From Social News To Flight Search: A Chat With Reddit Co-Founder Steve Huffman

by Tim Jahn on October 26, 2010

Steve Huffman co-founded the popular social news site Reddit and sold it shortly thereafter to media company Condé Nast.  The path to that sale wasn’t exactly smooth, though.

Steve and his co-founder weren’t exactly sure what they were doing at the beginning.  They were even faking user accounts and traffic on Reddit initially to make the site seem “social”.

Having since left Reddit, Steve and his co-founder decided this past spring they wanted to work on another startup.  So they came up with Hipmunk, a new take on traditional online flight search.

In my interview with Steve, we discuss his journey as a creative entrepreneur from the initial stages of Reddit to where he is now with Hipmunk.

Transcript

Steve Huffman:
So Reddit and yeah, I was one of the two founders. We started in 2005. I was basically the engineering half of the team and my cofounder Alexis who was my college buddy did the kind of marketing, and PR, and random household tasks. We worked out of our apartment, so he took care of all the mundane stuff while I actually like kind of wrote the code, and was working on the site.

Tim Jahn:
So where did you get the idea for Reddit? What made you even start down that road?

Steve Huffman:
So we had applied to like Y Combinator with a totally separate idea and ultimately got rejected which was a very frustrating experience. But Paul and Y Combinator liked us so they wanted to — they wanted us to be in the program just working on a different idea. So we basically had this brainstorming session with them over like things we could build. And we left that conversation with what would ultimately turn into Reddit.

The idea that we started Y Combinator with was pretty far away from what Reddit ultimately turned out to be. The way Reddit works with submitting links, and voting on them, and all that came kind of organically as we were like developing the site. And so we basically just had this idea, let’s build a new site where you can find new and interesting content fast.

Tim Jahn:
And you mentioned in your presentation that you guys actually had to fake the traffic when you started.

Steve Huffman:
Yes, yes. What we thought it was really bad if like you show up the site and there’s nothing going on because then you’d never come back. So we actually spent a lot of our time finding — like we had written all these scripts that would like scrape other new sites like slashdot, and CNN, and delicious and whatnot.

And basically show us the links that showed up multiple times on that. And then we would submit those to Reddit, and then we had tons of fake user names. Alexis and I had like 50 accounts each between us that we’re always switching between and all these fake voting numbers just to make things look alive. Because if you have a social community site, it has to look like there’s a community there; it has to be social.

Tim Jahn:
Did that work?

Steve Huffman:
Yeah, it totally worked. It worked great. And then the day — I remember that was the turning point of the company is when I didn’t fake anything. I looked back on the day and I was like, “I didn’t send anything today and the sites still working.”

I’m like — like I slowly started submitting less, and less, and less and then finally it was this real thing that was churning on its own. And that was a really cool moment for us. That’s when we knew that like hey, this is probably going to work.

Tim Jahn:
That was my next question. So at that point you knew, this was a viable business and I’m excited?

Steve Huffman:
Well, I don’t know if we knew that it was a viable business but we were definitely excited. I don’t know if it’s a viable business now. They get a lot of traffic. They’re just now kind of figuring out how to make money.

But that was never something we never spent a lot of time thinking about was making money. We just wanted to get big and we did get big. And we figured we’d be able to contrive a business model eventually.

Tim Jahn:
Its interesting because I hear this before from stories sometimes when you don’t worry about making money, and you don’t worry about the business part, you end up, I mean, you guys got bought by Conde Nast so all of a sudden you’re not worrying about money, it turns into pretty good money.

Steve Huffman:
It turned out pretty good money for us personally because we sold the company. And then Conde, they basically had the attitude of, “we’re an advertising company, we know how to sell, that’s all we do. We sell ads in our magazines for ridiculous rates, and make oodles and oodles of money doing so. So we’ll do that with you guys. You guys just get big and then we’ll send our crack sales team in and sell the hell out of you guys when you’re ready.”

It didn’t work that way in practice. But for the first two years or so, at Conde Nast, that was kind of our operating principle. Conde was like, “You guys just get big and we’ll fund you and make sure that you can get developers, and servers and whatnot. And once you’re big enough, our sales people will swoop in and start selling stuff.”

