In May 2015, people watched from the India Street dock in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as The Revolution, a World War II Yard Patrol boat, approached. After boarding, they set course for the city’s lesser-known islands, those that once housed undesirables: criminals, the diseased (“Typhoid” Mary), and what we then called lunatics. Those on the boat paid for the privilege. Between visiting the forgotten ruins of prison camps, psychiatric institutions, and sanatoriums within view of Manhattan and Brooklyn, they drank beer and had lunch while ferrying down the East River. The tour was just one of 150 events in 39 states and 25 countries, that took place on Obscura Day.
Organized by Atlas Obscura, more than 35,000 people have turned out for its events. The events, however, are just a small part of what they company does. Working off the premise that you haven’t seen anything yet, Atlas Obscura is creating an online compendium of “the world’s most curious and awe-inspiring places.” Think of it asNational Geographic for the millennial generation.
Founder Dylan Thuras began writing about unusual places on his blog Curious Expeditions in 2008. A year later, he and science journalist Joshua Foer launched Atlas Obscura with the goal of creating an online guide that chronicled “hidden wonders.” Thuras and Foer not only wanted to produce stories, they wanted to give people a place to share their own knowledge, pictures, and stories about the unusual and wonderful places they’d discovered. Atlas Obscura relies on a combination of articles by professional journalists and user-generated content vetted by an in-house editor. How else could you create the Ultimate Crowdsourced Map Of Punny Businesses In America? The volume of content produced has helped Atlas Obscura reach 2.5 million monthly unique visitors. The company’s revenue comes from advertising, sponsorships, and events hosted by one of its five chapters in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and CITY Illinois.
In 2014, Thuras and Foer hired David Plotz, former editor-in-chief of Slate, as the company’s CEO. “We want people to see and experience the world they live in with fresh eyes,” Plotz says. “Wherever you are in the world, there is something around the corner that’s extraordinary, incredible and surprising. We’re going to help you find it. We’re going to make you an adventurer.”
Atlas Obscura raised $2 million in March 2015 (investors include NewCo’s John Battelle). The size of the seed round has a lot to do with the company’s mission and audience. “For me and for people who use us, there is a genuine change in how they experience the world,” Plotz says. Atlas Obscura makes discovery part of that experience through its events, celebrating cities and their curiosities. By soliciting and promoting user-generated content, it’s also putting the company’s mission in the hands of those who have made the site a community.