“You can work anywhere you have Internet, right? So, why are you still here?” was the question that hit Pieter Levels on the head and changed his life. At that point of time, he and his friends had just graduated from university, and Levels was already going crazy from the humdrum of working life in Amsterdam.
“Everyone around me was getting a job, and I was stuck with an online business that was making more than enough money to live and save from,” he explains. While many people would envy him, Levels wanted more out of his life.
“Working from home made me go mental. Normally, my friends would always visit me in the day, but after college, everyone suddenly becomes very busy during waking hours. And so for me, life just became really unsatisfactory.”
Here’s an excerpt from his blog at that point of time:
I had reached the epitome of Western living and Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” pyramid [...] But it hadn’t made me happy. Nothing was changing anymore. Everything had become one big routine. Waking up. Having dinner. The nights of working. The weekends of alcohol abuse under the pretense of partying. And it was literally taking my breath away. I had this constant pressure on my chest. It sounded like symptoms of depression to me too, but I didn’t feel depressed. I was just too comfortable. I was so comfortable that I needed out. I was becoming physically anxious from my own living conditions.
So he bought a ticket to Bangkok. For the rest of that year, Levels spent his working moments on the road, traveling to Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, and then Hong Kong.
Living the dream on the road
To Levels, it was a dream come true to be able to put both his work and love for travel together. His wanderlust originated from an exchange program back in 2009, when he was still a student:
I ended up studying on the other side of the world in South Korea with two other Dutch students. I had never been outside Europe before that. I remember the moment we exited Seoul’s metro into some outskirts of the city – it felt like we had just landed on another planet. It was full of neon signs, strange food and lots of Korean people (obviously). I always imagined living abroad would be difficult. But in many ways, living here was easier than living at home.
That first foray out of his home country made him want to explore the rest of the continent. Levels went on to travel through Japan, China, and some countries across Southeast Asia. “We were away from home for six months,” he says.
His virgin experience in Asia caused him to build up a healthy admiration for the region, and put him on his current trajectory. “Asia is en route to represent 50% of the world’s GDP in a few years, and you can just taste the ambition – there’s something in the air here,” he enthuses. “People are well aware they’re on a growth trajectory, and they want to succeed. That’s very, very inspiring.”
As of this date, Levels has made his way through eight countries already – the US, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, and he has now settled down in Indonesia. A mere glance at this selection of countries is enough to bring up an array of worries and concerns, chief of which would likely be safety on the road.
Levels isn’t worried about safety at all. “Due to Southeast and East Asia’s confucianist culture, I feel it’s one of the safest regions actually,” he explains. “People are generally friendly, non-violent, and apart from tourist areas, crime is generally lower than in the West.”
In fact, the pros of being here far outweigh the cons, according to Levels:
While working and traveling, you’re bound to meet a wide range of interesting people. From traveling nomads that get by with a few hundred dollars a month they make from some blog, to individual entrepreneurs that bootstrapped themselves to over $500,000 revenue/year, to founders of $10 million-funded startups that chose to work remotely instead of in the Bay Area – they all share a common vision: a desire to pull more out of life and experience it in the fullest way possible.
One way that he makes this happen is by not limiting himself to a single locality, and also actively working in and hanging out with people in the local coworking spaces. “I didn’t even know there was a scene of people doing this [working remotely] until I met other people at spaces like Hubba in Bangkok, and PunSpace in Chiang Mai.”
12 startups in 12 months
Some of the projects he launched and grew during this period, such as YouTube-channel-turned-music-network Panda Mix Show, were quite successful. The aforementioned network now boasts 500,000 subscribers spread over 10 channels and podcasts on YouTube, iTunes and SoundCloud, and most recently passed 100 million plays on YouTube.
