When Jessica Gee of The Bucket List Family found out she was pregnant with their third baby, her thoughts turned to Utah.
“I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than being back here to have my baby at American Fork Hospital,” she says.
But until she was within weeks of giving birth, the adventure journalist family of four (a title they created) bounded across the planet documenting their travels via Instagram and YouTube where they’ve built a following of 1 million+ who hang on their every adorable, emotional and thrilling post and weekly video. Their celebrity status puts them near the top of most famous Utahns around the world.
And their newborn is a chip off the ol’ social media block. Garrett and Jessica recall a text conversation the day he decided to start an Instagram account for their unborn baby (who was freshly born before our photo shoot and named “Cali” Calihan).
“I asked how many followers Jessica thought he would get in the first 24 hours,” Garrett says. “I guessed 7,100. She texted back 2,400. He had more than 50,000 in the first day!”
This family’s original social media experiment began two years ago after Garrett sold his Provo-based startup to SnapChat for $54 million. After a short stint working at the corporate headquarters, Garrett and Jessica sold their belongings and put $45,000 in their pockets with plans to travel for 4-6 months and return to Utah when the money ran out.
But halfway across the world, Jessica put her BYU advertising training to use and starting product placement in their lives (instead of in movies like she originally planned). Garrett’s entrepreneurial and creative background led him to negotiate partnerships with Disney and Marriott. Now this couple — who met on their LDS missions in Russia where Garrett was Jessica’s zone leader — are on a new mission: to showcase family life with two suitcases.
The Gees brought their lunch and their stories to our offices on a Tuesday afternoon in February shortly after Cali joined his siblings Dorothy and Manilla, who have already been to 50 countries without him. Garrett and Jessica are two of this year’s most fabulous folks in Utah Valley.
Garrett Gee, 29 years old
“I didn’t want to be known as the Scan guy or the guy who wore sandals on Shark Tank. And I didn’t want to be known as the BYU soccer guy forever, either. Now people come up to me around the world and say, ‘Hey, you’re Dorothy’s dad!’ And that is who I am now, and I love it.”
A Snap In Time
“After SnapChat bought us, I worked there and made $180,000 a year. It was scary to leave that salary behind and travel full-time. I had natural doubt that we could replace that income. It took two years, but we’ve done it.”
Burn Baby, Burn
“We burn out once every three weeks and crash, although I never burn out of taking pictures. I’m constantly whipping out my phone and documenting family memories. With our lifestyle, two weeks of travel gives us enough to document over three weeks of time, which gives us one week or so a month to be undercover in a random Airbnb in Rome, for example, and just chill.”
Down to Business
“It takes about 40 hours of work to make a video, and we make almost no money on YouTube. On the flip side, we get paid about $10,000 a post on Instagram.”
“When we started, I pretended we were sponsored. I would post about Tevas and say ‘sponsored’ because I wanted other brands to want to work with us. Soon we got big enough to get free products and services. And then slowly we started to get paid.”
“Our daily routine is almost the exact same every day. We wake up early and have breakfast as a family. Then we switch off at the gym while they do learning activities. Then it’s lunch time and naps. The rest of the day is to explore and have adventures wherever we are. Even though we’re in a different city and country every week, this helps the kids know what to expect.”
“YouTube tells us videos should be 3-7 minutes, but all of our videos are like 20 minutes. We share what we want to remember, so ours are usually longer but people watch them. We’ve done 100 weekly videos now.”
“We usually delay posting things for 1-2 weeks, mostly for safety, but also because it gives us a chance to go through photos and videos and turn it into a story.”
Reppin’ the State
“No matter what country we’re in, I try to follow BYU — especially soccer — and the Utah Jazz. We miss Utah summers and fall afternoons. When we see people getting together for BYU football, barbecues, and the parade on the 4th of July, that’s when we miss Utah the most.”
Poor in Provo
“I remember when we had $300 in our bank account and I got pulled over and ticketed on Provo Center Street. That was the worst!”
The More Things Change …
“Most people would expect us to get more spendy with our success, but that’s not the case. I’m going to Hawaii soon by myself to see the property we’re working on, and Jessica booked me this crazy long route to get there to save us $200. And we never fly first class. Jessica is frugal to a fault!”
Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve
“Jessica is the main push behind our initiatives. Opportunities to serve come up wherever we go, even from talking to our taxi drivers. We funded a school in Nepal. We’ve done smaller things. It’s fun to have the kids be part of it.”
Saturday is a Special Day
“Every day is Saturday for us except for Sunday, when we go to the local LDS Church or another place of worship. Since we’ve been in Utah for a few weeks now, Dorothy is realizing what a weekend is for the first time.”
