Contributing to a sustainable new world doesn’t have to be a drastic lifestyle change. It can be in the form of even changing something as minor as switching from alkaline batteries to rechargeable lithium ion batteries. Today’s guest is here to share just how impactful that small step can be. Tom Bishop is the Founder of Pale Blue Earth, the battery company that wants you to buy fewer batteries through their USB rechargeable smart batteries. He joins host Rick Saez to share how he got his start in sustainable product development and what factors led to this innovation, such as his outdoor career. Tom expounds on the benefit of using this product and things to consider before making that change. He further discusses how you can reduce waste and contribute to a greener, more sustainable world in our own little ways. Tune in to learn more!
Save Money And Save The World: Lithium Ion Batteries And Their Benefits With Pale Blue Earth Founder Tom Bishop
Welcome to episode 297 of the show with Pale Blue Earth Founder, Tom Bishop. I used quite a few double-A and triple-A batteries to power some of the gadgets used in recording the show and I was excited to find Pale Blue Earth at an Outdoor Retailer show in Denver. In this episode, Founder Tom Bishop tells us about the products, some advice about switching to rechargeables and his outdoor career. Tom, welcome to the show.
Rick, it’s good to speak with you.
It’s good to speak with you too. You were at OR, were you? I didn’t get a chance to see you at the booth.
I wasn’t. I had to take a quick break for a quick surgery, unfortunately.
Is everything okay, though?
It’s much better now.
That usually helps. Whatever it is, it usually fixes it or at least makes it better.
It definitely did this time.
Let’s start with how you were introduced to the outdoors. How did that come about? Are you more of a tech guy? You said you were bow hunting, so you sound like an outdoor guy.
I am. I grew up in a small valley in Upstate New York and. At that time, my parents were homesteading, so we grew up outdoors. It was, “Go outside and we’ll call you when dinner’s ready or get back here before dark,” kind of situation. We were ten minutes from the local ski hill. As I got a little older, my parents said, “If you get your homework done, we’ll drop you off at the mountain.” We spent five days a week at the mountain and that was probably the pivotal point for getting into snowboarding and spending all of my time, other than getting my homework done, down at the mountain.
I bet you learned a lot of other outdoor-related skills through homesteading. Were you building a home and all that stuff?
My family goes back a few hundred years in this valley. I don’t want to say we were completely homesteading. My dad still had his day job, but he carved out a piece of property out of the forest there. We had some animals and an apple orchard in our garden. We cut our own wood, heated our house, made maple syrup, canned our vegetables, and all of that. We did a lot of outdoor stuff, learning how to run a chainsaw, drive a tractor and those are the things that were par for the course.
Out of that experience growing, how did you get into product development and supply chains?
The true story was I wanted to go to school in Vermont. I looked around in Vermont and said, “What’s the best school I can get into?” I ended up going to a college in Vermont that had a good Physics program. A good friend of mine convinced me that I too could survive the Physics curriculum, despite my struggles with Physics 109.
I took up a Physics program there and then went into Material Science after that. Physics and Material Science meet in a lot of different ways and aspects in detail. It was a natural transition at that time as I didn’t have a career path figured out. By the time I got out of school, I had said, “Let me go to grad school and that’ll give me a couple of years to think about it.” Material Science made sense after that. That’s how I got into the technical stuff.
How about the supply chain part? How did that come about?
I almost died after a knee surgery due to a snowboarding accident, a staph infection that became systemic. I spent a couple of months losing 50 pounds in the hospital and a lot of gnarliness there. That’s the best thing that ever happened to me. It got my head straight on priorities and I said, “I need to get outside and do something that I care about.”
I ended up going into snowboard sales and working in a sales team on the East Coast for KTU and Burton Snowboards. The supply chain side came because I was spending my offs at the Snowboard World at Ski World. Generally, the assistant sales reps, tech reps, demo guys, and stuff would not work all four seasons. I spent my off-season in Asia, learning Chinese, living in Taiwan. A few years of learning Chinese in the off-season and selling snowboard equipment on the East Coast. At the SIA trade show, some of the Burton guys came by and they were like, “What are you going to do this summer?” I replied, “I’m going to move to Shanghai.”
