Mark van der Heijden travelled the world with a simple idea: One day of work = One day of food and shelter. He had no idea this would lead him to travel 27 countries on 7 continents for two years on end, get invited by the White House, present at TEDx New York and join a studio session with Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Nile Rogers and Avicii. We caught Mark for an interview on his way to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam to talk about his life as a backpacking intern.
How did such a simple idea blow so dramatically out of proportion? Did you already have tons of followers or what sparked the whole thing to go viral?
My plan never was to turn the idea into something big. Having worked for six years as a copywriter for different agencies, I just felt like I needed to do something cool. I wasn’t unhappy or frustrated. I just noticed that I was peddling the same route to work every day and wondered if that’s it. Is that all I want to do with my life?
So like millions of other people out there, I thought, I'm just gonna go abroad. But I did not want to go as a stereotypical backpacker, running wild and party my ass off. I was 26 by then and probably beyond that point. In my mind, it was all about the experience. Besides, I also wanted to work along the way.
At some point, I had already bought an around-the-world-ticket. Once I had that, I figured, all I need now is room and board. Together with some friends, I created the idea and the name. “The Backpacker Intern” was born. I thought really strategically about the whole thing. I positioned myself as an intern rather than a professional with six years professional experience. This would make it easier to get hired, as companies would assume that I would work for free. The idea was to trade skills for experiences. The cardboard sign was inspired by bums on the street with signs like “will work for beer”.
So, I created an ugly website as I wasn’t able to do more. I am not a designer. Also, I made a video in which I explained the concept in one minute. It was inspired by a Bob Dylan video, in which he holds cardboard signs into the camera and throws them on the floor. A friend was helping me as an art director, while another friend borrowed us his camera. The voice over came from a befriended radio studio owner. They all liked the concept and put passion in it for free. I couldn’t have done it without them. We worked on the concept for a few months before I launched anything.
In addition to the simple WordPress site, I set up a Facebook page and made use of my Twitter account. Then I just put it on these channels and said: “hey, this is what I want to do”. Back then, I didn’t have many followers to start with. Luckily, some people from my personal agency network shared it and supported me. Within a few hours, the first job offers came in. And then it spiralled out of control. While I was on the plane to Hong Kong to begin my adventure abroad, Adweek picked it up, and other media outlets followed. Soon “the Backpacker Intern” had become a huge thing on all of these sites around the world. In 72 hours, I had hundreds of job offers from every continent.
What was your first reaction, when you walked out of the plane?
I couldn’t really place it. I was confused. Old friends that I didn’t talk to in years all of a sudden texted me. Friends and relatives called me up in excitement. Man, it was an unreal experience.
I guess most of us have considered leaving everything behind for a while to go out and travel at some point. There seems to be a pattern after the first 6-7 years of work that people feel this urge to break out and do something different.
Yes, I feel the same. Last week in London, I talked to Stefan Sagmeister. He takes these breaks frequently. Every seven years or so, he shuts down everything he has built, travels and then starts from scratch. I quite like the idea.
In sharp contrast to that, our parents used to work towards their pension and then live their life, when they are old. But now is the time to jump out of planes etc. You don’t do that when you’re in your Seventies.
What did the whole experience do with you? In which areas, did you need to grow? What was hard or challenging on your trip?
A lot. (laughs) Way more than I thought. Nowadays you see digital nomads posting amazing pictures of their travels like “this is my beach office today”, “this is me eating an Avocado”. Of course, this is one side. But you don’t get to see the other side. I travelled for two years. That means, I missed all the birthdays of friends, children were being born, you spend your birthdays far away from friends and family, you cannot be there when family members get sick, you miss bachelor’s parties and all of that. What are you going to do about it? Will you just quit your job abroad and go back? If you are in your own environment, you have a shoulder to lean on. You know who to turn to. You don’t have these deep connections if you are constantly travelling. So, you fall back on yourself. You discover your own strength. You start to think: this is the problem. This is what I can do about it. This is how I feel about it. And then you learn to step over it. You learn to deal with stuff by yourself. That makes you a better and more enjoyable person to other people.
If you find peace and happiness and all that stuff in yourself, it makes your life much better. I haven’t found the perfect answer, yet. But that was a major learning.
How do you feel about travelling to cover loads of different destinations versus staying extended times in a single destination before you move on to the nex?
Staying in one place for several months on end will be better for your experience than just to move around. You need some time to adjust to smells and climate and sounds. If you stay for some time, you experience the countryside in different weather conditions, and you get deeper connections. Also, you get stronger. You’ll feel like “hey, I’ve handled this. I’ll sure be able to handle the next country too”. Of course, it’s different for everyone. Some people will simply enjoy ticking off all the boxes.
The White House called you one of the Top 100 travel bloggers worldwide. How did it feel to be called out as a role model?
