In honor of 10 years of TreeHugger, we caught up with Olga Sasplugas, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make the site profitable. When Graham Hill started the site, she was the go-to woman for ad sales, accounting and even the occasional photo shoot. A lover of start-up culture, she parted ways with TreeHugger when Discovery acquired the site in 2007, but was happy to Skype us from Barcelona to talk about the site’s early days.
Q: I’m hoping you can start by telling us about the beginning. What was it like?
The beginning was fantastic, as all beginnings are. It was an incredible homemade product, meaning that everything was done among ourselves—especially Graham. I do remember exactly the very first post. At the time, we were living in Barcelona, I was renting a crappy apartment—well it was good enough for us, but it was not very fancy. It was August, I can’t remember exactly the day, but I do remember Graham in the bedroom where we had a table that we used like an office, posting the first TreeHugger post in his shorts and no teeshirt, [pumping his fists] like, “I did it!” I remember that smile. We were working from home, virtually and remotely. He was hiring some designers to write for TreeHugger.
We tried to do all we could ourselves, that was the only way. I also remember the photo shoot, for the flyers and cards. Obviously I was the model, not because I was beautiful, but just because I was the only one available. It was in my apartment, the crappy apartment. We put some blankets and some sheets that were kind of white, so we created this scenario. [See top photo.]
We were working really really hard to make it happen. It was like that for awhile, when we were kind of small. Graham was investing a lot of money into it, because we weren’t yet profitable. When the family started to grow, I took over the advertising, because we needed to create some revenue. Otherwise we would sink. Obviously, I had no experience in online advertising. But that was my role, besides some accounting and whatever needed to be done.
That was maybe the most stressful time of my life. Not because the advertising world is very demanding and stressful itself, but for the consciousness that I was bringing money in for the family, and I was the only one.
Q: When TreeHugger was starting, what did you see as the big environmental issues that needed to be covered?
At that point, we were traveling all over the world. We were based in New York and in Barcelona, where I’m from. I lived in Cambodia for awhile, and Graham came to Thailand to accompany me on a project I was doing in an orphanage. It provides a lot of prospective about what needs to be done and addressed. Not only the work that needed to be done in our Western world, but the work that was not done at all in emerging countries. In all the aspects: water, electricity, transportation. You can imagine the streets of Bangkok, with pollution and traffic and no efficient ways of refrigerating houses. I think that gave us a positive vision. Because, although all westerners have a lot to learn, we had already done some homework about what could be done.
Q: Today, TreeHugger straddles the world of journalism and the world of activism. Was it like that in the beginning?
In the beginning, as Graham said, it was about instructing people and informing people about what is cool and green at the same time, in terms of transportation, design, or any aspect of life and encouraging them that it was possible and doable! The advocacy came later on, with different voices and different writers. But it wasn’t there at the beginning. It was super neutral. We are not here to judge you. We are here to highlight that it’s possible and it’s cool.
Q: What were the site’s early successes?
The moment when we broke even. That was fantastic, because imagine the amount of responsibility that Graham had. He had a dream. He had an idea. People were into it, but no body knew where it was going to lead, and nobody could imagine that we would be sold to Discovery in a few years.
Also, every time we hired somebody new from around the world. That was really exciting because we were adding another voice and another vision to the equation. That was really cool.
Q: What were the early challenges?
From my perspective, I was mainly in charge of advertising, it was very difficult to make people understand that we were a very special spot to be displayed. The funny name of TreeHugger is not always easy, because people do not get the joke. Also, we had to create the need for companies to be on our site, and make them feel that we were important in the green world, and that people will care about them being here.
Also, we were very very picky in the beginning. We wanted only committed companies who were green-oriented advertising on the site. That reduced my possibilities a lot, because maybe there was a company that wanted to advertise with us, but that didn’t fit the profile we were after and we had to say no. It was really challenging.
Q: Today, are there issues that you think need more coverage, or that you’d like to see more of on the site?
For me, the great thing about TreeHugger is the multiplicity of posts, and the constant stream of information that’s flowing. So, you never get bored and you always see something new. That and the number of voices: from different perspectives, different angles, different geographical locations, different cultures. For me, this is the secret recipe, and you will always find something that interests you. For me, I find that nothing is missing because of this multiplicity.
It makes me really happy to see TreeHugger’s 10th anniversary. You have to believe me that it was really a dream, just an idea on paper. Seeing that dream come true and celebrating 10 years, it’s really moving.