From Iceland — The Islanders: In The Heat Of The Moment

The Islanders: In The Heat Of The Moment

Published July 18, 2023

The Islanders: In The Heat Of The Moment
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Ragga Ágústsdóttir turned her obsession into a family business

We meet Ragnhildur Ágústsdóttir on a day when a swarm of earthquakes is shaking the Icelandic capital. Ragga, as her friends call her, eagerly awaits the reawakening of the giant that has been stirring in recent years on the Reykjanes peninsula. Her passion for volcanoes and lava is truly infectious. 

Ragga wears many hats as a co-founder of Lava Show, an educational exhibition showcasing Iceland’s volcanic history by recreating volcanic eruptions indoors. She’s a devoted “lava ambassador,” business consultant, a mom of three and an avid golfer — believe it or not, the Grapevine managed to steal her away for an interview right from the middle of a golfing tournament! 

I really like golfing, spending time with the kids and hiking. Golf helps me disconnect and relax a little bit. I get relaxation from golfing that I don’t get from many other things. This particular week, almost all of the golf clubs in Iceland have their own major tournament. But the volcano started shaking again, and it’s really disturbing my golf game!

Volcanic obsession

My husband Júlíus and I witnessed the volcanic eruption in Fimmvörðuháls back in 2010. There was almost a 200-metre-high lava wall — incredible scenery with the contrast between the lava, the snow and the black, cooling off lava on the cliffs. It was just insane. Incredibly mesmerising! We started talking about how cool it could be to recreate that scenario safely and make it possible for everyone to see lava whenever they want. That’s what we did. It sounds super simple, but it was very complex. 

Our lives changed dramatically back in 2011 when our sons were diagnosed with autism. That made us think that we were not going to do anything crazy; we’re just going to focus on the boys and help them as much as possible. So instead of continuing with the idea, we changed courses — I founded a charity organisation for autistic children and was very focused on that for the first few years.

“While we had the idea, we were neither engineers nor geologists and didn’t have the know-how to melt lava.”

In 2015, we came across a video on YouTube of two scientists from Syracuse University in the USA who were melting lava for science. They were doing it very irregularly — once every few weeks or months. At least they knew how to do it. While we had the idea, we were neither engineers nor geologists and didn’t have the know-how to melt lava. We contacted those scientists on a Thursday evening, saying, “we’re a couple from Iceland and we have a business idea. We would love to meet and talk about it. When is your next lava pour?” They replied that it was the following Monday. We were crazy enough to buy flight tickets and just go.

We had some good sessions with them and ended up asking them if they wanted to be part of our idea. They were super excited! One of them is now a full-blown partner and a shareholder. The other one wanted to take a little less active role — he’s on the advisory board. 

The lava know-how

The scientists came in with the know-how, but it was our turn to get the business plan going. We participated in the Gulleggid Startup Competition and Startup Reykjavík startup accelerator and got a lot of attention. 

Everybody thought the idea was great, but honestly, I don’t think anybody believed that we would ever be able to pull it off. On the last day of Startup Reykjavík, we flew in one of the scientists and did a demo. He melted a little bit of lava and poured it over ice in front of everyone. It ended up on the front page of Fréttablaðið, the biggest newspaper in Iceland [at the time].

Many people told us to do a proof of concept since this has never been done before. To run a business from it and have lava pours many times a day is a difficult process. We got a few small grants and decided to buy a furnace. A few weeks later, we were offered to be part of a new facility in Vík. That’s why we opened in Vík. We had to completely renovate the house to work for our business — we needed a pretty advanced ventilation system since we’re melting lava up to almost 1300º Celsius. When we pour it into the showroom, it’s 1100º Celsius. So, it’s very, very hot! 

The first time we called the head of the fire department in Vík, he said, “I don’t know if I will give you all the permissions. Just do what you need to do and then show me.” We went through a lot of all kinds of security measures. In our show in Vík, we use lava from the 1918 Katla eruption. It has a very personal connection to our family story. The show tells the story of Júlíus’ great-grandfather escaping that eruption. 

Long-distance family and entrepreneurship

My husband resigned from his job and started working on this full-time at the beginning of January 2016. We opened in September 2018. We decided I would work elsewhere and he would lead Lava Show. I was supposed to support the family financially because he was not getting any salary. At first, I worked for Microsoft, then Controlant. It’s a massive milestone that I was able to quit last March. Now I’m working full-time for Lava Show with my husband.

We opened in Vík, but we live in Reykjavík. We didn’t move because our boys have special needs and they receive a lot of services in Reykjavík that they would not have been able to get in Vík. We had been doing long-distance for almost four years.

When we opened, we put all our money into Lava Show. We were convinced that we had something amazing. But the thing is — we didn’t have any money left to market the show. For the first few weeks and months, Júlíus was doing the show for five people. But those five people that did come were absolutely mesmerised. That’s how we built the business just by word of mouth. 

“Everybody thought the idea was great, but honestly, I don’t think anybody believed that we would ever be able to pull it off.”

From the beginning, we’ve gotten amazing reviews and won some awards for innovation. Slowly but steadily, it started getting busier and busier. And then COVID hit. That prolonged the time that Júlíus had to be Vík because we had to cut down on cost. He was doing almost all the shows, and I was in Reykjavík working and taking care of the kids. We thought it was a great idea to have a third child at the same time as we opened Lava Show. It was an insane time but also a lot of fun, especially when you start to see the results of all your hard work. We managed to get out of COVID and opened another exhibition in Reykjavík in November. This is our first summer and it’s starting really well! 

Watch Ragga as she further explains the wonders of lava on our YouTube channel @TheReykjavikGrapevine

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