However, Levels began to regret the other projects that he had missed out on. “I’ve always had serious difficulties finishing the ideas I started,” he explains. “I would work on stuff for ages to make it perfect, then when it’d almost be finished, I would scrap it and start on the next big idea. But in the end I was left with only unfinished projects, many of which had quite some potential.” This is apparently a huge problem among creative people, who have a seemingly boundless number of ideas bouncing around in their heads.
He thought to himself, “How can I battle this?”, and came up with this solution:
If I could develop and launch faster, I wouldn’t fall into the trap of polishing something forever. So I set the goal to develop, market and launch one startup from start to finish, every single month, for a year.
In other words, to launch 12 startups in 12 months – no mean feat indeed.
To term these as startups might be a tad offensive to other entrepreneurs, and Levels knows this. “It’s obviously pushing it to call it 12 startups in 12 months – you obviously can’t build an entire startup in a month. But you can definitely build a minimum viable product to test a market and see if something catches on or not, and that’s what I’m doing.” He adds:
The pace of this is similar to rapid prototyping. You have an idea, build a basic version of it, launch it, see if it takes off, and if it does you continue building and scaling it up.
Eric Ries, who popularized the term minimum viable product, would no doubt be proud of him. Levels calls his operation “a tiny personal hyperfast incubator”, which is spot-on.
For the more technically inclined, here’s how he accomplishes it:
I usually start with an idea, then I draw it out on paper, make a mock-up in Photoshop or Sketch, then build the front-end in raw HTML and CSS. Then I write the back-end in PHP or Node.JS. Like I said, I avoid frameworks, as I actually think it makes things more complex and can limit you. I code everything on my local NGINX server and then when it’s finished, I upload it to my public NGINX server on Linode.
He has a few important ground rules in mind when diving into these projects, one of which is to keep every project as simple as possible. For this reason, all his startups are not more than single page apps, whose functionalities are automated right from the start. The others include making it mobile-friendly, and easily portable into native apps for iPhone or Android.
Once launched, Levels blasts out several emails to big tech blogs, submits the product to Hacker News, Reddit, and Product Hunt, and then heads to bed. “I have a big sleep, wake up, and hopefully see a lot of emails and tweets about my new project,” he says. Thus far, he has had plenty of emails and tweets to occupy his post-launch waking moments.
This overarching project kicked off in March 2014, when he launched Play My Inbox, which lets users stream music that’s in their email inboxes. This was followed by Go Fucking Do It, a goal-setting site that involves making a pledge, in April, and then Tubelytics, a real-time analytics dashboard SaaS for YouTube publishers and major media brands, in May.
Thus far, Go Fucking Do It has exceeded his expectations. “It’s gone viral all over the web, has been covered in Wired, The Next Web, LifeHacker and I’ve had multiple acquisition offers and investors interested,” he says. Earlier this month, it was also selected to participate in Geeks on a Plane, an invite-only tour for startups, investors, and executives to learn about technology markets worldwide:
— levels.io (@levelsio) July 18, 2014
Levels is working on two projects:
The next ones to launch are GifBook, which lets you buy flip books from animated GIFs. And after that, NomadList, which shows you the best cities in the world to live and work remotely in based on many factors, including quality and cost of living. With a growing community of remote workers, I think it’s a great audience to build something for. I’ll also be selling nomad guide books from there.
Bootstrapping all the way
Levels has been bootstrapping operations in every single startup that he has launched till now, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Critics of bootstrapping say that you need investment to build a high-growth startup. I think for most cases, that’s bullshit. Companies like Uber obviously need, and continue to need, lots of capital to expand as aggressively as they are doing now. But most people are actually not working on high-growth startups, and as such, are perfectly fine bootstrapping their way to success,” he explains. “It’s just easier to tell yourself that the lack of success is because you’re not getting funding, when in fact it’s simply due to your own actions.”
It wasn’t always this way. When he was first starting out, he had the same mentality as most – that seed funding and big exits were the only way to make money. His environment, however, just wasn’t conducive to this model just yet.
