Meet the Digital Nomad Who Trades His Services for Travel Experiences


Mark van der Heijden roams the world but never idly.

On a flying visit in between international commitments, we managed to cross paths with Mark van der Heijden (also known as The Backpacker Intern) in Austin, Texas, where he took to the SXSW stage to discuss that magical sweet spot between serendipity and choice. If there’s truth to Richard Wiseman’s adage that “lucky people create, notice, and act upon the chance opportunities in their lives,” we’d say that Mark is definitely lucky. His ‘luck’ is by no means no pure chance, but the result of bold and ‘out of the box’ action. Like Wiseman observed: Mark’s success is down to his use of a creative approach to dismantle traditional ways of interacting with the world in order to achieve mutual benefit. We spoke to Mark about his extraordinary journey and discovered the impact of one simple idea.

How did The Backpacker Intern adventure come about?

After working for six years in advertising as a creative copywriter in Amsterdam, I decided to completely flip the script. I quit my job, left my apartment, gave my bed to an orphanage and tossed my belongings in a backpack. After booking an around-the-world ticket, I realised I didn’t have enough money to do everything I wanted to do. My solution was simple. For me, it was not about the money, it was about the experience. So I thought, “What do I really need to survive on this trip?” And the answer was basically just food and shelter, so I decided to travel the world as The Backpacker Intern, exchanging my skills for meals and a place to sleep.

To promote the idea, I created this one-minute video and got picked up by Adweek, TEDxTeen, Campaign and Entrepreneur. Within one week, I received more than 750 job-offers worldwide, and the rest, as they say, is history.

 The Backpacker Intern + Malala in Liverpool

Where are some countries, cities and workplaces it has taken you?

In two years, I’ve been to all 7 continents, 27 countries and worked at 32 companies, including Amnesty International Thailand, DDB Vietnam, TBWA/Chiat/Day Los Angeles, J. Walter Thompson Buenos Aires, Red Bull Austria, Ogilvy Cape Town, and UNICEF New Zealand.

I worked with the legendary musician Nile Rodgers in New York, ex-drug traffickers in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, a senior dog shelter in San Francisco, served food to homeless people at a soup kitchen in Malaysia, and helped out One Ocean Expeditions during a polar expeditions to Antarctica.

 *The Backpacker Intern at AntarcticaWhat was the most unexpected opportunity to date?

That would probably be my invitation to The White House. I got an email inviting me to join the Top 100 Most Influential Travel Bloggers in the World for a Travel Summit about Studying Abroad and Global Citizenship. At first, I thought it must be fake, but it turned out to be the real deal.

So now you’re helping other creative professionals travel the world too with Wanderbrief. Can you tell us what it is?

Wanderbrief is a global community where people exchange their creativity for meaningful work-life experiences abroad. We exist to refresh the perspective of creatives and support companies meet their business objectives through collaborative creativity, while fostering global citizenship and cultural exchange.

I’ve built the brand with my best friend Valentijn van Santvoort (former Strategy Director HAVAS Boondoggle). On February 4, we launched in beta, quickly picked up traction in the media and now, weeks later, more than 5000 creatives from 47 countries have created a profile. We launched in Amsterdam with Vodafone and Amnesty International and are now working hard expanding to London, Reykjavik and eventually the whole world!

How do we all get involved?

For creatives, it’s free to become part of our community. You create a profile online and then can apply for the upcoming briefs. When you apply and get picked by the company, you better be ready to pack your bags!

The process goes as follows: when a company is facing a challenge, we create an assignment and use our technology to attract top-notch talent for the job. These include copywriters, designers, developers and a whole load of other creative industry roles. In a short period of time (usually 2-4 weeks), the creative attempts to solve the business challenge in exchange for a flight, room, board and some pocket money to explore the city.

For companies, Wanderbrief is the perfect opportunity to meet their objectives through collaborative creativity, while they support global citizenship and benefit from cultural exchange in a cost-effective way. For creatives, it’s a great way to travel that looks badass on your resume when you get back home.

So, where’s next on the travel itinerary?

We’re traveling to Iceland next week for business. Then to London, where I’m invited to share my story at D&AD Festival. After that, there’s Barcelona and Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, where I will be speaking for a second year.

We would really love to take Wanderbrief Down Under too, so if there are any Aussie companies and creatives up for an adventure of a lifetime, please let me know. Hope to see you soon, mates!


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