Ellis Dixon - Atlas Lisboa
Atlas Lisboa - The People’s Guide to Lisbon
Planning your next adventure in Lisbon, Portugal? Atlas Lisboa will get you moving around the city in no time! Talk Editor spoke with Ellis Dixon, co-founder of Lisbon based online marketplace, about helping travellers and Lisbonites get the most of the beautiful city.
Originally from Memphis, USA, Ellis came to Lisbon in 2012 and fell in love with the city and its people right away. A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Ellis worked as a full-time fashion designer for almost 10 years in New York's garment industry until she and her partner started living on the road and freelancing full-time.
An avid traveller and explorer, Ellis has visited over 35 countries to date. In 2017, she and her team took part in the Mongol Rally, driving from London to Mongolia via Iran whilst being followed and filmed for MTV. She has, bussed, trekked, and rock climbed through most of South America, and has made many jaunts to Asia showing no signs of slowing down.
Ellis is the mother of a six-month-old and she juggles the design and curation of Atlas Lisboa, with freelance design work in fashion, graphics and cover design. She also teaches English as a second language at the American School in Lisbon.
In this interview, Ellis shares how her “can’t miss” list for friends visiting Lisbon led to the creation of Atlas Lisboa, what she learnt creating an online guide, and her top advice for readers who are starting a new venture.
From New York to Lisbon - starting an online travel guide
Ellis, you swapped fashion design in New York for a new life in Lisbon creating an online guide, how did it come about?
Fashion is a sexy business on the surface but it takes its toll on you. As soon as you finish designing for spring, the winter season hits the shelf, and the fall collection goes in the trash bin. In essence, the details a designer obsesses over often fade away with time and become forgotten at the back of a closet or worse, in a landfill somewhere. I had always wanted to be a fashion designer since before I could remember, but the actual business of it turned out to be not as sexy as I had imagined.
I decided to trade my Louboutins for flip flops and the steamy pavement of New York City for the cobblestones of Lisbon and figure the next steps out organically. A few years later, AtlasLisboa was born. One could argue that a blog isn’t exactly meaningful, but I would have to disagree. The information my team and I provide for thousands of travelers and locals means they can better engage with the city around them by making the most of their free time. Less time spent looking for a good restaurant, bike path, or dance party means more time spent doing what you love.
I have become addicted to the joy of being helpful and creative simultaneously. To create content, I get to explore and find new places to fall in love with. If I don’t like it, I (usually) don’t write about it. Sure, Atlas can get snarky, but that’s just New York humor floating to the surface. Some habits are difficult to get rid of!
Atlas Lisboa marketplace launch
The recent addition of the my.atlaslisboa.com experience marketplace was our most logical step forward. We seek to employ the underemployed by giving passionate experts in various fields a chance to share their love and professional insight, and to bring tourism back to the people who have been marginalized by big business.
Now, when I shut my computer at the end of the day, I have a sense of accomplishment at having done something meaningful for people who are looking to actively engage with the city and the locals that make it tick. Ultimately, I hope to help our readers create memories that will last a lifetime, not just buy a product and trash it the next season.
Side note to all you fashionistas out there: yes, I still have my Louboutins, but walking on cobblestones in stilettos without stripping the heel requires a skill I have yet to master. I recommend wedges for a fancy night out.
Helping friends becomes an idea for a travel guide
When did you know that the guide had the potential to grow and succeed?
The AtlasLisboa.com blog started organically— it was a personal project to help friends navigate Lisboa while my partner and I were away and unable to guide them ourselves. We posted the “can’t miss” list online and the feedback we received from our friends, as well as a startling number of visitors from all over the world, led us to realize how much information we had that people were actively searching for. It was obvious then that we had to continue going. We had no idea that the work that lay ahead of us would become a daily fixation, and not just for us — for thousands of our weekly readers as well.
Not your average travel guide
Tell us more about the guide, what can visitors find in Atlas Lisboa that isn't anywhere else?