I never feel like a role model. It didn’t feel real when I received the invite. I got an email from the White House saying “You’re one of the top 100 travel bloggers.”. I thought somebody was messing around with me. The email looked super sketchy. So, I didn’t respond. But after a week, I was intrigued and asked them some question. The next email had the eagle and official signs on it and everything. It was actually happening. I got flown there and felt like “Wow, I’m in the White House”. The whole idea was to motivate more US students to study and work abroad. They did research that it is just better for your success in life and business if people go abroad and learn about life and work. You throw yourself into the deep. You might learn new languages. You learn how to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. A study showed that Fortune 500 companies prefer staff with international experience over people with only local experience. In the US it’s a few people that travel internationally.
The White House decided to invite us travel bloggers instead of a paid campaigns. Plenty of inspiring people attended the event. Adventure Escapes, the Expert Vagabond, the right hand of Barrack and Michele Obama, people from National Geographic and the Travel Channel – it was great.
Why do US citizens not travel more?
Well, the US is so massive. That’s why people just travel in their own country. Besides, there is a misunderstanding of how much money it costs to travel. A lot of people just don’t know that it can be cheaper to travel abroad than to live in the US. Also, people have so little holidays.
Still, if you take a closer look, 49% of the workforce in the US is now freelance. The reason: people want more freedom. Technology makes it easier to work from everywhere around the world. You can start a company for 500 EUR. It is so easy for people to just live this lifestyle. So I feel, travelling will also grow in the US.
At your recent gig at SXSW in Austin Texas, you talked about how working abroad can change the world. Why do you think so?
Of course, travel, in general, is a good way to learn more about other cultures and so on. I feel the difference with working abroad is that you’ll experience struggles, different opinions and miscommunications on a different level. You’ll learn from other people’s perspectives. And that’s when you grow. When you exchange with someone from South Africa, a developer from South Korea and a copywriter from the Netherlands, you’ll get some refreshing ideas that otherwise you would not have come up with. Creativity is a combination of putting existing things in new perspective and combining them.
You’ve seen so many companies from the inside in many countries around the globe. What differences in the way people approach work (ethics, humour, working hours, hierarchies) did you recognize along the way?
I witnessed quite a lot. Humour is interesting for instance. It is so different between continents. In Europe, most people dig sarcasm or cynicism. In Asia, people don’t see that as a joke, and they take it very seriously. In Vietnam, I worked on a campaign with DDB. We figured that some of my ideas didn’t fit the values or humour there. I had to adapt.
Another difference is in the way, you present yourself and talk about your merits. In the US, you can say, “I am a creative and I won loads of awards and so on”. People will listen to it with interest if it is something that you are passionate about. If you do that in Europe, people would think, you’re full of yourself.
The importance of work is also very different from culture to culture. In some countries, people leave earlier. They put more emphasise on life. Maybe, they are also just more productive and thereby finish earlier.
In Thailand, people came in quite late to the agency (10 am / 10:30 am), but they routinely stayed till 11 at night. They would all together grab dinner and then go back to the office. I wondered if this is how I would want to work.
In some cultures, it is important how a job is respected in society. If you work & travel abroad, you can experience different workstyles and see what suits you.
Is it possible to contribute something, when you just stay with a company for the length of a short internship?
In my case, it depended. Sometimes, the expected outcome was a campaign, and we worked on it for a few weeks. Sometimes it was a movie for an NGO. I had to write my own guide book how this concept was supposed to work. I got better of time. At some point, I came in and said “It is best if I just focus on one project while I’m here.” I learned to say, what I can do and what I cannot.
When did it occur to you to turn your experience into a viable business?
When I started my own project "backpackerinterns.com” I thought, if I can make it work for me, I can also make it work for other people. As it was unpaid, I had to come up with something to get paid too. I considered writing a book, but I also wanted to launch my own start-up.
Strained between too many options, I talked to the head of Google Africa and the Middle East. I asked him, how do you manage to stay focused? This was his advice: You’ve got to have your top 3 in life. Figure out your top 3. With number 1, you’ll probably succeed. Number 2 you’ll maybe succeed, Number 3 probably not. You just have to pick three things to focus on. For me that turned out to be:
1 finish my own project.
2 help other people.
3 write my own book.
When I finally came back to Amsterdam, I met with Valentijn van Santvoort, an old friend of mine from the agency world. He also quit his job, and we decided, to build on what I had done. We figured we needed a new brand. We analysed, what was good about my project. I got thousands of emails from people who wanted to do the same. Hundreds of companies that wanted us.
We came up with the name Wanderbrief. Wander = Wanderlust. Brief = assignment and also means temporarily. We pondered different options. We could create our own tv channel. We could offer trips. Eventually, we launched in 2016 with a minimum viable product. The core idea was that people trade their skills for experience abroad.
Now we’ve already got thousands of users and plenty of companies around the globe that want to be involved.