(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STEVE HUFFMAN: Every single person I know texted me and said, you got to go back to Reddit. And it just felt like, at the time, I had no choice. And it wasn't even kind of a CEO mentality, it was more of just, like, an engineer who knew how Reddit worked. And watching these trolls run rampant on Reddit, I remember just thinking, I know how to fix this. I, too, know the mind of a troll.
HUFFMAN: And if you just give me access to the code, I can fix this.
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GUY RAZ, HOST:
From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS - a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built. I'm Guy Raz. And on today's special live episode, how two college roommates built an internet community that's become a virtual nation with a population bigger than Brazil.
So if you're one of the 300 million active Reddit users, you probably think of it as this incredible place, a home where you can find your tribe - groups of people talking about the weird stuff you're into. But if you are not into Reddit, it can seem like this super intimidating insider's club that's kind of hard to penetrate. And if you land on the home page and you're not familiar with it, you might think you've accidentally stumbled onto the internet circa 2005 because that is what Reddit looks like.
It's a discussion site filled entirely with user-generated content, which means, depending on the time of day, anything from photos of cats wearing Renaissance-era costumes to serious discussions about U.S. foreign policy. And this simple little site is also worth a ton of money. Actually, its most recent valuation put it at $1.8 billion - and all of this from an idea that Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian came up with on a road trip to Boston during their senior year of college in 2005.
Now, since then, Reddit and the founders have been through a lot of ups and downs. Reddit's users nearly shut it down in 2015. At a certain point, parts of the site were hijacked by trolls who used it to spread hateful messages. And even Alexis and Steve went through a long period when they stopped speaking. But recently, Reddit started to hit its stride again - to be specific, a $200 million cash infusion from investors - with plans to make the site into a more user-friendly place. And a couple of weeks ago in San Francisco, I sat down with Alexis and Steve in front of a live audience to hear about how they came to invent what's become known as the front page of the internet.
RAZ: First of all, Steve, I just wanted to begin by asking you I think a really important question, which is, you are wearing a purple sweater with a dinosaur, on which a robot is riding the dinosaur.
HUFFMAN: That's right.
RAZ: Can you talk a little bit about your sweater?
HUFFMAN: Yeah, with pleasure. Thank you for asking.
HUFFMAN: So the advice that you're often given is, dress like the person you want to be. And so I went to Google, and I typed in awesome sweater and clicked on images. And I just scrolled down till I found something that spoke to me. I'm not making this up. And then I found this.
RAZ: Cool. Great. OK, now we can start the interview.
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RAZ: So how did you guys meet? Steve, tell me the story that you remember.
HUFFMAN: Sure. As I recall, we met first - our first year of college at University of Virginia on our first day.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Yelling) Wahoowa.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Wahoowa. I see you.
HUFFMAN: And so I arrived before Alexis. And we were on the same hall, and our rooms were across from each other. And everybody's - each - everybody's rooms had their names on the door. And so mine said Steve and David (ph), and across the hall were Alexis and Mike (ph). And my first thought was, this is sweet, there are girls on our hall.
HUFFMAN: And so needless to say, when I met Alexis, my first emotion was disappointment.
OHANIAN: I was elated because Steve was playing PlayStation 2. So I was happy to meet you. We got over the fact that I was not what he expected and became fast friends.
RAZ: Fast friends and, like, super close friends, right?
OHANIAN: Yeah. I - we talked about our gaming rigs, played a lot of video games together and lived together for years.
HUFFMAN: Eight years, I think, in total.
OHANIAN: ...Basically, the rest of college - shared many intimate experiences in college together that we will not go into detail about. And yeah, we're best of friends.
RAZ: And what'd you study?
OHANIAN: I was a history and business major.
RAZ: So nothing to do with...
OHANIAN: ...Yes, humanities.
RAZ: ...Yeah, nothing to do with technology at all.
OHANIAN: No. I mean, I took programming classes in high school, and I fancied myself a programmer until I met Steve and realized I was not going to be a programmer for a living.
RAZ: Yeah. You were a computer science major.
HUFFMAN: Exactly. And so I had always grown up wanting to be a business major until I met Alexis.
HUFFMAN: And I decided that engineering is the path for me.
RAZ: So when you guys were at - you know, in college, were you - I mean, were you talking about business, starting a business, doing something together? Was that something you would talk about in - during your video game sessions?
OHANIAN: Yeah, not at first.
HUFFMAN: I would say the first three years were really just video games.
HUFFMAN: And I - it was our last year. It was sometime around then. I don't remember - I remember the first conversation we were in. We went to that hockey game in D.C., but I don't remember when that was. Was that our last year?
OHANIAN: It was junior year. Because I - as a history major, I thought the only way I was going to have a career was to go to law school. And I obsessed. I spent all my time in the library obsessing over my grades, studying for the LSAT, and then on a Saturday morning, walked out of an LSAT to go eat waffles.
And I went to a Waffle House. It's a great place for epiphanies and waffles. And I had both there that morning, and realized, if I wanted these waffles more than the LSAT, I probably shouldn't be a lawyer - and then needed something to do with my life. And so naturally, I went to my smartest friend and said, hey, Steve, you always have these great ideas for technologies. Like, let's try to make a business out of it.