They said, “This is perfect because we’re moving manufacturing out of Europe and starting a lot of manufacturing in Asia. We just opened a factory in Shanghai and we’re looking for somebody.” I had a technical background learning Chinese and it was perfect timing. It’s one of those conversations that you never expect will happen. I found myself working for my dream company and having to live halfway around the world to do that. It’s one of those fortuitous situations that lands in your lap at the right time.
What a great experience, not only the supply chains and learning that whole side of it but also living in China had to be eye-opening and you learned a lot there too.
It’s fun and hard. Six days a week, traveling and solving production issues, standing on production lines with a dictionary in my hand, trying to figure out how to troubleshoot technical issues in another language. That’s one of the best experiences someone could ask for at that point in their career because the ability to learn all of those things on the ground can’t be beat. It was an accelerator for learning.
That’s a PhD in that stuff when you are doing it that way.
I put in the same amount of hours, probably as if I had a PhD.
What time and year was this?
I landed in Taiwan in 2001 and landed in Shanghai in 2004. In China, it’s full-time, eleven and a half months a year until 2012.
I was at K2 in 2001, managing Dana Design.
My first real backpack is a Dana Design. They were manufactured up in Bozeman and I still have that pack. I still put it to use sometimes and I follow the Mystery Ranch guys pretty carefully because a lot of those designs were carried over into Mystery Ranch.
They did great stuff. It’s the best pack ever made. All of the packs we had were a little heavy back then, but the designs and the carry are fantastic. That’s a whole other episode. Tell us about Pale Blue Earth? What do you guys do and how do you do it?
If you’re excited about what you’re doing, no matter what that might be, that opens doors.
We are on a mission to finally put the single-use batteries to bed. I never expected we would solve the plastic straw issue before batteries. You sell plastic straws, but everyone is still using single-use alkaline batteries. It seems kind of crazy, but a couple of years ago, before there was a solution, it wouldn’t have seemed crazy. In twenty years, it might seem crazy if people are driving gasoline cars. If you had somebody tell you that they still use incandescent light bulbs, you might think that’s a little crazy now.
It’s one step forward. We do that by integrating technology into the normal household form factors of batteries, bringing the battery management systems that you might expect to find in larger batteries and bringing them into the small form factor. Everything, even down to our triple-A battery, has a battery management system onboard in each battery that allows you to charge it with a USB port.
That’s going to be microscopic too. That’d be an interesting factory to tour.
It’s a very small PCBA.
What’s the PCBA for folks like me who don’t know?
Printed Circuit Board Assembly. Basically, the computer onboard is pretty small. In fact, we’re drafting off of some very large investments and these sorts of things. First, probably from the power bank industry that had to put battery management system onto all of the power banks that everyone needed, because their cell phone batteries were so terrible in the early days. Everyone had that power bank.
The second wave of investment came from the vape industry to make very small battery-controlled PCBs for that industry. It enables new technology and new technology enables newer technology. Without billions of dollars of our own investment, we have been able to achieve what billions of dollars investment brought to bear on the technical world.
To piggyback on others is super smart. This show is basically copying the Tim Ferriss Show. I was listening to his show for miles and miles when I was commuting. Everybody’s heard the story, but just interviewing his buddies and saying, “I can interview all the people I know in the outdoor business,” and here we are. Using other people that have gone before you is smart. It can build on what they’ve built and make it even better. You started out to make a better battery. Did you also, at the same time, start out with a sales plan or did that come after?
The background in independent sales was helpful. After my days at Burton, I went to Skullcandy and it was utilizing the same independent salesforce that the snowboard industry had. That rep force has changed quite a bit, but it still exists now and some of those folks are still around. We knew we could access a lot of those resources as we grew, but we also knew that the digital space was going to work for us based on experience with consumer electronics companies we’ve worked for. Some math goes into the viability and digital marketing, but we knew that would work as a channel.
There were a few other sales channels we knew that the battery world would welcome us into, including the international space, B2B and those sorts of channels as well. From the get-go, we knew that there were viable sales channels and it came down to testing those channels, aligning the right resources and seeing which ones were going to lead the charge. We had to figure out which channels would be the most productive early on and which ones would take a little more building. We’ve been down that path now for a few years.
Do you do all the channels now?
