Interview with Arron Kallenberg, Wild Alaskan Company

Slide introducing an interview with Arron Kallenberg of Wild Alaskan Company

Can you tell us a little bit about your background/history that has led you to this point?

I hail from three generations of commercial salmon fishermen in Alaska. My grandfather, Robert C. Kallenberg, pioneered the family’s sea-loving destiny by moving to Alaska in 1926 and began commercial fishing in Bristol Bay on a wooden sailboat. Such was his passion for understanding and protecting the salmon species that he returned to the East Coast to earn a master's degree from Cornell University, with a thesis titled "A Study of the Red Salmon of Bristol Bay with Particular Reference to Teaching its Conservation." He would return to Alaska to plant roots, serve on the Alaska Fisheries Board, and pass on his wisdom to anyone who would listen.

The fish fervor didn’t end with my grandfather, as one of his sons Walt — my dad — proudly took the baton and designed and built the family’s second commercial fishing boat, the Mary K, upon which he captained and fished commercially for decades on the wild and blustering waters of Bristol Bay. 

As a kid, I was obsessed with computers, to the point that I’d take my laptop out to sea with my dad in the mid-90s and use a dial-up modem connected to a sea phone to surf the web. In time, I’d turn my hobby into a career in software engineering. And the more I learned about the global food system and technology, the more clear it became to me that I could use the internet to subvert the status quo and connect consumers directly to sustainably-sourced, wild-caught seafood. 

Tell us about your product/brand and the inspiration behind it?

Wild Alaskan Company is a membership service that delivers high-quality seafood from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, directly to our members’ doorsteps. We provide premium wild-caught, sustainable seafood, in ready-to-cook portions, and ship it directly to members — making it easy to eat healthy and elevate one’s at-home seafood cooking game.

As an Alaskan, I was lucky enough to grow up eating some of the most delicious, nutrient-dense food on the planet, so you could say my inspiration for the brand/product was to help make the bounty of Alaska easily available and accessible to people all over the country. Ironically, now that I live in Brooklyn, I am one of Wild Alaskan’s most avid members. So I am most definitely also scratching my own itch.

A feast of wild alaskan salmon on colorful plates

How does sustainability play a role in your brand/product development? How important has this been to consumers?

Sustainability is without a doubt one of the key pillars of our brand. As a proud Alaskan, where the tenets of sustainability are literally written into the state constitution, I feel strongly about taking all cues from Alaska’s gold standard of respect for nature. The very mission of Wild Alaskan Company is to steward the relationship between sustainable seafood and people; and our mission is driven by the prospect of service – to consumers, to fish, to fishermen and fisherwomen, to the planet and to the oneness of the whole system.

What are your thoughts on the future role sustainability plays both professionally in business and in our everyday lifestyle choices, in regard to the future health of our planet?

I see sustainability as elemental to every aspect of our lives, including — and especially with regard to — in our businesses and professions. For that reason, we aim to show by example how it is not only possible but critical to behave conscientiously as a part of the food supply chain; and to prove the viability of distributing quality products that are directed and dictated by the natural cycles, and to demonstrate that it is possible to be profitable in a responsible manner.

Some of the natural beauty around Alaska

How does technology and innovation play a role in your business?

Our objective is to use technology to inspire and facilitate a sense of synchrony with nature, a balance. And in that process, to teach people that eating wild, sustainably harvested seafood is a way of not only honoring their bodies, but also the planet. In this way, we milk technology not only as a means to foster the idea of eating in accordance with the rhythms of the seas – but to always remain faithful to the principles of sustainability innate to a supply driven food system.

What does wilderness mean to you?

That’s easy — wilderness to me means home. It means running along the shores of Kachemak Bay as a kid, alongside pods of beluga whales. It means floating on icebergs in the spring, kayaking to remote Alaskan islands, building beach fires with my best friends and sleeping on the beach under the aurora borealis. It means being out on a commercial fishing boat — which we used to call “aquatic incarceration” — for six weeks at a time, and bearing witness to the cycles of life, especially the salmon, the spiritual lifeblood of multiple ecosystems.

Grizzlies in the Alaskan waters

Do you have a favorite item, it may be an heirloom handed down from a grandparent, friend or relative of some kind, that has great meaning to you?