RAZ: And did you have an idea?
HUFFMAN: I did have an idea. Another business unique to the Mid-Atlantic is Sheetz gas station. And Sheetz had, at the time - you could get subs, sub sandwiches.
RAZ: Because why - where else would you want to get a sub sandwich rather than the gas - you know?
HUFFMAN: You know, it did...
OHANIAN: Don't knock it till you try it.
RAZ: You want to get a gas station sub sandwich.
OHANIAN: Have you had one, Guy?
OHANIAN: They're good. They're good subs, good subs.
HUFFMAN: And Sheetz had an electric POS terminal. So you could go in there and order from a touch screen, which, at the time, was actually pretty cool. And so I'd sit there pumping my gas, thinking, there's an electronic ordering system inside. If I could just convey my order to that machine, the fella inside could be making my sandwich, and then I wouldn't have to wait. And so that was the idea for My Mobile Menu.
RAZ: This would've been, like, a pre-app because this was pre-iPhones. It would've been, like, on a BlackBerry, or in a cellphone, or something or...
HUFFMAN: Yeah. This is what we learned later, that the idea was actually ahead of its time.
HUFFMAN: The cellphones - iPhone didn't exist. The cellphones didn't have apps.
OHANIAN: We had a great name though.
RAZ: What was the name?
OHANIAN: My Mobile Menu, or MMM.
RAZ: Oh, perfect. Great.
OHANIAN: I spent days working on that, Guy - days.
OHANIAN: ...Even made them a little logo for that too.
RAZ: Did you really?
OHANIAN: It was just three M's.
RAZ: So did you guys - how did you decide to pitch this idea?
HUFFMAN: Not very effectively. We had this fantasy of, I would work for my job. I worked for a startup all through college. But in Virginia during that time, we didn't call them startups. We called them small businesses. And so I worked for this small business all through school, and I had a job offer to continue on after I graduated.
The plan was, I would work there during the day, and then Alexis and I would work on My Mobile Menu in the evening. And we had considered, like, asking my parents for funding, but we actually didn't even know how to do that, so we didn't.
OHANIAN: But then we had a life-changing spring break.
RAZ: So this is spring break of senior year. So what was life-changing? What happened?
OHANIAN: We went to Cancun.
OHANIAN: No, we were the only kids in Virginia who didn't, because Katie (ph) saw that Paul Graham was having a talk.
HUFFMAN: So my girlfriend at the time knew that I was a Paul Graham fan.
RAZ: Paul Graham...
HUFFMAN: Paul Graham is - well, was the founder and the lead of Y Combinator, and wrote essays evangelizing startups, and kind of nerd culture and engineering, and how, basically, you can build yourself a new life on the internet, starting companies. And so I was a fan of his. And we learned that he was giving a talk at Harvard over our spring break called "How To Start A Startup." So Alexis and I decided to go.
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HUFFMAN: So Paul gave his lecture, which at the time, is really - he just stands there, and stares into his paper and reads an essay. Nevertheless, at the end of the talk, Alexis basically dragged me up to the front of the room to meet Paul. And Alexis, as he does, introduced himself to Paul.
RAZ: You said?
OHANIAN: Hello, Dr. Graham.
OHANIAN: Could you please sign my friend's book?
HUFFMAN: And I had my dog-eared copy of his "Lisp" programming book.
OHANIAN: And it would totally be worth the cost of buying you a drink to get you to come out with us. We came all the way from Virginia, and we have a startup we want to pitch you.
HUFFMAN: And he agreed because you boys came all the way from Virginia.
OHANIAN: I think he was shocked we had trains.
HUFFMAN: Yeah - and agreed to meet us later that evening.
RAZ: So you take him out for - so he agrees to go for a drink with you.
OHANIAN: And we sat down at Cafe Algiers. I hope it's still there in Harvard Square.
HUFFMAN: It is. I walked by it not too long ago.
OHANIAN: And we pitched him. We had a whole plan.
RAZ: OK, you pitched him My Mobile Menu.
RAZ: And what...
RAZ: And what was his response?
HUFFMAN: He said, this will be the end of lines. And I was like, no, Paul, I actually don't think you understand. What I want to do is get my sub when I'm pumping gas.
OHANIAN: And he went off. He was so hyped. And we left there feeling amazing because this was, like, one of your idols who said that we actually had a really good idea.
HUFFMAN: So we got back to Virginia. And a couple days later, Alexis said to me, hey, Steve, you should send Paul an email thanking him for meeting us. And so I did. And he responded back. He was like, oh, are you those two guys from Virginia? I just announced this new program called Y Combinator to invest in people like you. You should apply. So we did.
RAZ: And you're thinking, we have got a sure bet because he'd already told us it's going to revolutionize lines.
OHANIAN: Oh, yeah.
OHANIAN: And we gave the interview of our lives when they invited us back up there.
HUFFMAN: Yeah, although there was a moment where I was explaining to Robert Morris - one of the, probably, best engineers, programmers on earth - what a web server is. No, he already knew.
HUFFMAN: But I took it upon myself to really tie it up.
OHANIAN: We nailed it. We nailed it. And then they said they were going to call us later that night, and...
RAZ: So you guys are high-fiving each other, and you're ready for the call.
