Hill is the founder of TreeHugger, an online hub for news and information related to environmental sustainability.Hailed as a "green CNN," TreeHugger hosts a constantly updated blog, newsletters, video and radio segments and a user-generated Graham site, Hugg. In the three years since its inception, TreeHugger has become one of the most high-profile and highly-trafficked sites on the internet.
Recently, Hill his been hard at work developing Planet Green with Discovery Communications. Hill has also worked in a variety of industries prior to starting TreeHugger, including fashion, web-development, and plant-based air filters. He is also a designer, and his New York souvenir coffee mug is sold in over 150 stores. Hill was educated at Carleton University in Ottawa and Emily Carr Institute of ArtDesign in Vancouver.
Question: When did you become a social entrepreneur?
Graham Hill: I think I made a transition in the last five years or so. Before I would have just called myself a serial entrepreneur. Now I think I’m a serial entrepreneur that’s going to forever do “do gooder” things.
I’m very excited by change and by building something from nothing. And at this point, on top of that, I’m really want to do good. I think there’s a lot of suffering in the world, and I’d like to see what I can do to reduce it.
Question: Why did you make the change?
Graham Hill: My cousin and I built this great company of around 60 people. We started in ’95 – pre-Netscape – so very early on. And we just did great work programming; project management sort of stuff.
There were a lot of acquisitions going on at that point, and we got a lot of interest. And so we ended up selling to a New York company. And I finagled my way here via running an office for them for a little bit in Boston, and with the promise I’d be able to come out of the New York office--because I was very attracted to New York. So that’s sort of how I got here.
And after a while, it wasn’t the right fit for me, with the company. And I think I was really ready for something new. And so I tried a couple of things and really got my first D. It just didn’t go so well. Which I think was really great because it sort of let off a lot of pressure. And I think it also focused me because that first thing wasn’t particularly positive. It was more of a benign project – an Internet based thing.
It actually got me focused on; I really wanted to do something that matters to me and was in sync with my values. And I think I was really affected by reading. And I think books are; their power is underestimated. I think something about, you pick it up, you have to remember where you’re at, what the whole overall concept is, you get into it. You provide energy to it. It’s not just fed to you. And then you put it down, and you pick it up, and you put it down. It’s hundreds of pages, often, and it goes over the same stuff in various ways. And so it syncs in in a way that I think a lot of things don’t. So books are really powerful. I think that really helps. A lot of my reading on evolution and on green and just on social entrepreneurship.
This sort of stuff just got me very turned on. I was just very excited about the whole prospect.
Question: What inspired you to start an environmentally sound business?
Graham Hill: Really the way it started was I just said, “Why? What’s happening here? Why isn’t green mainstream?”
It seemed to me that a lot of people really cared about it, but it just hadn’t made that move. So why was that? And so I started looking at myself and trying to answer that question.
First of all, to me, aesthetics matter. I’m a shallow person, and so I care about; not that you can tell; I care about how I get my hair cut, and I care about the clothes that I wear, and I care about what my apartment’s like. And if I drove a car, I would care about that.
And so all these things, I wish they didn’t matter to me. I wish I didn’t care, but they do. And so one of the issues, the first one I highlighted, was that the hippies had really owned this area for 30, 40 years. They were the real backbone. And I had clearly come from there, and so I love the hippies. But I really felt like they were really a very small segment of the market. And the rest of the market – 95 percent plus of the people – it just wasn’t so appealing to them.
So the hippies have done a great job of selling, marketing to that sub-segment and are very green. And there’s sort of that whole market sold to. And so I figured if it was going to go larger, then it really needed to become more modern, and contemporary, and have an aesthetic that would appeal to much more of the population.
So that was sort of the first one.
Topic: A Busy Guy.
Graham Hill: The second problem I saw was that I’m a busy guy. And I live in New York and I work very hard. And so I’m running from thing to thing, and on the weekends that, if I’m able to get any time off, I want to relax, and see my friends, and do this sort of stuff. So the real challenge at that point was that it really wasn’t convenient. So convenience is the real killer, and I think you really need to make it easy.
So if I needed to find that pair of cotton organic pants, or low VOC paints [volatile organic compound paints], or figure out, if I was to buy a hybrid car or something; these are activities that would take hours and hours. And so ultimately they just wouldn’t end up happening, or wouldn’t end up happening enough.
So the second problem that I saw was just one of convenience. We really needed to make it convenient.
Topic: The Importance of Yes.
Graham Hill: The third was, a lot of environmentalism, to that point, had been about “no”; had been about “the sky is falling”; had been about, inspire by fear. And I actually think; we need a whole bunch of approaches to this problem and that approach was actually really important. It’s important for people to understand the gravity of the situation, and that there are major issues. And all that’s very important.
But I think there are also people who are looking for, “Great. So what’s next? How do we move forward?” And they’re looking for “Yes”. They’re looking for, "Inspire by hope." And I think I’m one of those people. And so what I figured was if one could create a site that would aggregate all this modern green, the different aesthetic that was starting to appear on a global basis, in one place; make it convenient for people such that they could not spend a ton of time and still move their life in a green direction; and just make it really positive and solutions-oriented; that it would appeal to a market and it would really help green go mainstream. So that was sort of the basic thinking. And so in 2004, we really got together and launched TreeHugger.
Recorded on: Oct 16, 2007