Life in Reverse

    Two Business grads have embarked on the adventure of a lifetime—cameras and surfboards in tow.

    By Sarah Ligon on January 24, 2011

    Last November 17, while his business school classmates were walking across the stage at Jubilee Audi­torium to collect their diplomas, Shaun Brandt, ’10 BCom, 24, and his friend, Cam Service, ’09 BCom, 23, had already embarked on their first career move: a 13,000-kilometre journey from Alberta to Nicaragua, where they plan to live the sort of life most people only dream about for retirement.

    On that day the two Edmontonians were crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and had just aired the first installment of Life in Reverse, their documentary for the fledgling Internet television network Third Storm. The 22-episode series—now a third of the way through its first season—follows the duo as they create a new life for themselves in San Juan del Sur, a low-key fishing village in the Nicaraguan rain forest and, coincidentally, home to some of the best surfing in the world.

    While there, they plan to begin construction on an eco-home, which will be the home-base for Honesty Clothing, the small ethical clothing line they founded while still students at the U of A, and search for a local textile manufacturer that meets their company’s strict code of conduct. Oh, they’ll also do a lot of surfing. And did they mention that they don’t speak Spanish, have never built so much as a tree house, and are complete surfing novices?

    No matter. The concept of the show—and at the heart of Brandt and Service’s worldview—is the belief that there’s no need to wait until retirement to move to paradise and start living out one’s dreams. The pair hopes to build a business they’re passionate about while enjoying each day to the fullest—and they hope that the trials and tribulations they encounter along the way will keep viewers tuning in for more.

    "The truth is, everything that we’ve done to make this project work has been taken directly from what we learned in school." -Cam Service, '09 BCom

    It may seem like an odd career move for two successful business grads. While most of their classmates are building up their business wardrobes and climbing the corporate ladder, Brandt and Service are hitting the surf in board shorts, shooting and editing video, and hammering away at agreements with product sponsors. But the pair insists that they are, in fact, making excellent use of their business degrees.

    “The truth is, everything that we’ve done to make this project work has been taken directly from what we learned in school,” says Service. “How to write a proposal to advertisers or licensing music for the show—even just the mindset of taking the idea of a trip and a surf house and turning that into a business concept. I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend that without my business degree.”

    The idea started just two summers ago when they were running a landscaping company together. “One day we were joking around about how cool it would be to build a surf house—your retirement home—before you even started your career,” remembers Service.

    A few weeks later, Brandt happened to be vacationing in Nicaragua when he found himself stranded in San Juan del Sur with a few hours to kill. So he asked a local real estate agent to show him properties in the area.

    “I wasn’t really serious,” says Brandt, “and he didn’t take me seriously, but I guess he thought I was really wealthy—or that my parents were really wealthy.” The properties he saw that day were all in a developed area on one of the best beaches in Nicaragua and were all way out of his price range, but a few months later, when the bubble burst in the global real estate market, the realtor called him back to say that the price had gone down substantially.

    “We made a lowball offer,” says Brandt. “We still didn’t have the money, but it got accepted.”

    So they raided their personal bank accounts, built up over summers of landscaping, and got a loan from their parents for the rest. For the record, no, their parents aren’t wealthy. “They’re just teachers,” says Service.

    Nonetheless, even with the land bought and paid for, all they had title to was a piece of undeveloped beachfront with hookups for water and electricity. And though they were not to the manor born, they didn’t relish the thought of camping out in the Nicaraguan rain forest.

    “My parents could help finance the $35,000 property, but they couldn’t finance $100,000 to build a house,” says Brandt. “So it came down to how could we raise that kind of money? And the way to do it was to sell advertising. That’s what we’re good at. And the show just grew from there.”

    Shaun Brandt, Cam Service, and filmographer Jason HeadleyEarly on in the concept, they met executives from Third Storm, which was just getting up and running. Unlike other Internet-based sports channels, with user-generated video content, Third Storm was looking to be a TV channel on the Internet, developing original broadcast-quality shows. In Brandt and Service and their Nicaraguan surf fantasy, the channel found just the kind of story it was looking for to headline the network’s debut season and has signed on to pay all the production costs for the 22-episode show.

    “A lot of people just see this as a YouTube thing, where we’re just broadcasting our vacation,” says Brandt. “But I’m hoping that once they’ve seen a full episode they’ll see that it’s a lot more impressive than a webisode—that it’s quality that sells.”

    One of the most surprising aspects of the project is the high production value of the show, which looks as good as anything you might see on prime time—and is often a lot more entertaining, with lush scenery, the hijinks of a road-trip buddy film, and, of course, lots of surfing. And remarkably, Lethbridge-based filmographer Jason Headley has filmed it all with nothing more than a trio of digital SLRs and a single glide camera, and then edited it on a laptop computer—often from the back seat of the team’s 1999 Range Rover.

    Despite the quality of the show and its growing viewership (10,000 and counting), the project is struggling financially. “We left Edmonton with enough cash to get us to Nicaragua and with the belief that we would raise enough through other means to follow through with the rest of the project. So far that hasn’t been the case,” says Brandt.

    Although they have delivered on their end, funds promised by various sponsors haven’t yet come through due to what they have been told was “a rough quarter.” The hold-up means that plans to break ground on their eco home and get their clothing line into production have been put on the back burner. For now, they’re camping out in their little piece of paradise and documenting their adventure—struggles and all—for the whole world to see.

    However, the journey is as important as the destination for this intrepid pair. “My goal is to have the type of experience we initially talked about of having the chance to build our retirement home before we’ve started our careers,” says Brandt. “And at the end of the day, if we wind up with nothing more than a really nice home video, I’ll be fine with that. We just want to do something we’re truly passionate about, because that’s when you produce your best work.”

    And don’t be fooled. They aren’t afraid of a little hard work. For months they’ve been logging 80- and 90-hour weeks, working three jobs to get this project off the ground. It turns out that producing a half-hour documentary every two weeks is a lot more demanding than any office job might have been. “It’s a lot of hard work and believing in the idea,” says Service.

    Ultimately it was that combination that sold the network on this unlikely pair and their far-fetched dream.

    “It’s what we’ve said from the beginning,” says Brandt. “We’re not selling surfing. We’re not selling travelling. We’re selling a dream that every Albertan, every Canadian, every North American shares: that it doesn’t matter if you have money. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have anything else. It just takes a dream and passion and hard work. And I think, so far, we’ve proved this.”

    But what possessed two land-locked Albertans to stake their life savings—and a year of their lives—on a risky business venture and on surfing, a sport with which they’ve had so little experience?

    “We’ve both been involved in other board sports for a long time. We snowboard and skateboard and long board,” says Brandt. “I think that every Cana­dian that’s been on a board wants to be on a surfboard.”

    “And once you’ve done it, it’s the most addictive thing in the world,” adds Service.

    “If I wasn’t so white and didn’t burn so easily, I would be out there for 12 hours a day,” says Brandt. “You can either be constantly working to get the next wave or you can just sit there and enjoy the scenery. Either way it’s fun.”

    And that pretty much sums up the type of life they have planned for themselves down in San Juan del Sur, no matter how long it may last: working constantly to get their business projects off the ground—except when they’re just sitting around and enjoying the scenery.

    From left to right: Shaun Brandt, Cam Service and their filmographer Jason Headley on top of their 1999 Ranger Rover before embarking on their 13,000-km journey from snowy Edmonton to the sandy beaches of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

    Brandt and Service searching for waves en route to South America.