Ancient trees show off their autumn hues as the first rays of sun pierce through the leaves, while a bird tweets from a nearby oak tree. It’s easy to be swept away by the simple wonders of nature. The comfort and warmth of a crackling fire or a deep valley that’s bathed in mist are moments we cherish when faced with the complexities of modern life.
From Apple CEO Tim Cook, who enjoys hiking in California, to Bill Gates’ famous ‘Think Week’, where he stays for a week at a time in a forest cabin, many executives have discovered the power of nature as an antidote to the effects of staring at screens for long periods of time.
For twin brothers Cam and Chris Grant, the question of how to bring urban dwellers in contact with nature on a regular basis ended up becoming their life’s work.
Chris Grant sat down with The CEO Magazine to discuss how the pair banded together to champion a new movement that’s seeing solar-powered, minimal impact cabins sprouting up in hidden corners around the globe.
As kids, the duo had plenty of access to natural bushland that served as their escape from daily stressors, but as adults, less time spent in nature was definitely felt.
“Unyoked spoke to a problem that both my brother and I were experiencing in working too long hours in city locations, spending way too much time in urban environments on computers and around fluorescent lights,” Grant tells The CEO Magazine. “We were feeling burnt out and we weren’t getting the access to nature that we used to have.”
“It’s a mission that most of the people that we talk to about partnerships or land deals or entering new markets understand very quickly.”
It’s a relatable problem, and the fact that they had been searching for years to build something together galvanized them to take action.
“Too many people are yoked to their desk, to the city, to their spreadsheets or their phones and not interacting with the natural world the way they should be,” Grant says.
While more than half of the world’s population resides in urban areas, for most of human history, humans have lived in small communities in less urbanized settings.
“Only over the past 200 years have we put ourselves into this concrete jungle,” Grant explains. “It’s a universal problem, and to be able to have the most impact, there needs to be a universal solution.”
Thanks to the pioneering work of the brothers, a mixed demographic across Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom can get a taste of off-the-grid living while soaking in the benefits remote, hand-picked locations have to offer.
“Just looking at a picture of a forest for 20 seconds can decrease your cortisol levels,” Grant says. “So imagine what it does if you go and sit among the trees for two days, taking yourself back to this environment that we have evolved in over hundreds of thousands of years.”
Leading the market – not following
Winning over potential investors and business partners was made easier by the strong mission that underpins the business and what it stands for – ‘unyoked’ loosely translates to ‘setting free’.
Whether you’re looking to work in a serene setting or escape from everyday matters entirely, the experience is intentionally crafted to slow you down and encourage you to savor each moment of Mother Nature’s presence. As the Unyoked website thoughtfully puts it, ‘Human nature needs nature’.
“It’s a mission that most of the people that we talk to about partnerships or land deals or entering new markets understand very quickly,” Grant says.
Since its 2017 inception, Unyoked has already tackled a number of milestones: one amassing a total of US$32 million in capital, another attracting celebrity attention, which Grant attributes to a lot of hustle and conversations.
“We’ve worked with Hollywood movie stars like Matthew McConaughey,” he reflects. “We’ve worked with award-winning music artists, with massive brands like Apple, with leading chefs and bartenders and riders and all sorts of cool people.”
For Grant, who has managerial experience in fast-growth startups and one of Australia’s largest retailers, replicating the most useful elements has been pivotal to moving Unyoked onto the world stage – something that has always been on the cards.
“We’re unlocking access to these areas that haven’t been accessible to the everyday person for a long time, and then putting the amenities of a small hotel there where you’d normally have to hike into it and camp and bring your own gear.”
Now, this is fast becoming a reality with more and more cabins becoming available in Great Britain as well as in European countries early next year. The expansion into two new global markets has not gone unnoticed. Last year the Co-Founders landed a coveted spot on The Australian’s Top 100 Innovators.
Of course, in carving out a new niche, you run the risk of not being understood by your audience or others replicating your blueprint. However, Grant divulges a couple of details that set Unyoked apart from emerging players in the market.
“Our cabins are consistently upgraded and tweaked so that the experience and the elements in the cabin are all designed to help you facilitate that interaction with nature and to help you get the most benefits from nature,” he says.
Careful not to give too much away, Grant admits that Unyoked’s secret sauce is bringing people into carefully considered secluded locations that fit their top secret criteria.
Having a team solely dedicated to the task of scouting for hidden natural environments suggests just how important this is, especially as the business continues to grow its presence in new markets.
“There’s a lot that goes into it,” he says. “We’re unlocking access to these areas that haven’t been accessible to the everyday person for a long time, and then putting the amenities of a small hotel there where you’d normally have to hike into it and camp and bring your own gear, which for a lot of people is a step too far.”
In saying that, a lot of work has also gone into educating guests so that they can gain the most value from their experience to bring back to the office or the boardroom. Grant likens a session in nature to a trip to the gym or meditating in terms of its value.
Picture a single room with a gas stove, bar fridge, composting toilet, shower, bedding and a wood burner – simple luxuries that create few, if any, distractions to be fully present with nature for at least two days.
“It’s amazing the feedback that we hear once people have gotten over the hump and let the experience happen and really feel the value from it,” says Grant.
Purpose + Science = Adoption
Leading with a science-based approach is not only critical to getting a broad range of people onboard with the concept, it’s also a point of difference from other accommodation providers.
Grant adds that the business ultimately exists to provide a link between the city and the country, with the cabins playing a secondary, yet necessary, role to achieving this goal.
While Unyoked has partnered with leading academics, the spirit of innovation is evident in the Co-Founders conducting their own research based on guests’ experiences. To take things one step further, they’ve recently announced on their Instagram page a new partnership with the world’s largest and most-used outdoor platform AllTrails for a scientific study.
“We’re sending high-performing people out to our cabins and then using a number of ways to measure their stress levels before and after their stays,” Grant explains.
As the conversation turns to Grant’s upcoming speaking engagement at Purpose Conference, it’s evident that he’s geared up to inspire a wider audience on the ups and downs of navigating uncharted terrain. “I’m really excited to be able to share some of the value that I’ve gained from this experience with a larger audience and with people who are interested in what we’re doing at Unyoked,” he says.
His most valuable piece of advice is: show up as yourself, even if that means wearing Birkenstocks in a conservative boardroom in the height of winter. After all, it’s about the impact you make on others.
“You don’t need to try anything too fancy,” he says. “We just got in touch with people, told them who we are and what we’re about, asked for a chat, and people have always been receptive and go from there.”
Purpose Conference is being held at Sydney’s iconic Carriageworks venue from 8–9 November. Tickets can be purchased here.