Julie and Colin Angus, co-founders of Open Ocean Robotics and National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, talk to host Mark Jones about how to use storytelling in the startup phase of the business lifecycle.
We can safely say that most people have a dream or passion they’d love to turn into a career and spend the rest of their lives doing. But for those who have successfully turned their dream into a reality, how did they make it happen?
Co-founders of Open Ocean Robotics and global adventurers, Julie and Colin, turned their passion for exploration into a business when they invented energy-harvesting autonomous boats. These boats offer a safer and more affordable alternative to the more common ocean observation endeavours.
When establishing a business, finding the right sponsors and investors to back you is vital. For Julie and Colin, harnessing the power of storytelling was key to getting stakeholders on board.
“It’s about finding the right story to tell. Finding an expedition that pushes boundaries and captivates an audience,” Julie says.
Julie and Colin believe that harnessing the power of data to support your big idea can be an effective tool in connecting people with your mission.
“For Open Ocean Robotics, what really resonates [with audiences] is the potential of data. If you are actually able to create a platform that can collect ocean data 24/7 during hurricanes in the most remote areas of the world, you can use these insights to not only help protect the ocean from climate change, but allow ocean industries to operate more effectively,” Julie says.
Julie and Colin know that while it’s not easy to establish a business from the ground up, it’s not impossible. Colin says founders who maintain self-belief and a clear vision of the future will help take their business where it needs to go.
“You have to learn to trust yourself. Understand what your limitations are and understand what you can do. Do you feel you personally can do it? Can you organise a team that’s going to do what you’re talking about? Do you have the skill set? If you really do think in your heart that you can do it, that’s the key,” Colin says.
Tune into this episode of The CMO Show to find out how to use the power of storytelling in business.
- Open Ocean Robotics
- Top 10 Spotlight: Open Ocean Robotics
- Open Ocean Robotics Receives $800,000 in Incubator Support
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Host: Mark Jones
Guests: Julie & Colin Angus
Mark Jones: They say that everyone has a book in them or at least a big idea, these big entrepreneurial visions. The question is what do you do about it? How do you take that big crazy future-focused entrepreneurial idea and translate it into something that would actually work in your environment? The key I think is understanding do you have the ability to make this happen?
Mark Jones: Hello, again. Mark Jones and you are on the CMO Show. It is great to have you with us. Today is something just a little bit different. Going back a few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Colin and Julie Angus and they are Canadian adventurers, explorers, and also these days, entrepreneurs, CEO and technical wizards behind Open Ocean Robotics, which is these autonomous solar-powered boats.
Mark Jones: I brought them on because I was so inspired when I heard them speak when I was in Quebec City, Canada. And they spoke about how they took a big idea, of human powered travel, circumnavigating the globe, starting in one place, going right around the globe on foot and on bike and rowing, and returning back to the same spot. Crazy idea, but how do you get people to join you on that journey? And then, flip that into today’s world where they’re in business, how do you tell the story of what you’re doing and how do you start something from scratch and bring people in, investors, and sell a big story?
Mark Jones: It’s remarkable, the level of visionary thinking and at the same time, really finely tuned, tactical and detailed planning that goes into all aspects of Colin and Julie’s life. I’m just thrilled to have them with us. So sit back and enjoy, I think, quite a wild ride with two very fascinating people.
Mark Jones: Colin and Julie Angus, global adventurers and also entrepreneurs behind Open Ocean Robotics, Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.
Julie Angus: Thank you so much for having us Mark, we’re really excited to be a part of this podcast.
Colin Angus: Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure to be here today.
Mark Jones: Take us to the very beginning. And the two of you, I understand, met at a bus stop and from there, you walked and pedalled and rode around the world. How did that happen?
Colin Angus: So it was sort of a long evolution of events that led to the point where Julie and I are going around the world together, rowing across the Atlantic Ocean together as a couple. And Julie’s background is in science so she was working for a biotech company when I met her. I was planning this expedition, but as many people are aware, science of course is adventurous in itself. It’s a different kind of learning, going out, embarking in different kinds of challenges. And I think Julie really had that adventurous spirit and she’d always wanted to row across the Atlantic Ocean. So it wasn’t long before we started planning this journey together.
Mark Jones: Well, just as an aside though, you guys were in Vancouver, right? I mean is this when you’re growing up, is rowing across the Atlantic Ocean sort of a thing that you go, some people want to go to the moon, others are like, “You know what, I’ll row across the … ” Is that normal or … ? This seems like one of those stars collide moments.
