“My life… is a large collection of going with the flow and happy little accidents… I’m way too busy planning my next mistake, to worry about my last mistake.” Tyler Austenfeld
Tyler Austenfeld’s entrepreneurial journey is highly relevant to today’s college graduates. He had nothing to lose when he graduated in 2009 from the University of Michigan at the depths of the financial crises. Unable to land even an unpaid internship, he decided to visit Columbia, despite never having been there and only speaking rudimentary Spanish.
His initial plan was to volunteer as an English instructor for a month. Eleven years later, he remains in Columbia, as the Founder of TenthumbsPro, a digital music-instruction brand that has turned thousands of novices into proficient amateur musicians. He has over 270,000 YouTube subscribers who have viewed his musical tutorials nearly 43 million times. He also has thousands of Patreon patrons whose support is approaching $100,000 annually, allowing Tyler to quit his job and pursue his passion as a global music teacher full time. His humor, enthusiasm and charm have turned him into a legitimate Patreon star. You can check out his YouTube channel HERE.
“Don’t start off trying to get rich. Start off trying to pay a bill, then another bill, then rent…” – Tyler Austenfeld
I strongly encourage you to watch the following brief video, in order to experience Tyler’s unbounded enthusiasm and positive energy first hand.
John Greathouse: When you graduated in 2009, the job landscape was nearly as dismal as it is for today’s graduates. However, instead of compromising and taking a menial job, you decided to go on an adventure to Columbia, where you still reside. What led you to become a South American expat? (Note: Tyler’s remarks have been lightly edited for brevity and readability.)
Tyler Austenfeld: It was never my intention to end up here permanently, but “way leads to way.” I initially thought that I would just come down here for 28 days to volunteer for the YMCA. It was a four-week experience and each week was a different opportunity. At the time, I was really into saying, “Yes” to every opportunity and enthusiastic about walking through every open door. The month volunteering would transform into a six month contract, then two years… and “way leads on to way,” just like Robert Frost said.
Greathouse: Good for you. I implore my UCSB students to, “Be a Yes.” Too often, fear causes us to shut down when new opportunities arise.
I understand that while in college you made free-style beats and that your first YouTube videos focused on hip hop. How did your college hip hop experiences inform your career as a digital music instructor? What caused you to move from hip hop videos to making ukulele and guitar videos?
Austenfeld: I just loved music and wanted to create it. I never thought it would be a job. At the time, I just learned what YouTube was. Preston, a friend of mine, told me, “I just spend my day watching YouTube” and I remember asking him, “What is that?” Imagine that, I remember the exact place I was when I first heard about YouTube, but I never imagined I would be creating content for the platform, I just remember thinking it was a cool idea.
Same thing with music, I never thought I would be doing it professionally. At the time, I didn’t play any instruments, I just loved music. The music I was making at home were sample based hip-hop beats, and the more I made, the more I started listening to older music. The more I listened to older vinyl the more fascinated I became with it.
I found a broken guitar at the YMCA – I asked if I could have it and they said, “Promise to fix it, promise to play it, and it is yours,” so I Googled “How to fix guitars,” fixed it, then (I Googled) “How to play guitar” and I actually learned how to play guitar on YouTube. That is how I knew this whole thing would work; I am living proof that you can learn (to be a musician) on YouTube.
Greathouse: I’ve found that successful entrepreneurs are insatiably curious – a trait that is clearly alive and well within you. For instance, how did a drum break in a Honeydrippers’ song launch your exploration of music outside of the hip-hop world?
Austenfeld: <laughing> Hip-hop is so cool man, that question is exactly why hip-hop is so cool. The name of the song is called “Impeach The President” and the sample is the drum loop for a song called “The Message” by Nas.
When I heard “Impeach The President,” I instantly started rapping all the words to “The Message.” That is when I learned what sampling was and that is when I started to do my homework. I went through all the songs I listened to and looked for the samples they used and how they were made and started to do the same thing.
We had a record store up the block called “Flat, Black And Circular” and I would spend all my free money on records from up there and I would take them home, make them digital, chop them into pieces, rearrange them and rap on them. My rap crew was called “The Mud People.”
Greathouse: I’m going to look for some old-school YouTube videos of The Mud People… As I said, I encourage my students to be open to new adventures. Please share how a bus strike in Bogota led you to eventually settle in Medellin (Columbia), where you met your wife, moved to the very musical city of Buenos Aires for a bit and eventually launched Tenthumbs Productions.
Austenfeld: While I was working in Bogota there was a bus strike and class was canceled for a week. I had one hundred dollars in my pocket, went to the bus station and jumped on the 16-hour bus ride to Medellín. While I was in Medellín I went to the YMCA to see if I could volunteer there and while I was visiting there was a group of scholarship recipients from the United States Embassy were in a circle, discussing who they were and what they did.
