Pieter Levels is not your typical founder.
First of all, he’s a “digital nomad,” meaning he works remotely from all over the world and owns only what will fit in a backpack. Second, he is about 10 months into “12 Startups in 12 Months” which is exactly what it sounds like.
His aim is to create 12 different startups in a single calendar year. And he’s hit on some interesting ones.
Some of the startups seem so obvious it’s hard to believe they don’t already exist, like Tubelytics which helps YouTubers track analytics on any and all of their YouTube channels — even if those channels belong to multiple accounts.
A few of his startups are more specialized — the kind that might only appeal to a small group of people, but would prove incredibly useful to that group. Nomad List is one of these.
It’s not something everyone would use, but for those who travel as a way of life, it’s a vital and collaborative collection of data on things like cost of living, weather, wifi speed, air quality, and the number of nomads currently calling that city home.
Levels was kind enough to share some of what’s he’s learned these last 10 months — how he validates, what keeps his work hours from getting too long, and his advice for getting more (and better) press.
You’re nearing the end of “12 in 12.” What have you learned so far?
You can do a lot more on your own than you think. A majority of the startup world is distraction. With that I mean all the tech blogs, events, the coaches, and the incubators. Even the endless discussions about what language or frameworks you should use. It doesn’t matter. Just building stuff and finishing it gets you ahead of 99% of the people out there. That, right there, is a competitive advantage. And that’s interesting because it shows a problem with the human mindset. We’re more distracted with talking about how we should do stuff, than just doing it. We should get a cultural anthropologist and psychologist to study that.
So, I think this project shows you don’t need any of these distractions. You just need to build stuff, tell a story with it, and keep launching. Then you’re bound to hit a market that you can sell a product to. After a few months, I hit the digital nomad market and a lot of my successful projects have been in that — e.g. Nomad List, a ranking of the best cities to live and work in remotely, and #nomads, a chat community for remote workers.
You mentioned Nomad Kit in your interview with Rocketship.fm. Is that still the next project to launch?
I’m a little bit delayed again! I had that happen a few months ago, and then I just did a few projects in one month. So it keeps changing, what I want to launch. Right now, I want to do a non-profit around making you get less email called causes.io. Meanwhile, I’m aggressively rolling out new features on Nomad List now. I want you to be able to meet up with other remote workers in different cities. I want to get more reliable data about cities, and add 300 more cities this week. And I’ve partnered with accommodation and coworking sites, like ShareDesk, to get people from reading about cities like Medellin or Bangkok, to actually booking their stuff there.
Your focus with “12 in 12” seems to be validating an idea before starting to build. How’s that going?
That happened with Nomad List. But it’s not completely my strategy. I’d argue the 12 in 12 project is actually the validation in itself. As in, at the end I’ll see what has taken off and what hasn’t. Something like Play My Inbox is nice, but it didn’t really go very far. Also it’s not monetizable. On the other hand, you have stuff like Go Fucking Do It and Nomad List that are doing quite well.
I do try to validate when I can. I use Twitter to ask questions about I should build. That really helps a lot. The stuff that happened on Twitter with Andreas Klinger from Product Hunt is an awesome example of idea generation. And then the validation happens when 60+ people favorite it and talk about it.
Are you still planning to get 12 startups out in the world by the end of February?
Yes, I think I’ll be able to make it. It’s gonna be a sprint, though! I think I’m obligated to do what I said. It would be a rather miserable marketing ploy if I didn’t finish it.
One of the big reasons you gave for undertaking “12 in 12” was a reluctance to complete projects. Do you find yourself better able to finish now?
Yes, I’ve lost any fear of launching and actually get excited now. And I’m happy to launch with something basic like just a Typeform that asks you questions (to validate an idea) or a very basic site. The point is to see if the basic stuff works and then grow it. So I can finish faster because I build less.
I feel like I’m repeating this so much that it’s becoming this Lean Startup meme. But it just works. And you can apply it to a lot of stuff in your life. It’s just removing this constant drive for perfection. Also it’s a mindset of constant iteration. Many have said it before me: There’s not one launch; you have to launch every day by adding new features, engaging your audience. Startups are a constant iteration, and you see businesses in general all follow that startup mindset now. If you’re not iterating, you’re dead.
I can only imagine this undertaking is intense. Do you find yourself working longer hours, or have you found ways of being more productive?
I work way less than people think. Most of the stuff is automated and just runs itself (e.g. I haven’t touched Go Fucking Do It in months). Nomad List is also automated, but I add features every week.
There’s one interesting thing I learned: The overflow of tasks I need to do naturally prioritizes the stuff that’s most important. I obviously have way too much stuff to do now. My inbox is overflowing, I get loads of tweets daily, interview requests like this one, feature requests etc. So I am pretty much consistently behind on what I need to do and I operate way slower. So the stuff that’s not important, I just don’t even do anymore. That might be annoying to people who, for example, want to contact me. And it might come across as rude. But it helps me only do stuff that’s VERY important. Natural selection of tasks might be the better way to refer to it. If you can’t do everything, you only do the important stuff.
