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Reddit: From A Rejection To The Most Popular Internet Aggregator


A rejection from Y Combinator can go a long way - so long, you might end up brainstorming a mindblowing idea that million people love!

Well, that's what happened to Reddit's founders, Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman when they tried to enter the entrepreneurship world. Their first idea of a mobile app for ordering food didn't get the thumbs up from the Y Combinator's investors, so the duo decided to step up their game - big time!

They sure did prove that they can make something meaningful because Reddit has become the go-to platform for any curious mind, geek, or an average person who likes to explore those subreddits filled with original and educational content.

Here is Reddit's birth story and how it changed the way we receive and discuss pieces of information.

Founders Lives Before Reddit

Reddit's founders, Steve and Alexis, were problem-solvers from a very young age.

Steve Huffman was born in 1983, in Warrenton, Virginia, United States. He went to Wakefield School in The Plains, Virginia, and graduated in 2001. While in school, he loved to solve arithmetic problems by creating different calculators. It was during these years that he became more curious about technology and the IT industry, and he decided that pursuing a career in this field is just right for him. That's how he ended up at the University of Virginia to study computer science where he met his best friend and future partner, Alexis Ohanian.

Alexis's background story is far less cheerful. He was born in 1983, in Brooklyn, New York, but it wasn't easy for his family to get to The Big Apple. His grandparent immigrated to the USA after the Armenian genocide happened, his mother was from Germany while his father was a first-generation born Armenian-American. As a child of a mixed marriage raised on US soil, Alexis had it hard from the very beginning, but he saw it as a challenge rather than an obstacle.

While attending Howard High School in Ellicott City, Maryland, he started to create web designs for nonprofit organizations and create clans in Quake II. Alexis was an ambitious and bright student, so when he was chosen to give the graduate student address speech in 2001, it wasn't a surprise at all. He wanted to pursue a career in law, but luckily, he changed his mind and in 2005, he received a degree in commerce and history, from the University of Virginia.

The moment that defined the path for the founders was a lecture they attended in Cambridge, taught by Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y-Combinator. The lecture was named How To Start A Start-Up and who's better to speak about entrepreneurship than Paul?

The duo met Paul and they took his contact, a detail that will, later on, turn out to be crucial for Reddit's future.

The Birth Idea For Reddit

Do you know how some of the greatest ideas are born in the most unusual life situations? This was the case for the birth of Reddit too.

But before Reddit, the duo had to endure one hard rejection, one that would turn out to be a life-changing decision.

It was Steve who had come up with the first idea of a business, at a gas station, while pouring petrol into his car. Steve was thinking of ways to use time more efficiently and with the power Internet held, there are numerous ways to do it. As this was in 2005, more and more innovators built Internet-based businesses and Steve wanted a piece of that pie. Steve pondered the basic human need - the desire to eat and how awesome would be if there's a food app. Then, the idea popped into his head:

"Imagine ordering food while pouring gas and by the time you visit the food place, your food will be ready and you just pick it up!"

He shared the idea with Alexis and they started working on 'My Mobile Menu', an app for ordering food. They were happy with their product, so they decided to call Paul Graham, the man in charge of Y-Combinator, an accelerator for startups, and present him for their idea. Paul encouraged the duo to pitch the idea to all Y-Combinator founders. However, an unexpected thing happened to Steve and Alexis after the pitch - the founders rejected their idea! Apparently, no mobile apps were good enough because the iPhone wasn't out yet!

But the day after the duo got rejected, they received a call from Paul. He called to tell the duo that they still hate the idea - imagine the audacity - but they still love their work! He shared some valuable insights with them and Steve and Alexis immediately started to brainstorm ideas about new applications.

The idea for Reddit came from two other websites: Delicious, a social bookmarking service, and SlashDot, a tech news source. The duo saw that the Internet was a messy place and the plan was to make a website, where people could find a more organized version of the web. The name Reddit came from the basic use of the online information - to read it and it has a bit of call to action hint, right?

