Every plastic that has ever been made is still around with us today, and the production of plastic is not slowing down.
Asa part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Gary Ross. Gary, the founder of Highwave, has always been influenced by the ocean. From his background in competitive surfing, sailing, and a degree in Marine Zoology, the ocean has shaped several aspects of his life. After college, Gary starting building award-winning exhibits at the San Diego Natural History Museum, which then led to 10 years of working with artists and designers building homes around California. He has always had a passion for building and creating. It was his fascination with the ocean and his love for creating that led him to start his business, Highwave, with an aim to create products that simplify life and reduce ocean pollution. Gary’s original inventions have turned into a successful family business that he shares with his wife and two kids. In addition to surfing, Gary is an avid snowboarder and loves long walks on the beach with his dog, Bongo.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ihave always been amazed by nature and how it beautifully it solves problems. I consider nature the ultimate design school. The pure beauty of the ocean challenged me to think about how humans influence and alter mother nature, while the energy and physics that create a perfect wave every time taught me about design. I put these things together in my mind to create the first travel mug. I saw the waste that people created every day drinking coffee, and I tried to find a simple and functional solution. The result was the Hotjo, a travel mug with a wide base for people to put on their dashboard since there were no cup holders back then. Since this, I have always looked to nature to inspire the ideas and functions of the products I design.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
After inventing the Hotjo, the first travel mug, I needed to make a trip out to New York City for a meeting with some very high-powered reps. I scraped up the money to travel from California to New York. Luckily, I had a friend who lived there who let me crash on his couch. When I arrived, I went to a very important meeting. They asked me to demonstrate the Hotjo. So, I went on and explained how the product works and its functionality and when I was done explaining, I asked if there were any questions. The room went silent, and all five of them turned around and walked out the door. So, it was not a good meeting. I decided to continue and not let these guys bring me down. I kept looking for more opportunities to show my product. Then a few months later, a friend of mine allowed me to set up the Hotjos in the corner of his booth at a trade show. I had all my mugs set up, and a Neiman Marcus buyer walked in and said they wanted the Hotjo in all their stores. After I wrote their order, the word must have gotten out. By the next trade show, people were waiting for a block long to write an order with Highwave.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
Most great ideas are very simple. In fact, the Earthlid™ is probably one of the most obvious, simple, and important ideas for a few reasons. Only relatively recently has it been discovered and accepted that plastics are truly bad for the Earth and our health. Every plastic that has ever been made is still around with us today, and the production of plastic is not slowing down. Plastic breaks down into tiny pieces, getting into our oceans, which then fish consume. This affects humans too when they consume fish. Scientists are discovering the harmful effects of human & fish consuming plastics, which is detrimental to our health and marine life.
Plastic coffee lids, often made from polystyrene, are rarely recycled (about 2% are recycled), causing most of them to end up in landfills and oceans. Aside from this, there are many studies indicating that this type of plastic may be bad for human health at elevated temperatures. In fact, the same plastic, polystyrene, is being outlawed in many countries in Europe, and still, not many people know much about the types of plastics that they use every single day. For all these reasons, we created the Earthlid™. A silicone, reusable lid that fits on most paper coffee cups, (and several of our reusable cups) and can seal for leak-tight transport. This gives people a versatile and simple way to help reduce their plastic consumption but is also convenient for a busy lifestyle.
How do you think this will change the world?
I believe that simple everyday acts are the ones that can have the greatest impact. We all know that single-use is bad; however, living without single-use is not widely accepted and practiced most by most individuals. I believe that this product could be a gateway to a more sustainable life. We have spent much time engineering Earthlid™ to be practical. Some of those features include a bag that quickly absorbs the moisture and a strap that seals to make your to-go coffee leak-tight. We have also made this product flexible to fit on most paper cups, while still being stiff enough not to leak. With this, we hope that people can easily incorporate the Earthlid™ into their daily life until it becomes normal to choose the more sustainable option. Most importantly, every time you use the Earthlid™ it reminds you and other people around you about the importance of the mission and the huge mountain we need to climb.
Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?
The Earthlid™ on its own is not a forever solution; we’ve known that from the start. We need, as a society to be more conscious of single-waste, and this means ditching the cup too. This does not all fall on the consumer, but also the businesses that serve coffee and the manufacturers that create the plastic lids. Since there were billions of lids used last year, we know that most people are still using to-go cups with a disposable lid. While we are starting to see a shift in people refusing the to-go cup and bringing their own, this is still a small percent of the population.
