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12 Feb

Nikolaj Astrup – Refuga

“What I really like about creating is that I am essentially building. Like LEGO or a house, I slowly build the project from the bottom – from the foundation to the roof. I like the feeling of having a bigger mission and each day doing something to build on that.”


Creator Profile:

Nikolaj Astrup + Refuga

Creator: Nikolaj Astrup (@nikolajm, nikolajastrup.dk)

Company:  Refuga (Twitter: @refugacom, Facebook: Facebook.com/refugacom, Instagram: @refugacom)

Location: Copenhagen, Denmark & Global


Words of Wisdom – There will be a lot of ups and downs ahead, and a lot of times when it would be more than OK to quit, but you have to just continue and be relentless. I think that’s the absolute most important thing. If you don’t do that everything else doesn’t matter.”


Anyone in entrepreneurship, or with the overwhelming drive to create something in their life, knows the feeling when they’ve already started, but have become stuck. It happens. It happens all too often. Days and weeks of the relentless pursuit of your dreams and then, BOOM! You hit a road block.

Why does this happen? I believe it’s partly because we get so wrapped up in the details, either behind our lonely desk, or within the confines of one specific environment day-after-day. The emergence of Co-Working certainly helped entrepreneurs get out of the box, but sometimes that’s just not enough.

Sometimes we just need to get out of town and into the world.

This brings me to Nikolaj Astrup. I came across Nikolaj’s company, Refuga, via my favorite social media Instagram and from there I researched it online.

Refuga is arranging camps and adventures for entrepreneurial minds. Get together with fantastic, likeminded people and explore the world, while you get new insights, knowledge and feedback that you can use in the development of your company.”

Photography courtesy of Refuga.com

What an amazing concept! Breakaway from your regular environment, get out and breath a little, experience life, people and nature, take a walk, take a hike, collaborate with like-minded individuals and appreciate the bigger things in life. Oh yeah, and you’ll undoubtedly be more focused on your professional endeavors once you’re finished with experiencing life Refuga style.

Like much of my journey to document entrepreneurs and creators from around the world, Nikolaj’s story is no different. He created this concept out of purpose and the belief in something greater than the confines of everyday normalcy. Nikolaj wanted to, in a word, thrive.

But I can’t thrive without doing my own stuff, including the traveling and all the great and the bad that entrepreneurship brings . . . You get used to the security and it becomes more and more difficult to break free. I realized that the sooner I leave the better, and I was off.

I continue to be in amazement by the power of the global human spirit. If Malcolm Gladwell wanted to universally test his hypothesis on what makes and outlier an outlier, I believe he would add some of the notes I’m finding throughout this process.

In a phrase, “Something’s gotta change.”

Something’s gotta change with work environments these days or highly talented people such as Nikolaj will create new environments that not just stimulate talented people, but the masses known as your contemporary work force.

I had the pleasure of Nikolaj giving me his perspectives on breaking free from the “norm”, validating a simple concept, what it means to build something from the ground up and how to ultimately hack your life:

Nikolaj Astrup - Workaway Camp

HDF: Nikolaj, thank you so much for taking the time to allow me to interview you!

Nikolaj: Thanks so much! I really appreciate the opportunity. Of course I would love to participate.


HDF: I love what you’re doing with Refuga. Part “travel agency dedicated to entrepreneurs”, part “get us out of the office and away from the grind so we can really be effective.” Before we get into the company, can you tell me a little bit more about where you’re from?

Nikolaj: Yeah, I’m from Copenhagen, Denmark. I have an apartment back home, but it’s rented out and I travel around while doing my projects. Currently I’m in Marrakech, Morocco and flying to South America next week.

I see myself as a digital nomad, but Copenhagen will always be my home . . . I think.


HDF: So you really live the brand. (laughter) What were you doing before you co-founded Refuga? I see from your ABOUT story online that you were working for a growing eCommerce company? Why did you decide to leave? What do you think were some deciding factors that caused you to need a change?

Nikolaj: I’ve been working within online marketing before, both as an entrepreneur and as an employee.

I had been a full-time entrepreneur for a bunch of years before getting a job, and after having a job for a couple of years I really felt the need to break free, travel and do my own projects.

I was trying really hard just to focus and stay at my job, because it was a great job and I enjoyed what I did. But I can’t thrive without doing my own stuff, including the traveling and all the great and the bad that entrepreneurship brings.

The last 10 years I only had a full-time job for 2 years, but having that job, I was really afraid that I wouldn’t be brave enough to go from being at a job to full-time entrepreneur again. You get used to the security and it becomes more and more difficult to break free. I realized that the sooner I leave the better, and I was off.

Another thing that caused the change was that my girlfriend and I always talked about living abroad and suddenly she got accepted at a university in Beijing, China.  So actually we were both off 🙂

Workaway Camp at Sunrise

Workaway Camp Hammock

HDF: Breaking free is definitely not easy.

I read how you came up with the idea for Refuga, which seems like it came to you out of a need for finding likeminded people. Can you tell me a little more detail about your blog post that led to you creating Refuga and how people approached you in joining your concept?

Nikolaj: I remember I got the idea for Refuga right around when I quit my job and was only one month away to traveling to Beijing for a year.

It felt a bit strange and even though I was with my girlfriend in China, I felt a bit lonely.

