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Travel the world as you earn

Q&A with Pieter Levels

Story by Tens July 23rd, 2015

Foreword by Marty

A digital nomad utilises technology to design a lifestyle that allows them to live and work wherever they want - be it from home, the internet cafe, on the beach, and often from the other side of the world. Digital nomads pride themselves in being able to accomplish tasks and goals that used to traditionally take place in a single stationary workplace.

I first stumbled upon Pieter online, funnily enough! I came across his blog and continued to follow it with great intrigue. This was followed by a call with Pieter, and we chatted about the way he lived his life on the road. He travels to work from anywhere, starts up small tech companies and only owns what fits in his backpack.

We’ve kept in touch online, and I recently got down to asking him a bit more about the ‘Digital Nomad’ lifestyle he leads.

When did you decide to throw on your backpack and go ‘nomad‘? Was rejecting the 9-5 working life something you‘ve always dreamed of doing?

From early on in my life, I was never really into the 9 to 5. I was always doing creative stuff. When I was 8 I was playing with our first computer (a 486DX2 with Windows 3.1) and from then on I‘ve been doing graphic design as a teenager and electronic music in my early 20s. I was kicked out of high school because I was so incredibly unmotivated by what was being taught there.

I didn‘t want to be a total loser, so I worked really hard to manage to get into university without having the right high school degree. I then studied business in university because I thought people who studied business would start, well, businesses. But then nobody did that and everybody went to wear a suit all day, follow orders and work for Corporate Sell-out 9-to-5 Inc. So I was very shocked by that.

My worst fear had been that I‘d become that. So I knew I had to figure out something that made money so I didn‘t have to get a job after I graduated, I started trying lots of stuff. I tried making tech blogs, and it paid a little bit, but it was not very fun. Since I was making music and it was relatively successful, I started uploading that to YouTube around 2008. It started getting millions of views (one of my first videos is here). Then YouTube started paying me money for that and suddenly I had enough cashflow to not have to get a job.

So I was making 2,000 to 5,000 euros a month from that. But meanwhile life became a little boring. Everyone around me now had 9 to 5 jobs, and so I‘d just sit at home working. I had a relatively succesful business, but this wasn‘t really a life, was it? I had NEVER heard about digital nomads, and I think if I did back then, I thought it‘d be somewhat superficial and pretentious. But I had traveled before. I‘d studied in South Korea in 2009 with two of my Dutch friends and we always said we‘d go back.

One of those friends said asked me “you can work anywhere right?“, I said “yes“ and he answered “then why are you still here?“, I was like “oh, right“.

I was already pretty minimal, but then I went further and sold all my stuff, got a small backpack with just a laptop and some clothes. It was hard to give up my rental apartment in the center of Amsterdam, because it was very hard to get it and I was living there with my best friend. But I thought, sometimes you need to destroy shit to get better shit. So then I flew to Asia in April of 2013. I stayed around there for 9 months. I lived in Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. And to my surprise I was able to work well there, actually better than at home. Less procrastination and more fun in my daily life. I could meet people from different cultures, everything was simply much cheaper than the crazy expensive Amsterdam, and I had a really great time. I returned for a few months and went away for another year in 2014. That second tour I lived in the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan and Indonesia. I did miss my friends home but they also visited me many times.

Now I‘ve pretty much been traveling for 2 years full-time. I haven‘t had a house in that time, no lease, no rent, no mortgage and still just a backpack.

Tell us a bit about your work and how you fund the constantly-travelling lifestyle.

I funded it with money from my YouTube channel before, but now it‘s a lot of different stuff. Last year, I tried to launch 12 startups in 12 months. A funny way to make myself accountable to finish my work. I succeeded in it and a few of the projects became real revenue-generating startups with thousands of users.

One of the most successful ones is Nomad List, which tells you the best cities for digital nomads to live and work remotely. I got the idea when I was traveling last year and I wanted to know which places would be most suitable to digital nomads. So I made a spreadsheet of cities I knew with their cost of living, weather and internet speed. I shared the spreadsheet on Twitter and lots of people started entering data about cities they knew. That spreadsheet of 50 cities with 150 data points added by roughly 1,000 people turned into a site that now has 500 cities with 50,000 data points contributed by over 25,000 people. It‘s been #1 on Hacker News, Product Hunt and last month hit the frontpage of Reddit.

It‘s spurred many things, including a Q&A forum and a chat group called #nomads. To fund everything, I charge $50 to $100 for a Nomad List membership that gives you access to get to know other digital nomads. It‘s great for people that are new to it and want to learn from more experienced nomads, but also for experienced ones to make new friends in places around the world. The chat is fun because it‘s made it so that every city has its own channel. The idea is that you arrive in a new place, and quickly get to know new people that help you set up there, find an apartment and make friends etc.

So that‘s most of my income now.

Was it easy to adjust to working remotely? And is there anything you‘re still adjusting to today?

For me it was easy because I never worked with other people any way. For people in teams it‘ll be a bit harder as they‘ll need to figure out how to deal with different timezones and pick the right collaboration tools/apps to optimise them to work remotely.

I never had issues with RSI/CT before I became a nomad, but I got them instantly when I started traveling. Because I didn‘t use an ergonomic work environment. Working from coffee shops, beds, hotel chairs, it‘s all so incredibly bad for your arms, wrist, shoulder, neck and back. It took me getting lots of pain to figure that out.

So now I have a Roost Stand to raise my laptop, a wireless Apple keyboard and a Logitech Performance Mouse. I don‘t really have a lot of issues anymore now, as long as I stick to this set up.

