crowdsourcing creation

Pieter Levels is a maker and the creator of Nomadlist - an aggregator of places to live around the world that collates live data to rank cities in suitability for digital nomads.

The site take into account cost, climate and user reviews to rate each place - the site is monetised with membership features and a job board.

What’s most impressive is that it’s the result of one person’s work.

Levels has some fascinating approaches to his work. To begin with, he was looking at the demise of his Youtube revenue from a techno channel he owned, sitting in his bedroom in the Netherlands pondering what to do. He began to build digital products in public, blogging and tweeting his ups and downs relentlessly and garnering feedback all the way.

Nomadlist now brings in about $1 million/year which goes almost entirely into his pocket. Nomadlist is a bootstrapped business, with no investors, low running costs and grants its maker the freedom to live anywhere with an internet connection.

He wrote a book, detailing how to build a startup using his own methodology. It’s well worth a read for its own merit but its format is also interesting.

The beginning of the book is available to anyone to read, the text becoming more scrambled the further you scroll down the page. This is partly him showing off his coding chops but also hooking in a potential buyer.

This is a flash version of offering a lead magnet but the writing of the book itself was much more innovative.

Levels opened a public Google Doc, allowing people to pre-purchase the book and then fill in the Doc to dictate to him what they wanted in it. He then worked in public, streaming his writing sessions on Twitch before finishing the ‘last 10%’ in private, editing it himself before releasing it to the public. He continues to update the book as he sees fit - a purchaser gets lifetime access to any changes and could almost certainly get in touch with him to ask further questions.

I believe that the living document approach will become more common. Famously, Kanye West kept iterating on The Life of Pablo after its chaotic gestation and launch, an approach the people found intransigent. West though was merely taking a tech mindset into music, putting his songs out there and iterating afterwards. Although it wasn’t necessarily a longterm concreted effort like Levels’ book is, perhaps its the future of music. Putting something out and altering it asa you go takes the mixtape/Soundcloud approach and moves it further.

Asking your audience what they want to buy is straight out of Simon Cowell’s X-Factor playbook but Levels almost goes further in guaranteeing his revenue (over $50,000 he says) before he begins typing. This is common in tech, building an MVP or even just an offer of one, seeing if people are willing to pay and then building it, but Levels has taken this approach and written a book with it.

The book is only available on his site. This means that the revenue is entirely his - he provides the book in a variety of formats but doesn’t distribute it using any platform like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. He keeps his revenue and crucially his audience in his own ecosystem.

This is surely the holy grail for creators, not relying on a large platform or marketplace but being able to keep the profits from your audience to yourself. Publishing ebooks on Amazon gives you aa 70% royalty between $2.99 and $9.99. Print on Demand will give you a 60% royalty once the cost of printing and delivering the book is accounted for. Levels keeps 100% of his profits as he’s selling purely off his own site. That initial $50,000 is all his. A traditionally published author with a book deal keeps about 10% of each book sold. Selling 5000 copies of a book at £10 each is not necessarily an easy feat and the the median annual income of authors in the UK is now below £10,500. Levels’ strategy suddenly seems even smarter.

Of course he has the audience to speak to in the first place but the difference is striking nonetheless. I’ve written a book that no one asked me to write, with no input on the content beyond asking my former teammates and am then going to release it on Amazon. They will facilitate my selling process and enable me to provide physical copies using print on demand, meaning that I don’t have to pay for a print run that I may never sell. The idea of not wasting paper appeals to me greatly.

The rugby audience is likely older and less tech savvy than that of Levels who appeals greatly to the maker community. They aren’t bothered about physical copies and if they are actually digital nomads, they probably would eschew them entirely anyway. Providing digital only espouses his values and keeps his product very lean and scalable. It’s genius.

My book is a memoir and is thus a moment in time, relying on the vagaries of my memory. Doubtless if I was to return to the narrative in one year’s time, or maybe 5 years, I’d feel very differently about what I’d written and would be tempted to tear the whole thing up. The Make Book is more of a how to manual, with instructions and guides on how to launch a digital project. What I want to stress though is how Levels has taken an approach previously used for digital products and written a book with it.

Although it’s digital only, he’s moving on the medium of writing books, a relatively stagnant format that could do with some refreshing. How long before someone uses a similar approach in fiction or elsewhere, using our digital tools to play with the idea of storytelling itself? Innovation comes from the edges, from other spheres, from those who transpose techniques from one arena to another; perhaps Levels is pointing the way to something new.

Ben Mercer