Julie Angus: Definitely as a kid, I never thought I’d be rowing across an ocean. I was actually a pretty unadventurous kid. I was pretty nerdy. I wasn’t really that great at sports. My adventures were reading books and living it through other people’s lives. And I think for me, moving to the West Coast, to Vancouver and to Victoria where we are now, it really kind of made me fall in love with the ocean and made me start to explore more and take on increasingly larger challenges that eventually led to expeditions like rowing across the Atlantic and travelling by boat throughout Europe or throughout Asia. But I wouldn’t say it was something I had planned to do forever. And I think it’s just one of those cases where you follow your passions and you really don’t know where you’re going to end up.
Mark Jones: I remember hearing you speak about how you were rowing across the Atlantic and you’d lock yourself inside your little bubble as it were, the cabin, and there was a storm and I think it was three or four days. I recall you telling this story.
Julie Angus: Yeah, so that was when we got hit by Hurricane Vince, which was the first hurricane to hit us on that Atlantic crossing, and we were about three weeks out. We had launched from Lisbon, Portugal, and it was the quintessential calm before the storm. The ocean was like a lake and the air was thick and heavy, and we didn’t think there was anything amiss. And then I called my father on the satellite phone and he said, “Julie, there’s a hurricane that’s formed close to you and it is coming straight for you.” And of course, we thought he was mistaken because we had spent about two years planning this route, looking at all of the historical weather data, deciding on a path where the chance of encountering a storm or let alone a hurricane was very low. But it was a terrible hurricane season and that was the most northern and eastern hurricane in all of history, and it did end up coming directly over us.
And it’s hard to say what is the most terrifying moment. I think finding out that the hurricane was coming towards us and knowing that there was nothing we could do to escape it, knowing that here we are in a small plywood rowboat in the middle of the ocean and we’re going to have a storm that has the power to flatten a city and we can’t out row it, it’s very frightening.
At the peak, the waves were 50 feet in height, which is the height of a five-story building and these waves are pummeling our boat. They’re breaking against our boat. We’re rolling up one side of the cabin and down the other. And definitely, when you’re in that environment, you’re not sure how it’s going to end. It’s very much a moment to moment survival, dealing with the events as they unfold. And eventually, the storm lessened and we made it through it.
But I think when you’re at that edge, experiencing something like that, that really takes you to your core and terrifies you, it makes you view the world differently. It makes you view your priorities differently. It makes you think differently about what you can endure. And in a way, it gives you a strength that you bring to other challenges because you know how far you can be pushed and you can still make it through it.
Mark Jones: Yeah, I just can’t even imagine the moment by moment, absolute terror. I think you’re quite right though. So your, you were the first people to make it around the world in, human-powered global circumnavigation or self-propelled. Is that correct? And just very briefly summarise what that looks like so people who haven’t understood your journey and what you’ve accomplished, what does that mean?
Colin Angus: Yeah, it was the first human-powered circumnavigation of the planet. And what that means is you start in one spot and you just keep going in one direction until you’re back where you began again, and without using any motors or sails so basically just your God-given muscles is all you have to push yourself forward. So I mean in concept, it’s really quite simple. We’ve got a big round world, you just have to go around it. But of course, to actually do it is incredibly challenging. Just the sheer distance involved is huge. You’ve got to get across these oceans as well as the land masses using some kind of efficient boat and the logistics, the finances, all of these other things that go into a journey of that magnitude are really quite overwhelming.
So it is one of those things that, speaking from my own view, I spent a lot of time daydreaming about it and thinking about the concept before actually committing to it. I thought this would be the ultimate just gargantuan adventure that nobody has ever done before. But of course, the more you research it, the more you understand what it would involve, the more daunting it becomes just because you really understand what would be required.
Mark Jones: It strikes me that from a marketing perspective, you are marketing yourself as people and you are marketing the idea, and this spirit of adventure if you like, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we did this thing?” How do you get people to buy into your idea and I presume, support you financially?
Julie Angus: Yeah, marketing the expedition is really important. For us, it’s our career so we depend on it to pay our mortgage and that comes in different ways. We write books and we produce documentaries so we have to … Our publisher has to think this is a great expedition. People are going to be really interested in reading about this. We also bring on board sponsors, companies who are aligned with our values and support us, and proving benefit to them in terms of helping them reach their key audience and convey the messages that they believe in.