I have a tattered old one-eyed teddy bear whose name is “Paw” — one of the only items I have kept from my youth in Alaska. Now that I spend so much time in New York, having Paw’s one eye always on me is a great reminder of where I am from.

If you had to choose one place to live with only the basics available to you where would it be and what would you take with you apart from the obvious survival gear?

My hometown, Homer, Alaska, which is often called “the cosmic hamlet by the sea.” I’d bring my wife, a snowboard, my favorite book Antifragile (which I read once a year), a set of pastels or paints and a sketchbook, and music/speakers.

Some of the beautiful, scenic landscape in Bristol Bay

Imagine that 25 years from now you are looking back on your life, what would be the legacy that you would hope for your brand to leave behind? 

Growing up my father always said “try not to do anything that looks too stupid 10,000 years from now.” When I look back, I hope to have been able to properly demonstrate what it means to live in concert with nature, and what it means to be led by our love of the planet and our ongoing commitment to be in its service.

What message do you have for those starting their own business in regards to sustainability and innovation?

Starting a business is easy. Lots of people start businesses. Waking up every morning and running a business is very difficult. Moreover, it is an art that if done well will humble you in the most profound ways. I use the word “art” because the very nature of creation requires that you challenge the status quo. It necessitates continuously pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. To make matters worse, you must simultaneously contend with entropy (i.e. maintenance costs) that inevitably come with growth.

Most businesses that survive birth tend to reach an equilibrium that is dictated by the superficial limits of the people who run those businesses rather than the natural limits of the market. The artificial suppression of growth is bad for everyone. If a business does not continually strive to be in concert with the market and natural laws then it cannot be truly sustainable — simply because it will not survive to reach its true potential. 

If you already live in a perfect world and you’re confident that things will never devolve, then you can sit back and relax. In such a world there is nothing new to create, build or scale. But, if things could be better then you have a responsibility to take action. It is essential that you be brutally honest with yourself. I ask myself: will the same actions, thoughts, behaviors, and habits that brought me to this point — my current equilibrium — allow me to keep growing, to become even more in sync with the market, natural laws and the universe?

The process is never-ending. It holds true regardless of the stage of maturation. So innovation, which I equate with growth, demands that you constantly take risks and sacrifice what you’ve already built to adapt and reinvent yourself. Of course, in business, this process includes taking calculated financial risks. However, the most challenging and rewarding risks are not financial — they are emotional and deeply personal.

True sustainability is the result of embracing personal growth, respecting and acting in concert with nature and the market’s natural limits — all while overcoming your own self imposed limits. Wild salmon, human beings and companies all have a natural life cycle. It is equally important to remember that they all eventually die. As morbid as it sounds, death is how the whole of life becomes stronger. The trick isn’t to stay alive forever, but to live your absolute best life and, once you’ve milked it for all that it’s worth, die well leaving the world in a better place from which the whole process can begin anew.

A Wild Alaskan salmon meal delivery kit

Do you have a quote, saying or poem you find inspirational and what is it?

“Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.”

 - Nassim Taleb

What brands do you admire?

Tesla and SpaceX because of the personal risks Elon Musk has taken and the human potential the brands represent. Patagonia for its conservation efforts and transparency regarding forced labor. Boeing back when they were more focused on making airplanes than money. Dr. Bronner's because their copy makes me contemplate life in the shower.

A Wild Alaskan fishing boat and a meal fresh on the plate

How important do you think transparency and authenticity in brands is to consumers?

I think it’s crucial. Anything of real value in my view starts from the truth. Without transparency and authenticity, not only in business but also in all aspects of our lives, everything is mostly noise. By being candid, heartfelt and real we poise ourselves to truly engage in a manner that transcends simple transaction and becomes an actual dialogue.

Can you tell us something about your personal journey that might surprise us to know?

The first time I saw a fish die as a child, I ran away crying — utterly gutted by the sudden revelation that is part and parcel of the food chain’s inevitable tragedy.

A Wild Alaskan plated meal

What is your favorite animal and why?

I suppose it has to be salmon, the legacy of my family and the great catalyst of my whole life.

What is one thing you would be willing to or have already given up with the health of the planet in mind?

I don’t eat meat from land-based animals because I have no personal experience slaughtering those creatures. I am a strict pescatarian.