We hadn’t cracked a nut on B2B so much yet. We’re working on that, but the digital direct has been very good from day one. International has been growing very strong. We got a number of brand-building consumer electronics distributors around the world. We’re up to about ten countries now. We’re in a number of small retailers and we’re talking to some larger retailers. The small retailers are a good place to test your messaging, your POP and displays and things, and find out how the customers react to it in-store, where you have less of an opportunity to tell a story.
You probably have an opportunity to a lot of all the different retail channels. There’s quite a difference in how specialty outdoor works versus consumer stores, drug stores, or electronic stores. There’s a whole other salesforce and learning curve there.
The number of channels that sell batteries, it’s almost all of them. It is almost in every channel you can think of. We’ve got this large master spreadsheet of all the different places we could sell to, or see-through. It becomes a prioritization exercise, but being that we’re here in Park City and we’re born in the outdoors kind of company, we’re first and foremost wanting to speak to customers where they are having outdoor type activities and adventures. Knowing that if you use our batteries and your headlamp, you’re probably still going to use them at home as well, but it’s a more interesting, inspirational place to build a brand around outdoor activities and getting outside.
Everybody uses batteries for something these days. Those folks are also a little more inclined to be open to the message of using rechargeable batteries too.
The sustainability aspects of the product are fairly undeniable. This is the hard challenge that we have as we’re going to retail. You’ve got a performance story of lithium over nickel-metal hydride and those old chemistries. You’ve got the convenience of the USB, you’ve got a real value story of, “If you can use this 1,000 times and you can save 999 alkaline batteries, that’s a lot of savings.” The sustainability stories are super important to reduce the amount of waste we are all producing.
Are there any entrepreneurs in your family or are you the first guy that embarks on sales?
My mom has owned this small business for many years now. Credit to her for doing that. She will be stoked to get a shout-out, but she certainly juggled that while taking care of us.
We got to share the name of her business. What’s the name of her business?
It’s a beauty shop in the basement of her home. There’s no sign out front.
Word of mouth is even better and not to spend all that money on marketing.
She’s trying to retire.
That’s the bad side of word of mouth. Everybody says, “I only want Lori to do my hair.” You guys make batteries. It looks like all the sizes too, from triple-A all the way up to the nine-volt. Are there any other products you’re working on that you can talk about without giving away any secrets?
There’s a lot of batteries strange form factors that most people don’t bump into that we’re working on. The 18650s, CR123s and all of these. There are obviously more form factors to launch. We’ve got most of our bases covered when it comes to the types of batteries that we do now. The next challenges are to increase capacity, increase the charging speed, to improve the convenience of the batteries and their performance. We’ll keep working on launching on those. In fact, we launched our higher capacity triple-A, where we increased the capacity by nearly 70% over the previous one.
Those sorts of incremental improvements will be meaningful to customers as we try to convert the whole world away from alkaline. We are working on some other accessory-type products to round out the product offering and allow people who are passionate about us to represent the brand in their activities. The company’s core will remain around all of the battery products, but some accessories will be good. People are very excited about what we’re doing and we’re happy to have them represent.
I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of energy and effort that goes into you as you expand and increase distribution. Ramping up that whole supply chain, which you have experience with, but that’s a big behemoth too.
Fortunately, with all my years overseas, my co-founder, a British fellow who lives in Hong Kong and does a consumer electronics manufacturer, we’ve got a whole team of people on the ground that makes this possible. That’s a strategic advantage of ours.
What was the response to that? Was that your first? I haven’t seen you guys there before.
There’s a lot of things that we can do ourselves to reduce the waste that we make.
It was and I wandered around OR just after COVID started. That was a terrible time to be doing trade shows, but I survived. I was at the shows, talking to folks back then, but this was our first booth at OR. It was good. It was still a smaller show. With COVID and everything, it seemed to be more of a regional show.
It didn’t have the traffic, but I’m sure you had some pretty good meetings with the people that were there.
We’ve got a lot of follow up from that meeting. At this stage, anyone who is interested, we have the time to talk to them and develop those opportunities and relationships. In fact, we’re still working on all of the fallout.