Julie Angus: So it’s definitely a lot about storytelling and finding the right story to tell, finding an expedition that makes people really become fascinated with it, that pushes boundaries, that will be captivating to an audience. And then, demonstrating that we have the capabilities to go out and do that either through our past record or our preparation that we’ve taken for the expedition.
Mark Jones: So what was the biggest lessons that you’ve learned in terms of a story angle or a perspective on storytelling that really gets people to buy in to your big picture vision? What makes them move from, “I don’t really believe this can happen” to, “Wow, I’ve just got to do this?”
Colin Angus: Yeah. I mean when we go out and do an expedition or adventure, obviously, part of the driving force is it’s something that we’re excited about, something that’s sort of motivated us to go that way. But the other side is sort of the marketing angle, ’cause we know, I mean this is our career.
What we have really found over the years is you can put out the same amount of effort on one kind of say expedition or another equally daunting, equally difficult, but one, for whatever reason, is more compelling. And for us, if there’s two different choices to make, it’s always making sure we take the choice that is ultimately going to be something that we can share more easily, something that people are going to engage with, people are going to enjoy. So I think the number one lesson we’ve kind of learned is just making sure that you do choose an endeavour and an objective that is going to resonate with your greater audience.
Mark Jones: I’ve heard you both say the word career, which I think is an interesting perspective. So in other words, you don’t treat this as an adventure as much as you can actually say, “This is our job. We’re seeing this through a professional lens and we’ll come up with a strategy.” Right? I guess that’s the business lens, but is that the most concrete way to understand turning a big vision into something that’s going to be sustainable?
Julie Angus: Yeah, I mean I think going out and having adventures, you can definitely do that just as a passion where you have your other career and you do this in your free time, but when you shift to make that your entire career, you definitely have to think about it differently and find ways in which to make it financially sustainable. So part of that is sharing your story through books and documentaries. Part of it is sharing it through talks and being involved in the community in different ways or starting related businesses.
Julie Angus: And so, I guess we’ve always kind of pursued things that fascinated us and also, on the entrepreneurial side. So our previous business, one that we still have is designing rowboats and sailboats. That just came organically through our expeditions. We found we were designing these boats for our expeditions that nobody else had because we were looking for these specific things and other people were interested in as well. So it started to grow into a business.
Julie Angus: And the expertise that we gained in that, it translated into our new company, which is Open Ocean Robotics and autonomous vessels instead of human-powered or wind-powered vessels. And I think for us, it’s always been thinking about what we’re passionate about, where our skills are and what there is a need for as well.
Mark Jones: Well, to that point, let’s talk about Open Ocean Robotics. What are you attempting to achieve here?
Colin Angus: So with Open Ocean Robotics, basically, it’s we’re attempting to create autonomous boats that have the ability to go out into the ocean for a long period of time and collect information using sensors. And I think we’re all quite aware of the disruptive change that’s going to occur in a few years with automation on the roads. When you have autonomous cars, it’s going to just drastically change things. It’s everything from parking to the ability to just summon up a car very inexpensively to pick you up at your front door.
Colin Angus: And the same kind of disruptive change is occurring in the ocean, although at a slightly slower pace, but the ocean, of course, is a huge arena. There’s a lot of commerce going on that crisscrosses the oceans. There’s a huge amount of research, military surveillance, and it’s very costly to be on the ocean. If you want to go out into the middle of the Pacific, for example, and listen to whales, you’re going to be paying 50 to $75,000 a day for a crude vessel that’s capable of enduring the rough ocean environment. So if you can create small autonomous vessels that can do the same job for a fraction of the price, it’s going to really revolutionise the industry.
Colin Angus: The whole concept of developing a business, bringing it to fruition is very similar to the strategies that we’ve utilised on our expeditions, everything from teamwork, having the motivation aspect, figuring out precisely what your goal is and the pathway to get to that goal. So even though it’s very unfamiliar waters for Julie and I in one respect, in the other hand, it’s a path that’s a well-travelled from our previous journeying.
Mark Jones: I like the pun there, unfamiliar waters. Well, the interesting thing, I’m just thinking about the outcomes of your work, it’s obvious that the concept of sensors floating around autonomously, gathering data is interesting. What about the security or you know that sort of sovereignty type stuff? I mean how do you imagine you’re going to balance the demands there? We’re sort of heading into a world where I imagine that’s producing some interesting conversations.
