Persistence is a pretty valuable trait. You can call it stubbornness if you want, but life and business and having big dreams all require a willingness to just keep after it, even when the going gets tough. We got beat by the ice in the Northwest Passage, but I will be going back…
As part of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing Graeme Esarey. Graeme Esarey is the founder and CEO of Ignik Outdoors, a company he started after returning from an expedition to the Arctic on his sailboat. Ignik makes sustainable heating products that help people get outside sooner and stay outside longer. Ignik is Graeme’s 3rd startup project.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Sure, but it is a bit of a sailor’s yarn. I founded Ignik after attempting to transit the Northwest Passage, from Alaska to Greenland, with my family. What the heck was I doing taking my family up into the ice might be a better question. I grew up on boats, and my dad was a commercial fisherman. So I had a high pain tolerance and learned early from the sea and the people who worked on her. And while I can’t say that I loved everything about fishing, I loved the places we went, including Alaska.
So, it was 2017, I had been working in the outdoor industry running another company, and my kids were getting to the age where if they were going to have a formative life experience, it needed to happen soon. After much family debate, we decided that I should quit my job. Less than a year later, we set sail on an old raceboat named Dogbark with my wife and our two daughters, ages nine and twelve.
The goal was to navigate from Seattle to Greenland via Alaska and the fabled Northwest Passage. With a rotating crew of my parents (in their 70s) and writer/photographer friends (in their 30s), this multigenerational team performed research on sea surface temperatures for NOAA, visited remote Native Alaskan settlements carved from the permafrost, and were followed by whales, chased by muskoxen, and, at times, enveloped by sea ice as far as the eye could see. We had a great time, and learned a ton.
Ultimately, with storm-driven ice blocking the Passage, we turned back, but I was changed forever by the wildness of the place — and by witnessing the direct impact climate change is having on the wildlife, landscape, and stalwart people of the Arctic. I knew we had to do something, and Ignik is our attempt to fix some of the things that are broken, and to give back to a place that changed us.
What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?
Well, the Big Hairy Audacious problem is that the ice is melting. We’d like to help spread understanding of that at least, and do something about it if we can. At a smaller level, Ignik is about fixing some problems with human technology and waste (hand warmers that don’t work, phones that freeze up in the cold, disposable green propane bottles that have no place in the wild, etc.) while giving back to the fight against climate change.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
Sure. Every year the U.S. uses 50 or 60 million disposable green propane bottles. We saw them loose in the Arctic, and you can find them on beaches all up and down the west coast. Our first product, the Gas Growler, takes aim at this market. We have a refillable 5lb. tank that is easily transportable, filled at most service stations or propane refill locations, and provides 5x the heat output of those little green bottles. Each refill costs the same as a green bottle, but there is no waste and no hassle.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
Find a problem, and make it better. Our hand warmers are another example. Air-activated hand warmers work by controlling air flow to a mixture of minerals (iron, salt, vermiculite) and allowing them to “rust” at a controlled rate, which produces heat from this relatively simple exothermic reaction. Unfortunately, controlling airflow means lots of layers of plastic. And that’s a lot of waste. We are working to reduce the plastic necessary to do this. Today Ignik’s warmer products are 98% biodegradable, and the fill material is compostable. Not perfect, but it is progress. And our packaging is reusable, which has the neat effect of allowing you to “save your warmer for later” or only use what you need, when you need it. (Up to a few days, nothing lasts forever. Except plastic perhaps…)
The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
- Reduce waste. Choose products that don’t have excess packaging. Reuse cardboard boxes, paper, etc.
- Stop consuming plastic. My girls are big believers in getting rid of straws. Order your drink with “no straw please.” If you have to use plastic, reuse it. (We wash our ziploc bags over and over. It sounds weird, but every little bit matters.)
- Use sustainable energy sources. I have been living off the grid on solar (I live on a boat) for the last 18 months. It is amazing, and to some degree everyone can do this, even at a small scale. Get a solar panel, and find ways to use it.
- Climate change is this great big initiative. Find some part of it, and become a subject matter expert. Choose a place (the Arctic, or the beach near your house). Protect that place.
- Sail more. Seriously. We sailed 19,000 miles, almost 80% of the circumference of the earth. How much fuel would we have burned in an airplane to do this?
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- It is not all about the bottom line. It is about working with purpose. Companies do not have to be evil; they can and should be a force for good.
- Only work with people you like. (This was actually something I learned racing sailboats. Boats are small, and you learn quickly that a “no-asshole” policy makes the challenges and difficulties of life aboard much easier to deal with.)
- Have a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal).
- Embrace failure. The ability to fail gracefully (and learn quickly) leads to an almost unbeatable resilience that I find myself relying on over and over.
- Persistence is a pretty valuable trait. You can call it stubbornness if you want, but life and business and having big dreams all require a willingness to just keep after it, even when the going gets tough. We got beat by the ice in the Northwest Passage, but I will be going back…
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Sheesh, I couldn’t have done most of the things I have done without the support of my wife, Janna. It is one thing to let your husband go off and do startups, or try and sail through the Northwest Passage. It is another to say, “Can I come too? And let’s drag the kids along while we are at it.” Bonkers. Seriously though. I am amazingly lucky to have a life partner who lifts me up, inspires me, keeps me honest, and forgives me when I (frequently) screw up.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I didn’t start it, but I love it. Check out #trashtag one of these days, and get involved.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
Ghandi’s “Be the Change you want to see in the world” comes to mind. But there is another one, too, for the dreamer in all of us. “You Say I Missed My Mark? But Sir, I never aimed. No more than a child with a thousand desires aims at them all with one, blind wish.” — Woodrow Esarey (my grandfather) Serendipitous Dreaming is a powerful force.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!