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Hey, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. It’s a project where entrepreneurs come to teach you how they build their businesses.
How did a tree-hugging do-gooder launch a blog that sold for a reported $10 million? That’s the big question for this interview here today. I see you in your eyes, Graham, are popping out. Joining me today is Graham Hill. He is the founder of Treehugger.com, a content site that covers sustainability. He launched the business in 2003 and sold it to Discovery Communications four years later. I want to ask him how he did it and about his current project, LifeEdited.com. Graham, welcome to Mixergy.
Graham: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Andrew: The $10 million, I kept seeing it was reported, believed. Is that number official or do you talk about what the official number is?
Graham: Usually when you do a deal you’re not really at liberty to make those numbers public and this is one of those cases.
Andrew: OK. How much did you invest to launch the business?
Graham: Well, in typical fashion, you don’t count your own time, because if you did you’d probably never do anything, but I think I had about 150 out the door maximum at any time, so I kept it pretty tight. I guess what helped with that was that I had revenue fairly quickly, so it was very inexpensive to do.
Andrew: When you say 150, do you mean $150 or $150,000?
Andrew: $150,000. Alright. I’ll find out about the previous business you ran which enabled you to invest in this company. At it’s height, just before the sale actually, I should say, give me a sense of where the business was. What were the page views? Were you profitable? Then we’ll go back and find out how you got there.
Graham: I’m 40 now, my memory’s starting to fail me. I think we were at about a couple million uniques at that point in time, probably three to five million page use per month, but I could be fairly off. We were definitely profitable and I think we were around a million in revenue at that point. It was a good little business and we could have continued on like that for a good while, absolutely.
Andrew: I called it a blog. Did it start off as a blog?
Andrew: It did.
Graham: Yes, very much so. That’s what enabled this thing to happen. All of a sudden there was a cheap, easy, virtual technology that made publishing work and allowed me to build a virtual company with people all over the world who were contributing on the same platform for not a lot of money. That’s what really enabled it.
Andrew: That’s the dream that a lot of bloggers had and a little bit less today, still have. How many people were you at the business before you sold?
Graham: I think we were around ten probably, full-timers. We had probably 40-50 stringers around the world, very part-time. Yeah, so this is fairly small.
Andrew: And the stringers, I guess, were getting paid per article.
Graham: Yeah. That was part of the beauty of this, I mean, a lot of variable cost, so people were paid per post and then with the traffic responses.
Andrew: All right. I mentioned you had a previous business. It was called SiteWerks, with S-I-T-E-W-E-R-K-S, SiteWerks.
Graham: That’s the fancy spelling, yep.
Andrew: When did you launch SiteWerks, and what was it?
Graham: The way that that came about, I studied architecture five years, then product design a couple of years in Vancouver with Karl. on what we called the Pine, so early days, green character screen type thing. We had one computer in the library that had Mosaic so it was the first time I saw the graphical web. And so, I basically saw that and I’d been doing multimedia type stuff, and I was like, that was it. I want to work in that space. I love the e-mail, and I was into the multimedia and saw it, and that was it.
I started looking around, figuring out how I could get involved in Vancouver, and there just wasn’t that much happening. My cousin, Tish Hill, had moved down to Seattle, and there was a lot more happening there, obviously. And so, I basically packed up one day after school, rode my motorcycle down to Seattle, bunked in with Tish, and we set about starting a company. It was a lot of evangelizing.
This was about May, ’95, I think, when I went down, and we ended up… We pushed lots of breakfast meetings and tried to make this thing go. Then, she had a job with US West, the phone company. I ended up getting in there. So we started doing some work, just figuring it out, really learning from a handful of books, including contractors.
Eventually she landed a contract job at Microsoft, and we got to pitch Microsoft on a project. That was our lucky break. They said yes. It was an $11,000 project. I remember thinking that was an incredible amount of money. Long story short, we did millions of dollars of business. We did good work, and so Microsoft gave us a lot of business. We sort of grew with them and grew with lots of other companies.
Over three years we grew to 60 people profitably on cash flow. We did get a $30,000 loan at one point. We sold in ’98 to a company called Bound which is a New York financial printer worth about a billion dollars. They print financial prospectuses. That was the first business. I learned a lot about building websites and made enough money that it gave me some luxury of really thinking about what I wanted to do next.
Andrew: I kind of asked you about that to set up the back story for TreeHugger, but the more I hear about SiteWerks the more I want to learn more about it. I almost feel like we should do a whole hour long interview on just SiteWerks. Let’s just spend a little more time in this interview to understand it. What was the work that you did for Microsoft?
Graham: For a long time and I’m sure it’s still now, like people assume the Microsoft do all of their own web work. Well, that wasn’t the case. They were really focusing on how to build software, but they weren’t really focused on the website. We took part in putting some of the first database websites on Microsoft, and so, of course, there were a ton.
And so, it’s just like your typical story. You’ve get a foot in the door and do a good job, and it’s a big company and this was the infamous Bill Gates memo, “Let’s get on this Internet thing.” There was a lot of demand, and we had a really great gang, did really good work and we were a real full service design, project management, heavy database. We were just able to do a ton of work with little marketing necessary because we’d just get job after job from them.
Andrew: What was the database work? I’m sorry I don’t understand that part.
Graham: Well, some websites, so many these days use databases.
Andrew: Oh, I see. You were doing the front end, the design that users saw and the back end, the database that kept all the data in order.
Graham: Yeah. Having all of those in-house was… I was lucky. I caught a big trend.
Andrew: Were the two of you able to most of the work by yourselves in the beginning?