Tim Jahn:
So that’s a — to get to your point, why did Conde Nast buy you? I mean, you said it was 17 months after you came up with crazy idea.

Steve Huffman:
Yeah, so they were just starting to get online. So they had Wired magazine which is I think a pretty well respected brand. They didn’t own Wired.com. They bought wired.com like three months before they bought Reddit. They had owned Wired Magazine for like ten years. They just didn’t care about the Internet.

And the basically this guy Caroshe approached Conde Nash and Caroshe was obsessed with wired.com. He had worked on wired.com previously and he was trying to buy it for himself. And he went to Conde Nast and he was like, “Hey you clowns, you should own this. Like why don’t you give me money and I’ll buy wired and run it and you guys will own part of wired.com?” And Conde was like, “Well, why don’t you work for us, buy wired.com, and run it.”

And so Caroshe did that and then he also bought Reddit and then he also would do Ars Technica. So within about two years, Conde Nast bought these kind of big three Internet technology brands and was making this big online push.

Tim Jahn:
So what was the biggest challenge when you were creating Reddit into getting it into something that was successful in your eyes?

Steve Huffman:
That’s a great question. There was a lot of challenging moments where things were just kind of going wrong. We — part — one of the challenging things is that we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know what we were building. So we were kind of always kind of feeling our way. We never really planned more than a week or two in the future.

Tim Jahn:
Do you think in the end that that was a good thing or a bad thing?

Steve Huffman:
I think it’s good. That type of nativity is really useful in a startup. You don’t realize how tall the mountain you’re climbing is. If I told you, “Go run a marathon” you’d be like, “Oh, I can run a marathon.” But if I told you, “Why don’t you just start jogging for a while and I’ll tell you when you’re done.” You don’t quite know what you’re getting into. And so that was the case with Reddit, which definitely helped us.

There’s things now doing Hipmunk where I can look back and I don’t — my code’s a lot better, our server architecture’s a lot better. Like scaling is not an issue this time around because we know what we’re doing this time. And it would have been nice to have that experience during Reddit. But the business experience, it’s not required. It’s mostly your willingness to just keep plugging away.

Tim Jahn:
And Hipmunk is a flight search tool. Totally different than a social news sharing site. What — do startups just run in your blood? I mean, you said you went somewhere last spring, decided I wanted to start another startup?

Steve Huffman:
Yeah. I mean, so I guess startups run in my blood in that I feel like I’ve been indoctrinated into this like mindset of that I don’t want to work for somebody else. And so, and a large part of that comes from Paul Graham’s inspiration.

He was the founder of Y Combinator. And yeah, and especially my experience on Reddit was all in all pretty good. And so, doing that again, seemed like a nobrainer. It was a lot of fun, really enjoyed the challenge, I enjoyed the people I met and the experiences, and so –

Tim Jahn:
So for you it’s just as much about the experience of creating something from scratch on your own? Even more so about that than the actual idea?

Steve Huffman:
Yeah, imagine you’re playing, you get to play with legos all day and every once in a while you get a million dollars. Its like, yeah, that’s pretty fun, right? Its fun building stuff and working on things is great. And if you’re building something that other people like, you can do well for yourself and you can change the world, and you can make somebody’s life better.

And so I — I can’t say we’re completely altruistic; we’re trying to run a business. But no, we can definitely make an impact and we can make things work better and that’s a very satisfying feeling.

Tim Jahn:
What’s one piece of advice you would give someone who is in a similar situation and wants to start a startup?

Steve Huffman:
Do it, do it. You got nothing to lose. If you’re — especially if you’re young, right? You’ve probably just — if you’re in college or just graduated, you’ve been living in poverty for the last four years. What’s another couple years going to hurt? The only thing you have to lose is time. It’s so cheap, servers are cheap. There’s tons of advice out there. Just do it.

Tim Jahn:
Nike had something, right?

Steve Huffman:
Yeah, right, right. No. There’s — the guy I was talking about that this morning. Just get off your ass and start building, and you’ll learn a lot in the process. And the worse case scenario is that your startup sucks.

You’ve basically given yourself an MBA in the process and you’ve learned a lot of lessons and you can try again. You have your whole life to work for somebody else. And maybe startups aren’t for you, they’re not for everybody. But you never know until you try.

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