The last 2 years I hadn’t focused that much on building my network, so I came up with this idea and just wrote a blog post on my personal, danish blog. I asked if anybody wanted to join me for a week in the mountains north of Barcelona for a week of work and good times.

I was expecting 4-5 persons to join and that we would rent an apartment in a small village somewhere, but pretty quickly +20 people signed up and the concept was born.

I was lucky, because a couple of profiles within the online marketing and startup scene in Denmark joined and that got many other people interested.

The trip was fun and good business, so I decided to make it again. It ended out with 2 yearly trips and last year I started doing it internationally also.


HDF: Talk about validating an idea! I saw that your locations are expanding and are in some really great cities! Do you think being on site in these locations breed even better results for ideation, working and executing on new concepts?

Nikolaj: I try to make trips that combine good business with an incredible experience. An incredible experience means being a really authentic place. A lot of other people are doing startup retreats, but they do it on fancy resorts. Everybody can go to those, but what I want to do, is create real, authentic experiences. So when we are in Italy, we eat Italian food and the people working in the house are all Italian.

I’m pretty sure that experience does something for your creativity, but it also just makes the whole experience more fulfilling. I believe that makes the relationships to the other participants better, which means you will actually value that in the future.

Workaway Camp Dinner

HDF: How have global entrepreneurs been finding out about Refuga?

Nikolaj: Entrepreneurs around the world have heard about the concept through sites like your own, who are so nice to feature the concept. I also built a really good newsletter list which grows with about 20 people per day right now. Social media; Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have also been key to getting message out. I’m lucky to have a nice community around the concept.


HDF: Community is everything! As an entrepreneur, coordinator of other entrepreneurs and business professional, what’s the best part about “creating” for you?

Nikolaj: I can see what you mean by this question and I really like the question. 

What I really like about creating is that I am essentially building. Like LEGOs or a house, I slowly build the project from the bottom – from the foundation to the roof.

I like the feeling of having a bigger mission and each day doing something to build on that.

I dream of creating something that will last. That’s where I could see myself.


HDF: Have there been any obstacles along the way, either at an earlier age or more recent, that have taught you valuable lessons? Any that you’d like to share?

Nikolaj: Of course 🙂 In the beginning the biggest obstacle was just to get everything together at the event. I wouldn’t call that an obstacle, but just hard work.

The obstacle – and I’m sure it’s like that in every startup – is to get everything together, so you can afford keep going. That’s not something that special for Refuga, but for all startups.

We just had one event where we had a lot of trouble with the internet. Everything was perfect, but the Internet wasn’t good enough. That was the first event where I was not satisfied and that’s a crappy feeling when you put so much work in to things. It’s a small bump in the road and I will use it to improve everything around future trips.

Workaway Camp Participants

HDF: Making small pivots is part of the process.

How do you best describe Refuga as a brand? If you could describe the essence of it, what would it be?

Nikolaj: This is actually something I want to conceptualize a bit more. I want to write down the Refuga DNA. It’s easiest to describe in a few words:

Good business, diversity, authentic experiences, friendships, and learning something new.

Refuga is a mix between things. It’s not just good business as a conference, but also a place to get new friendships and an authentic experience.


HDF: What’s the best advice you can give someone just starting out in Entrepreneurship and / or taking the leap from their corporate job to becoming an entrepreneur?

Nikolaj: I don’t know if I want to take my own advice 🙂 It still feels like I’m just getting started, but the key – and this is difficult – is to JUST KEEP GOING. 

There will be lots of ups and downs ahead and lots of times when it would be more than OK to quit, but you have to just continue and be relentless.

I think that’s the absolute most important thing. If you just do that, everything else doesn’t matter.


HDF: How important has social media played in the building of Refuga to date? How important do you think it will be as you continue to grow it?

Nikolaj: It’s been key. It started via my blog in Denmark and got spread via social media. Without social media there would be no Refuga.

Going from just a Danish event to an international event, social has also been key. It’s the absolute best channel to spread the message and it’s something I have specialized in over the last period of time.

I use a mix of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and every channel has been great. To the first international trip I did, there was 3 participants who found it via Instagram. That’s amazing.


HDF: I loved finding you on Instagram. A blend of visuals and micro-blogging is what I call it. That gets people excited around a concept.

What are some of the most interesting companies you’ve seemed formed from Refuga?


Nikolaj: Companies don’t get formed at Refuga, because the participants already have projects going on and they come to get feedback on that (among other things).

I’ve seen a lot of good business via Refuga. Not because it’s a place to come and sell your stuff, but because people share there experiences and hacks. I know this has been really, really valuable for a lot of the participants.


HDF: Thanks Nikolaj for opening up about Refuga and your background. You have something truly amazing. Is there anything else you’d like us to know about.

Nikolaj: If you are reading this and have any ideas for Refuga, don’t hesitate to reach out to me on [email protected] 🙂


HDF: I want more people to get out of the office and into their lives. I will make sure people read this. (laughter). I’m no different. I should probably join one of these future trips soon. Thanks again Nikolaj!

Nikolaj: This was great. Thanks again for the chance.

Nikolaj Astrup Workaway Camp



Matt Gottesman

Matt Gottesman is a global digital strategist and technology advisor, creator and editor-in-chief of Hustle & Deal Flow™ - an online magazine dedicated to the world's entrepreneurs, creators and makers, a Social Media Influencer and a consultant on New Media and go-to-market strategies for investments in digital marketing, technology, websites, mobile applications, eCommerce, social media and content.

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