Graham: We were a step ahead of the clients pretty much. Tish and I just were good at hiring people smarter than ourselves, and so, no, immediately the first job we brought in… Tish was able to find some great programmers, Carl Lipo [SP] and Tim Hunt who, I think, ended up doing all of the [??] I found. We just got people that knew what to do and contractors for the longest time we tried to get by, and then slowly ended up hiring people.
Andrew: You know, Graham, if I were sitting in the audience listening to that, I’d be thinking to myself, wait, they just got a job from Microsoft, a project from Microsoft, that they ended up farming out to these other developers. What was it that the two co-founders did? Why couldn’t Microsoft have hired people, or why couldn’t the person in the audience, if they happened to be there at the time, have done it? What did you bring beyond just the finding of the developers?
Graham: Well, I mean we were very involved in the project. The early ones, I did a bunch of those HTML myself.
Andrew: The HTML yourself, uh-huh.
Graham: I directed it, so we were essentially the project managers and promo people together with working with the client relationship. We got the job, and we added a lot of value to the job. Yeah, I think a lot of people are nervous about how can I do this? I don’t know how to do this thing. It’s about understanding the basics of something and working with finding the right people to work with you to get it done, just knowing that higher level is what matters, and what questions to ask.
A lot of people are really focused on jack of all trades, master of none, you should stick with one area. I say, screw that. Do stuff that you’re interested in. I didn’t know anything about web. I did a web for them and…
Andrew: How did you know HTML and how did you know how to manage people? Did you learn it as you went? Did you get the books and study it? What did you do?
Graham: Yeah, I learned Photoshop and I learned basic HTML, just focusing online. There are obviously online resources to teach you, and so I just learned enough. I sort of knew where the parameters are. I did that, basically a services business, and then I did a product business and then I did a media business. Now, I’m sort of doing real estate stuff. You don’t have to have a tone of germane expertise in order to be successful because…
Andrew: Let me ask you this. Here’s the other person who I’m imagining is in our audience right now, the person who is listening to this and is about to tune out because he says, “Andrew just brought a guy on who happened to be at the right place at the right time and everything worked out well for him. It was his first business, so no wonder he’s got this charmed life and he’s on Mixergy.”
Tell me about… I see you’re smiling. Were there setbacks?
Graham: Yeah, listen, I am only too aware that whatever you do luck plays a role.
Andrew: So, you’re saying ’95 to ’98, the period that you were running SiteWerks, was it just all lucky that you happened to ride this great train, or were there some issues that were not seen when we’re looking at your LinkedIn profile or hearing the first part of this interview?
Graham: You can be too early. I think I had the foresight that, hey, this Internet thing, I saw that monitor and I said, “I want to do that. It’s going to be big.” And I got involved in it, but there’s always luck. But you’ve got to show up, and you’re got to do a good job. There are lots of web firms that started at that time that went out of business because they didn’t have the client relationship skills. They couldn’t get organized. They couldn’t [??]. We built that thing, 60% of the company on cash flow because we were very conscious about how to get our bills paid and we did a lot of things right.
You’ve got to be at the right place at the right time, but you also have to show up and do a lot of things right. That said, there’s luck. There’s always luck. I think anyone who says that is a revisionist. It’s true.
Andrew: It also seems to me from doing these interviews that if you happen to be at a moment in time when a specific technology is just taking off, if you show up and do a good job, you’re going to do well. If you happen to be at the wrong side of that trend, then you’re in trouble.
For example, years later the guys who are in mobile, if they did a good job, if they understood the product well enough and were curious enough to learn the rest of it, they could get jobs all the time because every company needed to get mobile. Microsoft was hiring people to do mobile, even though they’re a tech company, and the local stores were trying to find a way to get mobile. Is there truth in my understanding here in these interviews?
Graham: Yeah, I think so.
Graham: Yeah. Yeah, you’re in the right place at the right time and using good work. You’re generally going to be in good form for sure.
Andrew: All right, we also talked about many millions of dollars, when it came to site work. Let’s talk about that first million. That first million is the one that’s most significant. Do you remember, when you guys brought that in?
Graham: Yeah, I mean it’s a pretty life changing moment for sure. [MUSIC] Yeah, yeah.
Andrew: Do you remember that moment? Tell me the story.
Graham: We spent about a year on the sale. We talked to about 10 different companies and had a [??] bitty more towards the end and it was all very [??]. I worked with a guy who’s now a very close friend of mine, Shane [McQuaid] on it. Yeah, it was exciting and really fun and very heady. Tish was probably 30, I think, and I was 28, so fairly young for this to happen. Yeah, it was a very much a life changing event. All of a sudden, it was decent money. I could have really [??]. I [??] lived for a very long time without having a job and that’s pretty cool.
On the flip side though, and money answers a lot of questions for you. When you remove that parameter and you have [BACKGROUND CONVERSATION] less sort of urgency to decide, because you’ve got to pay the rent or what have you … there are negative sides to that too. It’s discomforting and you’re not used to it. We’re very used to having this …
Andrew: What’s the negative side? I asked about the first million in revenue. [LOUD NOISE] I’m [??} talking about the sale of the business. What’s the negative to having such a good sale at such an early age? [LOUD NOISE] By the way, that weight behind you, that’s because a door is opening and closing and that’s [LAUGHING] the counterweight to the door. You’re in New York, right?
Graham: Yeah, no, I’m not in New York. I’m in Toronto, actually.
Andrew: Oh, you’re in Toronto. OK.
Graham: Right now.
