Pieter Levels: From Simple Spreadsheet to 3 Million in ARR
Nomad List is a database of cities for remote workers and Digital Nomads. It allows you to filter through a huge database to find the best prices, weather, internet speed or even the air quality in cities around the world.
It was created in 2014 by Pieter Levels, and since then it has grown to 700k ARR.
But it began as something way more modest: a simple spreadsheet which was made public and shared on Twitter.
It ended up becoming viral and Pieter was able to build a first version of Nomad List from all the data he crowdsourced and launch a proper MVP in less than a month.
After getting some initial traction, Pieter started to monetize Nomad List and grew it almost entirely by himself.
Nearly a decade later, he had ended up creating a business empire around travelling and remote work by building the biggest remote job board in the world, and he also launched an immigration as a service company, and a project in the AI space called Interior AI which also seems promising.
But getting this far wasn't easy, and Pieter's first challenge was to grow Nomad List completely from scratch.
1 / The challenges of bootstrapping
It's hard to grow a business alone. As a founder or marketer, you are faced with uncertainty every day, and often lack resources like time and money when bootstrapping a project.
It can be frustrating to see competitors raise funds and have big teams, but if you want to build a successful bootstrapped business, you have to play a different game that favors you, and that transforms your situation into an advantage.
As a bootstrapper, my secret weapon is knowing how to cut through bureaucracy. My size makes me faster and more nimble than any company could ever be.
Seth Godin / Author of The Bootstrapper Bible
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This is exactly the approach Pieter had, he managed to get around the lack of resources by focusing on 2 things:
- Speed: He launched Nomad List quickly to see if it would get traction, reducing the uncertainty around the success of the project.
- Simplicity: He overcame the lack of resources by building a very simple solution, without even using code at first.
But another ingredient to his success was the volume of projects he shipped.
Nomad List was not the only product he launched in 2014. During this year, he actually decided to launch 12 startups in 12 months to be able to live from a new business quickly as he was starting to run out of money.
The point of doing such a challenge is that it helps you confront multiple ideas to their target market quickly, and if some of the projects you launch get traction, you can focus on them in the long run.
He ended up launching 8 in total that year. He first tested 5 project ideas he had, and once Nomad List got traction, he focused on it and launched other products that had synergies with it.
He then focused on growing and monetizing the projects that had some traction, but the interesting thing is that Pieter decided to mostly remain a solo founder and avoid raising funds when other people would've hired people to scale their business.
And he's not the only one. Many successful software companies are run by solo founders or small teams like BuiltWith, OneUp, or Bannerbear.
Clearly, his approach has some unique advantages, but choosing to remain small by growing a company of one also has some drawbacks, and you have to overcome them to build a successful business.
2 / How to grow a company of one
For Paul Jarvis, author of the book Company of One, successful companies of one have the following 5 characteristics:
A company of one might not be the best solution to change the world, but it can be a great way to change yours first, before you take on bigger challenges.
And Nomad List is a perfect example. A few years after launching Nomad List, Pieter was interviewed on Indie Hackers, and his approach was still the same as when he started.
Pieter was already focusing on Speed and Simplicity when he was doing his 12 startups in one year challenge, but to build up the 3 others, Pieter had to be resilient, self-reliant, and keep his independence by not diluting his equity.
This allowed Nomad List to evolve quickly and become highly profitable for Pieter.
But as Nomad List grew, he had more and more work to do, so he had to aggressively focus on automating manual tasks through code:
Hiring is increasing the complexity of your product, business and life. Hiring a person means you need to train and manage them and makes you liable for their income and in many countries a lot more than just that (e.g. health insurance). Humans are complex. They're also relatively slow. Robots can be simple. They're also very fast. Most of the regular stuff to maintain your product can be automated as a scheduled computer script (run by scheduled cron jobs on your server). Those scripts I like to call "robots". I have about 700 to 2,000 running depending on server load.
Pieter Levels / Author of MAKE
When Pieter wrote these words, his team looked like this:
For example, he uses code to automate tasks like:
- Getting data about cities around the world by using APIs.
- Finding the most popular cities at the moment from Tinder.
- Creating meetups automatically in the most popular cities around the world for the Nomad List community.
Automating tasks as much as possible is also something that Paul Jarvis agrees with, and recommends doing because it allows you to compete with players who have deeper pockets and bigger teams, especially if the tasks are hard to automate:
“What’s difficult to automate is exactly what makes a company of one great: the ability to creatively solve problems in new and unique ways without throwing “more” at the problem.”
Paul Jarvis / Author of Company of One
But Nomad list is fundamentally different from most businesses of one. While Paul Jarvis explains in his book that staying small, and not focusing on growth at all costs is part of the company of one approach, Pieter seems to have found a way to grow his projects exponentially, and still keep low overhead.
Nomad List brings in about $700k in ARR.
And his other project, Remote OK, brings in over $2 million in ARR!
With all of his projects combined, he actually makes $3 million per year, which sets the Nomad List ecosystem apart from a typical company of one.
So why are Pieter's companies of one making so much money, with no sign of slowing down?
There's clearly a missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to growing companies of one, let's find it out by looking at what he did differently.
3 / The compound interest of marketing
In the book Traction, Justin Mares recommends trying many approaches for growing a startup until one sticks. He calls this the Bullseye Framework.
<p class="tip">🎯 The Bullseye Framework
You can’t predict which traction channels will work; the only way is to test them in 3 quick steps:
1. Brainstorm what marketing channels you could focus on to promote your product
2. Test your ideas with cheap and short campaigns to find the more promising channels among the ones you chose
3. Focus on the most successful channel and master it
Justin Mares identified 19 traction channels, which can all be useful depending on your product and market.