Thing is I now only work in coffee shops that have great sitting desks (or standing desks, even better!). And I prefer to work from professional co-working spaces with proper desks and chairs.

Another issue is that if you travel too fast, you can never really get in to a repeated zone of work. Like you need a routine where every day is kinda the same to get some work done. If you don‘t your mind will be too unfocused to get anything done. So I try to stay in places for at least a month up to 3 months. If it‘s less than that, I just can‘t get anything done.

Besides the remote work itself, what have you learned about removing yourself from a fixed location and lifestyle?

It affects your personality, the “vibe“ of your perception of reality and what you create incredibly. Like obviously cultures are shaped by environment. But you can feel that by just stepping out of an airplane in a strange country and living there. Your perception of reality changes drastically. It‘s very hard to explain unless you‘ve experienced it yourself.

To give an example, if I‘m in the Netherlands, where I was born, I feel very calm, relaxed, stable, structured. If I‘m in Bali, I feel extremely like there‘s mystical energy forces radiating there. I‘m not a hippie but anyone can feel shit is weird there. And that‘s great. It‘s just a mystical island. I mean especially at night you feel that.

So yes, that affects you. In terms of work, I like doing boring maintenance stuff in countries like Netherlands and I get new ideas when traveling in places like Bali. But then it‘s impossible for me to do real solid maintenance stuff in Bali because it‘s too crazy there. And the ideas I come up with in the Netherlands always are kind of not daring enough. Obvious I guess, but also interesting how strong this effect is.

Is there a catch? Is it really the perfect escape from the 9-5, and as easy as it seems?

There‘s nothing perfect about it. Leaving a stable job means exactly that, you leave stability. You can get a lot of stress from constantly having to worry about making your own money. Especially if things are not going so well. When things ARE going well (like for me now), it feels great though. The amount of freedom I have I‘m really thankful for and yes it‘s much better than the 9 to 5.

But don‘t overhype it, it‘s an odds and skill game. There‘s good odds that you won‘t be able to fund yourself with enough income to do this. But why not try it? I mean it‘s not as if traditional jobs have any sense of job security these days anymore either!

What piece of advice would you give to the aspiring digital nomad out there?

I‘d say try this. It‘s not about laptops on a beach at all, nor about laptops near the pool. It‘s mostly having the freedom to go anywhere. And that‘s EXTREMELY liberating. Any society, be it in the West or the East, has strong pressures on you to behave/become/be a certain way. Which obviously has it‘s foundations over time, e.g. you need to get a good job, start a family and get a mortgage for better odds of survival. But with the internet you can survive as long as there‘s money coming in and you can get it out of the ATM and buy food with it. That changes a lot of things. There‘s nothing wrong NECESSARILY with how we‘ve been leading our societies up until now, but you‘re free to try out another way of living.

And I say “try“, because you don‘t need to CHANGE everything and go do this. Just try it a little bit. See if it works for you. Maybe you can do it half-half? Live half the year in your country, and half the year go travel and work? Why not? Because traveling perpetually is tiring, psychologically taxing and can drive you insane. Like mentally insane. It did that too me and many people and it‘s a very intense experience to be alone for so long in strange cultures.

So yes, try it!

What are the importances of working alone and collaborating online, as opposed to a traditional office setup?

In terms of social contact, it‘s nice to work from co-working spaces, as you‘ll meet likeminded people.

Is there something that beginner digital nomads/’wanna-mads’ tend to get wrong?

The whole laptop on a beach thing is very tiring. It doesn‘t work to do that. It‘s stupid. You don‘t need to be in tropical destinations. There‘s digital nomads in the snow too. You can do it anywhere. It‘s about freedom to do what you want, not about drinking a cocktail besides the pool and not working. It‘s HARD work, moreso than any traditional job. But it‘s also a lot more fun.

A lot of people would work for long periods of time, to then travel afterwards. Do you believe that in combining the two you‘re inspiring more people to take on the digital nomadic lifestyle?

Yes! I think the way we structure our lives now is very weird. The work life balance is hard to find. We spend most of our time working for other people in offices in cities where we‘re overpaying on rent and then we go home to watch Game of Thrones on Netflix and in the weekend we binge drink ourselves to death while we whine how “life didn‘t really work out for us“. Then 2 weeks a year, we‘re allowed to go on holiday. It‘s bullshit. It‘s not okay. It‘s a prison.

Combining the two means finding environments where you can live and work best. Which means being most happy with the people you love, and most productive at the work (you hopefully love). It‘s not necessarily about travel, as it‘s about finding those spots in the world best for you. And that‘s what I‘m trying to help you find with Nomad List.

What‘s next for you?

I‘m launching a new startup called Startup Retreats soon which tries to get San Francisco and other venture-backed startups to move their offices remotely for a few weeks. We have 50+ retreats all over the world, from Mexico to Bali to the Philippines, where we let startups work, guarantee great internet and optionally have staff on site to help them with whatever they need.

It‘s the next step in my mission to get everyone to work anywhere.

Anything you‘d like to tell readers about? Projects, friends, books, etc?

My friend Youjin Do is creating a documentary about digital nomads. On her own, she‘s flying around the world now to interview digital nomads and leaders of remote companies to capture this movement on film. She is crowdfunding it, and she really needs your donations to make it possible. So if you like to support something, please donate and check out the trailer below!

Follow Pieter on the next stages of his nomadic journey by following his blog - and more frequently, his Twitter account here!

You can also check out some of his fantastic startups here: Nomad List, Remote | OK, Startup Retreats, Taylor and Go Fucking Do It.

Images from Hubud, Bali kindly provided by Franz Navarette.