Andrew: Yeah, what’s the downside? Feels to me like it’s great.
Graham: Well, in general it’s absolutely great. Just I think it’s like design. Parameter list design is actually a really uncomfortable and difficult. When you have a total blank canvas, it’s hard to know where to go. When you have some parameters around it, then you have a real direction and there’s freedom within parameters. Money is a big parameter and all of sudden it [loosens]. I actually went through … I had a bit of an early mid-life crisis.
Mostly because, all of a sudden I was fairly parameter-less, and all of a sudden you have to go, “OK, if you can do so many things, what are you going to do? What really matters to you? Where are your values? What do you …” Before you didn’t have that, because you had to get a job. You had to pay the rent and so you make decisions a lot quicker. It was a little tricky. I went from being … it was very heady at a very young age. Having a company of 60 people and selling and da, da, da and you have all of this identity that you’re wrapped up in and all of a sudden it’s gone. You’ve sold the company. You quit the other one. You have a bunch of money in your bank account, but you’re no longer leading this thing. What have you done for me lately?
You’re only as good as your last thing. I would say I was in New York, which I said was the city where maybe more than any place on earth, what you do is who you are and I was doing nothing. [INTERRUPTED] …
Andrew: Did you feel that you were nothing? Didn’t you feel like, “Hey, I can’t wait for someone to ask what do you do?”, so that I can say, “I sold my company, bitch.” Did I [??]. Did you feel that? Like …
Graham: No, it’s sort of … having done that. It’s a [??] like some people you get some nice feeling from and some you get some resentment and, “Aw, you’re just lucky.” It’s a little bit of mixed bag to be honest. Yeah, so, it was a little tough. [DISTORTION]. [??] complaining. It was life changing. It was amazing. It was a little tricky for me at that period, but I thought it gave me a [DISTORTION] [??] to re-envision … oh yeah, thank you.
Andrew: What’s the big smile for? What … oh, dude, birthday cake.
Andrew: Whose birthday?
Graham: [??] Charlie Scott at [??].com
Charlie Scott: My birthday.
Andrew: Hey …
Graham: Oh, yeah.
Andrew: Hey, Charlie. Happy birthday.
Charlie Scott: I’d offer you a piece too, but there’s only one left. [LAUGHTER]
Graham: So, much for no editing on this.
Andrew: No, no, we don’t edit. For people who are reading the transcript or listening to the MP3, we just saw Charlie come in with his birthday cake and share with Graham.
Andrew: OK, so, help me now understand how you figure out the next step of your life. This is a challenge, as some people can’t even get that first step, because they don’t have a framework for figuring out what to do. How did you do it? I want to learn from you.
Graham: Well, so at that point I realized I had the luxury of really choosing what I wanted to do. And society [inaudible] pretty extravagant [??] getting back on the bandwagon again, and working an 80-hour week, and doing another company. Absolutely. That’s a pretty standard approach to having sold your recent thing, is just to start working like a maniac doing the next thing. I guess I was sort of lucky because I’d just gone through this mid-life crisis thing, and I guess, I . . .
Andrew: And the counter weight goes down again, as the door opens. And there’s the counter weight going up. And the door’s closed.
Graham: So I really thought, you know, I’d like to do something a little more in line with my values, and while we had a great company that did very good work, that was very satisfying. We were mostly doing marketing sites for Microsoft, and I just thought there could be more to life.
Andrew: What’s your process for understanding that? Do you journal? Do you go to see a therapist? Do have endless conversations about, what if I do this, and what if I do that? What is the process?
Graham: I probably just thought a lot about it, I guess. I think generally, I sort of stumble along, and I think part of me has it all figured out. I’m just not fully aware of that. So that really . . . I’d been an environmentalist my whole life, in the background, from just growing up with techie parents and really being taught that way. And it was just sort of waiting to get out in a larger way when I really had an opportunity. A trip to the Galapagos with my ex, by the name of [??] Burr. We ended up reading this great book called, Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner, which is about evolution in the Galapagos. It was fascinating, and really got me into nature reading, the best of American science and nature books. And I just really got interested in that whole area, which brought me to Natural Capitalism, which I think was recommended by my friend, Jerek Harler [SP]. And that book really changed my life.
Graham: Well, it’s a book basically about the environment, how bad things are, but about what an incredible opportunity there is, and how we need to change. It’s quite sales-ie and quite sorta rah, rah. But it’s saying, hey, there’s a new way of doing things. And you can do well by doing good. And there are lots of opportunities. But I think that got me pretty hyped on environmental stuff, and I was part of an environmental group in New York. That just sorta led me to green roofs. For awhile I was looking at that. Then I ended up doing a project for about a year where I tried to build a plant-based air filter. So I designed and built this thing where it would drive air through special soil in this planter, and basically, clean the air in your room. So that was sort of the initial thing. It didn’t end up working out that well. I wanted it too small and inexpensive and it was large and expensive. But it got me into green, and led me to Tree Huggers.
Andrew: OK. By the way, what we haven’t talked about is the steps that you had that you kinda alluded to earlier, the ceramic cups is what I’m getting at.
Graham: Yes, let me tell you about that. Just a minute, I’ll close the door.
Andrew: OK. Go for it. In fact, I can even start describing it to the audience. In New York there are these great looking paper cups that are so iconic that once you notice them you’re going to start spotting them in TV shows, and movies, that try to set the scene and say, these characters are in New York. It looks like the, there it is right there. ‘We are happy to serve you.’ Am I right that it’s Greek?