OHANIAN: And we got the call. And I picked up - hello? And he said, I'm sorry, we're rejecting you. And that really sucked. That really sucked. We were going to prove him wrong, though. We went out drinking, and we were going to prove them wrong.
RAZ: So you went out drinking, and you were like, to hell with those guys. We're going to make this thing anyway.
OHANIAN: And then the next morning, on the way back, he called.
RAZ: Paul Graham called?
OHANIAN: Yeah. And it's like, hello? We got to play cool. Hello? And it's Paul, and he's like, we still don't like your idea.
OHANIAN: It's like, do - why would you call to say that?
OHANIAN: He goes, we like you two. And if you change your idea, we'll invest. I got - again, I got to play it cool. All right, we'll think about it. We'll get back to you.
OHANIAN: And I think at that point, we were already convinced we needed to get off this train and accept that offer.
HUFFMAN: Yeah, we were - in that moment, My Mobile Menu...
STEVE HUFFMAN AND ALEXIS OHANIAN: ...Died.
OHANIAN: ...So quickly. And we got a train right back.
HUFFMAN: We showed him.
HUFFMAN: We literally jumped over the tracks and caught the next train going north.
OHANIAN: Yeah - went right back, sat down with Paul.
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RAZ: So you go, and you meet Paul, and what? What do you start doing? You start, like, brainstorming with him?
HUFFMAN: Basically, yes. And so we were talking about, like, things we could build. And there was a couple of websites that we both liked at the time, one of which was Delicious. And so Delicious - it was a social bookmarking website. And there was a page on Delicious called Popular. And on Del.icio.us/popular, you could see things that were being bookmarked that day that were popular. And things that were being bookmarked more often would hang around a little longer.
The thing is, when you bookmark something, it's because you can't finish it in one sitting. So it's reference material, it's things you can't get through, things you want to come back to later. So Delicious Popular was, basically, this really cool index of the most boring content on the Internet on any given day.
And so - and then we also love Slashdot - Slashdot: News for nerds, stuff that matters. It's still online. And Slashdot had this incredible community. You know, you go there for news every day, but really, the magic of Slashdot lived in the comment section. And so the idea was, can we take the mechanics of Delicious - user-submitted and kind of this top - Billboard Top 40 effect - and combine it with good content and a good community? And that was the genesis of Reddit.
OHANIAN: And this was a chance to basically get $12,000 from an investor we really trusted to just try something for three months. And at worst case, you know, at the end of the summer, maybe we just would've, I don't know, gone back to Virginia.
RAZ: I mean, did you come up with a fully formed idea and - by talking with Paul? Because, I mean, going from My Mobile Menu to what became Reddit is a radical change. I mean, did you come up with that concept, just go - you went back up to Boston, started brainstorming and that came out of it?
HUFFMAN: I have that notebook. It's in my desk at work - the notes I took during that first meeting. And I had actually written down in that notebook - the front page of the Internet. That's what we were going to build.
OHANIAN: P.G. is terrible at naming companies, but when he nailed it with that phrase, it was special.
RAZ: He said to you, you want to make - you should make the front page...
OHANIAN: Make the front page of the Internet.
HUFFMAN: And we said, OK. And so we did.
OHANIAN: It was easy as that.
OHANIAN: We thought we were - we thought we'd gotten away with something, right? Like, here was this vague concept that we had sort of agreed to work on over the span of an hour, and here was 12 grand to just spend three months working on it.
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RAZ: Just to be clear, you meet Paul on - in spring break of 2005, so roughly March, maybe early April, of 2005. From what I understand, you launched Reddit in June of 2005, like, 2 1/2 months later.
OHANIAN: Yeah, we actually only worked on it for about three weeks before we launched it, and...
HUFFMAN: Yeah, so I didn't write the first line of code until June, and I had never built a website before. And we were kind of Paul's special projects a little bit, you know, because of how they got into YC. And so he would email us daily with just ideas and, you know, things like - I think his two best pieces of advice were, your name is awful, and you need to get rid of that little bug.
OHANIAN: Yeah, I still have that email. That went in the book. I really - thanks, Paul.
HUFFMAN: He actually had a lot of really good ideas at - during that time.
RAZ: You wanted to name it Reddit?
HUFFMAN: Alexis wanted to name it Reddit.
RAZ: How'd you - I mean, it's a great name.
OHANIAN: Well, thank you. You like it more than mm (ph)?
RAZ: Yes, better than mm.
OHANIAN: We couldn't afford snew (ph), which was the name we wanted, which was actually Paul's idea. The idea was people would ask, oh, what snew? And we'd say...
OHANIAN: ...Exactly. It's what new online.
HUFFMAN: And so instead, Alexis was, like, they'll say, what's Reddit?
OHANIAN: I hoped people would say, I read it on Reddit. Unfortunately, snew.com cost $4,000, which we didn't have and was third of our funding, so couldn't afford it. Named the mascot Snoo instead and then Reddit was available, totally was free, so R-E-D-D-I-T. And that and the mascot were my key contributions.
RAZ: Yeah. I mean, so...
OHANIAN: Top of my LinkedIn profile.
RAZ: So in that sort of the beginning period of time, Steve, you were coding. You were doing that sort of tech side...