A Humble Beginning

It was time for the duo to visit the offices of Y-Combinator again and this time, they received the life-changing yes!

It was Paul's idea to name the entire project The Front Page of the Internet and Steve and Alexis received just $12,000 for it. However, even after working tirelessly for 3 weeks, they still didn't publish anything, so Paul was getting restless. He asked the duo about their whereabouts and from their answers, he concluded that they either didn't know how to do it or they were trying to make a perfect product.

The jig was up for Steve and Alexis!

Paul encouraged the duo to release the product as it is and to continuously work on it, to improve it and upgrade it. It was all the encouragement the duo needed and on June 23, 2015, in Medford, Massachusetts, they officially launched the website!

They got lucky just before going live with the website - they received $100,000 in a seed round!

In the beginning, the site didn't have much traffic, so both funders decided to make fake accounts and post every day. That's how the first content was generated to the site, but they didn't need to do that for too long - the site started working without their accounts! It was an instant hit on the Internet, people were starting to help each other and find the latest news.

The Third Mysterious Creator

Shortly after Steve and Alexis launched the company, Aaron Swartz joined and became the third founder. He was born in 1986, in Highland Park in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, USA. His father had a software company in his hometown, so Aaron spent most of his childhood interacting with computers too.

Aaron spent most of his learning about computers, programming, and the Internet culture in general. Until 9th grade, he was studying in a small private school named North Shore Country Day School which was based near Chicago. At the age of 13, he earned the ArsDigita Prize, an award given to young people who make useful and educational websites.

In 2000, he left high school and went to study several computer-related courses in his hometown. He was a vivid advocate for freedom of information which would cause him trouble with the government later in his life, but even so, he never stopped creating new tools for the Internet and the developing world.

In 2005, when Reddit was published, Aaron was amongst the first users and he was quite intrigued by the concept of the site. So he contacted the founders and asked them if they needed some help, which they certainly did. He was known to be a great programmer, and they promptly accepted him.

Selling The Company And Its Development

As Reddit was growing day by day, there was an offer for selling the company. The company that wanted to buy Reddit was Conde Nast Publications, which is owned by Wired. Steve and Alexis agreed and sold the company for an undisclosed sum between $10 and $20 million, but they were still in charge of it.

Later on, Steve would tell that he regrets selling the company, but that's the life of an entrepreneur - making a decision and sticking to it!

As the company grew, Aaron, who helped to rewrite the code, wasn't that interested in running the company anymore. Instead, he wanted to read archived files and got involved in hacktivism. He was pressured by Steve and Alexis to leave the company, because of his lack of dedication, and in 2007, he left without hesitation.

Reddit quickly became the place-to-be for diversity. It gave power to people to democratize the information on the Internet, especially with their use of subreddits. The site allowed free speech and that caused some controversies as there were subreddits that were offending or with explicit materials. Eventually, all of this was banned in February 2012 and Reddit's founders set the basics for the trustworthy site we know today!

Impact On Communities And Fundings

Even though there were some restrictions implemented, the damage has already been done - the communities had mixed feelings about the site. So in 2015, Steve began to change the picture of the platform and reassured the community that Reddit wouldn't ban anything unless the company was forced to do it. Alexis and Steve said that they created Reddit to be a place where an open and honest discussion can happen, and not a place to promote hate speech or discrimination, and they retain that opinion to this day.

Other than the initial seed funding, there were additional rounds in 2014, 2017, and 2019 - combined, the seed rounds raised $550 million! Quite a lot for what's essentially a forum, right?

As of 2020, Reddit has more than 400 million users and it's one of the most recognized websites on the Internet. However, this year Alexis stepped down from the CEO position and due to the protests for greater rights of the black community, he demanded to be replaced with a candidate of color. Steve is still part of Reddit and he continues to work on Reddit's mission - create an easier way for people to receive any information they need!