The Earthlid™ is the first step to ending the plastic pollution problem in our oceans. Many people don’t carry reusable cups because they are a hassle to keep in their purse or bag. We are hoping that the features of the Earthlid™ can encourage people to carry it, easing people into eventually bringing their cup. We want this to be the gateway to reusables and to ending single-use. So that’s a big potential drawback if people were to accept the Earthlid™, and not eventually go a step further. We think the problem is bigger than the lid; we need society to see that too. Hopefully getting people to make one small change will raise awareness and eventually change the way that people act.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
About three years ago we were the top-selling travel mug at Teavana. At that time Starbucks had bought Teavana. Highwave was invited to a Starbucks conference in China. At the conference, one of the speakers worked for a company that made Starbucks’ cardboard insulator sleeves. They made a big announcement that they were going to save millions of trees by reducing the thickness of their cardboard. Then I thought immediately, wow, you’re going to save millions of trees by reducing the sleeve by just a small percentage? Then how many trees are you taking out now? How many trees are going down for keeping your hand from getting hot one time? At this point, I realized the vast amount of resources that are used every single day to caffeinate America. If we could save millions of trees by reducing simply reducing the sleeve thickness, imagine what kind of environmental damage we could save if we replaced the plastic lid. This sparked an idea, and I started working on the Earthlid™ that night.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
We need society to have an open mind. We know this product is unique and different from anything on the market, so we need a receptive audience that is open to something new.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
1. Give back. Find the people and organizations that are meaningful to you and your company and give back to them. Businesses have a huge potential to be used as a force of good in society. It is important to contribute to that. Plus, you can find great connections and communities.
2. Think about the small stuff. Keeping track of your finances, inventory, and other details are crucial when distributing a product, especially when a product goes viral and you need mass quantities fast.
3. Marketing is the most important. Especially in this day in age, understanding your who you are and whom you want to market to is vital. With a new product, it is crucial to get it out in front of people with like interests. It is not necessarily how many people you get in front of, but whom you get in front of.
4. Double check everything and then check again. I learned in business that you must do 100 things right if you need 99 of them to be perfect. One missed step can have profound impacts. Get as many eyes on things as you can and never stop improving.
5. Have the right people around you. It is essential to have people working with and around you to have the same goals in mind, and that is honestly passionate about the products that are being created & stand behind the company’s mission. Value quality over quantity.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
Always be looking forward and find a way to connect it to your passion as life is short. The world is constantly changing, so when you can constantly adapt and find ways to merge your passions with the outer world, you will “future proof” your career.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
I would invest in wave energy. This is a big passion of mine, and something I have been developing. It started with a challenge presented by Yvonne Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, to design an artificial surf reef. The reef serves to break the wave energy further offshore to help protect & help keep sand on the beaches. The waves on the reef are focused and amplified energy. This understanding started the quest to try to capture some of the energy. Ocean trials are coming soon. If we can perfect the art of harnessing wave energy, while also protecting shorelines, we will be able to solve many problems in society.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
Being a designer and an inventor, you must have an open mind, even when that is difficult. The task of a good designer is eliminating walls, bridges, and gates because we don’t have to judge anything, only the important things. If you can train your mind not to judge everything and remove the rules that are created by society, you will have more creativity because anything is possible.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
For me, a “success mindset” is one that is always thinking creatively not just creatively in the sense of developing new products, but also on an operational level — thinking “how can we improve this aspect of our business?” or “how can we engage in a unique way with our audiences?”. Another important habit is being open. Always keep track of opportunities and keep them alive. Nourish your connections and relationships because you never know when the timing will be right to work with them. Lastly, you must know that you will fail, but believe that it is temporary. You will continually learn what doesn’t work, and that will lead you to what does work. However, your response to failure is everything. You must somehow learn to embrace failure as it will lead you to success.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
We all know that single-use to-go cups are bad. However, most people don’t know that the plastic in coffee lids is most often made from polystyrene, one of the worst types of plastics. Not only does is it extremely difficult to recycle, but studies are finding that it has negative implications for human health too. However, coffee is an important part of our culture, and most people resort to this option out of convenience.
That’s why we developed the Earthlid™, the smart solution to plastic lids and straws. The Earthlid™ is a reusable silicone lid that fits on most paper coffee to-go cups and has a strap that rotates and seals for transport. It also fits on regular size soda cups to eliminate straws.
Additionally, it comes with a quick-dry bag that allows you to toss it in your bag after you drink your coffee. We have designed this product for people with busy lives who want to make a positive impact. Not only does this product upgrade your takeout coffee cup, but it also has the potential to eliminate millions of plastic lids from our oceans and landfills. Earthlid™ has design, and mechanical patents in the US is pending in China and is a registered design in Europe. It is European LFBG grade silicone and BPA Free.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.