OHANIAN: Doodle work.
RAZ: Doodle work (laughter). And what were you doing? Were you handling...
HUFFMAN: You know...
OHANIAN: This was the running joke at Y Combinator because I was the only non-technical founder and it was a very curious thing for all involved. Aside from naming the company and drawing the mascot, I had the important responsibility of everything else that wasn't technical from, like, ordering the pizza - no, I'm serious - to, like, keeping the spreadsheet with all the receipts to haggling cellphone bills down. And, you know, it has to be an egoless job as a founder because you just have to get that [expletive] done because any time Steve, any time an engineer would spend doing something that's not, like, technical is a waste of time. And I like to think over the years I proved my worth. But back then, that was a very common question - a very common question at YC.
RAZ: And how did you get people to post stuff at the beginning?
OHANIAN: Funny you ask that.
HUFFMAN: We cheated. So we had a special version of the submit page. So for most users, of which there were none, they would see title and URL. And so they'd - you know, that's how they would submit. And to be fair, the submit page has actually changed very little since then. And for Alexis and I, it was title, URL and username. So you would put in the link you wanted to submit and you'd make up a username and hit submit, and it would register that username if it didn't exist or sumbit as that username if it did. And that's why the first hundred or so Reddit users were either characters from "World Of Warcraft" or pieces of furniture in our living room.
OHANIAN: Not very creative. Both at level 60 that summer, though. It was the level cap in "Warcraft" back then.
RAZ: So how did you get the word out? I mean, how did you actually get real users?
HUFFMAN: Well, so Paul did that for us. He was, like, hey, you guys need to launch, you need to launch, you need to launch. And I was like, OK, we're almost ready to launch. And then he wrote an essay where he linked to Reddit without telling us. I had my computer, and then I had a little screen next to it where I could see the error log of things going by. And all of a sudden one day, it just starts going really fast. And I just like, what is going on? And what happened was Paul just launched us. And so that's basically how it happened. So our first real users were actually Paul Graham fans, people who were reading his essays. And that kind of set the tone for the early days of Reddit.
OHANIAN: You'd have to be scrappy because - right? - in '05, there was no social networks to speak of. Facebook existed, but it wasn't beyond your college network. And we emailed every one of our friends. I remember two of them, Morgan (ph) and Connor (ph) - thank you - actually signed up and started using it. But most people just didn't care. And you would just beg - you'd try to beg bloggers to write about you. And I'll never forget, though, a changing way was the name of some random person's blog. And it was the first random person who ever took the time to write about Reddit.
And I found this post years later. I mean, it took a little work with the Wayback Machine. And if you look, it was some random Typepad blog, right? The first two comments are from you and me - I don't know if you remember this - but we actually left them a comment that was just like, oh, thank you so much. This is so great. If you need anything, let us know. We're the co-founders.
OHANIAN: And it's in - especially in '05, it was a really isolating experience to put something out in the world and feel like no one cared. And so the first time someone cared, it felt amazing. That's how I found this guy's website a decade later was because there was enough of it still seared in my brain because someone cared and we reached out and thanked them for it. This was old-school just giving a damn to try to get anyone to write about us or talk about us at all.
RAZ: Did you have a - like, a business model in your mind? I mean, you had $12,000, so, like, did you think, well, we'll eventually get advertising? Because there was - I mean, web advertising wasn't what it is today.
HUFFMAN: It existed. It was not a priority for us. We did have ads.
OHANIAN: We had some better ads.
RAZ: But did you have a sense of how you were going to make it sustainable?
HUFFMAN: Not really. We weren't really thinking in those terms, to be honest. Because of the way we got into YC, we barely - I mean, we didn't even really think of ourselves as a business. This was more of an adventure we were on. We didn't have a target destination, a North Star mission we were building towards. It was how do we, you know, get by everyday without looking stupid in front of Paul Graham? And then once we - in August, a few months in, once we had real users, it became, let's just not let the users down. And that was our mentality for actually quite a while.
RAZ: After Paul Graham wrote that essay and linked to Reddit, did it - was that - is that the moment where it took off?
HUFFMAN: No. No, that was the moment when we started getting real traffic. It was in August was when we started getting real users. I remember that day. We used to - Alexis and I were submitting all the content. And we had a rule back then that all of the content on the front page had to be less than 24 hours old. And the front page was 25 links long. So if there were fewer than 25 links submitted that day, there'd be fewer than 25 links on the front page independent of quality. And so sometimes we'd go to the site and there'd be, like, seven links there, and it would just be white space.
And so I had taken a day off for whatever reason. In the late afternoon I remember thinking, shoot, I haven't thought about Reddit all day. I bet the front page is completely dried up. It's completely blank. And when I - when I checked, it was full of content from usernames that I'd never seen before. And so that was the day when we realized that this is a thing. These are real users. We're not just propping it up with our fake accounts anymore. And that was a really special day. I still get really kind of excited when I think about it because that's when our motivation changed. And that's when Reddit was really born, I think.
RAZ: That summer that you guys launched in 2005, Alexis, your life kind of sort of went off the rails, right? I mean, it was a pretty difficult summer for you. What was going on?