“I used to live in the Netherlands where there’s simply no healthy venture capital climate yet. Generally, Dutch investors are scared of risk, and banks don’t give out business loans easily,” he reveals. “Holland is not an exception, though – it’s like that in most places in the world outside of Silicon Valley. So unless you look abroad for investment, you’re pretty much forced to bootstrap anything you do here.”
Once his bootstrapped ventures began to take off, though, there was no turning back. Indeed, today he is a strong advocate for bootstrapping, and believes that most people in the tech scene are living in a sort of bubble now. “Realistically, the odds are stacked against you,” he explains, and adds:
Only a percentage of people who try will actually get funding. Then, only a small percentage of those VC-funded startups generate any revenue at all. An even smaller percentage of those have an exit where founders walk away with cash that covers the time, salary and opportunity cost they invested in it. At the end of the day, the number of people with money that gives them financial independence is statistically negligible.
His advice: have fun building a business that is profitable from day one instead, and only start to scale when revenue starts to come in – it’s perfectly fine to seek investment later on once you’ve established a healthy rate of growth.
Not all fun and games
Levels emphasizes that it is not always smooth sailing on the road. To be sure, digital nomads have their fair share of enjoyment in places with nice weather, delicious food, and lovely tropical beaches. According to him, however, the novelty tends to wear off quickly.
“All this good stuff becomes normal after a while. Many people in this journey reach a moment where they’ll realize that somehow, they’re still not happy,” he says. “This lifestyle can contribute to a happier life, but you also need relationships, and to be working on something meaningful, to truly become happy. Simply sitting on a beach with a coconut will make you depressed in a month.”
There’s also the problem of external influences. Such a lifestyle is fairly forward-thinking, and hence hard for many people to grasp – it’s usually an uphill task for one’s loved ones to come to terms with this life choice.
Legal challenges form another huge grey area that Levels finds disturbing. Many people that he runs into in these countries build their businesses with tourist visas in hand, and are thus not paying taxes. “Most of the coworking spaces I know have been visited by immigration police, because they are like honey pots – they’ll be able to arrest and deport 100 people easily at any time,” he elaborates. “So usually the local authorities are bribed to keep a distance.”
The morals of this are what weighs on his mind:
What we’re doing is the future of work, and if you’re a forward-thinking country, you want to embrace people working in your countries. However, there needs to be some way for these nomads to contribute to the countries they stay in. I mean, we’re using the infrastructure. One way of doing this would be to introduce a nomad tax which you pay when you leave the country. I’d love to use that if it’d make our situation legal.
Where in Asia to go?
With all that said and done, Levels still highly recommends that entrepreneurs take the leap – starting with Thailand. “If you’re looking for low cost and comfort, you should definitely go to Thailand,” he advises. “It’s got it all – a metropolitan city like Bangkok, and some of the most beautiful tropical islands in the world, and still crazy cheap.”
Quality and cost of living, internet speed, weather climate and political stability are the factors that he takes into account. Right now, he is situated comfortably in Ubud, Bali, which he thinks has one of the most creative startup scenes in the world:
I’ve possibly found the best coworking space and remote work community in the world, called Hubud. This place is absolutely magical, and I’d recommend everyone coming by. It’s blown away all of my expectations.
What’s next for him? After visiting some islands in Indonesia, Levels plans to move on to Boracay in the Philippines for some swimming and relaxation. Following that, he’ll be flying across the Asian region to go to Tokyo to shoot a short film, and at the same time visiting conferences and meetups across Asia as he goes along – he’s had some requests to talk about his startups.
“My advice to anyone interested in this movement is to simply do it. It’s a lot less scary than you think. You’ll be surprised to see that the rest of the world is actually highly developed – in many ways more so than the West. If you’re living in any of the bigger cities in the West now, you’ll actually save money moving to a place like Chiang Mai, Ho Chi Minh or Bali,” he says.
(Top photo credit: Xiufen Silver)