Interview with True Mormon Life Hacker Brandon Pearce
Editor’s note: Brandon Pearce is a true Mormon life hacker, as you’ll see. Many of the links throughout are to posts on Brandon’s blog, so you can read more details on things he mentions.
Tell us a little about how you met your wife and where you lived when first married.
We met in a single’s branch in Sandy, Utah right after returning from our missions (me to Japan, and her to the Canary Islands/Spain). We were actually in the same home ward but didn’t know it because I moved into the ward a only few months before my mission. However, our parents knew each other well. In fact, her dad was my family’s home teacher, and her mom and my step-mom were visiting teaching companions.
Crazy how that all worked out. Anyway, after we got married, we rented a little apartment in Salt Lake City, and later upgraded to a larger apartment in Holladay, Utah after our first child was born. Interestingly, this turned out to be President Monson’s ward. He even made an appearance a couple of times to tell us stories. A year later, we bought our first house in Murray, Utah and stayed there for four years until we made the decision to sell everything, leave the cold of Utah, and travel the world, starting with Costa Rica.
Right now, we’re living in the small town of Grecia, Costa Rica. It’s gorgeous here. Tropical climate, perfect temperatures (65-75 degrees) all year long, friendly people. The rainy season (especially September and October) gets pretty wet, and it can get down to the lower 60′s at night up in the hills where we live, but we love it. It’s also been a great hub for exploring other parts of Central and South America. This year, we spent almost three months traveling through Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. For highlights, see my post about 77 Things I Did in 2010.
In a few weeks, we plan to move to Escazu, Costa Rica, to be closer to the private hospitals during the birth of our third baby, who is due in June. (And who will also be born a dual citizen!) After that, we’d like to try living by the beach for a few months, then head off to explore Asia, probably starting with Japan. At least, that’s the plan for now.
Briefly, how did you get from there (1st question) to here (2nd question)?
It’s been a gradual process, but I think I started toying with the idea of living abroad once my on-line business began to grow, and I realized that before long, we would be able to live anywhere we wanted to. Reading The 4-Hour Workweek was also an immense help in showing me how this lifestyle could really be possible. We took a 6 week trip to Panama in early 2009 to test the waters, and it changed our lives! Being together 24/7 as a family while exploring and learning together taught us so much about ourselves, each other, and really increased our love and appreciation for our family as a whole, as well as for others, no matter their differences. That trip became the catalyst for a lot of other changes, including the decision to homeschool our kids. You can read more about what we gained from Panama on my blog.
Have you always wanted to live this way, or was there a turning point or an epiphany that helped you change your career (and life) path?
I never dreamed I would be living like this! When I was young, I planned on growing up to either be a music teacher, or a computer programmer. (And I guess I’ve done both now). I had no idea it was even possible to create a business that runs itself, and frees up your time to do the things you love and live anywhere. One of the main turning points was when my father-in-law lost his job at Novell. He didn’t do anything wrong. They were simply downsizing. I quickly realized that there is no such thing as job security when you work for someone else. And I began thinking up ways I could make a living without relying on an employer. I wanted my family to be taken care of no matter what happens to the economy, or to me.
Fortunately, YES! We’ve gone through so many life changes, and it’s amazing how “together” we have been on the decision making process. I think it helped a lot that before we got married, we did a lot of reading and discussing together about our values. So even though our goals and life situation may change, we have generally felt the same about all of these major decisions. Things could have turned out much differently. But fortunately, our views have evolved together, and in the same direction. Many times, she is actually the one pushing things forward more than I am. For example, when we were thinking about moving to Costa Rica, I was making a pros and cons lists, worrying about possible complications. She just said, “How do you even know if any of those things are going to happen until you get down there and do it?” So we got down here and did it and have never regretted it.
How do your little girls feel about their lifestyle?
They’re enjoying it. They are only 7 and 5 now, so they still mostly believe whatever their parents tell them. But they really love it here in Costa Rica, especially with all the cool animals we’ve been able to see and touch. They’ve also enjoyed exploring other countries, making friends, and learning Spanish. They do miss their cousins and grandparents, but we make trips to visit them regularly, and they visit us as well.
How do you educate your girls?