Graham: Yeah, it’s a Greek design. Yep. They used to be in all delis. Just like New York, it’s an icon of New York. If you watch carefully, TV show or movie, the cop coming in to survey the body, this is the cup that’s in the cop’s hand. And so, basically . . .
Andrew: You saw that design and you did what with it? When you saw those paper cups?
Graham: So, I was doing work on this air filter project, and I was down in Lima for about six weeks, working with factory aids, so I’d sit beside this guy, and basically I was working on the prototype, but I had all these design cycles, and this guy was making anything I wanted. So I did teapots, and teacups, and containers, planters–just tons of different things. And . . .
Andrew: Personally you’re doing them? By hand?
Graham: I’m designing them, like drawing and playing and modifying, and working with a guy at a wheel to make them. So, one of the things that I had him do was this. ‘Cuz I loved the design, and I just thought it was really sort of ephemeral. I thought it’d be a cool comment on disposable society, but also, and more importantly, a useful souvenir. And so many souvenirs are just knick knacks that just sit there. This is something to keep them knowing New York, a very homey thing. People like this cup. So, to have this in your home would be a great, useful souvenir. Yeah, so I worked with them, and then I got back amazing prototypes, and Nick called around to figure out how to license it. That was a real coup. I’ve licensed it since then and I do a container load a year of 35,000 cups.
And most recently we did one, which is the same form. I don’t have it here, but we licensed the I part NY [SP], so that’s in the Museum of Modern Art, and I think about twenty stores already.
Andrew: The Museum of Modern Art in New York is selling it now.
Graham: Yeah. Yeah. And that’s been our major client forever. So, MoMA’s been a real great client.
Andrew: Years ago I heard an interview with you by Gregory Galin, where you talked about these cups. And I just became so fascinated by the story of these cups. I loved it. But I also, in the back of my mind was thinking, why the cups? What was the vision that Graham had as the next step after selling the business? How did the cups lead into it?
Graham: That was actually the same time as [jugger]. So, it just happened because I loved the cup and I was doing these [??] projects and I had some extra cycles. So this was a side project.
Andrew: Was it like a side, fun project? That’s what it was?
Andrew: You weren’t going to create a new ceramic revolution, or you weren’t trying to save the world by creating . . . it was just, that’s the way you express yourself?
Graham: Yeah, I kept it very simple, so basically, like we don’t do term. It’s just like one box, a box of 24, one [??] period. And so, we kept it very, very simple, and that has helped it. [inaudible] . . . does a great job. It’s always been virtual, so we can get them made in Bangkok. We have a [??] warehousing in Maryland, a [??] facility, no office. Super, super simple.
Andrew: OK. All right. So now we get to the company that I kept telling people we were going to talk about–Tree Hugger. What was the original idea behind TreeHugger?
Graham: TreeHugger basically filled a void. I just saw this amazing, modern, green compelling inspirational, futuristic model out there. It was in little bits all over in everyday space, real life, and on the Internet. And I just thought, if someone could actually pull this together, you could see a new, pro-business, non-hippie, contemporary modern future. It would be exciting to people, and would motivate them. And it would also serve as a tool for them to go green. So, the goal, the mission, was to move sustainability into the mainstream. And by repackaging it, and pulling it all into one place, making it really compelling, and making it OK to be an environmentalist and still wear our college shirt.
Andrew: Was there a business model behind it where you imagined it would be as big as it was going to be, or bigger?
Graham: Yeah, I absolutely wanted it to be big. I figured, hey, there have been a lot of environmental sites at that point, obviously, and I figured there were probably two types. One was labors of love, so someone who could do a good job of this, but is doing it part time, ‘cuz they have to pay the rent. Or, NGO, and NGO’s are just not generally great at marketing or making stuff that’s just super compelling, and consumer focused. And so, I just thought, hey, if I could do something really cool, and like fun, with great tone, and really exciting, but also really commit to it. And our promise was, come to TreeHugger.com, there’s going to be some great green content for (________). And we’ve done that everyday since August of 2004.
Andrew: You know, I remember when I first got into the internet space. My friends kept warning me, away from being in the content business, because content is hot or not. It’s like in Hollywood where they can either make it big and have huge $100 million block buster or they bomb, and you usually bomb. Also online there’s the extra issue of having to get tons of pages in order to earn any real money with advertising. Why didn’t either of those issues keep you out of the business?
Graham: (________) discussion, the timing was great. So we hit two major trends at one time. The rise of green, or the re-rise of green, and blogs. And so a big reason I did the site was my friend Nick Benton [SP], who really helped push me to do it. So he had a lot of experience, more than anyone pretty much at that time [in audible] blogs, so he was really helpful in sort of giving me suggestions as how to do it, and showing me how to do it.
It was very incestuous in the early days, there weren’t that many blogs, and so ones that were cool and had any traffic were cross linking like mad. And so we hit two trends at once. We had a cool name that was really memorable, and we did some good hiring and had a really great team and put together really good content and we built a lot of it. So ours was hitting the timing right and setting ourselves up as one of the center pieces. I’m sure at this point were still top three in terms of traffic. So we just got incredibly linked, and we were just at the right place at the right time, and did a really good job and pushed, and pushed and pushed.
Andrew: … is basically the father of blogging, the inspiration for many people, the founder of Gawker. So I want to understand how you did such a good job. Let’s start off with the first version of the blog, what did that look like?
Graham: Sadly not that different from how it looks now.
