A guy who travels the world interning at cool companies in exchange for a place to sleep and something to eat? His name is Mark van der Heijden and he’s The Backpacker Intern. After spending years as a creative copywriter, Mark had an urge to do something different with his life and see the world. He had worked since graduation from school, and he felt that there was something missing. Instead of just quitting his job to travel the world simply as a tourist, he came up with a creative solution. He would intern at companies for a couple of days in exchange for food and shelter.
The result? Companies such as Red Bull, the Adventure Film School, and Nile Rodgers Productions, just to name a few on a long list, have exchanged survival basics for Mark’s skills. Mark blogs, tweets, and posts on Facebook about all of his cool experiences, and it’s as if we were traveling right alongside him. It takes courage and an acceptance of the unknown to travel the world and leave the comforts of home.
During some stops along his journey, Mark didn’t know where he would be the following week, where he would be working, or if he would have a place to sleep. By utilizing friends, contacts, and social media, Mark has been able to accomplish something unique and inspiring. Mark paid attention to the voice in his head craving something more out of life, came up with a solution and plan, and has been creating his own path every single day. If that isn’t seizing your youth, we don’t know what is.
How do you define ‘seizing your youth’?
Never put yourself in a situation where you are following the common track. Create your own path. Don’t listen to what people think you should do. Do what’s best for you.
What did you study at Fontys Hogeschool Communicatie and how did you determine what to study?
I studied Communications. I specialized in copy concept and strategy. After two years you could choose a direction, and I chose that because you could make a TV commercial. I wasn’t thinking too much about the future, but that major felt good. During my studies I did an internship and sold my first creative idea. It gave me goosebumps, and it was cool to be able to use my talents.
How did your journey as The Backpacker Intern begin?
I used to work in advertising in Amsterdam for six years as a creative copywriter. I had a good job, great friends, lived in a great apartment, and Amsterdam was amazing. I couldn’t complain, but still I had the urge of some kind of feeling. I wanted to see more of the world and do more. Right after school I had a job, so I never had a big break to see the world like other people sometimes do. I had a feeling that I was missing that, and thought that I needed to do it. I wanted to do it all the way and see where I would end up, so I quit my job and started The Backpacker Intern.
I booked seven tickets for six months. That was the original plan. I realized I didn’t have enough money to do all the things I wanted to do. I thought I could come up with an idea or two to make some money along the way. Then I discovered that it wasn’t about the money, but it was about the experience instead. The only things I actually need on a trip are food and a bed. I came up with the idea to exchange my skills for those things. Not money, but the things I need to survive.
How long was the process from when you had the idea to actually leaving?
I had the idea six months before and worked towards the departure date. In that time I crafted my idea and made it better. I procrastinated along the way, but the idea was too cool to pass up. I came up with a lot of names, but The Backpacker Intern stuck. I talked to a lot of people in creative industries and they helped me through my ideas and look at them with a different perspective. I bought the URL, and that made it official. The best feeling was when I had the logo. It was something. It wasn’t there yet, but it was alive.
As the departure date got closer, it became more real. One of my best friends and I brainstormed about making a video, and then we came up with the idea to use my cardboard sign in a film. We told the message in one take. I spread the video through my social media channels. I didn’t expect the project to get this big.
How did you determine your route?
I wanted to go to Asia, so I booked a ticket from Amsterdam to Bangkok. Then I wanted to go to San Francisco and Hawaii because I have friends there. From Asia I could go to Hawaii and San Francisco. I saw that I could go to Iceland from New York, and then from Iceland I’d go back to Amsterdam. The route is based on things I haven’t seen yet, the rates for the travel season, and where my friends live. It’s like an endless summer. I only have one sweater with me.
What have been the greatest challenges in your journey so far?
Planning everything is a challenge. I can now imagine why people who do a lot of things have an assistant. Usually in the daytime I’m working somewhere, but I also get a lot of emails throughout the day. I also want to stay in touch with my friends and family. I need to keep people updated with blog posts. If I don’t have a new internship, I have to decide what to do. I don’t sleep a lot, maybe three hours a day. I enjoy every minute, but it’s also work.
What would you do differently if you could start the journey over?
Nothing because then it would be a totally different journey. I believe that everything happens for a reason and that you learn from your mistakes.
A lot of companies have reached out to you. How do you choose which companies to work with?
I try to do a mix of work. I work at agencies, brands, and charities. Big companies and small companies. If I’m almost to a new city, I’ll coordinate with companies that have emailed me and arrange the internship. I Googled charity organizations in San Francisco because I wanted to work with dogs. I worked with Mutville Senior Dog Rescue, which was so cool. I emailed them and the owner replied. I worked there for two days and stayed at the owner’s house. It was so different.
What kinds of things do you do at your internships?
It’s like I’m a human pocketknife. I can do a lot of things. My profession is creative and advertising. I’m best at making concepts, ideas, and solutions for brands, companies, and people. I can originate concepts, write copy, and create strategies. I make films, but I also clean dog poop.
I worked at a soup kitchen in Malaysia and I was making food for homeless people and drug addicts. That was the internship and nothing else. I’ve enjoyed many different experiences. The whole goal is to help people and to learn from them at the same time. I’ve enjoyed working with people from different professions and cultures.
Leaving your comfort zone in Holland must not have been easy. What did you do to prepare yourself for this adventure?
I am not scared about stepping out of my comfort zone. I’m used to eating crazy foods and jumping out of airplanes. I’m not a rebel but I enjoy trying new things. I enjoy traveling so much that I don’t get homesick. My longest trip was four weeks, but I still wanted to do more. Of course I miss my friends and family, but with Skype I can still stay in contact. The best friends will always stay with you even if you don’t talk for a while. You can pick back up where you left off.
Have you experienced any major culture shocks after traveling the world?
I was pretty shocked by the amount of homeless people in the U.S. Especially in Oakland, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. I wasn’t aware of how big of a problem it is.
What advice do you have for youth who are interested in advertising?
Just start and make a lot of ideas. It’s all about your portfolio, so show how creative you are. There are a lot of creative competitions you can attend. It’ll help to win a competition and have people notice you.
It’s good if you try to find a mentor, someone you find inspiring. Just reach out to him or her and ask for 30 minutes of time to talk. If he or she says no, then move on to the next one. Sometimes you need advice from people who are way more up the ladder. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.
Don’t be scared that your ideas are not good enough. I failed a lot and made a lot of campaigns that weren’t approved. I’ve worked for six months on a project and then the week before have it pulled. Just keep on going and keep on trying.
What are the top three traits that make a great intern?
Be open-minded. Don’t judge. Be crazy.
What motivates you?
I read a lot of books about creativity, watch great films and check out new and interesting products. It inspires me to make great things like that. It’s a really great feeling to make something.
The best feeling is if you create something that didn’t exist before and you can improve people’s lives. It’s so cool to make a change in people’s lives just by a thought you came up with.
What advice would you give your 15-year-old self?
Do as many internships as possible without getting paid. Besides school and a part-time job, learn as much as you can from inspiring and successful people. Offer your help for free. Work at places for free to learn new skills. Knock on the doors of Apple, Nike, Red Bull and ask to work for free because you want to learn. Learn how to help people without doing it for money.