Colin Angus: Yeah. So yeah, security is probably one of our greatest concerns. And there’s two things. One, making sure that the boats are navigating in a safe manner, not putting lives at risk. But the other is in this world where there’s hacking and others that have cyber activity, negative cyber activities can cause issues. And so, for example, our telemetry is encrypted. We have fail safe systems to ensure that the boats really can’t be used for sort of negative purposes. And on top of that, our boats, they’re so small and they’re so slow that you really can’t utilise them for anything that’s too big. For example, if you ran into the side of a freighter, you’d be lucky if you actually scratch the side of the boat. So we have that sort of in our favour. But it definitely is something that it is a primary concern for us, making sure that the boats are operating in a very safe manner and can’t be sabotaged.
Mark Jones: Well, I note that you’re also offering it as a shoreline protection type idea so you can crack down on illegal fishing, safeguarding different areas of the world. So I guess there’s a monitoring aspect to these things as well. It’s quite interesting. Firstly, also congratulations on winning a funding round recently and it sounds like from that point of view, the idea is getting some traction, which is fantastic. What sort of impact does that have from a story in a marketing perspective? At this stage of your business like many startups, I imagine it’s all about validating your idea and building up that positive word of mouth. How are you fueling that as a marketing and a story strategy?
Julie Angus: Yeah, absolutely. So we have had a lot of great traction and recognition lately. We’ve won a number of awards, including the most promising, Canada’s most promising startup of the year award. We’ve won funding, just over a million dollars. We’ve had lots of interest from partners in working with us and as you said, we’re at that stage where we’re really demonstrating what our technology can do. So going out there, showcasing it in an ocean environment and thinking about the key applications that we’re going to target.
Mark Jones: What have you found is the most compelling thing from a sponsor or an investor perspective? What are they buying? Aside from the obvious upside, hopefully, in years to come, what are they investing in? Are they investing in, for example, the ultimate outcome or community benefit or are they buying into this kind of growth story or do they just simply believe your vision? What’s the strongest aspect of your story that you find really resonates?
Julie Angus: I think for Open Ocean Robotics, what really resonates is the potential, what you can do with the data. If you’re actually able to create a platform that can go out there and collect ocean data 24/7 during hurricanes in the most remote areas of the world because we currently can’t do that and yet the oceans are so important to the health of our planet, to a $2.5 trillion ocean economy, to the security of nations.
Julie Angus: And just imagining what you could do if you have that data from all over the ocean, you’re compiling it in a cloud-based system. You’re using AI and machine learning to be able to further analyse that data with other satellite data or other ocean data and suddenly, being able to have these insights on the ocean that not only help us protect the ocean from climate change or overfishing or pollution, but allow ocean industries to operate more effectively, to allow offshore wind farms to find the best area, to allow freighters to create more fuel efficient and direct routes. So there’s just a lot of potential if we’re able to understand our oceans better.
Mark Jones: Yeah. I think that’s fantastic and it’s really amazing to see this common thread where through your adventuring, you’ve imagined what was possible and made it happen. And then here with Open Ocean Robotics, this sense of imagine what would happen if we had this data and how we could make the world a better place.I want to sort maybe tackle this from a strategy perspective and personal resilience ’cause it strikes me that you guys present as very well thought through and particularly resilient people.
Mark Jones: And I think in the marketing community in particular, we talk a lot about being “brave,” trying something that’s a little bit out there and pushing the boundaries a little bit. And it seems that you guys forever sit right on the edge or perhaps even off it, the edge into what most people might think was possible. So how do you maintain that stance? How do you respond to the detractors and how do you overcome challenge and quite clearly, hardship on many levels?
Colin Angus: Yeah, that’s an interesting point because it’s so true that whenever you’re sort of doing something that ultimately people admire, when you’re stepping over the fence and getting into that realm, you’re going to get people, everybody telling you “You can’t do it. You shouldn’t do it. There’s a reason why it hasn’t been done.” And that’s something that, of course, Julie and I have faced a lot of over the years and I think perhaps we’ve become desensitised to, which has helped us, but especially in the early stages of our adventuring.
Colin Angus: And it is I think a constant sort of theme that you hear whether you’re an entrepreneur or you’re planning on doing something that’s just hasn’t been done before And basically, you have to learn to trust yourself. I think that’s the most important thing. Understand what your limitations are and understand what you can do. And if you have an idea and it seems kind of outlandish, do you feel that you personally can do it? Can organise a team that’s going to do what you’re talking about, do you have the skill set? And if you really do think in your heart you can do it, that’s the key thing.