Graham: Our last re-design must have been four or five years ago now which [in audible] pretty sad. I don’t think it looked tremendously different, it’s quite minimal. I mean, we’ve always had a fairly decent design, it sort of grew by [in audible] it’s a little bit of mess these days, but [in audible] cool name, and the main thing was we did a lot of content regularly, so we built up a big data base, and we’re heavily linked to. So a ton of our traffic comes up through search, a lot from referrals, and then a bunch from direct. Good content, and lots of it, pretty much that simple. With Discovery we’ve definitely become better at SEO, and writing for a SEO. But we don’t do anything much more complicated than that.
Andrew: What platform did you guys build on? Word-Press wasn’t Word-Press, it wasn’t the system that everybody was using, were you using [in audible] ?
Graham: Movable Type.
Andrew: Movable Type, OK. Are you guys still on Movable Type today?
Graham: I think we just changed.
Andrew: All right.
Graham: Actually I think we still might be on Movable Type, [in audible].
Andrew: All right you say you got better at writing for SEO, how? What did you learn at SEO earlier on, and how did you use it to influence how you wrote?
Graham: The SEO stuff was largely with a handful of Smart Things back in the day, but largely with Discovery. They were really helpful on that, and so, good titles and [in audible] I don’t know, there are sort of a 100 different tiny little rules.
Andrew: But SEO, search engine optimization didn’t really kick in until Discovery bought you guys?
Graham: No, I would say that we didn’t know as much about it, so I think fundamentally we were doing some good work, and the work was working for us, but Discovery helped us optimize, and that’s one of the nice advantages of getting fired and being part of another company to help people that are knowledgeable, deep knowledge in certain areas so we were able to learn from that.
Andrew: Do you remember one of the early SCO discoveries that you’ve made and how it influenced traffic?
Graham: Not really, to be honest.
Andrew: It was just part of the job, and little changes would get done everyday.
Andrew: OK. You said also, we wrote good content. What was good content back then? What did it mean to do good content?
Graham: Well I think that it’s the filter. You know what stuff you’re choosing to write about that is interesting and then the angle you have on it. And writing in a fun environmentalism had largely been about no and inspired by fear. And so we were more about yes and inspired by hope. So, having fun with it and not taking ourselves too seriously. And there’s been sort of a fun tone that made it a little less hair shirt and a little more inspirational and, hey this is the future. How cool to be talking about the future and trying to live in the future. So, just finding great stuff and having a good angle and good commentary on it. And making it really useful and helpful.
Andrew: How did you come up with the good stuff and the good angle? I’m telling you people who are listening to us right now, and I shouldn’t even talk just about them, I’ll say this about me too. You sit down some days and you say, I don’t know what to blog about, I know that blogging is going to be good for my business, my reputation, my soul, my whatever. I’m staring at the page going, I don’t know how to do it. You guys are cranking out tons of great content? How do you do it? What did you know, that we still to this day don’t know?
Graham: Well I think our writers are just really passionate about the area. And our finger’s everywhere, and so, we got lots of tips on where to look. And you know, it’s pretty easy. Just people writing about the stuff that they’re passionate about.
Andrew: Was there a process? Help me understand the system here. This must seem so basic to you you’re saying Andrew, get off of this, this is so freaking basic. But I gotta tell you that I’m passionate about entrepreneurship and if you said Andrew, write five articles today about entrepreneurship, I couldn’t come up with five. I’m passionate about self improvement and productivity and growth. I couldn’t come up with five things. I would have to sit and think about them. And also, having hit the mark the way the tree hugger did. Right from the beginning, it’s impressive. How?
Graham: Process wise?
Andrew: Yeah. Was there like a learning period where you said we’re going to be editorializing and then you said no, no, we need to be discovery? Let’s just toss as much content out there and see what people click on, and that’s how we discover it, but there’s some process of getting to great that I want to understand. Because you hit great.
Graham: OK. I got your question now. I think a lot of it, is you got to keep it inexpensive. That’s the real challenge, and that’s why I have a lot of empathy for older companies, magazine companies etc. trying to do this stuff. Because, really you sort of need a different DNA. So it was very clear to me that, we couldn’t have had a lot of process. Because process is expensive. And so you needed to get the people who are the right kind of people, who just get it and sort of give them the tools and get out of the way. And so, too much editorializing and process and you’re in trouble. Because this ends up being [??]. So a big part of it is that I had sort of like a manifesto type of thing I wrote up. Which, was quite a few pages long. And during the hiring process we get people to read it and say, hey look this is what you’re signing into, is this you, do you agree with this. So that’s part of it. And then, we would get them to do a few posts, paid. To sort of test them and work with them. And eventually if they did a good job we would turn them loose. And they just would publish themselves. And then they would bill us every two weeks. And then we had paypal and we would pay them that way. So it was a very simple process. And sometimes after the fact, we might take stuff down or give comments. But there wasn’t a [??] editor. I think that’s a little different now. We have more of a process. [??]. So I guess to answer your question, this manifesto helps us define, this is who we are, and this is how we do things. So once you’re in, and you decide to agree with that, you hire the right people who get it. And then you get out of their way and let them do their thing and sort of comment and coach.
Andrew: What was on the manifesto? Can you give me an example of one item from the manifesto?
Graham: A good question. I haven’t thought about that thing for a long time. Well, stuff like, hey, we’re about yes, not about no.
Graham: Positive. Here’s our tone, tech-tone rafter. We had stuff about sourcing, or about, and we had something about aesthetics. Because a big part of this was, we’re a modern aesthetic. This is not about hippie [??] stuff. This is bad, and this is good. Not that hippie stuff’s bad, just that the hippie market [??]. It was a tiny percentage, and we didn’t want to be there. We wanted to sort of mask the masses, so we wanted it to be contemporary. So, yes, we just defined the aesthetic. We defined a tone. We didn’t want to be too sales-ee. There was a lot of that. So I think that’s actually pretty important, and I’m a big fan of that sort of defining [??].