These methods can all potentially work for you, but they are not all equal.
Some of these compound more than others, like SEO, Content Marketing, Engineering as Marketing, and Community Building.
Like in the world of investing, these strategies bring exponential results over time. And their main advantage is that they are often free, even if it takes more time and effort to get results.
And Pieter mostly focused on these kinds of growth channels.
Apart from a few marketing stunts like setting up offline ads next to the Apple HQ, and giving away $10k on Twitter, Pieter mostly focused on compounding growth strategies when promoting his projects.
Here are a few examples:
🔎 Nomad List's SEO
Remember the massive amount of filters on the website? Well, each filter selection or combination generates a specific URL which is indexed by search engines. This is great for long-tail SEO because it allows Pieter to generate hundreds of articles with no effort.
If you want to learn more about Nomad List's SEO, you can check this article by Harry Dry!
✏️ Pieter's Content Marketing
Pieter is famous for popularizing the Building in Public movement in the startup world, he shares everything he does with his projects on Twitter, and the financial results of his companies are public.
Thanks to the data from his projects, he can also create content around remote work to promote his companies.
⚙️ Engineering as Marketing
With all the data he got from Nomad List, Pieter was able to create multiple tools to travel better, or he just built fun tools like Hoodmaps, which allows people to leave comments in every big city in the world. These tools have become great marketing assets that make the Nomad List ecosystem even more valuable.
By focusing on marketing strategies with low overheads like these, Pieter was able to build a Marketing Flywheel which still grows his projects exponentially since 2014. But is it still possible nowadays?
4 / Does Pieter's approach still work?
After all of these praises around the approach Pieter had with Nomad List, you might think that "it's cool that he was able to grow it like that, but we're not in 2014 anymore, the internet has changed and is too crowded to just launch a spreadsheet and become a millionaire".
And it's true, you're not very likely to become a millionaire from a simple spreadsheet, but you can still launch simple versions of your product ideas (MVPs).
If you're providing a solution that resonates with people's problems, and they're willing to pay for it, then you can build a solid company and an ecosystem of products around it.
There is a framework you can use to know if you are solving such problems:
<p class="tip">💡 How to find a meaningful problem to solve?
When thinking of a new project, it can help to focus on solving a problem that is PURE:
P → Painful which makes the solution more valuable
U → Urgent which makes people take action quicker
R → Recognized by people who you want to buy your product
E → Easy to solve by you thanks to an unfair advantage
But like Pieter, you cannot be 100% sure that your ideas are going to work, so testing them out first is essential to know if you are solving a meaningful problem with your product.
You have to test it, because startups, and internet projects in general such as SaaS businesses, online courses, or even blog post like this one are part of the stochastic world.
<p class="tip"> 🎰 What is the Stochastic World?
In opposition to the predictable world, the stochastic world is random and follows different rules. For example, becoming a doctor would be part of the predictable world because the path to becoming one is clearly defined, whereas starting a business or a YouTube channel is part of the stochastic world because you cannot predict very accurately your results when starting it, and your success is not correlated to how much time and effort you spend to get these results.
Pieter Level's story might be impressive because he earns a lot of money for a solo founder, but to get there, he had to launch a lot of projects, and only a few got traction.
Doing this is interesting because by building in public on social media, each project leads to more attention for his past and future projects, even if the current one is going to fail.
And he's not the only one who leveraged this approach to build successful projects:
- Josh Pigford launched more than 60 projects, including the successful SaaS Baremetrics
- Alex West shipped 19 projects before getting traction with his current one: Cyberleads
- Jon Yongfook also did the 12 startups in 12 months challenge like Pieter, and launched Bannerbar
- Monica Lent builds projects in public for developers
- Ryan Kulp worked on more than 65 projects, including growing the SaaS Fomo
- Ben Issen is building one new Webflow-related project every two weeks as I'm writing this
- Daniel Vassallo is creating what he calls Small Bets, and helping others do the same
Daniel actually came up with an interesting insight to keep in mind when creating in the stochastic world. He wrote that we should:
Treat projects like cattle, not like pets.
Daniel Vassallo / Teaching how to launch Small Bets
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This resonated with me particularly because when I launched my first businesses in high school and college (they didn't end up being successful 🤷), I was very emotionally attached to them, which led me to feeling bad about myself.
But something clicked when, a few years later, I built and launched in 3 days with no real expectations Notion Tools, a curated database of Notion-related tools and templates. This project got some SEO traction and is now generating a bit of money every month. It's clearly not much, but it's a small win nonetheless on which I can build upon.
And I'm going to ship more of these small projects, as well as MVPs of some SaaS ideas I have during the next months.
Before I finish this article, I wanted to look at what you can do right now if you want to launch a SaaS.
How you can do it too ✓
<p class="cb-p">Step 1: Write down around 20 Ideas of PURE problems that you think you can solve.</p>
<p class="cb-p">Step 2: Launch the simplest version of the idea that you find most promising quickly (in less than a month ideally).
Shipping a SaaS MVP fast is possible and easier now more than ever thanks to SaaS boilerplates like Divjoy, or no-code tools like Webflow, Airtable, or Zapier.</p>
<p class="cb-p">Step 3: If it does well, you can focus on it and build a more solid version, if it doesn't, you still have 19 more ideas to go!
When you find an idea that is getting traction, you can delegate the few things you don't like, but still remain nimble to be able to grow your bootstrapped product quickly.</p>
I created 2 SaaS-related Notion templates for myself and clients, and I wanted to share them with you, no strings attached.
Thank you for taking the time to check out this case study, it's the first one I wrote on this website, and I hope you found it interesting!
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See you soon,