I met Ulla at The Institute of Code where we both attended a digital marketing course and learned that she had started her own company called Learn with Locals, only a few months before. I thought the idea was amazing! It’s kinda like an air bnb for experiences. You can sign up to attend a workshop while you are traveling and learn a new skill. It’s a great way to engage in more meaningful travel experiences and to connect with like minded individuals on the road. I recently took one of her script lettering classes in Canggu, Bali and while I’m absolutely not a natural talent I had a lot of fun and was able to connect with different expats and locals alike. Ulla is a brilliant woman who is very passionate about this business and I am so grateful she wanted to share her story and inspiration with you all.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do
My name is Ulla, I’m from Denmark and I am currently living in Bali where I am starting up my business called Learn With Locals – a platform that offers handpicked learning experiences available to travellers and anyone wanting to learn something unique from an inspiring community of local contributors.
I’ve been traveling now for the past 10 months or so. I left my job in Amsterdam last summer where I was working as an account manager for a travel startup.
I didn’t feel inspired in my last job and I clearly remember the day when I was asked when I wanted to take my holidays. I had around 2-3 weeks, including public holidays, because I had just started my job that year and I just remember trying to predict when I wanted to take time off and where I’d be traveling to – turns out, I couldn’t choose.
I remember thinking, life is too short to be sitting behind this desk everyday and only really “live” for a maximum of 5 weeks a year. No way…so I left. It was like a new beginning for me.
I had been job hunting for a long time, working for Airbnb in Ireland and Google in Barcelona and now this company in Amsterdam, but I realised, that it didn’t matter what kinda of “cool, we’ve-got-ping-pong-tables/free coffee / free-friday-bar” company I would end up joining, if I didn’t feel free to travel…and even more so, to realize and discover my own potential and purpose in this world – nothing really mattered.
My plan was to move to San Francisco for three months, so I flew to California – L.A. to visit some friends…but I never made it to SF, instead I ended up buying a one-way ticket to Cancún.
I toured Mexico for a few months and also had the chance to visit Cuba and after traveling for a about 6 months, I started missing something deeper, something that involved learning – maybe a new skill. I also knew that I had to come up with a sustainable plan if I wanted to continue to be free (location independent) and so I started looking for ways to build my skillset.
Why did you choose to start learn with locals?
It’s wasn’t actually something I chose to do, I had been playing around with the thought for a long time, ever since surviving the Paris Terrorist Attack back in 2015. After that event, I was very focused on finding the meaning of life and my true purpose in this world…but you know…life kinda got in the way – as always.
Not an excuse, but the thing is, I think most people probably don’t consciously chose to start something, they are maybe just somehow pushed or thrown into it, either because someone else is pushing them or because they’ve hit rock bottom in their personal or professional life and are looking for something better, something different….if you know what I mean.
My point is, I definitely didn’t chose to start my company, it just kinda happened, I probably own about dozen domain names, even before I knew how to code a website, I had been buying domain names because I had all these ideas…and they just wouldn’t go away.
So it wasn’t until the day came to The Institute of Code when we had to make up our wireframes and I told Simba (my mentor) that I was gonna do a blog and he said something like: No you’re not, you’re gonna do this business idea you told me about last night! It just happened that the night before or a few nights earlier, I had been brainstorming domain names for this idea out loud. Frustrated that I couldn’t think of a good name. I wanted to connect travellers locals and facilitate with unique travel and learning experiences – experiential travel you know.
Something I desperately needed myself when traveling in Mexico and in Thailand – two very tourist saturated destinations.
I’ve always hated those tourist things-to-do. I don’t know why, I just do, I just hate feeling like a number, in Thailand you’re actually just a number or a sticker, you know how you get those stickers when you’re going on a “tour”.…that feeling.
That’s actually where the idea first came alive I think… It also so happened that I had written my graduate paper in Digital Markerting and Ecommerce on How to innovate Airbnb’s business model and actually came up with the idea very similar to what is now Airbnb’s Trip Experiences – no kidding. You can read about that here: The story behind learn with locals.
So this idea has been there for a long time, I think I was just too afraid to try and realize it and when I came to The Institute of Code and felt empowered and self-confident, magical things happened and I made the jump…(or perhaps I was pushed) either way, it feels like jumping off a cliff not knowing where you’re going to land, but you’re working day and night to make sure you’re headed in the right direction!
What Inspires you?
People – I’m very inspired by people and their stories, which is probably also why I love storytelling, the whole emotional aspect of traveling. I literally fall in love with people wherever I go.
I’m very inspired by people who have the discipline to sit down and learn something on their own. I’ve never been very good at that – learning on my own, I guess I always felt bored or lonely and I really dislike online tutorials and how-to-articles.
Creative people in particular, entrepreneurs, other females and people who create and have started something, taken chances in general inspire me a lot. People like you, Brit. Tina from The Institute of Code. Becky from We Are Travel Girls. Nadine from @blonde_seashell and Carolin from @rovebyronbay, list could go on ! I also admire my friends back home who are all mom’s now and raising kids and families, that’s pretty scary and takes a lot of endurance and stamina I think!
What is your perfect mantra or mission statement?
