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.

Who should we feature on Mixergy? Let us know who you think would make a great interviewee.