We follow kind of an “unschooling” approach, where we don’t have a specific curriculum, and basically learn together whatever the kids are interested in at the time. If kids aren’t excited about learning, or can’t apply what they’re learning right away, it’s not fun and doesn’t usually stick. We do sit down with them regularly to practice reading, math, or piano, even if they don’t “want” to, but we try to do in on their time table and teach them stuff they can use now. Generally they learn what they need to know on their own through asking questions throughout the day, playing games, and experimenting. We also utilize the Internet to answer questions and learn together. We feel that life itself is an education, as is travel. But if they ever want to go to school, we’ll certainly give them that chance as well.
How did you start your business?
I used to teach private piano lessons, and got frustrated trying to keep track of how much my students owed me and when their lessons were. I also got tired of being constantly asked these questions by students. So, for a final project in college (programming degree), I created a simple website to help me track this information, and allow my students to login to see their schedule and how much they owe. From there, I decided to turn it into a business, called it “Music Teacher’s Helper“, and started charging a monthly fee. Teachers trickled in slowly, but with lots of feedback and changes, in five years, it’s grown to be the most popular private music teaching studio management software available. I’ve created another business since then, called Studio Helper, that’s for larger studios with multiple teachers, and not necessarily just for music. And it’s also done very well.
Did you leave your job immediately, or build up this business on the side for a while?
I continued working at my programming job full-time while building the business until it started taking up so much of my time that I felt I couldn’t do both adequately. My job was paying about $60,000 at the time, and my business was only making $1,500/month, but I also had some clients to do websites for on the side, and I also had a little bit of savings. So even though quitting my job was a little scary, I figured I could make it work. Once I quit, I was able to finally put full-time hours into my business, and it has been growing ever since. I never had to dip into my savings or use a penny of my own money to grow my business.
Can you tell those who are not familiar, a little more about outsourcing with a small location-independent business like yours?
Outsourcing has saved me! I used to do it all – design, programming, marketing, customer support, etc. Now I just do a little management – usually about 5 hours per week – and my teams take care of running the day-to-day operations of the business. There is simply not enough time in the day for one person to do it all, unless I didn’t want to make updates to my program, give awesome customer support, or try new marketing efforts. But I do.
For those new to outsourcing, I recommend checking out sites like oDesk.com and Elance.com. You’ll see a broad range of skills offered from people all over the world, who you can hire on a short or long-term basis, hourly or flat rate. If there’s a task you don’t want to do, you may be surprised to find there’s someone else in the world happy to do it for you, for $3/hour (depending on the task, of course). Leveraging that can be a huge advantage and save you lots of time, as long as you manage it well, and are thorough in your descriptions of what you want.
Do you ever feel there are certain commandments that are more difficult to keep, given your lifestyle, such as food storage or fulfilling certain callings?
Food storage is pretty difficult in humid places like Costa Rica, because most food won’t last more than a couple months. Fortunately, food grows all year round here, and it’s cheap to buy. We do have a lot of water stored up, and we’re glad we do, because the water has been shut off a few times. We also have some fruit trees in the yard where we’re living.
As for callings, I’ve been serving in the branch presidency here, and Jen’s been in the primary. You can tell how desperate the branch is, calling me to the presidency just a few weeks after I arrived, barely speaking Spanish, and knowing that I would only be there for one year. Yet, it’s great to have an opportunity to serve, and we’ve made some wonderful friends. When we’ve traveled (such as our 2 1/2 months in South America), we just let them know when we’d be gone, made arrangements to have things taken care of, and the branch has gone along fine without us, just like before we came. And fortunately, my Spanish has improved immensely, largely because of the interactions we’ve had with our friends at church.
Whether or not we’re serving in a calling, we like to take opportunities to volunteer as a family, both in and outside of the church. This year we volunteered at a school in Peru, and a rescue center in Costa Rica. We’ve enjoyed that a lot, and have met some wonderful people while serving.
Freedom. I get up in the morning when I want (usually to the sound of birds rather than an alarm clock), and can spend virtually my entire day doing things I love. Reading, writing, composing music, being with my kids, eating great food, and of course, traveling to wonderful places. I’m less stressed, more at peace, feel like I’m growing and contributing more, and am happier than when I was living in the hustle and bustle of work-life. Speaking of music, if you want to hear my hymn arrangements, you can download them free at http://www.brandonpearce.com/music.
What do you miss most, that you would have if you lived in the US?
