The Accidental Media Empire

The gin mill genesis of a success story

Buffalo Wings, the Pet Rock, and the Marine Corps – they’re all big ideas that were born out of barroom banter.

Add to that list The Atavist, hatched over drinks by two journalists and a programmer. The Atavist publishes long-form non-fiction that is enhanced with interactive, multimedia elements. Users purchase individual stories that can be read, watched, and swiped on the iPad and iPhone (text-only versions are available on the Kindle and Nook, among others).

Founded by Evan Ratliff, Jefferson Rabb, and Nicholas Thompson, the company started small. “Basically Jeff was at his apartment, I was at my apartment,” Ratliff told us. “All our meetings were at bars, basically. Actually all our founders’ meetings are still at bars.”

The pub-fueled pub launched in January of 2011. “We didn’t really think about what was going to happen one month or three months out,” Ratliff said. “We started hearing from a lot of people, issues were selling pretty well, and we thought, what happens now?”

What happened went well beyond their expectations (and those of their occasional doubters). The company has found a thriving business in licensing its CMS to publishers like the Paris Review and TED Books. And last month it was announced that The Atavist would enter into a major partnership with Barry Diller’s IAC, Scott Rudin, and Frances Coady. Not bad for a beer-fueled bull session.

Now go forth (and raise a glass).

Nitty Gritty:

1975: Year the Pet Rock was invented

32: Pages in original Pet Rock Training Manual

1.5mm: Pet Rocks sold in first year of retail