Home / @levelsio and survivorship bias edit
Try Documentalist, my app that offers fast, offline access to 190+ programmer API docs.

Pieter Levels is a prolific maker of software.
He's also very successful maker of software: he's close to making $1.5 million a year from his business, almost all of it profit.
Almost all of it is his profit since for most of the time he was a sole developer / marketer / copy writer, with a part-time sysadmin for ensuring the server stays alive. Recently he hired customer support and chat moderator.
This level of success attracts attention
It also attracts inevitable claims of survivorship bias. The gist of it is: if you do things he did, you won't have the same level of success.
I think it's a very defeatist attitude. Life is hard, there is no step-by-step guide to $1.5 million a year business.
You can, however, do things right or you can do them badly.
To create a successful business you need to do more things right than badly.
Let's call it Do Things Right bias.
Let's dissect Peter Level's journey to see what he did right and how that differed from doing things badly.
I've been following Pieter for a long time and he created a large body of tweets and blog posts, a book, a few youtube talks, most of it related to his journey from making $0 a year to $1.5 million a year.
People say you can learn from other people's mistakes. It's even better to learn from other people's successes.
What did Pieter do right?

Pieter ships products

Here's a list of his projects going back 11 years. Limiting the list to only software products:
  • 2010: Uber clone
  • 2012 dating site for college campuses, YouTube network
  • 2013: YouTube analytics
  • 2014: Slack community for digital nomads, GIF Book, Nomad Jobs, Nomad List 1.0, Go Fucking Do It, Play My Inbox
  • 2015: Startup Retreats, Taylor Bot (a Telegram bot), Nomad List 2.0, Remote OK
  • 2016: Virtual Reality, Places to Work, learning 3D modelling
  • 2017: Nomad List 3.0, Nomad Gear, Mute, Hoodmaps
  • 2018: Nomad List FIRE Calculator, MAKE Book, Maker Rank, No More Google
  • 2019: Bali Sea Cable, Nomad List 5, How Much Is My Side Project Worth
  • 2020: QR Menu Creator, IdeasAI, Remote OK Workers, Airline List, Nomad List Climate Finder
  • 2021: Rebase, Inflation Chart, MAKE Book NFT,
Doing it badly
Not shipping products.
Commenting on Hacker News how you couldn't possibly take away from your precious time commenting on Hacker News and write some code instead.

Pieter is persistent

He's clearly persistent.
His overnight success was 11 years in the making.
A lot of his projects failed but he didn't give up.
He kept making more.
He creates new things even when he doesn't have to because Nomad List and RemoteOk bring more money that he needs.
Doing it badly
Abandoning all work after first failure and using survivorship bias as a convenient excuse.

Pieter understands compund interest

If you have a profitable business, there are 2 ways to make even more money:
  • start a new business
  • sell more stuff to your existing customers
The second option tends to be easier and more reliable way to increate revenue and profits.
The hardest thing in business is getting attention of potential customers.
It's much easier to get attention of customers you already have.
While Pieter starts new projects, he's smart enough to mostly do things related to hist most successful business: Nomad List.
He keeps improving Nomad List.
He built jobs website for remote workers and does other related projects like Nomad List Climate Finder.
This is similar to the magic of compounded interest in investing.
Doing it badly
Not doubling down on things that work. Chasing distractions.

Pieter abandons projects that are not working

You need to be persistent, but in a smart way.
You'll know when you have a product market fit.
Nomad List started as a Google Spreadsheets that Pieter created for himself and accidently left unprotected.
Within days people were adding more information to it. That was a clear sign of interest so he turned it into a website.
All projects start as weakling babies that need to be initially nurtured to health. But if they never manage to get up on their feet, you have to throw them in the river.
Ok, that was exceedingly bad analogy.
Doing it badly
Sticking with a product that doesn't perform instead of creating a new project that just might.

Pieter chargers money

Freemium is a popular tactic for getting users.
Many people find it psychologically hard to charge for software.
Those are potential reasons why people don't charge for their products.
Not Pieter. He asks for money early and he asks for a lot. His book is $49 (and I bought it). Nomad List is $199.
Doing it badly
Not charging at all, not charging early, not charging enough.

Pieter ships quickly

NomadList started as a Google Docs Spreadsheet.
Pieter turned it into a simple website and made that simple website available immediately.
He then kept working on it and improving it.
This is true of all his projects: ship the smallest thing that provides value, promote it, double-down on things that are working.
Doing it badly
Spending a year writing that web app without showing it to anyone.

Pieter does a lot of marketing and promotion

From early days he was promoting his stuff on his blog, Hacker News, Product Hunt, Reddit, Twitter etc.
There's a thin line between promotion and spamming. Don't cross it.
Most people, especially people good at programming, neglect promotion and marketing.
Some say that you should spend as much time on marketing as you do on coding the product.
I don't know what the right amount is but it's not zero.
Doing it badly
Not spending any time on promotion and marketing.
Not writing blog posts related to your product.
Not tweeting, not trying to promote your writing on Hacker News or reddit or quora.
If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one to see it, write a blog post about it and post it on Hacker News.