They saw me and jumped at the chance to talk to a native speaker of English. When it was my turn to speak I said, “Hello my name is Tyler and I am an English teacher.” Well, it just so happens that the director of the Colombo Americano, the largest English institute in Medellin, was also sitting in the circle and offered me a job on site and I accepted. I finished my contract in Bogota, flew back to Medellín and started my new job and next opportunity. At that point the roots were just digging deeper and deeper.
My wife was studying English were I worked and we would ride the same bus home, she spoke English and I didn’t speak Spanish, so my range of friendship possibilities was very limited, so we just gravitated towards each other very naturally. I was still in my mid-20s at this point, I had already been in Medellín for two years, Colombia for three and I needed a change, so I told her, “Lets pack up all our stuff and move to Buenos Aires” and she said, “Yes.”, <laughs> like I asked her to go to the movies.
It took us ten weeks to get from Colombia to Argentina, we weren’t in a hurry to be clear, we did a lot of cool stuff along the way. Fortune favors the bold, pushing ourselves has always created opportunity. It was actually in Buenos Aires I started my YouTube channel and I started really taking playing guitar and ukulele seriously. My first check was thirty-eight dollars and it took me six months to make.
Greathouse: Six bucks and change per month – you obviously weren’t driven by the cash!
You made a promise to yourself that you would quit your teaching position once your monthly income from Tenthumbs exceeded your university paycheck. Was this a hard promise to keep? What did it feel like when you made the full-on leap into the startup world?
Austenfeld: It was the easiest promise I ever kept. People asked if I was scared when I made the jump – not at all, I felt liberated in a way that I can’t explain. My dad would always tell me that freedom is financial, meaning as long as I borrowed money from him I had to listen to his rules. Having a boss is the same. When they give you money, you have to do what they say, doesn’t matter if they are right, wrong, or in between.
The last class I had was about two miles from my house and instead of taking the bus home, I just walked the whole way, drank two beers, one after about the first 300 yards and another a mile later. I think I danced the whole way home. I didn’t burn any bridges, I left with everything good, people were sad to see me go but happy to see me leave to follow my passion, it was an amazing feeling.
Greathouse: As you noted with your first YouTube check, money hasn’t been a driving factor in your career choice, but you’ve still carved out a nice living. You are approaching two thousand Patreon supporters, which puts you in an elite group of creators who are making six-figure incomes doing what they love.
Austenfeld: So I’m not quite at six figure living yet, so I have a little bit of work to go, but it is doable. I see it happening, I will get there, which is mind blowing because I never imagined that would be possible. When I left teaching English, I was making $1,000 a month. That was my big goal, that is what gave me freedom. I never imagined I would be saving money, investing money, and dreaming as big as I am. It is a testament to staying consistent and being enthusiastic. Those two things, combined with gratitude, have served me very well.
Another huge advantage is the cost of living I have down here in Colombia – that really helped me become independent faster and invest in myself more. Sometimes your best bet is in your home town, (but) you’ve got to be ready to pack the bags and go out, hit the road and see where you can have your biggest impact, where you can spread your wings the most.
Greathouse: What advice do you have for other creators who want to turn their passions and creations into a vocation? Specifically, what are the most effective tactics for generating followers and converting them to Patreon supporters?
Austenfeld: Time as been on my side. I haven’t been in a rush, and I stayed consistent and enthusiastic. It is like that old field of dreams movie, “If you build it they will come.” Quality is important, put your heart into building something, making it the best you possibly can and just try to keep improving. Don’t start off trying to get rich, start off trying to pay a bill, then another bill, then rent, over time it grows so make sure you celebrate every victory along the way. The first time I ever made $1,500 dollars, I bought a guitar the very next day. Don’t be foolish with your money, but reward yourself, and invest in yourself along the way, it will help keep you motivated.
Greathouse: What are some things you tried early in your YouTube career that just didn’t work?
Austenfeld: The guitar lessons still haven’t caught on <laughs>. My ukulele income is over fifty-five times bigger than my guitar income. Seriously, multiply what I make on the guitar times fifty five and that is what I make with the ukulele, but I am not giving up. I wouldn’t encourage people to do what I am doing with the guitar to be honest, it is a poor business strategy time wise, but I have a long term plan to tie it all together.
Greathouse: I know you’ve only begun with Tenthumbs. You’ve told me in the past that at your essence, you’re a storyteller. How will we see your storytelling manifest itself in the coming years?
Austenfeld: So many stories, so many exciting things. I want to create a full online school for Tenthumbs, I want to create shows based around music, documentaries, I have so many ideas. Here is just one, I am turning an old cargo van into a camper van/mobile music studio. The idea is to drive to remote places around the world and document unique music from people that make music for the sake of making music, not for making money.
Music is story telling so seeking out wonderful stories that deserve a bigger platform will be a large focus of the future. That and empowering as many people as I can through music. I find that when people discover that they can play an instrument they feel empowered, and that is something that I want for as many people as possible
You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.