You know what’s a great book? It’s Seth Godin’s Tribes book. Often really you’re building a movement. You’re building a tribe. And so trying to find that, which is here’s what we are, here’s what we aren’t, is really, really important.
Andrew: I see. So, one of the first things you did was you wrote a manifesto and said, this is what we stand for. And this is how we’re different from the world–by saying, this what we’re not. And you put that out there for everyone who came on. And that way you knew for yourself what you were looking for. You knew how to give people guidance because you had a statement that directed you. And they also knew it. Did you adjust it at any time? I think one of the reasons that I hesitate to leave those marks in the ground is that I feel like, what if I change tomorrow? Would you adjust it?
Graham: That’s fine. I think you need . . . yeah, sure. Of course.
Andrew: You would. So you might have a manifesto that said no hemp whatever, but you might discover, hey, this is kind of a cool thing. Why don’t we go retro and bring back that hemp movement.
Graham: Yeah, possibly. Yeah, I think people need to be less concerned about being right, and saying the right thing forever. I think we change as people, society changes, and that’s just fine. You have to mean something, though. You have to mean something.
Andrew: And that one thing that you meant didn’t change?
Graham: What’s that?
Andrew: The thing that you meant, that was the consistent. The thing that you stood for is what you mean by, you have to mean something.
Graham: Yeah, I think that particularly in a world with infinite distribution, you need to have an angle. You can’t be all things to all people. That’s not what all this about. This is who we are and this is who we aren’t. This is what we’re for and this is what we’re against.
Andrew: I see. OK. So we talked about content and how you got it. We talked about traffic and where you got that. But we didn’t talk yet about revenue. Where did the revenue come from?
Graham: The revenue was basically . . . because you do mean something, you’re for some things and against other things, and you end up attracting a certain type of people. And those people are attracted to a certain type of advertiser. And so we were a larger location, or a good place to find lots of those types of people. So, it was attractive to advertisers. And still is. We’re still doing great on that front.
Andrew: Was Adsense the first advertising vehicle that you guys tapped?
Graham: We used a combination of all sorts of things. So we used blog [??] for a long time, we used Adbright [SP], and we used Adsense, and Direct.
Andrew: At what point did you do direct?
Graham: I sort of figured you need at least a million uniques [??], somewhere around there, before you do any direct. Otherwise it doesn’t, unless you’ve got advertisers that really know nothing. The numbers just don’t make sense. So, it was probably a couple years in before we started really selling ads directly.
Andrew: All right. Why did you decide to sell?
Graham: I’m generally a guy that likes to build a fort, but not play in the fort. One of the cons of incremental design, incremental improvement, it’s much less interesting for me. I’m sort of nothing of something. That’s where I like to play, and at a certain point, Ken Rother, who came on about a year before we sold and has been running TreeHugger pretty much since then. He’s a great corporate guy. [None] of us had worked that and protect TreeHugger within Discovery and do a really good job. That’s not my expertise. I think some people have a natural phase within the company. Mine was the early phase. The later, I add less value. I’m not into meetings and when things are big and management teams. It’s not my style.
Andrew: What was the big challenge at TreeHugger before the sale? What was the one thing that kept you up at night?
Graham: I remember the day-to-day, losing a tech person or advertiser problems, but mostly just small problems and a ton of work. It was just a ton of work. We were working all [hours].
Andrew: Because you had to keep pumping out content or was it something else?
Graham: Yes, just keep pumping out content and keep selling the ads and just building the whole thing. Oftentimes, these things don’t seem like overnight successes, but the graph just sort of went up over time.
Andrew: Start out slow, gradual, but continuous growth with your [??].
Graham: Questions, questions, questions got bigger and bigger and bigger, so I probably glossed over some of the larger events in not remembering them, but mostly it’s just technology problems, staff problems and advertiser problems, that sort of stuff. There wasn’t anything major.
Andrew: Can I ask you a personal question?
Andrew: Alright. A lot of times I have interviewees on here and they work so hard, they’re really excited to talk about the business, and how they built it and to relive it and to share those stories. I feel like you’re not as excited about sharing those stories. Why?
Graham: That’s interesting. Bad memory? I don’t know. It’s been a few years. We sold TreeHugger in ’07.
Andrew: Four years ago at this point.
Graham: It was four years ago, so it’s fairly a long time in the past. That’s interesting that you say that. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just onward. I don’t know.
Graham: I tend to be really obsessed, so I probably came out of it, ‘Whew. What was that?’ like it was a few years of really, really, intense work.
Andrew: Deep obsession, once you’re out of it, you’re out of it.
Graham: Yes. Maybe a little out of sight, out of mind kind of thing.
Graham: I don’t know, there was just a lot of hard work.
Andrew: How deep is your obsession? Do you stop dating, you stop going out? What do you do? How deep is your obsession?
Graham: Well, I’m hoping it’s not the same, because I think it’s a little obsessive for sure.
Andrew: How was it before?
Graham: Well, I just basically worked all the time. I had a girlfriend at the time. We lived all over. I started in [??] Barcelona, was there for a couple months. I lived in Bangkok for [??] and orphanage in Cambodia, India for a month, Buenos Aires for three months, Toronto for two months, a whole bunch of time in New York.
