Gallery: THE STORY OF INHABITAT: How Inhabitat got its start

 

If you’ve ever been curious about how Inhabitat got its start, today is your lucky day. As the founder and editpreneur behind the blog-turned-business, I spend much of my thoughts focused on the future: the next story, the next interview, the next big project. Anyone who runs a business knows that you don’t get much time to look back. You have to be so focused on the challenges in front of you that you don’t get to do a lot of reflecting on where you’ve been. But in honor of the American Express Big Break contest I wanted to take you back to how Inhabitat got its start and how it became the company that it is today.

Inhabitat didn’t start out as a business. I am not a business person, nor did I ever have any intention to run a business. Inhabitat started as a blog I wrote in my spare time, so it is quite surreal for me to think of myself now as a ‘small business owner’. I can’t quite reconcile this business executive persona that I wear with my inner high-schooler who got fired from a retail job for wearing a dog-collar (yes, really).

AN ACCIDENTAL ENTREPRENEUR For me the whole route to entrepreneurship has been surprisingly gradual and almost accidental. One day I started a blog, and then the next thing I knew, I was incorporating a business, using words like ‘cap table’ and reading management books. Yikes! What happened to the idealistic video artist of my youth?

I never studied economics in college, and much to my parents’ disappointment, I majored in art and started pursuing video art upon graduation. Video editing, Photoshop and HTML skills somehow led me to a job as a web designer at a marketing agency, helping brands sell products. While I learned a ton of valuable skills from the experience of working at an ad agency, my dream was always ultimately to put my creative skills to work on social justice projects or environmental issues, and I wasn’t doing nearly enough of that in agency land.

ARCHITECTURE SCHOOL & GRADUAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP So in 2005 I left the corporate world to go to architecture school, with the end goal of designing the kind of amazing, innovative spaces and places that I write about on Inhabitat today: buildings that grow gardens on their roofs, houses that produce more energy than they consume, cities of the future. While immersed in the abstract realm of academia (and the GSAPP at Columbia is about as abstract as it gets), Inhabitat was my tether to reality – it was my connection to actual design and built work that was taking place in the real world that kept me sane while pulling all-nighters in my architecture studio, building godawful cardboard models and writing essays on “Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful and it’s ties to Etienne-Louis Boullée’s architecture” (actual essay title). I wanted to forge my voice in the design world and get to know the designers and thought-leaders that were actually making, building and creating amazing things in the real world.

AN ADDICTIVE ENDEAVOR As soon as I launched Inhabitat, I could see that it was going to grow legs and consume me. Readers were immediately attracted to my posts and started commenting on my stories, and I quickly became hooked on the real-time feedback on my thoughts, as well as watching the number of readers steadily increase every day through an addictive little piece of website analytics software called Sitemeter. Pretty soon writers started contacting me about writing for the site, and my ambitions for the site grew in tandem. Once I started taking on writers I needed to figure out a way to bring in some revenue to pay people, and so I started experimenting with Google AdSense and learning about how to sell advertising online. Having a background working in interactive advertising certainly didn’t hurt, and I approached the whole project like an exciting design challenge to build the most interesting, inspiring website I could, and build my dream career in the process.

I think there is this idea in business that there is often one specific ‘aha moment’ that ignites creativity. For me, the whole process was much more gradual, linear and boring than that. There were probably a series of little ‘aha moments’ over time that eventually culmination in my decision to launch Inhabitat.

A SERIES OF AHA MOMENTS The first impetus was probably that my boyfriend at the time (now my husband) was a blogger and I was always pestering him to write about things that I was interested in, like smart homes and pollution-sniffing-robot-dogs on his gadget website. He kept telling me no and ‘You should start your own blog, where you can cover this stuff’, and so I eventually did. I attempted to launch a website like Inhabitat for a design firm that I worked for in 2002, and my boss was not convinced, and the project never really got off the ground. But the idea wormed its way into my head, and was hovering there for years — and that, combined with my husband’s kick-in-the pants encouragement, set the foundation for the project that would eventually become Inhabitat.

Similarly there was never really one specific ‘big break’ that helped me get my business off the ground, but really more a series of ‘small breaks’ over a long period of perseverance that added up, brick by brick, to help me build the foundations of my business.

THE ROAD TO SUCCESS IS PAVED WITH TETRIS SHELVES One of the first stories I wrote, within the first month of blogging was about Tetris-shaped bookshelves (made from bamboo, naturally). The Tetris shelves story got picked up by a gazillion big blogs (thank you BoingBoing, Gizmodo and Joystiq!) and generated links to Inhabitat for years to come. Other ‘little breaks’ that helped over the years were getting featured in press like BusinessWeek and Vogue, finding an awesome angel investor who wanted to support the business, and my husband paying the bills and providing infinite patience so I could go without a salary for years (thank you Peter!),

I think the best businesses are ones that grow organically out of passion and Inhabitat is a perfect example of this. Businesses thrive when individuals are willing to dedicate their lives to an idea, and that commitment and passion ignites inspiration in everyone around. I think that all the writers and staff at Inhabitat are fired up by this same passion to change the world through design, and our readers feel this passion too – that is what attracts them to Inhabitat.

