The Good, the Bad and the In­ter­net

Inc. (USA) - - CONTENTS - BY CHRIS­TINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN

Their friend­ship helped them co-found Red­dit. But run­ning the com­pany drove them apart—and then back to­gether. An ex­clu­sive ex­cerpt from We Are the Nerds.

SUniver­sity of Vir­ginia roomies and best buds Steve Huff­man and Alexis Oha­nian launched Red­dit in 2005, grad­u­ates of Y Com­bi­na­tor’s ini­tial class. Their site, a col­lec­tion of com­mu­ni­ties of ev­ery­one from cup­cake lovers to per­verts, made them wealthy and fa­mous—Huff­man the code-writ­ing mae­stro and Oha­nian, cre­ator of Red­dit’s alien logo, its pub­lic face. Pres­sures over con­tent and growth would split them from the com­pany and each other. As told in We Are the Nerds, they re­claimed the helm when a se­ries of es­ca­lat­ing crises threat­ened Red­dit’s ex­is­tence. But could they ever re­pair their re­la­tion­ship?

teve Huff­man had been see­ing a ther­a­pist for a few years, and per­haps thanks to the ris­ing tide of Sil­i­con Val­ley, that in­di­vid­ual, Cameron Yar­brough, had tran­si­tioned from mere “ther­a­pist” to “ex­ec­u­tive coach.” At mul­ti­ple ses­sions with Yar­brough, Huff­man later re­called, he lamented his ail­ing re­la­tion­ship with Alexis Oha­nian, and ad­mit­ted that he had a litany of long­stand­ing is­sues they’d been avoid­ing hash­ing out. Huff­man knew that over their years of mild es­trange­ment, each had grown even more dif­fer­ent, but that didn’t change the fact that he missed his old friend. With Yar­brough’s en­cour­age­ment, Huff­man reached out to Oha­nian.

Huff­man tried to plan a din­ner for them, but track­ing down Oha­nian and get­ting him to ce­ment a plan was “a pain in the ass,” he said. So Huff­man saw it as a mi­nor vic­tory when Oha­nian ap­peared at 5A5, a Ja­panese steak­house in the Em­bar­cadero that Huff­man loved, at close to the ap­pointed time one evening in early 2015. Once Oha­nian was seated across from him, Huff­man couldn’t hide his frus­tra­tions. “Dude, I’m try­ing to make an ef­fort and I can’t get you to re­spond to my texts.’ ”

Oha­nian, al­most in­vari­ably con­sid­er­ate and charis­matic in per­son, apol­o­gized. As steaks and cock­tails ar­rived, the men be­gan to hash out what had hap­pened back at Red­dit so many years ago when Oha­nian hired con­tract pro­gram­mers be­hind Huff­man’s back.

It’d been two years into their run­ning Red­dit within Condé

Nast, which had ac­quired it in 2006, just a year and a half into Red­dit’s life. The new “cor­po­rate over­lords,” as the guys dubbed Condé Nast and its par­ent, Ad­vance Publi­ca­tions, had in fact granted Red­dit a great de­gree of au­ton­omy. With Oha­nian liv­ing in New York, drum­ming up press and man­ag­ing the Red­dit com­mu­nity, and Huff­man in San Fran­cisco with a mea­ger pro­gram­ming staff, the site had grown nicely.

Within two years, Oha­nian had moved to San Fran­cisco, and in with Huff­man, to a Mis­sion District apart­ment. Though they’d lived to­gether dur­ing col­lege, in this new ar­range­ment it be­came clear quickly that be­ing around each other 24 hours a day wasn’t healthy. They got along per­son­ally, for the most part, but their pas­sions at work weren’t in sync, and when they dis­agreed over whether to use their mea­ger staff re­sources to bol­ster the site’s tech­no­log­i­cal back end (Huff­man) or build new, splashy me­dia com­po­nents (Oha­nian), Huff­man’s core team sided with him. Oha­nian didn’t ac­cept los­ing well. “We’d have some blowup fights at the of­fice,” Huff­man said. “I re­mem­ber be­ing pissed leav­ing work. I would drive us home and I re­mem­ber not speak­ing to him in the car. That’s when things were start­ing to de­te­ri­o­rate.”

The pair weren’t con­fronta­tional, so this and other long­stand­ing dis­putes had festered—and then scarred over. In 2009, once their con­tracts al­lowed, they each left Condé Nast. But in just over a year, Huff­man asked for Oha­nian’s help launch­ing an­other brand. It would take on Kayak’s travel search en­gine, and rank flights by the “agony” their itin­er­ar­ies in­duced. He called it Hip­munk. Oha­nian mocked up a charm­ing lit­tle chip­munk mas­cot in avi­a­tor gog­gles, and took a po­si­tion do­ing mar­ket­ing for Hip­munk. He en­gi­neered a suc­cess­ful press launch—one of the buzzi­est in Y Com­bi­na­tor’s his­tory. And then he was dis­missed abruptly at a meet­ing in a Man­hat­tan bar by Huff­man’s co-founder, Adam Gold­stein. “When I left Hip­munk, I pretty much left my re­la­tion­ship with Steve,” Oha­nian said.

On Septem­ber 6, 2011, Red­dit’s gen­eral man­ager, Erik Martin, posted on Red­dit’s blog that Red­dit was no longer “a divi­sion of Condé Nast,” and in­stead would stand on its own as Red­dit Inc., un­der the greater um­brella of Ad­vance Publi­ca­tions. The post ex­plained that the new ar­range­ment would set up “red­dit so that it can bet­ter han­dle fu­ture growth and op­por­tu­ni­ties.” He cited a statis­tic that when Red­dit had been ac­quired in 2006, it re­ceived about 700,000 page views per day. As of the post, Red­dit reg­u­larly got that much traf­fic ev­ery 15 min­utes.