I’m still catching up with people that come on the show. It’s funny how that’s processed. Once you get home and get into the day-to-day, work just expands to fill the time. We talked about your current sales process. It seems like everyone has a drawer, box, canister or something of new or used batteries. What’s your advice for all of us who haven’t made the switch to rechargeables?
I’m going to say do it tomorrow. I would evaluate your uses. If you’re just using batteries in your TV remote and those batteries only get changed once every two years, from a value perspective, it might not be worth investing in what are relatively expensive type rechargeable solutions. You’re not going through that many batteries. You might have enough batteries in that drawer, box, banner bag or whatever. You might have enough to get you through the next few years.
If you’re like me and you’ve got a couple of kids and that batteries are more important than ever at this stage of life, it seems and you’re going through a lot of batteries, I would first say the batteries that you have that are not used, there’s no reason to throw those away or recycle them as they are. There would be an opportunity if you wanted to move away from single-use into rechargeables. The opportunity might be to take those still good single-use batteries and give them to your local school or some charity where they can actually find use. If you’re going to upgrade to rechargeables, put those to work somewhere.
If the box, banner bag or drawer is full of used batteries, I won’t leave them sitting there until they corrode, especially the nine-volt battery because the terminals are close together. You have a fire hazard. A gum wrapper falls in that drawer and short-circuits a nine-volt battery or some batteries may touch each other in a specific way. A lot of household fires occur because of poor storage habits because those batteries aren’t truly dead. They still have some juice in them.
The best way to get them recycled if your local recycler doesn’t take them is a website called Call2Recycle.org. They have an awesome spot on their website for finding local drop-offs. Some of those drop-offs will surprise you. They might be a grocery store, Best Buy or somewhere. They’re currently the best-aggregated source for locating a drop-off center where you can drop off the batteries safely and know that they’ll get taken care of and get to the right recycler.
I’m always struggling with that too because I’ve got millions of double-A and triple-A batteries for all the equipment as a photographer. As I transitioned and I’m still transitioning to reusable and rechargeable, what do I do with all these? That’s a big help. It sounds like you still get outdoors a lot. What outdoor activities do you participate in?
I do almost anything that I can find somewhere to go outside and do and some things on my own. Snowboarding is still a big part of my life. Here in Park City, there are 500 miles of single-use mountain biking trails, so a lot of mountain biking, fishing and fly fishing. With the kids, we do a lot of outdoor kids activities these days. We got into standup paddle. We’ve got a camper, so we’d go camping and going to lakes and getting around those standup paddles has been very cool. I mentioned bow hunting. I’ve been out climbing the mountains here. I’m mostly getting great views of sunrises.
Your knee must be pretty well fixed.
I’ve had three knee surgeries in total now but they’re feeling good. They like to go uphill more than they like to go downhill. Park City is a good place if you ever need to fish. There are some good skills out here.
I’m in Bishop so we’re down the road from Mammoth. There are a couple of good guys here too. I finally got a really good guy here and he’s taking care of me. Those of us that have these injuries at a young age we’re destined to replace them someday. As I get further north of 60, it’s getting sooner rather than later where one of them is going to have to be replaced. I had a lot of fun wrecking them. Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into the outdoor adventure business?
I took a circuitous route. I went off and learned a bunch of technical skills and then had to come face to face with death before I realized that it didn’t matter how much money I made or how many hours. I was on the road as long as I was doing something I cared about. That doesn’t count for everyone, but I think it goes a long way. When those interesting conversations come up of where an opportunity might lie with someone you’re talking to, if you’re excited about what you’re doing, no matter what that might be, that opens doors. If they’re going to be building a team or doing something new, they are looking for excited and engaged people.
That goes a long way because everyone has certain inherent capabilities, but the potentials of someone’s capabilities and what they can do don’t manifest unless the person is highly engaged and excited about what they’re doing. You’d bump into somebody who’s just stoked on whatever it is that they’re working on and making it better, make a mental note. As anyone who’s building a business is doing, they’re looking for people to bring into the team who will be the next person they’re going to trust in investment from their business and bring them on board. That’s an important part of it. You’ve got to back that up with other skills but finding a way to be engaged in what you’re doing so that those opportunities when they arise, that you have a good option or a good chance of engaging in a conversation that might open a door for you.