OHANIAN: Well, two months after we launched, my girlfriend had a pretty serious accident falling out of a five-story window in Germany. I immediately flew out. She spent about four or five months in a coma and finally thankfully actually came out of it, came back to the states by December that year and actually has made a near full recovery, which was remarkable. But it was a hard - that was - that was hard, to say the least. And a month later, my mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. And so, you know, you go from feeling invulnerable at 21 or 22 and start - like, just months into starting a business and, you know, feeling like you work and are going to take over the world, and then being really hit in the stomach and realizing, no, no, that's real life.
And I knew at some point - I'd had an amazing life up in that point - very, very, lucky - and I knew at some point the comeuppance was going to come. I just didn't think it would happen all at once. And I'll never forget the first meeting I had back with my mom. The first words out of her mouth were, I'm sorry. She felt so bad because - you know, because she got cancer. That is the kind of woman she was, that she was always thinking of me, of other people ahead of herself. And that, in a lot of ways, came to define my entire experience at Reddit. It still, to this day, is imbued in what Reddit means to me because it is the best of her.
I know that because of everything she gave me in confidence and motivation and support and unflinching love that I could never fail, that Reddit could never really fail because she released me of any of that concern. And so, you know, starting a startup sucks. It really sucks. But it ain't that bad compared to what you do if you're going through chemotherapy or you're, like my father, supporting someone who is. And it was, you know, a gift that I'm still grateful for because it keeps perspective on every trauma, everything that I face because nothing's really actually that bad.
RAZ: When we come back, why Alexis and Steve decided to sell Reddit and how it took a toll on their friendship. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS live, recorded in San Francisco.
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RAZ: Hey, welcome back to this live edition of HOW I BUILT THIS recorded in San Francisco. So it's 2005 and Reddit has just launched. And the site is growing really fast. And so around this time, one of the founding partners of Y Combinator, Jessica Livingston, suggested that Alexis go to New York to help spread the word about Reddit. And one of the meetings on that visit would be life-changing.
OHANIAN: She said, just go down there, tell a couple people that you're in town on a press tour and see if they'll meet you for coffee. And so I crashed on a friend's sofa and had meetings. And one of the meetings was with a freelance reporter. And I thought I was pitching her for a story, but we actually kind of hit it off. And she ultimately was, like, you know what? I don't feel like we should - I don't want to write a story because, like, I think we're friends. Like, let's not make this a business thing. Like, let's just stay in touch and be friends. And I was, like, OK. Cool. Whatever. Like, I'm just here on a press tour.
OHANIAN: And, you know, I got a lot of stuff going on, so I got to go.
OHANIAN: And I don't know, a few weeks later, I get an email from this guy named Kourosh Karimkhany, who is the head of BD at Conde Nets, the digital arm of Conde Nast. And he explained to me that his wife, who was an editor at Wired, had heard from one of her writers, Rachel (ph) - the one I met - about this company called Reddit. And he wanted to have a quick phone call. And during that call, he basically pitched this idea of making a white label Reddit called Lipstick as, like, a test sort of project. And then, you know, five months later, we're talking about acquisition.
HUFFMAN: I mean, I think you glossed over the five months where I was the head moderator of lipstick.com.
OHANIAN: You were an expert at celebrity gossip, you know?
RAZ: So, I mean, it's pretty amazing. I mean, it's, like, a year and a half after you start Reddit, you sell it to Conde Nast for somewhere between 10 and $20 million. So presumably...
HUFFMAN: Technically (laughter).
OHANIAN: That is accurate. Yeah.
RAZ: (Laughter) That is right. OK.
OHANIAN: That's technically accurate.
RAZ: So was that the reason? Were you guys like - you were 22, 23. And you were thinking, cool, we can, like, walk away with a couple of million bucks?
OHANIAN: Yeah. I mean, Guy...
OHANIAN: ...This was 16 months of work that was going to mean more money for me than my entire family had made - my mother and father had made their entire lives. Like, are you kidding me? My mom had a GED. Like, this was not - this seemed like a joke. The best phone call of my life was calling her up, saying, hey, Mom. It was worth it. Like, all of that support, all of that everything - like, we did it. And that - I would never, ever trade that phone call. That will be the greatest phone call for the rest of my life. So I regret - from a business standpoint, yes, we sold early. But I have no regret whatsoever as a decision because I got to make that phone call.
RAZ: And she lived to see that.
OHANIAN: To see it.
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RAZ: So once that happened, you guys become employees of Conde Nast, I guess. Right?
OHANIAN: Not in 4 Times Square, though. They didn't put us in the fancy cafeteria.
HUFFMAN: So we - yeah, but that's where we worked right there on the corner in that organic building for three years.
RAZ: That was your commitment. You had to stay there for three years, and then you could do whatever it was you wanted to do.
HUFFMAN: That's right. And we both loved Reddit. But when our contracts ended - I can't speak for Alexis. But, you know, I left because I wanted to start another company that was involved in the exchange of money so that I wouldn't have to contrive a business model because on Reddit, we were still - we hadn't quite figured out ads, right? It was just - it felt like we were swimming upstream. And I didn't realize how cool Reddit was. I thought, well, if you just build something, it will just grow. That's how things go on the Internet. And I didn't realize that Reddit was so special, that despite the fact that we didn't know what we were doing and despite the fact that, like, at times we were very unproductive, it just grew.
