No, Reddit Didn’t Copy Digg. Here’s How It Was Built.

It took Reddit‘s founders less than 2 years to launch the company, make it into a top social news site and sell it to Conde Nast Publications, owner of Wired.

I invited Alexis Ohanian, the company’s co-founder, to come to Mixergy and talk about how he did it.

Alexis Ohanian

Alexis Ohanian


Alexis Ohanian is the co-founder of Reddit, a leading social news site. He’s also the founder of breadpig, an “uncorporation” that creates and sells geeky things for fun and no profit. The mascot is a pig with bread wings.


Excerpts: The Reddit story

Andrew: True or False? You saw that Digg was doing well and said, “let’s jump on that bandwagon?”

Alexis: False.  That is false.

This is a good chance for me to dispel any rumors.  We were living in a veil of ignorance for the first month or so at Reddit.  We were working our asses off, my co-founder Steve Huffman and I, building a site that we got online, and then two weeks into the site being online we found out that there was this other site called Digg, that had venture funding and it had been out for quite some time.

And, yeah, then the comparisons inevitably started coming.

How’d you meet investor Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator?

He was giving this talk during our spring break and we were the only kids in Virginia going North to Boston (where we actually saw snow) to spend a few hours listening to Paul Graham read an essay.  But afterward, Steve got his book signed, and I told him it would totally be worth the price of buying him a drink if he’d sit down with us and just hear us out, because we came up from Virginia with this startup idea.

What was the idea you pitched to Y Combinator?

We approached Y Combinator, sort of seed stage venture company that invested in us, with an idea that would transform the way you order food, specifically using a cell phone to do so.  They didn’t really like the idea.  They liked us, but they hated the idea.

So, they said, “You guys should come back with a better idea, and maybe we’ll take you in to the program.”

We came back, we sat down with Paul Graham, Y Combinator’s founder, and we talked, trying to come up with ideas.  And one of the issues that Steve and I had, and then I think, to some extent Paul had, was that there was no great way to filter all the best stuff on the web.  And the site we actually looked to during those first few weeks was

Now, if you haven’t been to, check it out. I think you can see aesthetically, a lot of the early motivation for Reddit.

Your investor didn’t like your first idea, why didn’t you argue?

Because Steve came in with a tremendous amount of respect for Paul.  I really only knew him from a couple of his essays, but Steve was really a student of his work. I think there was a great appeal to the Y Combinator format. And I think we were willing to admit the fact that we were stupid and ignorant.

The idea for Reddit came from Paul Graham?

Yeah, I mean, it was in that conversation with Paul where we developed this idea for creating a way to find out what’s new online. All the actual mechanics of how that would work, basically happened in the next few weeks, while Steve and I were in a crap apartment, in Bedford, Massachusetts, playing a lot of Warcraft.

How did you go from idea to product?

The first three months were really intense at Y Combinator. The first month in particular, we went from this very vague idea to an actual site that went on live about three weeks later.

It was really just me and Steve sitting in this apartment, in the middle of nowhere, Massachusetts.  We would only go outside for Pizza and then we would go to Azeroth in World of Warcraft at night to give us some distraction and that was it.

And, it was just a lot of — a lot of doodling in our journals, a lot of chatting across the table from one another and just work.

Andrew’s note: Here are some early designs that Alexis talked about in the interview.

Full program includes

– The real motivation for starting reddit.
– Why they sold Reddit. (It wasn’t just about valuation.)
– How Reddit considered doing a video show after seeing Diggnation. And why they quickly rejected the idea.
– How the reputation of their investor, Paul Graham, helped get the first members of reddit’s community.
– What life is like after the sale.
– Discussion of the controversy surrounding subreddits. (Thanks to Merrick.)
– How reddit balances the demands of the community’s loud minority and the needs of the minority of silent users.

  • merrick

    Thank you Andrew for asking those questions linked to above.

    What I got out of Alexis Ohanian's answer to the question about SubReddits is that they liked what had done with subdomains and then did something similar on Reddit. However, in my eyes a small implementation detail makes reserving a SubReddit much more powerful than reserving a subdomain on WordPress. is made up of a large number of blogs, and those blogs acquire the majority of their traffic through the actions of the blogger who reserves a subdomain. However, Reddit is a news site and in news the standard categorization was defined long ago and it's natural for people to seek out those standard categories i.e. subreddits. I think that detail is what makes certain SubReddits so valuable and believe that it's not as easy as Alexis makes it out to seem that anyone else can create and displace another popular subreddit if they do not like the moderation of a popular one.

    That said, hearing Alexis philosophy about subreddits does make me feel that they are truly letting people control the news – not like another 4 letter socnet that employs moderators.

  • the one million dollar question would have been “how they created the community at the beginning?

  • Agree, they haven't talked much about this. 99designs, they already had their community so nothing learned there as well :)

    I really want to know how do they kick start these social news sites, which advertising methods they use because I as a user – don't want to join social site without people in there. There a big difference between creating community platform at existing site and creating community site from the scratch.

    All I know is that most of these sites come as beta versions ( duh ) and invite couple of hundred people who are ready to use the site as private at that moment. This obviously helps to bring conversation and content.

    As they say … once you're lucky, twice you're good … so Alexis, what's your next project :) ? No offense but you didn't looked that ambitious in the interview. Probably comes with the age, 26 years and millions in pocket … understandable ;)

  • Jim

    Andrew, i haven't commented before but i have watched about 6 of your interviews and I am glued to the screen. What I really love is how granular you get with these people. So many interviews ask about how they got to where they did and what they communicate are these stories with these HUGE gaps of missing information…the real steps they took to get their start up off the ground.

    Keep up the good work!


  • Ycombinatortastic. I listened to this interview whilst painting my sons bedroom, 3 fricking coats. Listening to interview Reddit is indeed a great example of a lean startup. Am inspired to find more dynamic people in my town (swansea, wales) and share ideas with them. peas on earth.

  • Uptiil now I was thinking that Reddit really copied Digg. Alexis seems like a really nice and humble guy. So I'm willing to believe him.

    It's really motivating to hear about their passion and how their persistence got them where they are. Awesome!

  • I never liked those sites anyway..

  • Great interview. I love how he started with one idea, then it changed and finally created something out of that. We do not always know where we are going or the windy road that I will take us. Thank you

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  • gaveeno

    Fantastic interview Andrew! I was in the same business program at UVA as Alexis, and although I didn't cross paths with him there I enjoyed learning more about him and his success with Reddit here. I agree with previous commenter Jim, the granularity of your interviews really helps us get a full picture of the person you're interviewing, their business story, etc. Keep up the strong work!

  • joshuaeric

    Loved that interview. I have been looking for the story behind Reddit. I always enjoy hearing candid stories about entrepreneurs.


    Checking out breadpig now!

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  • I really liked this a lot. Alexis was really authentic/likable and there was some good information and things to think about. Thanks for this.

  • I really liked this a lot. Alexis was really authentic/likable and there was some good information and things to think about. Thanks for this.

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