Pieter Levels is the epitome of the digital nomad lifestyle. He’s a prolific indie hacker who taught himself how to code and has built over 40 startups while traveling the world.
Levels rose to fame in the maker community thanks to his popular digital nomad directory Nomad List and remote job board Remote OK. He’s also known for his unorthodox development approaches and outspoken personality on Twitter.
Let’s take a deep dive into Levels’ unique background and the story behind his success as a globetrotting solo founder.
Early Life and Career Beginnings
Levels grew up in the Netherlands and showed an early interest in technology. As a teenager, he dabbled in coding using MS-DOS Batch. He initially pursued graphic design in his late teens but eventually realized it wasn’t for him.
His first serious venture was a YouTube channel showcasing his electronic music mixes under the name Panda Mix Show. The channel performed surprisingly well, earning thousands in advertising revenue each month.
However, Levels disliked being dependent on YouTube’s platform. He yearned to build something bigger and strike out on his own.
During this time, Levels attended several universities in the Netherlands and South Korea, eventually completing a business degree. Those three months in South Korea left a profound impact, exposing him to life outside of Europe for the first time.
After graduating in 2012, Levels was determined to travel while working for himself. He sold nearly everything he owned and booked a flight to Thailand. His indie hacking journey was about to begin.
Learning to Code the “Wrong” Way
Unlike most developers, Levels never formally studied computer science or programming. He is completely self-taught.
Rather than taking courses, Levels learned by working on real projects and consulting Stack Overflow whenever he got stuck. He adopted a “Google it” approach to coding.
This scrappy technique earned him scorn from some circles. Critics argued he should have mastered coding fundamentals and modern frameworks first.
But Levels believed entrepreneurs should use whatever tools to get the job done quickly without over-engineering. Elegance didn’t matter if his sites made money.
“New technology often breaks. Old technology just works because it’s proven.”
He felt new frameworks and libraries were pushed more for resume appeal than practical reasons. While perhaps crude, his approach allowed him to ship projects faster.
And despite using dated languages like PHP and jQuery, Levels still earned life-changing income from his “toy” code. Results matter more than semantics.
The 12 Startups in 12 Months Challenge
After moving to Thailand, Levels committed to launching 12 startups in 12 months. He hoped this rapid experimentation would teach him how to code and validate business ideas.
Most of his ideas failed completely. But the pressure of his 12 startups goal forced Levels to finally ship projects instead of obsessing over perfection.
Several months in, he asked Twitter for ideas on helpful resources for digital nomads. The overwhelming response gave him the seed for his first successful startup.
The Birth of Nomad List
To meet demand, Levels aggregated the crowdsourced data into a directory of the best places to live and work remotely: Nomad List. It took off immediately, earning $600 in revenue on day one. Site visitors loved the ability to filter destinations based on cost of living, internet speed, fun things to do, and more.
Levels kept improving the site, adding real-time updates, 3D visualizations, crowdsourced reviews, and advanced filtering.
“You can work on [Nomad List] until you’re 80 because there’s always a different way to figure out the best place for you to live.”
Today, Nomad List makes about $500k in annual revenue. It’s become the definitive guide for digital nomads planning their next adventure.
The runaway success of Nomad List convinced Levels he was onto something powerful. His scrappy coding skills could build useful products people loved.
Striking Gold Again with Remote OK
In late 2014, Levels launched his second breakout startup – Remote OK, a job board for remote work.
The site took off like wildfire, earning $50k+ per month within a year. Remote OK tapped into the remote work revolution, allowing companies to hire talented individuals from around the world.
Between Nomad List and Remote OK, Levels was making over $600k annually by 2016 with no investors or employees. His unconventional development approach had proven successful.
Embracing Artificial Intelligence Startups
In recent years, Levels has shifted his focus towards AI-powered startups built using tools like GPT-3 and Stable Diffusion.
Some examples include:
- PhotoAI – Generates portraits from any image
- InteriorAI – AI-created 3D interior design renderings
- AvatarAI – Creates avatars from user photos
He believes these AI projects represent the next evolution of his self-taught coding style. Rather than build from scratch, he leverages platforms like OpenAI to create products quickly.
However, AI startups have proven more volatile than his traditional projects. Churn is high as clones proliferate, and profits are thin due to computing costs. But Levels enjoys the cutting edge challenge.