RAZ: So once that time ended, you went and founded a new company, Hipmunk.
RAZ: And Alexis...
OHANIAN: I went to the motherland.
RAZ: You went to Armenia...
OHANIAN: I went to Armenia.
RAZ: ...Which is where your dad...
OHANIAN: ...Dad's side. Yeah.
RAZ: ...Where your dad's side of the family is from for a couple of months. And were you just thinking, I'm done with tech world, like, I've finished?
OHANIAN: Ish (ph), ish. I just wanted to unplug a bit. And I had felt really guilty because I had never been. And so I felt this tremendous guilt for not having this connection and had an amazing experience there and could just kind of hit reset. And then came back - and I figured I was going to live in New York for the rest of my days, helped draw a mascot for Hipmunk and Steve. But New York was home.
RAZ: And you got involved a little bit with Hipmunk at the...
HUFFMAN: Yeah. And I do recall actually at this point, Alexis and I by 2009 had lived together for eight years, from 2001 to 2009. And when we - by the time we left Reddit, we were not on the best of terms.
HUFFMAN: We hadn't - so we had been through a lot together. And we had never really discussed it. We had never discussed our roles at Reddit, kind of the boundaries, who was responsible for what. We didn't really have a way of resolving disputes. And we didn't see a ton of each other. There - I was in - I moved to San Francisco right when I sold, but Alexis stayed on the East Coast to be with his family for about a year and a half. And so when our contracts expired, we just kind of said, hey, you know, great, see you later and left it that way.
RAZ: There was, like, unresolved tension.
HUFFMAN: Yes. Yes.
OHANIAN: Yeah. I mean, look. There was a lot that went on during that period for sure. But we never really exercised the muscles that founders have to exercise that best friends don't. And there are lots of founders - like, it's great to be able to start a company with one of your best friends. But the conversations you have to have as co-founders are very different from the conversations you have to have as friends. And we didn't have enough of the hard ones often enough. And it was just unresolved and festered. Like, I don't think it was - I didn't feel animosity...
OHANIAN: ...But it was, like, neglect.
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RAZ: And you kind of throw yourself into activism at that point, right?
OHANIAN: Yeah. I didn't want to see the internet get messed up. I like spending time on it. I have a career because of it. And I was in the right place at the right time for SOPA and PIPA. Yeah. And I didn't have a job, so it was really helpful (laughter).
RAZ: Yeah. Can you talk a little about what that was about? I mean, you were super active in the SOPA campaign and neutrality. And what was it about at the time?
OHANIAN: Well-intentioned people - I think most of whom are well-intentioned in D.C. - writing bills for technology they don't really understand without people around them who are themselves technologists often lead to things like SOPA and PIPA. And those were two bills that were designed to stop copyright infringement that would have in practice basically broken the Internet. One was a House bill. The other one was - the latter was the Senate bill.
And it was one of the best ways to ever get first exposed to D.C. because they told us all that it was going to be inevitable when we got involved. And then maybe five or six months later because of Americans picking up the phone and calling and the Internet blacking out, they were unthinkable. Like, legislators were running from these bills. And it was a great demonstration of the power of people to actually effect change in D.C., which I didn't think was a thing. I didn't - like, that's what you sort of dream of, is how D.C. works. And I found a way to help.
RAZ: And during that time, you were sort of full on at Hipmunk trying to get that company...
HUFFMAN: Yeah. I mean, like starting any business, Hipmunk took all of my attention.
RAZ: Hipmunk, we should clarify, was travel - is a travel company.
HUFFMAN: Yes. Yes. So Hipmunk - we were in the glamorous business of slinging plane tickets and hotel reservations. It was actually a lot of fun. We took a lot of pride in the work we were doing. And we built, I thought, a very nice product. And we always really enjoyed saving people time. But it was a brutal business. Travel is very cutthroat. And we didn't realize that going in, how difficult that would be, so that took a lot of our attention and stress during those years.
RAZ: And you guys were just done with Reddit. You were not involved at that point at all.
OHANIAN: I eventually - Reddit was still wholly owned by Conde Nast at this point. But I was involved as a board member. But not in the day-to-day at all.
HUFFMAN: And my day-to-day connection died when - when we left, there were six of us - me, Alexis, Chris (ph), David (ph), Jeremy (ph) and Mike (ph). And Chris and David came with me to Hipmunk eventually. And that was my last connection to Reddit, really. And so there was a time when I was at Hipmunk where I knew 0 percent of the people who worked at Reddit. That was a little weird, to be honest. But I was also - my attention was so sucked into Hipmunk it didn't feel painful. It just kind of was what it was.
RAZ: In July of 2015, Reddit just goes nuts. It's just - moderators start to shut down subreddits. What was going on? You were at Hipmunk. You're not at Reddit. Did you, like, check out Reddit and start to notice crazy stuff happening?
HUFFMAN: Well, so Reddit - a couple of things were happening over the course of 2015. Reddit had just raised $50 million. And the CEO at that time, Yishan, basically had a midlife crisis and left abruptly. And so Ellen Pao took over. And Reddit went through a series of crises that year, mostly content-related on the site. The toxic users had kind of gotten out of control. And so it was kind of one thing after another. And Reddit's just getting killed in the press and then everybody just feeling, like, what is going on? And at the same time, Alexis and I were kind of repairing things. I don't remember exactly how it started. I know from my point of view, I just had this thought of like, hey, where's my best friend?
