In 2007, Ryan Levesque was leaving his home base in Shanghai for a week-long trip to Malaysia with his wife Tylene when he realised he didn’t have an audiobook for the plane.
So he downloaded “The 4-Hour Workweek,” by Tim Ferriss.
“At the time, I was mesmerised,” Levesque remembers. “I said, ‘There’s an alternate world out there that I don’t even know about.’ It opened my mind to the possibilities.”
He was in his mid-20s, and had spent years working for multinational insurance company AIG, first on Wall Street in New York City, and then in China, where he lived a comfortable life complete with a driver and domestic staff.
“My wife was pursuing a PhD at Hong Kong University, I was in Shanghai, and every two weeks one would fly to see the other one,” he explains. “That structure gave me a lot of free time at night and weekends, and I filled that time studying.”
He was studying direct response marketing, a concept that began to appeal to him when he realised that despite what should have been a dream job managing a team in China, he was “completely unfulfilled.”
“I had a few friends in the US quietly making money on the internet,” he says, “and I reached out to them.”
In his spare time, Levesque and Tylene started a small online business in “a random obscure niche that taught people how to make a specific type of jewellery.” They were making a few thousand dollars a month, and when the financial crisis happened in 2008, he knew it was time to change gears.
“I walked into my office one day and the Wall Street Journal Asia had the headline, ‘AIG To File for Bankruptcy,'” he recounts. “I called my wife and I said, “Honey, I think today’s the day.’ I had told her I had plans to quit at some point, and I turned in my resignation that day.”
In doing so, he took a major financial hit. “I walked away from a lot of long-term money that hadn’t vested yet, stock, and equity options. Most of the money we did have was tied up in retirement savings,” he explains. “Even though I made a fair amount, I couldn’t touch it.”
He donated all of his belongings and moved in with his wife in Hong Kong to work full-time on his jewellery business, but within a month of his arrival the worldwide jewellery market crashed. “Not only was the business not making money, but we didn’t have much,” Levesque remembers. “We were living on a $US500 a month stipend from my wife.”
When Tylene got a job later that year as a museum curator for $US36,000 a year in Brownsville, Texas, they picked up and moved back to the US and into the cheapest apartment they could find. “We opened a bank account and the prize we got was one of those collapsible lawn chairs,” Levesque laughs. “My wife negotiated two, and that was our living room furniture.”
They were still trying to figure out how to sustain a successful online business. “At nights we were selling books and DVDs,” he remembers. “We were packing and stuffing envelopes, and every cent we made from the business we reinvested in it.”
However, Levesque doesn’t remember that period as discouraging or overwhelmingly hard. As the first member of his family to attend college, and having spent New Hampshire winters shoveling out the driveway at 4:30 a.m. for his mother’s in-home hair styling business, he credits his ability to take risks with a background of having less. “I think growing up with not a lot enabled me to have the confidence to say, ‘We don’t need a lot, we can live lean,'” he reflects. “We made the decision to live like this. The biggest thing that was holding me back before was fear of failure, but I thought, if we do lose everything, we know it’s going to be OK. I lived that life and realised life is pretty good like that.”
And soon, they started to hit their stride, taking over small online businesses, applying direct marketing expertise and growing them into steady income streams. They built an online gardening business to $US25,000 a month that allowed them to leave Brownsville behind in 2009 and move nearer to family in Austin, where their work started to get attention from larger businesses.
“Someone approached me and said, ‘What you’re doing is brilliant, how much could I pay you to do this for me?'” Levesque remembers. “I said ‘Sure, let’s give it a shot.'” Since then, they have revamped businesses in 23 markets, from golf and tennis instruction to dentistry and dog training.
Today, Levesque and Tylene run a two-part business: A marketing agency / coaching program that does direct marketing work for clients and teaches other people to do it for themselves, and a publishing company that produces products and books. He’s written a book about his methodology that will be released in April called “Ask: The Counterintuitive Online Formula to Discover Exactly What Your Customers Want To Buy … Create A Mass of Raving Fans … and Take Any Business to the Next Level.”
He says they expect to finish the year with their businesses having earned about $US5 million.
They both work out of offices in their Austin home, where they live with their two young sons. Since their business is run online, they’re choosing to live in Austin, but could just as easily pick up and move to the Caribbean. “I’m not someone motivated by super duper fancy things,” Levesque admits. “I wear one shirt every day. It’s the same one I buy from Target for $US14.95 and I have it in like 35 different colours.”
However, they’re willing to spend money to make their lives easier. “We have house cleaners, a handyman, and a nanny, which enables us to enjoy life when we’re not working,” he adds.
“I tell people I work hard to be lazy,” Levesque says. “I don’t like to have to wait for something to go on sale, I don’t like to haggle over things. I think this business has afforded us the luxury of choosing what we do and don’t want to do.”