Entrepreneur Tells Students a Good Product, a B.S. in Computer Science and Luck Among Keys To Successjmcmanamay@virginia.edu
Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman, a 2005 UVA computer science graduate, spoke to UVA Engineering students as part of the Entrepreneurs in Tech Distinguished Speaker Series.
Steve Huffman was 21 when he launched Reddit and 22 when he and his co-founders sold the website they called the “front page of the internet” for $10 million to Condé Nast in 2006.
Today, Reddit is valued in the billions and exceeds 57 million daily visits by users organized into more than 100,000 common-interest “Redditor” communities who post, comment and vote on each other’s content.
Just a year after completing his B.S. in computer science at UVA, he didn’t know what he had helped create, Huffman told a packed audience of faculty, staff and students at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science.
As a guest of the school’s Entrepreneurs in Action speaker series, Huffman shared lessons he could have used when he was the age of the aspiring tech founders who came to learn from his experience.
The Power of a Good Product and the Right Fit
Huffman recapped Reddit’s story as one of the first successful ventures funded by Y Combinator, the now-famous startup incubator, and his journey back to Reddit, where he has been CEO since 2015. By that time, he’d co-founded Hipmunk, an online travel company that succeeded mostly in the sense that the venture provided Huffman’s first real lessons in business, he said.
In Reddit’s infancy, Huffman was more engineer than business exec. He also accounted for many of the site’s first few hundred users. He described how every day he searched for links to post so the site appeared active, its homepage seemingly filled with fresh content from contributors. Then one day, about two months in, he found the page full of real posts.
Now the site has more than 13 billion posts and comments.
“Turns out Reddit was really special,” Huffman said. “This thing just kind of grew and we didn’t know why. If you’re ever in that situation — most of you won’t be because it’s really, really rare. You have to get really, really lucky. But if you have a product that grows and you can’t explain why, boy, you’re onto something good.”
Experience Is the Best Education
What he and his co-founders, UVA grad Alexis Ohanian (commerce and history, 2005) and Aaron Swartz, had stumbled on was a good product with perfect product market fit. What they didn’t have was a long-term strategy beyond the feature they planned to build the next day.
That is one of the biggest things he would change if he could do it all over again, said Huffman, who remained a Reddit employee for three years after selling the website.
“It’s not necessarily wrong, but [when it comes to] decisions like whether or not to sell a company, I think we can come to the wrong conclusion. If you’re only planning for one day, you can’t tell if you’re on the path to something amazing,” Huffman said.
The room was packed for Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman’s talk, an entertaining and insightful recap of Reddit’s founding and his journey since — including do-overs and lots of luck.
He’d also think “about 100 X bigger.”
“We launched Reddit on June 22, 2005, and literally every day since then I could say truthfully, Reddit is far bigger today than I would’ve ever possibly imagined.”
Since returning to Reddit, Huffman has led the company through international expansion, sweeping updates to the platform’s content policy and a site redesign.
His vision for the future entails giving users greater ownership of their content through new products, such as the Contributor Program. He owes Reddit’s success to letting people be themselves with few restraints. Further democratizing the site is a chief motivation for taking the company public, a move he said is on the horizon.
UVA Offered ‘Perfect Balance’
Huffman took questions ranging from how to spot a bad investor to a request from a would-be entrepreneur to recommend his startup idea to Y Combinator (Huffman will if he likes it).
But that was not before a student asked Huffman how UVA shaped his life.
Studying computer science at UVA had already accustomed him to working among intimidatingly credentialled people, so even the Harvard and MIT engineers he worked with later didn’t faze him, Huffman said jokingly.
“Actually, I thought UVA had the perfect balance of theoretical and practical,” he said. “I felt like I had just a better foundation than a lot of those other folks as a result. So I’m really, really thankful for my time here.”
Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman hung out with UVA Engineering students after sharing some of the lessons he could have benefited from as a young entrepreneur in the early days of Reddit.