RAZ: Was it just around the time, you thought, I want to...
HUFFMAN: I think this is probably in, like, February.
RAZ: Of 2015?
HUFFMAN: Of 2015. I was just like, you know, what...
RAZ: And what? You decided that you were just going to reach out?
HUFFMAN: Yeah, basically. I think we had dinner. And, you know, we started this process of, like, what happened? At that point, you know, we'd grown up. It was five years since we left Reddit. It was five years since (unintelligible). And we just started kind of talking through things. We agreed, I remember, in that first dinner that, hey, we're going to put some effort into this, just repairing our friendship. And we actually saw my therapist, saw him together.
RAZ: The two of you went to therapy together?
OHANIAN: We did.
HUFFMAN: We did.
OHANIAN: When Steve pitched me on it, he was, like, look. My therapist has a really good idea. Let's come together. and...
OHANIAN: ...I was like, sure. OK.
HUFFMAN: And so we were actively kind of working out things. And so we were in more - closer contact. And then things on Reddit are really starting to go haywire.
HUFFMAN: And they reached a boiling point in July of 2015. The moderators who control their communities - all the communities on Reddit, you know, the many thousands of them, are created by users and run by users that we call moderators. And they were upset, you know, for some acute issues and also just - like, just general frustration. And so they took their communities down and effectively turned Reddit off for a couple of days. Alexis and I were talking.
And I was just like, Alexis - who was closer to Reddit at the time on the board - I was just like, look. You got to get the site online. Like, just whatever you got to do - work with - like, you've got to, like, broker a peace to get this back online because we were very fortunate that our largest competitor for years, Digg, made a blunder a few years prior and basically committed suicide in front of the whole Internet. Digg was five times bigger than us. They released a new version of their software that was so disliked by users that the users came to Reddit. And so this - that that could happen was a very real fear of ours. And at the same time, every single person I know texted me and said, you've got to go back to Reddit. And that's kind of what got the ball rolling.
RAZ: All - this all happened against the backdrop of Ellen Pao's resignation. She was very public about the abuse that was heaped on her. She wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post basically saying the trolls won. Around that time the Southern Poverty Law Center releases this report that says some of the most virulent and violent propaganda, and that it would describe racist and misogynist Anti-Semites - and you go back to this.
HUFFMAN: Yeah. And I remember my friends - 'cause the - I made the decision to go back at my buddy's 30th birthday.
RAZ: And you also decided to go back.
OHANIAN: Yeah. We both came back full-time then. But, like, getting Steve installed as CEO was something that really only one person on the planet could do. And it was Steve.
HUFFMAN: You know, I remember my friends were like, why are you running into that burning building? And it just felt like at the time I had no choice. I really, really loved Reddit. And part of me - and it wasn't even kind of a CEO mentality, it was more of just like an engineer who knew how it worked. And watching these trolls run rampant on Reddit, I remember just thinking, I know how to fix this. I, too, know the mind of a troll.
HUFFMAN: And if you just give me access to the code, I can fix this. And that was kind of - that was kind of my feeling. It was like, I know we can do this. And I don't want to see Reddit, you know, taken over by these people.
RAZ: I mean, is it possible to fully get - you know, remove the racists, misogynists, the, you know, horrible - horribly, you know, just cruel people? I mean, is - can you do that?
HUFFMAN: Well, look; anything is possible. But that's not the goal. What we want Reddit to be is, in many ways, a reflection of humanity. And humanity is not perfect. But what you get on Reddit is an authentic representation of what's going on in the world. And we believe that is very, very powerful. And the good news is - what one of the things that Reddit has taught me is that people are fundamentally good and that people in large numbers want to help each other. When you put people together in the right context, they will do really incredible things. And there's no reason why that needs to be undermined by a bunch of [expletive]. But it doesn't mean [expletive] don't exist. But we can - we can make the conversation more balanced. And that's really been our focus.
OHANIAN: I mean, consider 300 million people will visit Reddit this month. That's almost as big as the population of the United States.
OHANIAN: And the vast, vast, vast majority of those interactions and engagements are not - they're never reported by another user and they're actually either benign or actually good. But if anything, it shows us how much more we have in common with each other than apart. Because when you're on r/skincareaddiction, you don't know anything else about the hundreds of thousands of other people talking about their acne scars other than the fact that you have this shared issue. And whether it's about that or putting arms on birds - r/birdswitharms - (laughter) you find out you're not the only one who weirdly wants to put The Rock's arms on a parakeet. And that's OK because all people of all creeds should be able to come together and put Dwayne Johnson's arms on a parakeet. Do you not agree?
OHANIAN: You look skeptical.
RAZ: I - yeah I agree. Yeah.
OHANIAN: Would someone in r/birdswitharms put Guy's arms on a bird?
RAZ: Please. No.
OHANIAN: You're welcome. You're welcome. Someone here is going to do it.
OHANIAN: Silicon Valley is a place where dreams come true, Guy.
RAZ: I want to ask you about your personal lives 'cause a lot of people want to know about yours, Steve.