Colin Angus: I mean often, people do come up with ideas that they can’t complete and you don’t want to fall into that trap either. You want it to be something that’s realistic. But the most important thing really is just having a full understanding of what your capabilities are, but also not fearing. Sometimes a lot of people do have good ideas and they have things that they want to do and they feel that they can do it, but they’re fearful. Too many people have told them they can’t and they shouldn’t. So it’s both shedding that fear and then listening to yourself and it is a hard balance.
Colin Angus: And the other thing is, of course, when you do something that is pushing boundaries, there is a high likelihood that you are going to fail and don’t let that be a setback. I mean when you go on the next time and you try something else, don’t go, “Okay, I failed.” The fact that you did fail, you took something on, you’re brave enough to do it shows a great inner strength and resilience, and is all the more reason why you should try again to do something that you feel is pushing the boundary.
Mark Jones: Well, maybe just in closing, thinking about all of this and the story angle of your life and your journey, I’m interested in the documentary side of things. I’m a huge documentary nerd and I’m wondering what advice you could share for marketers and communications people that are thinking, “You know what, I’m going to create this big hero piece. I’m going to create a set piece story like a documentary. I’m going to elevate our organization’s story above the day-to-day type of marketing efforts and I want to create this piece that’s really going to get some attention.” If somebody had that as an idea, what would your best advice be?
Colin Angus: I think overall, I mean one of the most important things is that it grabs people’s attention. So with us, with our journeys, obviously by virtue of the journey itself, it’s something that’s sort of intriguing, captures interest. And I think I would say on a normal sort of when you try to connect with people, I honestly think that humour is one of the best ways. People love humour. If you could make someone laugh, it’s evoked an emotion, they’ve now connected to whatever type of media it is that they’re following. So I’d say humour is an important one and it’s just basic storytelling. If you have a story to tell, something that’s going to engage your audience, they’re going to connect with you.
Julie Angus: Yeah. No, I agree. And having a good storyline with an arc, the hero’s journey, being able to connect emotionally to your audience, whether that’s through humour, which is a great way or in other ways. And also finding the right audience, too. Who are you targeting? What is the best way to connect with them and finding a message that resonates for them.
Julie Angus: Finding the right partners has been pivotal for us. Whether it’s our publisher, Random House or whether its the documentary channels like National Geographic that had aired our documentaries, it really … You need that collaborative effort to get the word out.
Mark Jones: Well, fantastic. I’m inspired by your journey. It really is quite remarkable. I really appreciate the insights that you’ve shared in terms of how to be resilient and how to grow and to engage with people. So I do wish you both all the very best with your adventures. And also, as a father and a husband with my own business that I run with my wife, I can empathise with that journey and also cheer you on from afar. So thank you so much for being my guest on the CMO Show.
Colin Angus: Well, thank you so much for having us on your show. It’s been a huge pleasure.
Julie Angus: Yeah. Thank you, Mark. It’s great to be able to connect with you again and we wish you all the best with your own endeavours.
Mark Jones: So what did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Colin and Julie. I was just talking with my producer, Nat and we were talking about imagine being in this tiny boat and there’s these sort of the equivalent of five-story high waves crashing and presumably, you’re falling off them in your boat, right, and you’re jammed into this little space. I’ve been in tight spaces like that on boats and I got to tell you, it is not fun. I mean just raw fear. Is this the end? Am I done, right? So when you get the bar for fear set that high, I imagine this concept of day-to-day life, it’s almost anything’s possible I would’ve thought. But I do love that perspective of being able to really face up to the stuff that kind of shakes you a little and find a way through it.
Mark Jones: And I think when we start translating difficult moments or the challenges we face in marketing and particularly in B2B context where we have so many stakeholders and pressures and things that from experience are sometimes really just feel insurmountable, it is usually the case that there’s a way through it. So I find some inspiration in that. And I also am quite inspired by how they’ve been able to apply storytelling, I was really excited for the mention of the hero’s journey, being able to understand that people do like to go through an experience in a story and connecting those ideas to your brand, your personal brand and your organisational brand. So some really great insights and just such a good story.
Mark Jones: Hope you’ve learned a lot from quite a different take on marketing communications this time on the CMO Show. As always, send us your feedback and your ideas. And I appreciate the kudos. Some of you have been sending me some really kind messages lately on LinkedIn, which is fantastic. So my name is Mark Jones. I’m your host on the CMO Show, and thank you so much for joining us. We’ll talk to you next time.