So if I had one bit of advice to give to aspiring business owners, it would be this: follow your passion and the rest will follow.

If you’re a small business owner, it definitely wouldn’t hurt to check out American Express Big Break contest on facebook as well. I would enter, but unfortunately I can’t since American Express is the sponsor of this article – so go enter for me!

Thank you so much to all of the Inhabitat readers for continually reading, commenting, contributing stories, and coming back year after year – you guys are the lifeblood of our website and what keeps all of us going day after day.

+ More about Inhabitat’s start > VIDEO: The Inhabitat Story >

Thank you to American Express OPEN for sponsoring this post as part of the Big Break for Small Business program. Visit FaceBook.com to learn more about the Big Break contest for small businesses. Enter your small business for a chance to win a trip to Facebook headquarters for a one-on-one business makeover and $20,000 to grow your business with social media! See Official Rules for complete details.

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18 Comments

  1. islapalenque October 21, 2012 at 9:35 am

    “This sounds pretty fabulous: “…writing essays on “Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful and its ties to Etienne-Louis Boullée’s architecture” (actual essay title).” Your thoughtful studies, long-dreaming and circuitous route to a career, and willingness to go with the flow of your interests & passions has led you to offer something of unique value to the world. Brava, dahling.

  2. Jay Walker May 8, 2011 at 12:47 am

    Jill,

    Your story and website are both totally cool, and I am trying to figure out a way myself to bring well-designed econo eco-housing to life. Thanks for your story.

    Jay

  3. hljohnston May 7, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Congratulations, Jill – great writing about a great story.
    I didn’t realize we were there waaay early on – that’s fun.
    Carry on, persevere – you’ve built something truly special here.

  4. LeoDek May 5, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    Congratulations!!!
    Passion and attitude combined with a great idea
    always brings big results.

  5. Hazel Saunderson Hazel Saunderson May 5, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    What a great story – thanks for sharing Jill!

  6. peggyfara May 4, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Congratulations Jill! Very inspiring story, especially for those of us in the early phases of a similar journey. We started Vermont Woods Studios, a sustainable furniture store in 2005 and spent the first 2 years doing full-time mistake-making. After that, things started to come together and now we’re on a bit of a roll. I think with many Internet businesses– the owners are treading new ground and this takes longer than following a tried and true recipe for a business we already know how to start. You’re right tho– the key is perseverance. Thanks for yours.
    Best,
    Peggy

    http://VermontWoodsStudios.com

  7. Tafline Laylin Tafline Laylin May 4, 2011 at 12:07 am

    This really is an amazing story. And really great that you and your husband have found a common niche. (I didn’t know your hubby was the genius behind Engadget!)

  8. scaldwell May 3, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    So glad you do what you do. I really enjoy being pushed in my thinking about space, design, the environment and technology.

  9. Lori Zimmer Lori Zimmer May 3, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    such an incredible feat!

  10. Brit Liggett May 3, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    Thanks for sharing the whole story! It’s so cool to hear about the beginnings.

  11. barbra batshalom May 3, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Thanks for sharing! Really resonated – my story is similar…started in design/architecture and – almost accidentally (!) spent the next 15 years as a serial social entrepreneur…and it gets better every day! I hope more people who want to find motivation in stories like yours to follow their guts and take the risks that can lead to amazing places!

  12. ines p May 3, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    Congratulations for the “small business” and keep up the goof work!

  13. Ana Lisa Ana Lisa Alperovich May 3, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Thanks for sharing, good advice and great style!
    I am really happy to be part of Inhabitat!
    (Loved the dell/mac picture)

  14. andrew michler May 3, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Thanks for the background Jill. One thing I always admired about Inhabitat is how the fierce focus on design and environmental consciousness can come together so seamlessly.

  15. Jessica Dailey Jessica Dailey May 3, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    It’s wonderful to learn about the history of Inhabitat! So happy to be a part of the site!

  16. Mike Chino Mike Chino May 3, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Great post Jill – it’s incredible to see how far Inhabitat has come since 2005!

  17. Jasmin Malik Chua Jasmin Malik Chua May 3, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    I’ve heard the Ecouterre origin story dozens of times, so it’s nice to know more about our parent site!

  18. Rebecca Paul Rebecca Paul May 3, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Great article!!! I love hearing about Inhabitat history.

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