RAZ: So first of all...
OHANIAN: Ask him anything.
RAZ: Yeah. I'm going ask you - I'm going to ask you anything. Yeah. I mean, you know, do you have - do you have a personal life? Have you been able to...
OHANIAN: Because you work so damn hard.
HUFFMAN: I don't think somebody walks around wearing a sweater of a robot wearing - riding a dinosaur without making a few friends.
HUFFMAN: Yeah, I've got a personal life. Thank you.
RAZ: OK, great. And, Alexis, you are...
OHANIAN: Incidentally, mine is a lot more boring. I'm very much a homebody.
RAZ: And your...
OHANIAN: Yeah. I have a...
RAZ: You happen to be...
OHANIAN: ...Fiancee who's way, way more impressive.
RAZ: Serena Williams.
RAZ: Your partner. You are expecting a child? Congratulations.
OHANIAN: Yeah. I'm so excited. A little baby.
OHANIAN: Thank you.
RAZ: How did that happen?
OHANIAN: Well, Guy, when a man and a woman love each other...
OHANIAN: How did we meet?
OHANIAN: A couple of years ago I was hungover, overslept. I was at a - I was actually at a conference that I really didn't want to be at. But it was - it was a good thing I went because I overslept, and I needed coffee. And they sent me outside to sit by the pool. And there was a table next to me where they sat - where I sat. There were four people there. And I had my headphones on, and I was working on my laptop. And then one of them, this Australian guy, goes, (imitating Australian accent) hey, mate. There's a rat by your table.
I was like, what? I was like, oh dude, it's fine. Like I'm from Brooklyn. I see rats all the time. Thank you, but it's OK. And, little do I know, he was trying to get me to leave because they wanted that table for the rest of the team. And the woman who was next to him turned around and was like, are you really not scared of rats? And I was like, no. And she's like, oh, what are you doing here? And I was like, oh, I'm at this, you know, tech conference. And she's like, oh, who are you here to see speak? And I was like, I'm speaking.
OHANIAN: And then someone else at the table was like, oh, what are you talking about? I was like, I'm talking about Reddit. She had no idea what Reddit was.
RAZ: Did you know who you were talking to? Because...
OHANIAN: I - this was when I was like 90 - I was like 90 percent sure. But I had never - I literally never watched tennis. I didn't care for the sport.
OHANIAN: I'm being honest. I really did not care for the sport.
HUFFMAN: I want to - I want to jump in here with my favorite Serena story.
OHANIAN: OK. Not something we talked about ahead of time, but let's just do it live.
OHANIAN: This is trust.
HUFFMAN: So this was...
OHANIAN: This is trust.
HUFFMAN: It was, like, one of my first days on the job with Alexis. We were there on a - it was a Saturday. It was during Wimbledon. So Wimbledon was streaming on a - on a screen near us so Alexis could watch - we could watch. And Alexis gets this text. And it's just, like, wall-to-wall kissy emojis.
HUFFMAN: And I was like, is that from Serena? And, just then, I look on the screen. And Serena is coming out of the tunnel on her phone.
OHANIAN: We still will never know. We'll never know.
HUFFMAN: And, you know, it's delayed by a couple seconds, right? And I was like, did I just watch Serena Williams send you a wall of...
HUFFMAN: ...Kissy emojis?
OHANIAN: Didn't know he was going to say that.
RAZ: Wow. That's incredible.
HUFFMAN: And he was like, Yeah, bro.
RAZ: So you guys are back at Reddit. You are running this thing. You just raise a bunch of money. I ask this question of everybody who comes on the show. And I want to ask both of you to answer it. How much of what you think happened to you professionally is because of your skill and your talent, and how much of it is because of luck?
HUFFMAN: Somebody observed this that I thought - I thought was very smart. And he said, success is the product of intelligence, hard work and luck. And you can't have a zero in any of those columns. You know, we started an Internet company in 2005, when this - the kind of Web 2.0, this second wave of the smarter funding and smarter people were coming into the ecosystem.
You know, sometimes the wind blows your way. I'll tell you this. If I went back 10 years ago and knew everything I knew now and had to start Reddit all over again, I don't know if we could succeed. Right? It's just - it's a fickle thing, these social sites. And it's really all about the users and what are they into. And it's hard to say if we could do it again, all over, with - even with perfect knowledge.
OHANIAN: I'm personally heavy on the luck side. I don't want to totally remove agency because it's a ton of work. But I like that. There - you can't have zero in any of the columns. And it's so easy to look back on it and just think all the dots connected. But there was - there were other forces at play that make it all work.
RAZ: Alexis Ohanian, Steve Huffman, founders of Reddit. Thanks guys.
HUFFMAN: Thank you.
RAZ: And if you're wondering if someone actually put my arms on a bird, they did. You can type my name in to Reddit to see it. Or you can go to our Twitter handle, @HowIBuiltThis, where my team has kindly posted a photo of my arms attached to a parakeet's body.
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RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to this special, live episode of HOW I BUILT THIS. It was recorded in front of a live audience at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This episode was produced by Ramtin Arablouei, who also composed the music. Special thanks to Neva Grant, Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Claire Breen. Our intern is Lawrence Wu. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to a special, live episode of HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
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