I See You
“If someone asks for a picture, we love it. We much prefer a quick hello than to later on have someone post that they sat behind us at the restaurant and took pics of us. Now that’s creepy. We’ve never been to a country and not had someone come up and say hello. It’s not surprising at places like the Eiffel Tower, but it’s extra random if we’re on a small island and a local recognizes us. When this first started to happen, it caught us off guard and we might have come off as rude. We had to work on our reactions.”
“We can be in a country and message out that we want to find gymnastic lessons or a preschool, and we get invitations to come try it out.”
“A lot of people thought when I dropped out of BYU multiple times that I didn’t like school or that I was too good for school, but I was had to drop out for entrepreneurial reasons.”
“We don’t travel with nannies, photographers or managers. When we take photos of all of us, it’s on a tripod, by a friend or a stranger.”
“People ask if we’re Mormon. They mention the 2002 Olympics, and if they are outdoorsy, a lot of people have been to Moab and Zion.”
Show Me the Money
“Having a million followers on social media doesn’t mean you automatically make a million dollars. We have friends with a million followers who can’t pay rent. It has helped us to have en entrepreneurial background. We’ve been strategic about what brand we want to portray. Our values are summarized in three words: adventure, culture and service.”
“After Disney worked with us, every brand wanted to jump on board. We have to be careful not to get in the rat race mentality and do everything that comes our way. On the other hand, we have investors who reach out and ask us when we’re going to get back to work. And we’re like, ‘We created another successful startup! We are working!’”
Not On The Bucket List
“Running a marathon. Ain’t nobody got knees for that.”
Working For A Living
“When our friends come to visit, they are surprsied how hard we work. On Instagram, it looks like we’re just on vacation. But they go to bed at night and we’re still working. One way we do disconnect is by turning off our phones and only using them as a camera unless we’re on wifi. We’re only on our phones about 10 percent of the day.”
Jessica Gee, 32 years old
“Garrett had to convince me in the beginning to get past my fears of going public with the kids. At first, the kids’ Instagram accounts were private and Garrett would only accept followers who were women with profile pics that looked somewhat normal. But a year ago, we went public with all the accounts. Now we hear inspirational feedback like how other kids are learning to swim by watching Dorothy be brave.”
To Share or Not To Share
“We try not to share just what we think people will like. We share what we want to remember. With all my time nursing Cali lately, I’ll turn on one of our videos and we’ll watch it together. Every time, I can’t believe we’ve done so much!”
Roles and Goals
“Garrett usually does our creative photography and then we collaborate on what to share. I do the first four hours worth of editing, clipping and organizing and then Garrett takes over as the creative perfectionist.”
“Utah is very stylish, and when I’m here and I show up wearing my same clothes to dinner, I don’t feel like I’m in fashion. But then I see my girlfriends’ closets, and I get overwhelmed. It’s a lot of work to keep it minimal. With the kids, they get one present for their birthday or Christmas, but we don’t take it with us. Manilla got a skateboard for Christmas, but we’ll leave it with cousins or at Grandma’s house. The kids each have a small backpack for their toys, and they have to be able to carry it themselves. Dorothy has a bag full of a thousand Shopkins!”
“We’re one of very few influencers of our size who doesn’t have a management company. We value our relationships with our clients. We can email the marketing team at GoPro, Southwest or Marriott and ask about giving away some trips to our fans for Christmas.”
“I still say my freshman year was the best year of my life.” (Garrett pipes in: “She didn’t know me back then, so that’s kind of an insult. Jess, I thought you’d say your best memories are when we had a 15-minute class break and we’d race across campus to spend two minutes together.”)
Mapping It Out
“We’ll travel full time between now and September while we renovate our new home. We’ll go country to country gathering inspiration, design, decor and furniture to make our house an inspired around-the-world house. And then Dorothy will start kindergarten this fall and we’ll scale back to 1-2 trips a month. It will be tough because we’ve done a good job and worked hard to build up our following. But if we get a call about a resort in Bermuda that wants to pay us to visit … “
Blood, No Sweat and Tears
“Garrett is the least stinky, least sweaty man. He can play a full soccer game and his jersey won’t be sweaty.”
“I hate any sort of confrontation or contention. I can’t handle it and I was afraid of experiencing that online. But I’ve developed a tougher skin and more confidence in myself. I’m confident in the way I’m raising my kids and how I spend my money. But we do get a few mean comments based around schooling, parenting, money — and we get told these kids can’t be Garrett’s because they are blonde. My genes are crazy dominant.”
“Garrett is always 100 percent. When we were dating, Garrett was the best boyfriend. In Russia, he was the best missionary. He was the best at building and operating Scan. He gave everything to soccer. So it’s the same with the Bucket List — he goes full throttle. If it’s 1 a.m. and I’m exhausted, I go to bed but he will not until he’s finished.”