Pieter is good at promotion and marketing

I'm not sure if this can be thought but Pieter seems to have a natural gift for story telling and promotion.
Consider those 2 examples:
  • 2014 I'm launching 12 Startups in 12 Months.
    • "12 startups in 12 months" is a much more interesting story than "I'm starting a startup".
    • This is important because if you submit "I'm starting a startup" blog post to Hacker News, it's unlikely to get traction. But "12 startups in 12 months" - it very well might.
    • People are attracted to new, never-been-done-before.
    • This trope is now over-used so you can't just copy it. But this is a big world and you don't have to be absolutely first and only. Pieter was inspired by 180 websites in 180 days project.
  • How I went from 100 to 0 things.
    • He was robbed.
    • It happens to many people but most people don't blog about it and promote that blog on Hacker News
It's more than a catchy headline, though.
The content of those blog posts is good and goes beyond the obvious.
Sharing a lousy story will not do you any good.
Doing it badly
Not spending any time on promotion and marketing.
On the other hand, there are people who simply spam with low-effort, low-quality posts. That is not going to work either.

Pieter is productive

The amount of projects he shipped is impressive.
The depth of some of his projects is impressive.
It's not inhumanely great, though.
When you consider he did it over 10 years, it's more than doable.
The difference between "doable" and "done" is measured in hours spent in front of the monitor, writing code, testing code, learning new things, applying those learnings.
Most people just don't spend enough time and / or don't spend the time productively.
Doing it badly
Writing a book is a time consuming activity.
Writing software is a time consuming activity.
There's no around spending a lot of time on your business (occasional exception notwithstanding).

Pieter learned programming by himself

This is not about self-thought vs. going to college.
This is about doing what's necessary.
Pieter had ideas for software but didn't know how to program.
For most people that's an insurmountable problem. It's learned helplessness.
All you need to learn programming is out there, for free. On YouTube, on blogs.
You just need to start learning and keep going.
You can read what Pieter says about DYI ethos.
Doing it badly
Trying to outsource programming to contractors or someone you find on Upwork, fantasizing about rising VC and hiring programmers, trying to find technical cofounder that will do all the work for 10% of the company.
Some people succeed by hiring programmers or contractors.
Most people don't because most people suck at managing programmers even more than Winklevoss brothers.
If you are a broke college student, you just don't have the money to hire people.

Pieter copies best practices

We are not born being the best programmers, best marketers, best writers.
There is no step-by-step guide to becoming the person that creates great products and markets them well.
But there are many businesses that do things well.
You can deconstruct what they do well and copy it.
It requires an attentive, inquisitive mind.
Let's take https://makebook.io/ as an example. Do you see what Pieter did well there?
Go ahead, look some more. What did he do well on that website?
Answer: social proof.
At the top: "Product Hunt's Book of the year". At the bottom: twitter testimonials of people fawning over his book.
Does your business use social proof to make people more likely to buy?
This is just one of many things that a business can do well.
For another example: go to https://nomadlist.com/ and try to sign up for Nomad List.
It's a master class in how to convert a visitor into a customer.
Figuring it why it makes for a great conversion funnel is left as an exercise for the reader.
Doing it badly
Never asking yourself: how can I do X better? How can I make my business better?
Not noticing the best practices that other businesses use.
Not learning from blogs, books, tweet storms.
Not applying the things you learn to your business.

Pieter is not a technologist

It's counter-intuitive that not being a technologist i.e. someone impressed by and interested in new technologies, can be an advantage when running a software business.
He build his $1.5 million/year empire on PHP, sqlite, and a single VPS server.
Those are not technologies that will impress anyone.
PHP is 27 years old. It might be older than you. It sure isn't Rust or Swift.
SQLite is 21 years old and everyone knows that a serious web service needs to use a serious database, like PostgreSQL
But they get things done. More precisely: Pieter gets things done using them.
Doing it badly
I'm a technologies so trust me, I know the siren song of fancy new languages, Kubernetes clusters, latest web frameworks.
I'm doing it badly. I'm trying to do it less badly.
When it comes to being productive, using a mature tool that you know well beats chasing the latest thing.
For me it's Go on the backend and Svelte on the front-end but as Pieter shows, you can be very prolific with a very old technology.

Pieter surfs the high waves

YouTube analytics in 2013.
Slack channel in 2014.
Virtual Reality in 2016.
Telegram bot in 2015.
Being a nomad in 2015.
QR Menu creator in 2020.
Bitcoin / NFT in 2021.
The guy is at the forefront of trends.
This doesn't necessarily make or break his businesses but it's easier to promote novel things.
This is not blind chasing of fads.
He doesn't have a podcast, a TikTok, or hangs out on Clubhouse.
He did nomadic lifestyle years before it was a trend.
Don't ignore trends but do apply your personal and busines filter.
It's also different than being a technologist.
He didn't rewrite his website on blockchain but he did notice that Bitcoin is a trendy thing and he did a project that is related to Bitcoin and provides value related to Bitcoin.
Doing it badly
Not paying attention to new trends.
Not trying to figure out what product can you build to take advantage of the new trend.
Not being selective about which trends to exploit.

Pieter is humble

The first thing he said in this comment
All of this is possible because I've been a HN reader since 2010 and was inspired by all of you and especially @patio11 on here to bootstrap my own things and do it VERY publicly.
This might not impact his business but it does impact how people perceive him.
Doing it badly
Being an arrogant prick that people dislike and root against.

Doing Things Right bias

Survivorship bias is for losers.
Doing Things Right bias is for winners.
So put that coffee down until you start Doing Things Right.

Learning from Pieter

Do you want to create successful projects? You can learn a lot from Pieter:
Don't just read it passively.
You're a business detective. He has a successful business. Your job is to figure out all the things he did right, not just the things he's telling you.
You need to figure out that he's using social proof even if he never talks about using social proof.

Feedback about page:

Feedback:
Optional: your email if you want me to get back to you:

Need fast, offline access to 190+ programmer API docs? Try my app Documentalist for Windows