How Pieter Levels built a $2M empire building things he loves

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Pieter Levels is arguably the most well-loved indie hacker who paved the way for bootstrapped entrepreneurs who want to build profitable projects without VC funding or a huge team. His most successful start-ups include NomadList, RemoteOK, PhotoAI and InteriorAI. Luckily for us, he journals many of his thoughts and experiments on his blog and Twitter, which I’ll summarize in this article.

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What you will learn

  • Why he is the best-known indie hacker of all time
  • Which of his startups are making millions
  • How he find ideas to build
  • How his ideas gain traction immediately
  • How he grew his empire without hiring anyone
  • His indie hacking playbook – summarised in 10 steps

Who is Pieter Levels?

Indie hacker Pieter Levels pioneered the “12 startups in 12 months challenge” and rapidly scaled his side projects into a personal fortune. Through prolific low-cost experiments and bootstrapping, Pieter built an indie hacker empire earns millions in yearly profit, proving the barriers to startup success can be much lower than expected with the right mindset of rapid iteration and momentum.

In 2016, Levels was suffering from anxiety, living with his parents, and running a failing YouTube channel.

Just two years later, his projects were generating over $100K.

So what changed in that 2 years?

Pieter Levels made a public commitment

Looking at his old tweets and his blog, it looks like it all started in 2014, when Pieter Levels made a bold public commitment – he would launch 12 startups in 12 months, even if they didn’t make money.

His first 3 projects flopped despite media hype. Then out of personal need, he created a Google Sheet to rank nomad destinations and tweeted asking for contributions.

When he woke up, nearly 100 people had filled in the sheet.

That Google Sheet became NomadList, a million-dollar travel site for digital nomads.

How NomadList started – a Google sheet directory of cities around the world (Photo: levelsio.com)

Revenue Timeline

Since then, Pieter kept shipping new products consistently. Most would have stopped after a “winner” like NomadList, but he persisted. This birthed 3 other successes – RemoteOK (2013), PhotoAI (2022) and InteriorAI (2023).

I dug through his public income reports on Twitter, and his blog and even watched a presentation he did back in 2018

Here are the juicy details:

How his portfolio revenue evolved over time

  • 2006-2012: Studied business while DJing
  • 2012 ($40k Revenue): Launched music YouTube channel Panda Mix Show
  • 2013 ($52k Revenue)
  • 2014 ($45k Revenue): Started 12 startups in 12 months challenge. NomadList and RemoteOK accidentally got Product Hunt traction.
  • 2015 ($203k Revenue): Became Product Hunt’s 3rd Maker of the Year. Added fees to sites, memberships were 50% income.
  • 2016 (~$300k Revenue): $9.99/month subscription for NomadList. 700k combined monthly visitors.
  • 2017 (~$360k Revenue)
  • 2018 (~$600k Revenue): Refined pricing, upsells increased order value from $310 to $484. Released Makebook.com handbook.
  • 2019 (~$1M Revenue): Reached $1M ARR.
  • 2020 (~$1.4M Revenue): RemoteOK grew from Covid. Began GPT-3 experiments.
  • 2021 ($1M-2M Revenue): 30% earnings from investments.
  • 2022 ($1M-2M Revenue): Launched AvatarAI ($100k in 10 days). More Makebook sales.
  • 2023 ($2.2M Revenue): TikTok influencer marketing exploded. AI apps now 50% of earnings.

Pieter’s Playbook for Success

Pieter is vocal about what it takes to profitably bootstrap startups. Here’s his playbook summarized in 10 steps:

Here is an expanded version with more context and examples:

1️⃣ Start small, dream big

Don’t try to build a space company as your first startup. Instead, start with a small niche problem you can solve quickly. Build a minimum viable product that serves a specific need. You can build on top of it later. Like Pieter did by starting with a simple Google Sheet for NomadList that he iterated into a full platform.

2️⃣ Scratch your own itch

Solve your own problems because you understand them best. Struggling to find a worthwhile problem? Broaden your life experiences to uncover new issues worth solving. Travel to new places, pick up different hobbies, make new friends. Exposure to diverse experiences will reveal problems you’re uniquely positioned to understand and solve.

3️⃣ Launch fast, move on within a month if no traction

Ship more ideas faster. Don’t spend over a month validating an idea. Launch a basic MVP, share it, and see if it gets any traction with your target audience. If you struggle for traction after a month, it likely won’t work. Keep shipping new concepts frequently like Pieter. Being prolific will increase your odds of success.

4️⃣ Build in public

Share your work publicly from the start to grow an audience. Pieter pioneered “open startups” and still shares revenue numbers and experiments publicly to this day. NomadList succeeded largely because he tweeted about the initial Google Sheet and got contributions. Let your audience guide you.

5️⃣ Learn on the job

Learn by doing. You pick up skills like coding, marketing, and product design faster by building real projects, even with no-code tools. Pieter was self-taught. Constantly build new things right outside your comfort zone. Track everything to accelerate your learning from experience.

The biggest thing in coding and in business you can learn, is learning how to learn and learning how to figure things out for yourself

Pieter Levels

6️⃣ Get good at marketing

Experiment relentlessly with marketing like Pieter did. Don’t be afraid to try new pricing models, sales funnels, and campaigns. Let data guide you. What works for others may not work for your product, so test extensively. Master marketing through first-hand experience.

7️⃣ Make smart friends

Share your work publicly to meet people who can help you grow. By building in public, hosting meetups and writing regularly, Pieter connected with experts who improved his email marketing and influencer marketing skills. Surround yourself with people who know more than you.

8️⃣ Automate everything

Use automation to run a lean business without employees like Pieter. Nowadays no-code tools like Make makes this easy even without technical skills. Automate every repetitive task you can. Outsource rote work to software to focus on high-value activities.

So this is my server right now. I made a screenshot a few hours ago. In the top, you can see, it’s blocked, but it’s 187 robots are running now. That’s parallel processes, and they’re doing something for my site. They’re getting the weather for the cities on Nomad List. They’re getting job posts for Remote OK. They’re processing refunds for users. Both sites are 100% automated, and these robots keep everything running

Pieter Levels

9️⃣ Recognize mega trends

Identify emerging mega trends like remote work, the creator economy, and AI. Experiment constantly with new spaces like Pieter did. Join trends early, even if some concepts fail. Place many small bets to increase your odds of ride a rising wave.

Pieter showing how RemoteOK grew in line with increasing interest in remote working

🔟 It’s OK to change your mind

Be open to evidence that counters your beliefs. Pieter went from hating ads to running influencer campaigns. Changing your mind is part of the learning journey. Evolve your thinking as your experience grows. What seemed true at the start may not remain effective as your business scales.

Growth Strategies of Top Indie Makers Delivered to Your Inbox

Each week, we will reverse engineer the growth and distribution strategies used by top indie makers to grow their startups past $100k annual revenue. Subscribe so you don’t miss the latest issues!

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