As the outdoor industry continues to grow, expand and get more sophisticated, we have the need for people with all kinds of experiences that we didn’t have. There are a lot of technical and digital jobs. The things that are super popular now are going to continue to be a big need. We need more of those folks that weren’t available years ago. Whatever you might be doing as your day job, there’s probably room for you in the outdoor space if you want to go that path. That’s great advice. Get excited and stay excited. What’s your favorite outdoor gear purchase under $100?
For exceptional gear where things stand out, something that’s been game-changing for me having not lived in the West until a few years ago, it’s OnX Maps. This mapping software allows you to see private and public land and a lot of different information about the land. Whether I’m out camping or hiking or hunting, having those maps and being able to use maps on GPS even if you’re off the grid without a signal. You’ll know exactly where you are. It has provided me so many cool opportunities to explore the mountains around here.
I was up at 3:30 AM and bushwhacking up a mountain until we got up to 9,500 feet and watch the sunrise up there. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without having good mapping software. The old days of Garmin GPS and those little screens where you couldn’t really see anything, those were good days, but OnX has been a game-changer.
It’s amazing how some of this digital stuff is getting improved and how quickly it’s advancing. It’s great for some of the old-school tools of a topo map back in the day. Those are long gone. Even Garmin who was a new technology then has been replaced. Do you guys have a special offer for our readers? Tell us about that.
We set a code up on the website and there’ll be 20% off through the end of the year. We’ll keep that going for a few months. The code is Outdoor Biz PBE. That’ll get you 20% off if you want to finally make the leap away from single-use batteries. Maybe 2021 will be the year.
I encourage everybody to do that. I made the switch to Eneloop years ago and now I’m converting over to you guys. It’s changed my life. You just charge things up and even on the go, there are so many other accessories you can do to recharge these batteries while you’re out in the field. Make the switch folks. Take advantage of this great stuff. Is there anything else you want to ask or say to our readers as we finish up?
We have a global, national, regional and local strategy around giving back to sustainability impact projects and things. Our local partner is a group called Fish For Garbage, but essentially they do river cleanups. We go out and help clean up rivers and have activities there. We support and protect our winners and they are members of 1% of the planet. There’s everything that we can do ourselves to reduce the waste that we make.
There are other groups and organizations that are out there. If each of us could just align ourselves with one of those local, regional or national type things or even global and find some way to support that’ll have a real impact over time. That will snowball. I make it a part of my personal and business life now to find those opportunities and make sure that it’s not a one-time commitment, but an actual ongoing commitment to keep giving back in some form or fashion.
We can’t do enough these days. It’s coming at us quick, quicker than we anticipated. We got to do even more than maybe we were doing. If people want to follow up with you, where is the best way for them to reach out?
We’ve got our Instagram and Facebook pages. The Instagram is @Pale_Blue_Earth and Facebook is @PaleBlueEarth1. You can catch us there or go to our website and sign up for our emails. We won’t abuse your inbox, but we’ll send you important updates about what we’re doing. The email is a good place to keep up with us.
Tom, it’s been great chatting with you. Thanks for coming on.
Thanks, Rick. I appreciate this.
I’ll look forward to meeting you at the next show.
- Pale Blue Earth
- OnX Maps
- Fish For Garbage
- @Pale_Blue_Earth – Instagram
- @PaleBlueEarth1 – Facebook
About Thomas Bishop
I am a builder and problem solver; a business, product development, manufacturing and operations leader. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in bringing some amazing products to market with some of the best people and teams you could ever hope for and currently advise for Trova and BringIt.org.
I spent 11 years on the ground in China helping develop teams and products and supply chains and have lead some amazing teams here in the USA. My experience is broad across business, operations, development and creation of product combined with a hands-on holistic understanding of manufacturing.
I studied physics and materials science in school, and learned my craft by working on tough projects with tough people. I specialize in business and manufacturing love most building products and teams. The key to my success has been exceptionally good luck in landing with companies and working on products that I have personal passion for and to be surrounded with people with whom I share these common passions.
Specialties: Hardgoods and consumer products development, operations, manufacturing, team building and management, product development, product commercialization, contract manufacturing, Quality management, China-side supply chain management, manufacturing systems, organizational development, manufacturing process development and troubleshooting, fluency in Mandarin Chinese