We treat Lisbon as the growing and morphing city it is instead of a monument preserved in amber and Disneyfied for mass consumption, which is a frighteningly common occurrence when it comes to guides to Portugal and of course elsewhere in Europe. We also take the stand that it’s ok to be responsible about your tourism.
So we will never focus our attention on pasteis de Belém unless absolutely necessary, for example. Everyone has written about them. The line out the door on a daily basis means that the equally delicious custard pastries down the road at the mom-and-pop shop are, ignored. I’d much prefer to go to a place where I can talk to the old lady who has been baking pasteis da nata for the last 40 years and make sure her little cafe doesn’t turn into a chain restaurant.
The experiences we host on our marketplace are cut from the same cloth. Why not add something more to your obligatory visit to the Castelo São Jorge by bringing one of the city’s most accomplished archeologists or historians with you to give you a little context on what you’re seeing? Our marketplace lets you take even the most obvious tourist attraction and turn it into something special, or let the local aficionado guide you to someplace you never would have found on your own.
What were your biggest challenges at the beginning and how did you overcome them?
The reason we chose Lisbon was precisely because it isn’t anything like New York City. People like their quality of life, and treat their working days accordingly. For example, the majority of businesses that aren’t serving food close for lunch. A ton of restaurants are only open for breakfast and lunch, and some are only open four hours a night, three days a week. We’ve found ourselves constantly coming up against a closed door. That obviously presents challenges to putting together recommendations of things to do.
Then there’s technology. We were used to having the latest app, ratings site, and city guide available for New York long before it came out anywhere else. Things are different here. Google Maps still sometimes places you in the middle of the Tejo River when you want to go rent a bike or something. And even major institutions sometimes don’t bother maintaining their websites – the Portuguese still often rely on word of mouth, people they know, and good old fashioned phones to figure out what to do and where to do it. So getting started with an information-based platform was far more challenging than we could have imagined.
The answer to tackling the problem was all-natural elbow grease, a lot of phone calls, and an obscene amount of coffee. We still find ourselves fighting age-of-technology battles the old fashioned way. But in our time here, we’ve embraced the mantra that if you can’t beat them, join them. The relationships we have created with the business owners here in Lisbon have made our experience even richer in the end.
Working for Atlas Lisboa
How do you find people to work for Atlas Lisboa?
We’ve sent some job posts to university career services platforms around the city and announced open calls, and we have certainly done our fair share of begging and pleading with talented people we meet to share their perspective with Atlas readers. But fortunately the writers, videographers, designers, copy editors, and social media mavericks we work with have found us on their own. When curious people move or visit Lisbon, they’re bound to find us in the first few search results for art, music, outdoor activities, general how-tos, and more, and those who feel they have something to share generally reach out. It’s reassuring to us that our community project has inspired so many from the community to stand up and offer their help to keep us going.
If someone wants to get involved and help out, what do you look for in candidates?
We look for curiosity, willingness to wear many different (often strange!) hats, and an energetic approach to work. We work hard because, well, we’re from New York and we can’t help it, but more importantly, because we love what we do. Atlas is looking for people with their own brand of passion and work ethic to help make our voice even more unique. If you’ve got ideas, we’re open to them. You’ve got a tour you think is cool and you want to try it out? We’re here to give you a shot at leading it. You’ve got a story idea? Pitch it. Want to get involved in a cool project but you aren’t sure what you can bring to it? We’ve got all kinds of work for the right person, even if it’s just to teach our managing editor how to use emojis.
Ellis's top advice for starting entrepreneurs
What is the best piece of advice you could give to someone starting a business or a creative project?
Depending on where you’re getting started, don’t expect immediate results. Often you’ll have to wait much longer than you bargained for to begin to see a little success. During that time, try to find ways to remind yourself why it is that you do what you do, and you’ll never want to stop.
Also, chucking out what isn’t working is a difficult decision, but something you’ll have to keep doing until you find what makes the most sense for you and for the people you are trying to reach. Sometimes trimming the fat means doing away with a pet project. Also, prepare to fail in ways you never thought possible — and enjoy them. Seriously.