Andrew: So the whole time you were running TreeHugger you were also running around the world just living and working out of different places.
Andrew: Oh, wow.
Graham: Yes, which was quite fun, but largely we didn’t have a lot of friends in those places and we were just working super hard. It was interesting to go out for lunch and dinner because it would be in Bangkok or Buenos Aires or whatever.
Andrew: Is it that if you’re at home you have to take your girlfriend or your wife out someplace really special all the time because you can’t keep working, but if you’re working out of Buenos Aires and at the end of the day, maybe at 10 o’clock when they have dinner you go out for dinner and then it feels like, ‘Ah, it’s special’. It’s not, you work till 10:00, it’s like, ‘Wow. Look at where we are.’ It’s an excuse to work longer.
Graham: Yes, maybe. I’m not going to plan it that way.
Andrew: Alright. Final questions are about Life Edited.com. What’s Life Edited? What’s this new project you’re working on?
Graham: So Life Edited is largely born out of me wanting to green up my home life.
Andrew: “Green up my home life,” what does that mean?
Graham: I’ve been probably fairly good in many respects. I’ve got seven years of design school. I know a lot about green. But I still have been living like a student, pretty much, though I’m forty years old. It was like, OK, my home should be like a real show piece for a green lifestyle, really cool, and really green. And so, when I started looking into that, it just brought me a lot of realizations. Basically, Life Edited is about less space, and less stuff, and try to build a movement around that.
The main idea is that we had a recession, a couple of world wars, followed by the fifties, the advent of advertising, Madison Avenue, and so we went from a period of not a lot to a period of excess, and so we’ve become real hoarders. Space, we’ve gone from 1000 square feet to 2,500 square feet, average home size in the U.S., while families have shrunk. So, about three times as much space as we had sixty years ago. Three times the amount of space. With that amount of space you’d think we’d have plenty of space for our stuff, but there’s a $22 billion personal storage industry. So we need more space off sight to store our stuff.
At the same time, we’re more in debt, our environmental footprints are much higher, and our happiness levels are basically the same. So the hoarding, more space, more stuff is not working for us on a financial level, an environmental level, and on a basic happiness level. My proposition is that less can be more, and by editing your life, living with less space and less stuff and being conscious of the whole thing you’re gonna save a bunch of money and you’re gonna reduce your footprint and you’re gonna be happier.
There are three main components to it. Space design, product design or sharing systems, and lifestyle design; so, figuring out how to go from 22 pairs of pants to a more logical, moderate number. And so I got two apartments, my partner, Jason Holliday, we’re doing a 420 square foot apartment in Manhattan. We Crowd Sourced the design with Jaboa.com. We got 300 entries. We’re building out the winner, which was a Romanian architect student. I’m a friend of his. And we’re sort of building that out and it’ll be done in the fall, that’s 420. We have one that’s 350. It’s upstairs, the one we’re currently living in. I have a couple acres in Malibu. We’re gonna build a 1,000 square foot off-grade solar, wind, water catchment electric car. I do a lot of media around it, and try to really show people the way of living with less space and less stuff, ‘cuz I think we can be happier and save money and lower our footprints.
Andrew: For people who can’t go that far out and go off the grid, and but still this movement makes sense to them and it’s something they want to be a part of, what’s one easy thing that they could do to get started?
Graham: Well, I think is a skill of the century, right? We live in a culture of excess and more is not necessarily better. So, you know, understanding how to edit your possessions, edit your media, edit, figuring out how you spend your time, editing that down. You don’t want a four and a half hour movie. You want an hour and half. There’s something about editing, not to be essential. That’s what we actually want. One thing that you could certainly do, if you’re renting, is just to try to edit down your possessions. That’s the one thing. You realize, I’ve lived all around the world, I travel easily with one rollaway and one little book bag with my office in it. That’s it. So you don’t actually need very much stuff. And you can be perfectly happy. And it actually relaxes you, because you have less stuff to worry about.
So I would say, looking at taking magic sharing systems, like ZipCar, [??] and sorts of things, and cutting down your possessions significantly so that you can either just have more space and more mental clarity, or actually moving to a smaller place and save yourself some money; start putting some away or just be less close to the limit, close to the line, actually.
Andrew: When it comes to person stuff, I’m so glad that there’s starting to be this acceptance of the need to edit, as you say. You know, I found that a few years ago in my life I kept thinking, what do I buy next. Or, there are all these people whose job is to come up with great stuff for me to want next. And I said, how many times a week do I think about what can I throw out? What can I do less of? And once I started doing that, man, life feels so good. There’s nothing like, I know that there’s a lot of satisfaction that comes from buying something new and bringing it home, but not for me anymore. For me, it’s the opposite, and there’s such satisfaction from throwing something out and realizing, hey, I didn’t really need it. It was just sitting there for this ‘just-in-case’ day that was never going to come. And now that I threw it out I recognized there’s more space, or that there’s more things that I care about. Like, my ability to find the stuff that I actually have increases when I get rid of the stuff I don’t really want.
Graham: Exactly. Less the better. Less the better.