On-line shopping. I loved being able to order something on-line at Amazon and have it at my doorstep in 3 days. Here, you may have to travel to several stores to find what you need, if they even have it. And it will probably not be cheap if it’s imported. Fortunately, we don’t need a lot of stuff. We sold almost everything we own before we left, and we’re renting fully furnished places now. I can fit all my possessions (except my digital piano) into a little carry-on suitcase, which feels very liberating.
I also miss raspberries… not sure why they don’t sell them here. They could certainly grow them. For a full list, check out my blog post entitled Things I miss living in Costa Rica.
How do you keep in touch with family & friends?
Facebook, Twitter, my blog, e-mail, and an occasional video chat. We also make regular trips to visit family personally, and they have even come to visit us! Surprisingly, we feel like our extended family relationships are even stronger now that we’re living away from them. When we lived close by, we would see them for a few hours here and there, maybe a dinner once a month, or on birthdays, etc. But it was never enough time to develop a really meaningful relationship, especially when it was a larger group gathering. Now, when family visits, they stay for a week or two, and we’re together all the time. We have more time to talk about important things without the rush of day-to-day life surrounding us. It’s much more bonding, more deep, more fun, and creates some great memories.
I read that your wife is pregnant again. Congratulations! How has that changed things for you guys?
Thank you! It was actually quite a surprise, since we’d been trying for 4 years with no luck. We were planning to make our way out of Costa Rica about now, off to explore some Asian countries for a while. But now we’ve decided to stay in Costa Rica to have the baby, and also apply for permanent residency in Costa Rica, so we can stay as long as we want without doing visa runs every 90 days. We’ll still probably head out to Asia next year, though.
It will also be interesting to see how our family dynamic changes with the new baby. I’m sure the kids will love him/her. It may make travel a little more difficult during the early years (and certainly more expensive), and we may want to stay put in places a little longer before moving on to the next location. I’m not too excited about having to squeeze three car seats in the back of a car, or finding hotel rooms that sleep five. But we’ll make it work.
What would you say to anyone who is getting started, or in the middle of building an online, location-independent business with the goal of living like you and your family do?
If you want to do it, DO IT! It is totally possible to create the life of your dreams. Don’t feel like you don’t have enough knowledge or experience. You can learn as you go. What’s more important is action and persistence. Just get started, dedicate some time every day to work on your business, and don’t give up.
Actually, I used to think the same thing. Come on, seriously? 5 hours a WEEK?! But now I actually do that! Well, it varies each week. But I usually spend about 4-8 hours per week on “income-generating” activities (ie. work). And I know others who do too. Yes, it takes a lot of hard work to get to this point, but it is possible if that’s what you really want. Anything you don’t know how to do personally can be outsourced to someone who does know how to do it, so technical skills are not a requirement, although they are helpful.
Granted, this lifestyle isn’t for everybody. Some people would rather have the “security” of a job and a steady paycheck. And that’s totally fine. Businesses need employees, and some people are totally happy in that situation. But realize that in working for someone else, you’re making some other entrepreneur wealthy. They’re outsourcing what they don’t want to do, to you. If you don’t like that, why don’t you put yourself on the other side of the equation? The benefits are endless. And the world needs good innovators to create useful products and services.
I’m also working on a book about how to create an on-line business to share what I’ve learned, and hopefully help others who want to do something similar. In the mean time, I recommend these other great resources:
- The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss
- The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber
- The Unconventional Guide to Working for Yourself by Chris Guillebeau
Any life-hacks you’ve learned that work especially well or simplify the peculiarly “Mormon” aspects of your or your family’s life?
Here are my favorites: Don’t multi-task. Do your most important tasks first (before checking e-mail). Take frequent breaks to clear your mind. Focus on the things that matter to you, and let the less important things slide. Follow your joy!
I think each of these helps with the spiritual side of life as well. When my mind is clear, free of distraction, focused on what I know is important to me, and I’m doing what I love, I feel closer to God and more in tune with what I know deep down is best for me. I’m also more aware of how I can better serve those around me. In short, I’m happier, and isn’t being happy one of the main purposes of our existence? (2 Ne. 2:25)
We’d like to publicly thank Brandon for taking time for this interview, hope all of you enjoyed it as much as we did. Please comment below, including questions for Brandon, he’ll be stopping by occasionally to respond.