“There’s some first-mover advantage if you catch an AI wave and make the technology easier for people to use.”
His suite of AI tools now generates over $250k in monthly revenue. But he plans to sell them eventually, as constant platform advances make defensibility difficult.
Controversy and Unfiltered Opinions
Levels have attracted fame (or infamy) for expressing controversial opinions on frameworks, coding styles, and other tech topics. He enjoys analyzing each technology rationally even if it triggers backlash.
“When you tweet controversial stuff to 300k people, of course, they’re gonna hate you for your opinions.”
While sometimes exaggerated for effect, Levels believes in remaining authentic. He speaks his mind transparently on Twitter with logical explanations.
By avoiding self-censorship, Levels developed a loyal audience who know exactly what to expect from him. They understand his tweets aren’t personal attacks but rather technical perspectives.
While his unfiltered style draws critics, it also wins Levels opportunities to engage with top thinkers. Few personalities spark such spirited debate around the future of technology and digital nomadism.
Personal Philosophy and Work Style
Levels believe entrepreneurs should remain flexible and critical. He constantly experiments with new projects, languages, and techniques.
Rather than specialize, Levels chases whatever problem interests him next. He advocates avoiding herd mentalities and embracing unpopular but effective tools.
Levels also embrace major life and technology shifts, adapting his business models appropriately. While stressful, he finds excitement in reinventing himself every 5-7 years.
Despite his rapid project-hopping, Levels retains a central focus on serving digital nomads. He caters products to them because he intimately understands their needs.
“Make what you know” remains excellent advice.
Lessons Learned from Pieter Levels
What key lessons can we learn from this consistently successful yet unorthodox solo founder?
- Ship imperfection over perfection – Done is better than perfect. Get your product out quickly and improve based on real customer feedback.
- Build what you know – Start by solving problems familiar to you, then expand your focus. You’ll build solutions people actually want.
- Learn by doing – You can pick up coding tremendously fast by working on real projects instead of doing courses.
- Leverage existing platforms – Don’t build everything from scratch. Utilize accessible tools like Bubble or AI APIs to create powerful products faster.
- Embrace change – Adapt to market shifts and reinvent yourself every few years. What worked yesterday probably won’t tomorrow.
- Ignore the herd – Resist following trends for the sake of it. Stick to what works for you, even if it’s not fashionable.
- Express your authentic self – Polarizing opinions are fine if they’re shared constructively. You’ll attract the right audience by avoiding self-censorship.
- Make money from day one – Validate your business model with paying customers immediately. That’s the fastest way to get real feedback.
- Sell when momentum stalls – Know when to cash out via acquisition if your project loses steam and you’re stagnating. Time is precious.
We can all learn from Levels’ unconventional path to wild success. May his unique story inspire your own adventures in indie hacking. Just ship it!
Summary of Pieter Levels’ Career
- Teenage interest in coding and music production
- Launched successful YouTube channel Panda Mix Show
- Graduated with a business degree from multiple universities
- Discovered digital nomad lifestyle after visiting South Korea
- Committed to launching 12 startups in 12 months while traveling through Asia
- Built Nomad List to crowdsource data on best places for remote living
- Created Remote OK as a remote work job board
- Reached over $600k in annual revenue by 2016 with no funding or team
- Shifted to AI-powered startups leveraging platforms like GPT-3 and Stable Diffusion
- Now runs several successful AI tools generating $250k monthly revenue
- Known for unfiltered opinions and unconventional development approaches
- Believes in shipping quickly, learning by doing, and staying flexible
- Has over 300k Twitter followers and is influential in indie hacker circles
- Was named Product Hunt’s Maker of the Year
- Currently based in Medellin, Colombia but travels extensively as a digital nomad
- Has launched 40+ startups taking a hands-on experimental approach
- Focuses products on serving digital nomad and remote work communities
- Plans to eventually sell his AI startups that lack defensibility
- Inspires developers to use whatever tools work best for them personally
- Stays authentic expressing opinions publicly despite backlash
- Adapts his business models and reinvents himself to embrace change
In summary, Pieter Levels is a highly successful solo founder who took an unconventional and flexible approach to building location-independent businesses. His globe-trotting lifestyle and candid perspective make him a prominent figure among indie hackers and digital nomads alike.
Levels prove you can build a lucrative tech career on your own terms using the tools that fit your needs and personality best.