Author Interviews
3:58 pm
Sat October 5, 2013

How Reddit Emerged From A Rejected (And Very Different) Idea

Originally published on Sat October 5, 2013 6:36 pm

Reddit calls itself "the front page of the Internet." The social news site and global discussion board has become increasingly popular since it launched in 2005. Topics range from politics and entertainment to animal videos and conspiracy theories. Many public figures have used Reddit to reach out to fans and supporters, and last year, President Obama used the site to answer voter questions live.

Reddit was founded by Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman. When they conceived of the site, they were still in college at the University of Virginia. They began as a small operation, funded by seed money from the startup incubator Y Combinator, run by Paul Graham. Now, the site has more than 80 million monthly users all over the world.

Ohanian has written a book, Without Their Permission, which tells the story of Reddit. He spoke with NPR's Arun Rath.

On taking the first step toward creating Reddit

Steve Huffman, my co-founder, and I really had no idea that it would grow to be one of the top 50 sites in the U.S. At the time we were two undergrads at U.Va. who just wanted to keep living like college students for as long as we could. And we had just had a lot of good luck happen to us during our senior year. We went up on our senior year spring break — probably the only people from Virginia who were heading north to Boston for their spring break their senior year. Because, one, I don't care for beaches; there's too much screen glare. And two, because a guy named Paul Graham was giving a talk called, "How to Start a Startup."

On getting a second chance to secure startup funding from Paul Graham

You know, I'm from a generation of people who got trophies for everything and, you know, I was really fortunate because I had not really had any big setbacks. We had met Paul — at the time we had a very different idea. We had wanted to allow people to order food from their cellphones. And so we were really surprised when they rejected us. We got a little drunk that night. And the next morning on a really long train back to Virginia from Boston, Paul called me back. And he said, 'You know what? We like you guys.'

On barriers to starting a Web business today

I cannot deny the good timing we had. So much of success is tied to that timing that we can't really plan for. What has helped a lot, though, even in the wake of the entire financial disaster and still the economic recovery that goes on to this day, is that the cost of starting a company continues to fall. In 2005 we actually had to order servers off of Newegg and assemble them in our apartment and then take them down to a colocation facility. A high school student right now, as long as she can get her parent's credit card, she can start a website on Amazon for less than her cell phone bill.

On the importance of Internet privacy

The thing that matters so much now, in light of the NSA revelations, is that more and more Americans are connecting the dots and speaking up about how important their right to privacy is. And any American would see something like their mailbox or their home as protected by the Fourth Amendment. As something that ... [if] law enforcement wanted to get into it required some due process, required a warrant. And it's really easy to see that and map it to our digital mailbox, or our digital home, our digital storage.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The website Reddit calls itself the front page of the Internet. It's a global discussion board, and since its launch in 2005, it has exploded.

ALEXIS OHANIAN: We just broke 80 million monthly visitors. So it's bigger than France now.

RATH: That's Alexis Ohanian. He's one of the co-founders of reddit.com. Reddit is based on openness. Anyone can start a discussion, and every single subject is fair game - politics, entertainment, comics, animal videos. Some Reddit discussions are serious. Last year, President Obama used the site to answer voter questions live. But much of Reddit's traffic is more freewheeling, not unlike my conversation with Ohanian. He sat down with me earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: There are people talking about robots. I'm actually already ready for the robots to become self-aware and take over...

OHANIAN: And enslave us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: There are the regional lessons.

OHANIAN: L.A. is pretty awesome. I'm sorry. I couldn't - I missed the last bit of what you said because it sounded like you were stuck in traffic. Come on over to New York. Our pizza's better.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: And there are the cat people.

OHANIAN: I'll tell you, my cat, that is the one thing I will - as much as I love and adore my cat, I will always be able to draw a line and just say, Karma, you're wonderful. But until you can make a world-class symphony, you're not people. I'm sorry. You're just going to have to stay here at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: You know, I have to start asking you some questions about your book.

OHANIAN: Oh, sure. We can do that too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: The book is called "Without Their Permission," and it tells the story of how Reddit became the Internet destination. When Alexis Ohanian and I talked earlier this week, I asked him to start at the beginning when Reddit was still a dream and he was still in college.

OHANIAN: Steve Huffman, my co-founder, and I really had no idea that it would grow to be, you know, one of the - I think it's one of the top 50 sites in the U.S. At the time, we were two undergrads at UVA who just wanted to keep living like college students for as long as we could. We had - just had a lot of good luck happen to us during our senior year.

OHANIAN: We went up on our senior year spring break - probably the only people from Virginia who were heading north to Boston for their spring break - because one, I don't care for beaches. There's too much screen glare. And two, because a guy named Paul Graham was giving a talk called "How to Start a Startup" to start something - and this was back in 2005 - that could one day become a multibillion-dollar company and change the world, really only took some laptops and an Internet connection because that's how much the Internet was changing the world.

RATH: So you still had to convince them that you had a good idea. So how did you pitch it?

OHANIAN: Well, so that's interesting. You know, I'm from a generation of people who got trophies for everything. And, you know, I was really fortunate because I had not really had any big setbacks. You know, we had met Paul. At the time, we had a very different idea. We had wanted to allow people to order food from their cellphones. And so we were really surprised when they rejected us. We got a little drunk that night. And the next morning, on a really long train back to Virginia from Boston, Paul called me back. And he said, you know what, we like you guys. We don't like this idea. It's way too early. For all these reasons, you just shouldn't do it.

OHANIAN: And so it took us about five seconds, and we got off at the next stop, got a train back to Boston, met with Paul for maybe an hour. And somewhere in that discussion, Paul said, yes, that's it. You guys need to build a front page of the Internet. And we thought, all right, well, that's pretty ambitious. We've just graduated from college but, OK, all right, yeah. We're going to make the front page of the Internet.

RATH: How much do you feel like you were the beneficiary of being there at a magical moment? How hard would that be to do in 2013?

OHANIAN: You know, so much of success is tied to that kind of timing that we can't really plan for. What has helped a lot, though, is that the cost of starting these companies continues to fall. And even - because in '05, we actually had to, like, order servers off of Newegg and assemble them in our apartment and then take them to a colocation facility.

OHANIAN: A high school student right now, she can - as long as she can get her parents' credit card, she can start a website for less than her cellphone bill. And I think that's the thing I can't get enough people thinking about. Because if you are just within the tech bubble, it's hard to believe that there is the unemployment levels that there are in this country because we cannot hire enough people who can write code. And so I can't tell enough people how valuable a skill this is. I mean, it is the new literacy for this century.

RATH: I know you're sort of - you've emerged kind of like from hacker culture. I don't know if you call yourself a hacker, but I know you're a big proponent of Internet openness and privacy. And I'm wondering about your take on what we've been hearing coming out of the NSA, the, you know, the revelations about the NSA the last few months.

OHANIAN: I would love to talk about this. The thing that matters so much now, in light of the NSA revelations, is that more and more Americans are connecting the dots and speaking up about how important their right to privacy is. And any American would see something like their mailbox or their home as protected by the Fourth Amendment, as something that if someone - law enforcement - wanted to get into it, required some due process, required a warrant.

OHANIAN: And it's really easy to see that and then map it to our digital mailbox or our digital home, our digital storage. But we need people who are writing these laws who actually understand the technology that underlies them. We've got a handful of folks who see that, yes, privacy should matter, whether it's physical whether it's digital. But the onus is on us. It's on us as citizens to call up, to email, to talk them. And, you know, we're their bosses.

RATH: Alexis Ohanian is the co-founder of online discussion site Reddit. His new book is called "Without Their Permission." Thanks.

OHANIAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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