Startups

Foer Square! The Boy Genius Builds a Web Guide to Points Unknown

atlas obscura1 Foer Square! The Boy Genius Builds a Web Guide to Points UnknownIn 2007, Joshua Foer, the youngest of the fabulous Foer brothers, was looking for an intern to help organize meetings for the Athanasius Kircher Society, his blog devoted to arcane and forgotten objects. Dylan Thuras, a frequent reader of the blog, was the only person to volunteer. Shortly after joining forces, Thuras left New York to spend a year in Hungary. Unable to find a good guide to the country’s stranger destinations, Thuras emailed Foer for his input, and Atlas Obscura was born.  

Think of Atlas Obscura as a well-edited wiki to catalog, as the site puts it, “all of the singular, eccentric, bizarre, fantastical, and strange out-of-the-way places that get left out of traditional travel guidebooks.” Users send in tips about odd destinations—a multi-hued river in Colombia or a naturally occurring lighthouse made of ice, for example—and the Obscura team edits and publishes the entries online.

Last month, Josh Foer and Dylan Thuras finally got their first paycheck since they started the website. “I’m surprised every time I look at my bank balance. Even though it is probably still less than minimum wage, it’s an amazing feeling to get paid by your own company,” Mr. Thuras said.

When Foer and Thuras first launched Atlas Obscura back in 2009, they considered getting venture capital funding. Although an infusion of cash was tempting, they ultimately decided it wasn’t the right fit for their site because they felt that their business model was especially reliant on content and they didn’t expect to grow at a rate that would make any outside investor happy.

“VC money really didn’t make any sense to us, and I think that is true of a lot of companies,” Mr. Thuras said.

Thuras and Foer realized that they would never have the scale for traditional web ads but figured they could leverage their particularly exotic brand to attract advertisers who wanted to target a niche demographic.

They started the site with $30,000 in loans from family and friends and decided to target advertisers whose messages dovetailed with the site’s ethos. Past sponsors have included Dos Equis, with its “most interesting man in the room” campaign, and Palladium Boots’ “urban exploration” campaign.

They recently signed Hendricks Gin, whose tagline is “a most unusual gin,” as a sponsor. The package Hendricks bought includes sponsoring drink specials at ten events during the second annual Obscura Day, on April 9. The spawling festival, organized by the website, is a one-day flurry of events in 69 cities across the globe, aimed at giving people a chance to explore places listed on the site.

Currently, the site features banner ads for Hendricks Gin and free promotional ads for Mr. Foer’s new book, Moonwalking With Einstein, a memoir of becoming the first-place winner of the U.S. Memory Championship.

Mr. Foer has been promoting the book, and Mr. Thuras is hopeful that the attention will spill onto the website. “Josh is in the process of transitioning into a public figure,” Mr. Thuras said.  “Josh is great. He has a professional writer’s restraint but also this attitude of making this whole thing seem not impossible.”

In some ways, they seem like an unusual pair. Mr. Thuras, a Bennington graduate who lives in Greenpoint, works part time as a techie at Cooper Union. Mr. Foer is a science writer  who lives in New Haven, where his wife is a med student at Yale.

The partners got a lot closer last fall when they spent a month exploring exotic places in South America that readers had alerted them to. In a seven part series in Slate, Mr. Foer wrote about the trip and Mr. Thuras took photos and video.

The Atlas founders are currently in the process of signing a contract with Workman Publishing for what they envision as a “weird guide that you would find tucked behind a dusty tome.”

“The book will bring things to a whole other level,” Mr. Thuras said. “We are still getting our footing and making this into a real company. It started as a fun project, so it is really crazy to realize it is going to be what I do for a long time.”

Tags: Startups