You’ve said that you have a big backlog of ideas for startups. How do you choose which one to tackle each month?
I play around with building ideas months before they launch. And I iterate and change the idea even before anyone sees it. Like the Airbnb-for-Startup-Retreats thing that just happened on Twitter seemed completely new, but before that I was already planning a site for remote workers and startup people to share accommodation. It’s related, but the retreats thing seemed like a better idea when Andreas mentioned it.
In other interviews you’ve talked about the tricky nature of getting media attention. Can you give new founders some advice on press coverage?
Yeah, stop being so boring and self-obsessed. Nobody cares about your website or startup. Get that in your head. Nobody cares about you, either. So make your story interesting. Build a product with a story baked in to it. Be critical of yourself. There are already so many photo and productivity apps. You can build it, but it needs to be significantly different or better to get press coverage. If you can’t describe your product in one sentence and in that sentence get across how it’s different or better, then it’s probably not.
So now people think I’m superficial, but you have to be. Think about people’s short attention spans, they go to your website and if they don’t get it in half a second, they’re gone. Mostly, nobody cares about the deep stuff behind your product, especially not journalists. They get thousands of emails a day.
Can you talk a bit about your methods? What’s your first step when you start a new startup?
When I have the idea, I kind of automatically visualize it in my head. I’m very visual, so it all starts with that. Like it needs to look great and give off the feeling that I have with it. Like a big photo or video is cliche, but it works on a landing page to get a feeling across quickly. I then create a mock up in Photoshop (I know I should use Sketch, I’m always behind on technology). From there I usually create the front-end (in basic HTML, CSS and JS with Sublime Text 3), and then slowly it evolves into adding back-end features (in PHP, again I’m always behind).
Returning to something you mentioned earlier, you started working on an Airbnb for startup retreats after a suggestion on Twitter. Has that happened before?
I’ve asked people for feedback on ideas before. and I get sent ideas a lot. But they’re never really good. This one was so simple and obvious it seemed workable. And it’s in my market, so I have an advantage here since I already have an audience around remote work.
It’s really cool because I was building the digital nomads stuff, but I hit a wall. We’re not yet at the point where digital nomads have become mainstream. I mean, I’m trying to do that, but it’s going to take a few years. For many startups (especially in Silicon Valley/San Francisco), digital nomadism seems a bit too radical. They want the friction removed. Startup retreats are actually that. They’re popping up all over the place and I’ve been asked to organize them too, but I never wanted to do physical low-scale stuff. Being a platform for those seems fine to me, though. You index retreats and take a commission on bookings. Seems easy enough? Obviously it’s going to be harder than that. But yeah, I think it might work.
One of the things that’s inspiring about your method is that you approach projects from a place of simplicity. Does that come naturally or have you worked on that approach intentionally?
I think this is a philosophical thing more than anything. Like you said, the world is complex. But we’ve become accustomed to over-analyzing everything before we take action. And then many times we don’t even take action at all. I thought about why that might be and maybe we could blame education these days. Many of us are college/university-trained and we’re used to the scientific method. That’s great because testing and validating is the scientific method. But over-analyzing stuff without data, which is what we do all the time in life, might be bad as it leads to inaction.
This is going to sound like a self-help book and I’ll be your guru here, but, merely taking action is so crazy cool because it results in, like, five things happening. And then those five things result in another five, etc. So every action can be this exponential tree of results. And that’s what’s happening to me now. This interview is a result of my actions, and this is going to result in people reading the interview, using my stuff, and that leads to even more results. So it doesn’t even matter if you’re doing things the wrong way, it’ll still lead to something.
This goes way further than startups. Think how you lead your life — relationships, making friends, etc.
What are you going to do after this year of startups ends?
I’d love to build out the most successful ones and grow them to be really cool companies with a team around them. I’m hiring already and getting people together to help me now, and it’s another super crazy fun experience. I hate managing, so I like to just give people responsibilities and they can do it independently from me, without so much hierarchy.
For now, the most successful stuff seem to be my products around remote work and digital nomads. The problem is that the market is still small. So next year, I’d like to do some speaking around the world to try and spread the nomad revolution. My goal is to make people more mobile. I want them to move around more, work in different places, have less stress and lead more conscious, healthy lives. That sounds like hippie bullshit, but I am a neo-hippie and I just don’t think sitting in an office 60 hours a week, commuting in traffic every day, and paying off a mortgage is the right way for everybody. There are alternatives, and remote work and digital nomad-type lifestyles can benefit a lot of people. Evangelizing actively can help create this market.
Featured image by photographer Xiufen Silver