"The National Geographic of the digital age"
A deep dive into the history of Atlas Obscura and the community fueling it.
Downloading what we learned from an extraordinary community. ________ Issue #4
Atlas Obscura is my go-to source for surprising oddities.
The site has led me to a gate where pumpkins “meet their fate” near my apartment, a creepy “anti-monastery” hidden in a mountainside in Sicily, and an Esperanto museum in Vienna. Most of the 20,000+ Atlas entries were submitted by a passionate community of contributors and published in partnership with “A.O.” staff editors.
The idea for the Atlas came from a trip co-founder Joshua Foer took at 19 years old. He spent two months driving all over the United States sleeping in the back of a minivan with the goal of having “an adventure every day.”
Finding odd corners of the country was harder than he had expected. Joshua realized that to uncover hidden wonders, he would need strangers to disclose them to him. Years later, Joshua would launch Atlas Obscura (“A.O.”) with his co-founder Dylan Thuras to solve this problem.
Today, Atlas Obscura is on its way to becoming the “the National Geographic of the digital age.” Millions of people visit the website each month, and the company’s revenue comes from a diversity of sources–ads and sponsorships, yes, but also experiences and highly-rated trips.
Ten years since its launch, Atlas remains fueled by a community of super contributors. Last year, the company announced that Airbnb led a $20-million funding round. Airbnb would integrate Atlas Obscura into its website and apps, and take a leading role in expanding the tech giant’s travel experience offerings.
In this case study, we’ll dig into how the founders kickstarted the contributions to Atlas Obscura, and how they’ve grown the business and community without losing the early magic.
How Atlas Obscura attracted early contributors
Before launching Atlas Obscura, Joshua Foer ran a now defunct blog called the "Athanasius Kircher Society," dedicated to the 17th-century German Jesuit polymath who published a wide range of books on topics like biblical studies and biology.
Dylan Thuras loved the blog, so when Joshua put out a call for someone to help him with the society’s first (and only) meeting in January 2007, Dylan replied. “We had a packed house, and The New Yorker did a Talk of the Town piece,” Dylan recalled. “On top of that, we really enjoyed working together and found kindred spirits.”
Soon afterward, Joshua and Dylan began working together on a unique type of atlas that would be filled with things not typically shown in guidebooks. As Joshua recalled, his blog Athanasius Kircher “remains the patron saint of Atlas Obscura.”
The two hired a web designer in 2008 and launched the first version of Atlas Obscura in 2009.
According to early employee Seth Teicher, the first hundred or so places were added by “brute force” by the co-founders, with their orbit of curious friends also contributing entries. Then on June 15th, Josh officially announced the Atlas project on the blog Boing Boing with a rallying cry: “We're counting on you, Boing Boing readers, to help us fill out the map and document all of the world's wonders and curiosities!” When new people came to the site, they saw existing entries as examples and were encouraged to add their own.
This “collaborative project” wasn’t meant to be the business it’s become. As Joshua told Boston Magazine: “We created it almost like an art project. We made it for people like us, who want to know about wondrous and curious spots around the world.” But the idea resonated right away. Within the first year, Atlas Obscura was organically attracting and sustaining 200,000 unique visitors a month. Most crucially, as Seth shared with me, “a lot of people came back. From the very beginning, our time on site was really, really high, so we had a lot of very engaged users,” including a handful of folks that were on the site almost daily creating and editing entries. The Atlas was alive.
P&C Tip: Retention data will help you see your community with clear, objective eyes.
Communities are simply groups of people who keep coming together over what they care about. (The most vibrant ones offer members a chance to act on their passions with each other.)
Do you have the chance to grow a community like Atlas Obscura did? Early retention data will answer that question with brutal honesty. If people aren’t coming back—your potential members aren’t “retained”–you don’t have the spark for a community, yet.
How Atlas Obscura connected a community
In its first year, Atlas Obscura was just a wiki with a unique lens: documenting the weird and wondrous places that are hidden in plain sight.
Atlas transformed from a mere wiki into a community because of an in-person event the team first hosted in 2010 called Obscura Day—“a day of expeditions, back-room tours, and hidden treasures in your own hometown.”