Andrew: Yes, I’m not ready to take up and follow other people’s movements, but when I hear this I suddenly decide, I suddenly start to think, I could be a disciple of this movement. I want this. I’m so, I feel so pressed by this stuff in my life. And I’ve whittled my stuff down. Let me give a shout out to someone in our audience I interviewed in the past whose ideas I think you’ll agree with. This is Colin Wright. He’s not only a long-time listener, who I’m sure is going to be listening to this program, but he’s also a past interviewee who wrote a book called, My Life in Exile. The guy did what you’re talking about. He traveled around the world. He whittled everything he had down to this little bag, very few things, to say, look, you don’t need all this stuff. In fact, it’s kind of weird. I’m staring at the cover of his book and he’s naked on it. He’s got his laptop strategically placed. I’m not looking at it, but he’s still making a great point. I believe in his movement. I think it goes in line with yours and LifeEdited.com. So, the book is, I hope everyone gets it, and that’s why I’m saying it, My Life in Exile by Colin Wright, a past guest that I want to help out here.
Graham: I read it. I hadn’t heard about that one. My Life in Exile.
Andrew: No fooling. They’re telling me that Mr. TreeHugger, the guy whose business many of us admire, who probably admires his own success much less than we do, is going to get his book. And I’m sure Colin’s going to be happy about that.
Graham: I met this guy named Paul Carr recently. He’s written a couple of books. And I think his most recent one’s out. He writes for Tech Crunch, among other things. Really nice guy. And he’s living in hotels for the last four or five years, only.
Andrew: I like that. That’s a dream, isn’t it?
Graham: He’s got like two bags, same sort of deal. He doesn’t even have a mailing address. Once in a while [??] for a credit card, but that’s it. And, yeah, very simple–one pair of shoes, and really nice, good looking, charismatic. The guy is really enjoying his life. And he doesn’t pay more than $100 a night, I think. And he has total [??]. Fascinating. He just came out with some book, basically around that.
Andrew: I didn’t know that. I gotta check that out. I thought his whole job in life was to piss people off. I didn’t realize he was also going to enlighten us about less stuff, about the materialism in our lives. I like it.
Graham: Yeah, yeah. Great.
Andrew: Was that inappropriate for me to say that Paul Carr likes to tweet people to piss them off? He’s a new friend. I should be nicer.
Andrew: He knows it. He takes pride in that. All right, I’m gonna check out his book. I really like that kind of a lifestyle, less stuff in our lives. Not less stuff, you know what, there are certain things that I want more of. Hell, I want more people coming to my website. I want more people downloading my interview with Graham Hill. I want more great people like Graham to come on here and talk more of their stories. That’s the stuff I want more of. The things I don’t want more of is: more shoes, more, what else do we have in our homes, lots of extra plates and knives, and things. I don’t even know.
Graham: The stuff around that we use 8% of the time. A dining room, like we have these museum rooms, that [inaudible] 5% of the time.
Andrew: Yes, yes, we grew up with one of those that no one ever used.
Graham: How important is that. You know, part of Life Edit is using transformed furniture so that you don’t . . . Resource Furniture makes these amazing transforming furniture pieces. One is like a dining table, and with two fingers you pull, and down comes the bed over the table. The table sort of folds out of the way. You don’t eat when you sleep, and you don’t sleep when you eat.
Andrew: Well, that’s a little creepy. I do need a little bit of space in my life. Conventionally I feel sometimes the minimalist movement is going to say, and then you have fifteen families living in your house and it’s wonderful, because you get to know so many people. When it comes to that point, that’s where I start to cringe and say, where are these people taking me.
Graham: But, do you need a dining room that you use literally less than 5% of the time, and that you have to heat and cool, and light, and maintained and filled with stuff and worry about it. All of this stuff has a cost, both financially and mentally. If it’s not doing much for you, if you really need it, not to mention it’s New York, $1,000 a square foot to buy.
Graham: Or whatever rent. Now, you want to be thinking about what matters in your life and consciously be focused on the stuff that matters.
Andrew: I will. I think I draw my line at a different place than you do, but we’re spiritually aligned. Are you married? I just got married recently. I think my wife needs an extra room, a dining room and another room just to get away from me when I go on my rants sometimes.
Graham: I see.
Andrew: It’s not a bad thing, but we draw our lines differently. For me here, I was thinking, what’s the big thing for me? Technology. I hate to throw things away because I fall in love with the trio that I had, and I might need to use it some day or relive the past. So I keep the trio but not just the trio, but all the power cords that go with it because if I’m going to use it again I’m going to want to plug it in everywhere. And then, I need all the synch cables, and I see your eyes are about to pop out with all of this. You understand? This is the place where I need to draw my line, probably a little closer to you.
Graham: Well, I think art of this is just understanding what’s important to you. I’m going to have very little stuff except in my sports locker because I love kite surfing and I love surfing. And so, I’ll be very minimal inside and a few boards and a few kits will take up the space. But you’re conscious about it and making decisions. That’s the primary thing.
Andrew: All right. The website is lifeedited.com. Graham, thanks for doing the interview.
Graham: Thank you. Please, also if you like the TreeHugger stuff and you like the stuff I’ve been talking about, visit treehugger.com. And there’s an amazing newsletter. There’s a daily and weekly, and they’re really, really great.
Andrew: Are you still at TreeHugger?
Graham: I am.
Andrew: I would have thought you would have moved on. I would have thought… Based on the conversation we had right here especially, I would have thought you’d say, hey, sold the company, transitioned away to somebody else. I’m going over and convince people to live in match boxes.
Graham: Discovery is great. I think we’ll probably be working together for a very long time. They are a really good company. They’ve really helped TreeHugger tremendously. It’s been a really good relationship, and so I’m hoping to continue working for them for a long time.
Andrew: Discovery is a great company.
Graham: Yeah, they’re great.
Andrew: All right. I love Discovery. I’m grateful to you again for doing the interview. All right. Thank you all for watching.
Andrew: Bye. Thanks, Graham.
Graham: See you.