I don’t know if I have a personal mantra per say, but I always say that “you have to work harder on yourself than you do on your business” – something I learned from Jim Rohn and something I’m not always good at following myself.
My mission statement for Learn With Locals is to create a community where you can feel empowered and inspired – not only at home, but also abroad when you’re traveling. I want you to take part in the local community and connect with interesting people and become inspired to live a life full of creativity and meaning.
What does happiness mean to you?
Happiness is waking up every day full of energy, excitement and being healthy, walking outside in the sunshine barefoot (or maybe in flip-flops) bursting with excitement and joy for the day ahead.
It sounds so cheesy, but it’s something I feel every day here in Bali working for me and not for someone else or on someone else’s dream.
What are your hobbies?
I don’t actually know to be honest, I am very bad at taking breaks and taking time to cultivate or enjoy a hobby, but I love going to the gym, doing some kind of sport or physical exercise with others. I used to practise capoeira when I lived in Spain and I guess that was my hobby. Now my hobby changes depending on the location, but keeping active is something I always enjoy.
What are a few things you do every single day to keep yourself on track?
I try to eat healthy and workout and I’ve just recently starting to do more self-development meditation and mindfulness to also give myself a break and develop my mental- and emotional skills. I try to remember to stop and enjoy the moment and be more aware of whats going on without constantly looking at a screen. One priority is to read more books and keep a journal. I actually love reading and also writing, it helps clear my mind.
If you could give advice to someone looking to get into your field what would it be and why?
Just do it. There’s no right or wrong way, what works for me might not work for someone else.
I still don’t really know what the heck I’m doing and I still question myself from time to time, but the most important thing is to start looking for ways in which you can reach your full potential and feel like life has meaning – the very top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, that’s where you’ll feel 100% fulfilled – where life is starting to make sense and add meaning and purpose.
I think those are important steps to take, if not, at least be aware of. I actually wrote about that too: Five Steps to Personal Transformation
The only advice I think is actually useful is to start looking for ways in which you can learn, stay curious, hungry and always keep learning new skills or cultivating existing ones – and don’t be afraid to fail, failing and failure has such a negative cling to it, but its really the only way you’re gonna learn, lots of trial and error and surrounding yourself with inspiring people and mentors is also a good idea. Something that has definitely worked and helped me a lot.
You need to have your helpers – people who can help you in many different ways, on a professional and personal level.
What has been your most rewarding experience so far? Work or personal
I think work is rewarding everyday as I am literally learning something new every day about how to start a business and also learning a lot about myself.
Personally and travel wise, something that has left a deep impression on me – was my trip to Cuba. I stayed there for one month during Christmas and New Years last year and it was one of my most amazing and memorable travel experiences so far and is one of the places (and people) I would love to go back to – maybe even live there for a while who knows! God, you have no idea how sweet life is without emails and internet.
Just to give you an example, there were times in Cuba where I actually went to bed hungry because there was no food to be bought anywhere. Maybe I could have woken up my host, but of course I didn’t want to do that. I really experienced local life first hand and a culture so different from anything that I had ever experienced before – I think Cuba really spoke to me.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve overcome in your life thus far? What did you learn? Are you thankful for what it taught you?
One on the biggest personal challenges was being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) back in 2013. Having to go to therapy and deal with being classified within that whole mental disorder system was a big thing back then.
I rarely think about it now, I’ve learned to manage it with proper sleep, diet and exercise, but it does still sometimes surface, reminding me to slow down. When I was at The Institute of Code, I was very challenged emotionally, because the whole aspect of learning was so scary and difficult it completely drained me of energy and self-control.
I think, looking back, I can really see how far I’ve come, even on my worst days when I feel like I am having a huge setback emotionally or personally. I don’t know if I would say I’m thankful, but yeah I guess I’m thankful I survived – literally.
Not only that but also the terrorist attack, that I am thankful for – of course not the impact it had on so many people’s lives, but what it taught me afterwards. It really taught me that life is short and it’s important to live your life now and not when you retire.
Don’t be so damn afraid to screw up – a very good friend of mine, who I met in Cuba told me:
“Ulla, if you don’t take that chance, you’ll never be free.
You know, Ulla I’ve lost everything – twice, but I got back up. Money comes and goes, but I always get back up and that’s my strength. I can do this now, right here in Cuba, (starting a new business and getting a divorce) because I know myself, I have the strength inside me – and you have to be ready for that, you have to know deep down inside yourself that you have the strength to do this – to be broke, to lose money and get back up, this is the only way you will be completely free, if you don’t take that chance, you will never be free.”
Who is your role model/ who has been the most influential person in your life?
I don’t have a role model per say, or one person who has influenced me alone, but I think my parents have influenced me a lot, they’ve always supported me in whatever I was doing and never pushed me to do anything I didn’t really feel was for me, they’ve always acknowledged that I was just me, Ulla and they still do.
When do you feel most inspired?
It’s funny, but when I watched that episode of Homeland where Carrie gets high on caffeine to think about how to prevent a terrorist attack in Berlin, I kinda get what she’s doing…
I can also get the craziest ideas in the middle of the night, I get so many ideas some good, but most – not so good. I write them all down and the next morning I wake up with a list of some pretty crazy business ideas on my notes!