James Poetzscher

Founder of Greenhouse Maps

James Poetzscher is a young software developer who is passionate about climate change and using satellite data to map greenhouse gases. He is the force behind Greenhouse Maps, a website that displays information about atmospheric pollutants tracked by satellite. James is known for his work with the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), endeavoring to analyze how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected atmospheric pollution around the world. James has written several in-depth articles on the topic for prominent media outlets.

Where did the idea for Greenhouse Maps come from?

For a while I was interested in seeing a global map of various greenhouse gases and air pollutants to get a sense of where the hotspots are and the general concentration of each gas worldwide. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find anything that resembled a global map of air pollutant or greenhouse gas concentrations. Instead, I decided that I should create these maps myself using satellite data and I figured that a website would provide a great medium to display these maps.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I’m typically working on multiple projects at a time and so in order to ensure I use my time productively I will set goals for each project for the upcoming week. Then, I’ll allocate my time in a way I see fit each day to complete as many tasks as I can. I will often complete a few tasks from one project and then divert my attention to another task and complete those goals. This helps me avoid the stage of working on a project where I just endlessly struggle with a certain task. Once I hit a road bump and have spent a decent amount of time trying to solve it, I’ll switch to a different project to ensure I remain productive rather than just endlessly trying to solve an issue that might be easier to solve if I come back to it later.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I’ll often have a bunch of ideas for new projects in my head and I really like to create a map of where the idea will lead me and how I’ll execute on it. For example, when building my website I had this idea of creating the maps, and I started mapping out the ideal following steps; soon enough I had envisioned the entire website, complete with the articles and learn sections I’ve added.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I think the growing interest in satellite data is one of the most exciting trends for me. Google Earth Engine makes working with satellite data so easy and I think that this, along with a growing interest in air pollution and climate change has led to a real jump in interest in satellite data. Before the pandemic, I’d hardly seen any articles featuring satellite data such as from the Sentinel-5P satellite, but during the pandemic, with the huge interest in the global decline in air pollution, major outlets began publishing articles featuring satellite data (including some of my work). I think this has further sparked the interest in satellite data. We have so much satellite data covering all sorts of interesting topics and I think that as more people utilize it we will really be able to discover the almost endless possibilities that satellite data provides.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I always like to have a map of where I’d like to be in a few months time and then plot out how I plan to get there. I find that when I have multiple goals to work towards, and actionable steps to get there all planned out, I’m able to spend my time wisely and really make progress in achieving my goals.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would probably just say that no matter what project you embark on there’s always going to be a similar timeline. You first begin the project with a sort of naïve optimism where you expect that everything works out perfectly, just as you envision. Then you hit the trough and realize that the project is challenging and at times you feel like you don’t know how to overcome the hurdles you’re facing. Finally, once you push through that challenging phase you enter a stage where you’re really able to work quickly and productively to carry out your project. I think that I would tell my self that it’s crucial that in the trough phase you don’t give up and instead, relentlessly pursue solutions.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

I think that if you have envisioned a project you can build it, regardless of your current skills. I created my website using programming skills that I developed along the way and I created the maps for my website, working with satellite data that I’d never worked with before, working with programming languages and concepts that I’d never previously explored and generally working with software and technology that was completely foreign to me. I think people often believe that their current skills are a barrier to entry with certain projects, yet I’ve found that people have an incredible ability to learn what they need to know as they move through a project.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I’ve always really scrutinized my work to figure out what improvements could be made. I find that once you build something you’re happy with, try to re-imagine what that product would look like in an ideal world. Then try to revise or build on the project to create the ideal version of it that you envisioned. Doing this repeatedly has enabled me to massively improve my maps, website and other projects.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

I’ve found that a great strategy for driving more traffic to my website has been getting media coverage. I’ve spent the past few months mapping the global decrease in nitrogen dioxide due to the COVID-19 induced lockdowns, and these maps have appeared in notable outlets such as Reuters, the BBC and the Independent. Getting this sort of press coverage for my related work has enabled me to attract an audience to my website that otherwise might not have found it.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I remember hitting a two-month blockade where I was almost going to give up. I was trying to create my maps of global air pollutants and was getting nowhere. There was no one to reach out to for support, I had about 200 tabs open each of which led me nowhere and I was really struggling to see how I could create these maps. But I decided that there must be a solution, it can’t be impossible, and so I just continued to search for solutions. It might sound silly but for me I overcame the issue by opening another 100 tabs and reading through every last detail. Eventually I found a solution.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

One idea I’ve had for a while is to set up a network of low cost air pollution sensors that people can attach to their phones. I think this could enable us to do widespread, high-resolution mapping of global greenhouse gas levels in a way that tons of businesses and government agencies would find incredibly useful.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Over the past few months I’ve probably spent $100 dollars on Adobe Photoshop, Canva, and Venggage, three graphic design services. I think that’s been an incredible use of money. Whether it’s my maps that I create for media outlets or images for my own website, I think it’s crucial that everything you do looks beautiful. I’ve found that with these tools I’m really able to make images or designs just as I imagined them in my mind. I never imagined that I would use them so often but now I find that no matter what I’m working on I always use one of these tools to improve some design or image that I’m working on.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I’ve mentioned multiple times that I like to create maps of how I want my ideas to come to life. I find that brainstorming website that enable me to map out each step and how one step flows into another are really helpful in envisioning a plan for a project. I’m sure lots of these websites or apps exist but I’ve found MindMeister to be really great. It’s easy to use and allows you to create any sort of mental map you could imagine.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I find the book “Just for Fun” by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond fascinating and incredibly important right now. The book discusses how Torvalds created LINUX, an open-source operating system that is core to everything related to the internet and computers. Almost all the work I’ve done so far has relied on free/open-source software/data, and I’m quite confident that free/open-source software/data will continue to revolutionize every aspect of our life (bitcoin, programming languages, data, artificial intelligence). The amount of free/open-source data is incredible, and I wish people would use the virtually infinite amount of data for exciting projects, which could have really positive and significant impacts.

What is your favorite quote?

“Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

I think this quote is so crucial for anyone looking to start a business, a website or simply work on a passion project. I’ve always found that when you think you’ve hit rock-bottom and feel like giving up you’re pretty close to finding the solution. I think this image really goes well with that quote.

Key Learnings:

  • Map out your ideas in detail by creating actionable steps to take you to your ideal end goal.
  • When you think you’ve finished working on a project, try to envision what that project looks like in an ideal world and then look to improve it so that it reaches that ideal.
  • When you hit the trough of a project stick with it because eventually you’ll break through that trough and reach a point where everything begins working smoothly.