Seth Teicher, who produced the first Obscura Day, explained to me that the event’s primary goal was to make Atlas Obscura’s purpose and community of users more real than it would ever feel sitting on a computer screen:
“It was pretty clear to us that if we escaped the web and showed people what was hidden in plain sight, that they would be like, ‘Holy shit! There's an endless amount of this!’ We would all feel in alignment as a community about how real this is and what Atlas stands for in a way that would never be possible through our screens.”
Obscura Day reinforced the vision that there's wonder everywhere—not just in far-off places like Russia or Bhutan, but in your city or town too. In doing so, the event brought members of the community into vivid life for one another. Early users were able to meet other folks who were “just like them,” who shared their passion for seeing the world with a lens of wonder.
The event was a huge success. It was promoted by media outlets like National Geographic and four thousand people at 80 different events in 20 countries gathered together to explore the odd corners of their world that day. According to Dylan, attendees “Tweeted about it, shared it on their blogs and on Facebook, and posted hundreds of photos to Flickr and videos to YouTube,” helping to spread the word about Atlas Obscura.
The event also seeded a few future revenue streams for the site. The small team proved to themselves that they could host events and experiences that they could charge money for, and even get sponsorship to help fund the bootstrapped project.
P&C Tip: Kindred spirits operating in silos aren’t a community (yet!).
Whether online or IRL, communities form around shared activities. No matter if you’re a community that comes together to test recipes, navigate personal finances, or celebrate the clouds, your members can only realize their community’s purpose through this thing they do together.
There are three principles for designing a great shared activity like Obscura Day. Read about those here.
Growing without losing the magic
The vision for Atlas Obscura was never to “scale” the site. If Atlas Obscura didn’t appeal to every type of person, that was okay with the original team. Instead, the team’s goal was to build the company so that their community would continue to love it.
That vision remains true today. The services and tools that Atlas Obscura invests in only supercharge their community’s passion for wonder.
As the site received more and more location submissions, they’ve hired editors to help community submissions come to life and fact checkers to ensure truthfulness. In our podcast interview with Jonathan Carey, the Associate Places Editor and Community Headmaster at Atlas Obscura, he shares the incredible length that his team goes to to make sure contributors to Atlas are treated with the care a staff writer would receive at a typical publication. As Jonathan notes, “We really lean all the way in for our community so they feel that they’re working with us and not working for us.”
In addition to doubling down on the support contributors to the Atlas receive, the A.O. team has also published a few best-selling books of their community’s contributions, thus spotlighting and spreading them to thousands of readers around the world.
As they launched their highly successful group trips and experience businesses, they kept community members at the center, too. When editors like Jonathan notice that a community member has an expertise in a topic or place, they’ll flag that person to the Atlas Travel team who will often ask these special members to lead an experience, guide a trip, or host an event that Atlas Obscura puts on.
Most remarkably, Atlas Obscura recently announced their CEO was stepping down and turned to their community in lieu of traditional recruitment. They put out a call for the site’s community members to help select the new CEO, telling The Daily Beast that the decision was in keeping with Atlas’ decade-long focus on drawing from its community of users.
P&C Tip: Approach community building as progressive acts of collaboration — doing more with others every step of the way.
Inspiration: An evergreen reason to come together
From the earliest days of Atlas Obscura, the team behind it knew that if they could change the way people saw the world, that would add a meaningful dimension to their lives. It can seem that all of the world’s treasures have been documented and catalogued, but Atlas Obscura restores a sense of awe and wonder and reminds us that there are still places to discover.
Atlas Obscura’s community continues to connect over the pursuit of inspiration ten years after the site’s launch. To visit Atlas Obscura, whether to learn or contribute, means “putting yourself into an active state of wonder seeking.” That active state of wonder is what draws people back to Atlas Obscura over and over.
I respect Atlas because they’ve stayed true to their community (their “who”) and their purpose (their “why”) as they’ve grown, not getting seduced by scale at all costs or punditry about how to build a typical publication. As Seth told me:
“The only thing that matters is that we are super committed to our community and that the ethos of wonder translates.
If you’re loyal to the ethos and the passion of the company, and if you stay really close and intimate with your community, then you're going to make something amazing and they're never going to leave you.”
That clarity is what keeps Atlas’ community so passionate about the site and the brand ten years later. If they can hold their purpose and community close, I suspect they’ll still be beloved by their community for years to come.
More on all things People & Company and Get Together here.
We published a book, host a podcast, and coach organizations on how to make smarter bets with their community-building investments.