversial opinions on Twitter, you will get some hate, but will build a more loyal audience that can help you achieve virality.

Inspiration

  • Making money online is hard, being prolific gives you more shots at it. Have grit and do something crazy like 12 startups in 12 months, you will only grow from it.

  • Failure is fine, most of Pieter's projects didn't make much money, but the ones that did, made a ton. Stay in the game after failing.

  • You don't need to be an ace developer to be a successful entrepreneur.

  • Entrepreneurship can change you, as you go viral and see success, there is a price you will pay, this is how Pieter described the change in himself within just 2 years of NomadList -


Links -

Confronting Your Fears and Taking a Leap with Pieter Levels of Nomad List - The podcast that inspired this post.

12 Startups in 12 months

Why Pieter is unreachable

All of Pieter's projects in one place

Reset Your Life - How Pieter became a digital nomad

Bootstrapping side projects to profit - A talk by Pieter levels - Every Indie Hacker should watch - YouTube


Thank You for Reading🙏

Have thoughts, join the conversation on Twitter where I share my research for these articles -

Every week, I share the most actionable insights and inspiring tips from Indie Hackers FOR Indie Hackers

Ideas + Insights + Inspiration for building profitable internet businesses💪

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ICYMI: Last Week I wrote about Jon Yongfook and living the Indie Hacker dream

Check out the shorter version of Jon's lesson in this Thread -

Thanks to Seth King for editing this post.

Photo credit Austin Distel from Unsplash

Cheers,
Ayush

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