Leopold Huber is the founder Hippohelp—a new, totally free, map-based work trade website that can help you travel the world for a fraction of what your journey would otherwise cost. I absolutely love this site, it's navigable map feature making it the easiest work trade site to search for volunteer opportunities wherever you want to go.
Browsing the map on Hippohelp, I chanced to encounter Leopold's own farm in Guilin, China! Fascinated by this young entrepreneur turning his own soil in the Far East, I wrote and asked if he'd like to share a bit about his life and Hippohelp with readers of The Living Theory.
Thanks for taking the time Leopold! First off, could you tell us about yourself and how the idea came about to build Hippohelp?
Thanks for the chance to be interviewed! I'm a 24 year old Swede who moved to China four years ago, in order to find suppliers for my e-commerce business. After landing I quickly wanted to learn more about the Chinese culture and language.
Fast forward 4 years and I had learned Chinese and met my wife, who I moved to Guilin, China with. During my time here I've spent a lot of time in front of a computer working with my e-commerce store, and that led me and my wife to develop a small piece of land in order to get something nice to do outside.
Developing the land and growing our own vegetables has been, and still is an exciting project, but it involves more work than we originally anticipated. Since Guilin is a popular destination for backpackers I thought that some of them might be interested in working in exchange for food and accommodation, and since I thought that the current platforms for this were either too outdated, too complicated or too expensive I decided to develop an alternative myself.
I was fascinated when I discovered your own farm on Hippohelp in China! I've been so curious, what's the story behind it?
The land is located close to where we live, on the outskirts of Guilin, China. Before we developed it there was nothing more than barren land there, and there were quite a few rocks in the ground.
We started by buying two spades that we used to dig up the rocks and making the soil softer, and then moved on with buying a machete type of knife that I used to cut down materials for our fence with. It was really exhausting, but I wanted to do some physical work that was also fun, so that work fit me well.
When we were done with the soil and fence we went to nearby farms asking for fertilizer, and once we had that we sowed our first seeds. As the time passed we grew more and more different things, and we have now grown potatoes, ginger, beans, carrots (a lot of them), salad leaves, passion fruits, and tomatoes.
I've done a collective seven months of work trade in the past two years in Hawaii and New Zealand. I'm a big fan of the system and it's an essential part of my cheap travel strategy, but for those who've never given work trade a try, why should they?
The most apparent reason is that travelers will save a lot by working and traveling this way, but work exchange has a lot of other benefits that are not as apparent, but are absolutely just as important.
By working in exchange for food and accommodation you'll learn a lot about new cultures and meet a lot of new people to bond with. By living with the locals you'll get an opportunity to explore local areas that aren't visible to the average tourist, and you'll also experience the local life the same way your hosts do. Other than that you will also learn a lot of practical skills, that will be of value on your CV.
The range of possibility in life is astounding! A search for suppliers for your e-commerce business brought you to China, which led to buying land to farm, which led to starting Hippohelp to reinvent and renew the world's work trade system.
I'm curious, though, what was the first step that led you into e-commerce and to China? It seems like such a bold and specific leap at twenty years old.
At the upper secondary school (the last step before university in Sweden) we got to choose what types of classes we wanted to spend time on, and one choice that I and many other students made was participating in a project where we were the employees of a fictional truck manufacturing company. We were divided into different departments, and I choose the purchase department.
After a while I figured that importing things in the real world would maybe not be that different from doing it in the classroom, so I decided to give it a try.
The first thing I imported was a smartphone from a Chinese manufacturer, and at that time there were not too many cheap smartphones on the market, so I was able to quickly sell it. Later set up my own web-shop where I sold more smartphones and other things from China.
After a while I felt like moving to China was a natural next step, since my aim was to continue with the importing business, and being on the spot in China would make it easier to deal with suppliers. I had also befriended some suppliers, and meeting them and finding out more about their culture was also something that motivated me to take the leap.
Sticking to this bold and specific leap, what was it like being a twenty year old Swede looking for suppliers in China? Immersing oneself in a foreign language and culture is never easy, let alone conducting business! It sounds like one of the more adventurous business undertakings I've ever heard of.
It was really exciting! I still remember the first days when I landed in Shenzhen, a city in southern China that is bordering to Hong Kong and has a population higher than Sweden. I could almost smell the fresh feeling, from warm climate to tall skyscrapers, everything was so different from Sweden.
I had made some plans before arriving, and after resting up at the hotel I started meeting suppliers, running errands back and forth to Hong Kong and making new friends.
Very few people spoke English, and I didn't know a word of Chinese. Somehow I think it shows who's fresh and who's been here for a few years, and since I was fresh many Chinese really went out of their way to help me out. Both strangers who I just met on the street, and suppliers who I had had contact with before. My first time in China would have been a lot more difficult if not for all these helpful people.
At the business side I found it a lot easier to deal with suppliers on the spot, and at one point I would probably have lost a lot of money if not being on the spot to deal with a bad supplier (with a lot of help from another supplier). The issue was about the bad supplier not picking up a return shipment of faulty products, so my supplier helped me with picking it up (by taking the boss of the post-office for a dinner first), and I then took the products myself to the office of the bad supplier and got my refund.
What's the one thing you love most about Chinese culture and miss most about Swedish culture?
The Chinese culture feels a lot more vibrant than the Swedish one. Things like seeing people park their tricycles on the side of the road selling vegetables, or watching old ladies dance to loud music every night makes the world feel more alive.
What I miss the most about Swedish culture is the sense of what's right and wrong. In China, I really feel like there's a lot of "me first" thinking on all levels of society. Be it people not letting ambulances through, or government officials exchanging favors with businessmen, I don't feel like they value honor the same way here as in many western countries.
I love books and I'm always looking for recommendations. If you had to name two or three of your all-time favorites, what might they be?
The first would absolutely be Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson, it gives much insight on how he built many successful businesses, and lived an exciting life at the same time.
The second would be The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss as it gives a lot of practical tips on how to improve productivity and work in a smarter way.
Here's a bit of blank space to give the readers of The Living Theory—human to human—one important thing, a piece of advice, a favorite quote, or anything else you feel we might be better off to have encountered:
We won't live forever, and I think being conscious on what we spend our time on is super important.
If I work I want to make sure that I'm productive and doing something that is meaningful to me, and when I have time off I want to spend that time doing something I really love.
It's easy to get used to routines and doing the same thing over and over, and that makes time fly by way too fast.
So check out Hippohelp!
And may your travels be cheap, life-changing, and riddled with serendipity.