From his perch at Hip­munk, Huff­man read Martin’s post and seethed. He re­al­ized al­most im­me­di­ately that Oha­nian had likely been in­volved in the spinout. He knew his former co-founder, his former best friend, had been there, hav­ing some­how in­serted him­self into the Condé Nast bu­reau­cracy they’d once to­gether be­moaned. As Condé Nast had made these plans, Huff­man hadn’t been asked for ad­vice. Af­ter read­ing the post, he felt waves of anger and em­bar­rass­ment hit him: He’d been in­ten­tion­ally kept in the dark for, what, months? Years? There were pangs of jeal­ousy at the fact that Oha­nian would be re­turn­ing to serve on Red­dit’s new board. Over days and weeks, Huff­man dwelled on the sit­u­a­tion, and came to the re­al­iza­tion that Oha­nian must have re­ceived shares of Red­dit in an agree­ment to lock in his board po­si­tion. That fact didn’t just sting; it burned.

“You didn’t even tell me you were go­ing back,” Huff­man said to Oha­nian, at the steak­house years later. “Mean­while, I wanted to be back, and then I al­most felt like you were keep­ing me out.” As the men talked, a cen­tral, un­spo­ken ques­tion hov­ered above all else: Could they even trust each other? That’s how dis­tant Oha­nian and Huff­man had grown. They agreed to meet again for din­ner.

As the pair swapped sto­ries and spoke about spe­cific points of ten­sion dur­ing that sec­ond din­ner—at a place Oha­nian chose that spe­cial­ized in seafood, which Huff­man hated— Huff­man be­gan to re­mem­ber why they’d be­come friends in the first place. They shared a world­view, and, be­yond the alien­at­ing scaf­fold­ing each had erected around the other in sup­po­si­tion and years of rel­a­tive si­lence, they still liked each other. Even 10 years later. Huff­man and Oha­nian gin­gerly be­gan cir­cling around an­other mas­sive ques­tion: Could they ever work to­gether again?

On Fri­day, July 10, 2015, Ellen Pao posted her let­ter re­sign­ing from her po­si­tion as in­terim chief ex­ec­u­tive of Red­dit. Hired first as a con­sul­tant, and later brought on as an ex­ec­u­tive, she’d been at the com­pany’s helm for eight months, ever since her friend Yis­han Wong had abruptly bailed from the CEO po­si­tion af­ter the com­pany had been bat­tered by con­tro­versy af­ter con­tro­versy, un­der a set of cir­cum­stances he’d later call “un­be­liev­able be­cause it is so weird.”

Huff­man and Oha­nian met for an early lunch at Su­per Du­per Burg­ers on San Fran­cisco’s Mar­ket Street. It was go­ing to be a hell of a day, so they each in­haled a lo­cally sourced, or­ganic burger. They were to meet Sam Alt­man, a Red­dit board mem­ber and the 30-year-old pres­i­dent of Y Com­bi­na­tor, out­side the front door of 101 New Mont­gomery at noon. Alt­man was to usher Huff­man, Red­dit’s orig­i­nal cre­ator, up into HQ to meet his new em­ploy­ees. As of this day, he was chief ex­ec­u­tive of Red­dit.

Huff­man, upon agree­ing to step in af­ter a botched dis­missal of a beloved em­ployee had caused the site’s vol­un­teer mod­er­a­tors to mutiny, had been given the de­ci­sion by the board over the past week about what role Oha­nian would play in the fu­ture

of Red­dit. “If you want to work with Alexis, that’s awe­some. I’m per­fectly com­fort­able if you say no,” Keith Rabois, a board mem­ber, re­called to Wired that he’d told Huff­man. Once in front of the Red­dit of­fice, the three men shook hands, and Oha­nian and Alt­man ac­com­pa­nied Huff­man past the door­man and into an el­e­va­tor to the fifth floor, where the three went straight to a small con­fer­ence room and shut the door. Pao was al­ready in­side. She had a list of jour­nal­ists’ names and num­bers they were to call.

Within min­utes, a hand­ful of re­porters fired ques­tions at the in­com­ing and former CEOs of Red­dit. Alt­man did a lot of the talk­ing. It was easy for him to hype Huff­man to the jour­nal­ists on the phone, since he had long re­spected him both as a pro­gram­mer and a leader. Plus, the po­ten­tial magic of the come­back story was not lost on Alt­man. “He ac­tu­ally built Red­dit. He wrote the code,” Alt­man said into the speaker at the cen­ter of the ta­ble. “The chance to get that back was so spe­cial.”

It was pro­fes­sional, clean, and cool. Some­how, ev­ery­one man­aged to keep their an­swers to the ques­tions about Pao’s de­par­ture pos­i­tive. “She did an in­cred­i­ble job,” breezed Alt­man. “She stepped into a re­ally messy sit­u­a­tion.” When Kara Swisher of Re­code cut in and asked Pao di­rectly whether she was fired, Pao man­aged to force out a laugh. “Thanks for get­ting right to the point,” she said, re­it­er­at­ing that she had re­signed be­cause of the board’s ag­gres­sive growth goals. She said that her de­par­ture was a “mu­tual de­ci­sion” be­tween her­self and the board. (She’d later al­lege in her own book that a board mem­ber had threat­ened her that if she didn’t re­sign, they’d “go to Plan B.”) Across the ta­ble, Huff­man’s skin was crawl­ing. “I was just think­ing, god, this is very awk­ward,” he re­called later. “It’s kind of like be­ing in a room with your ex and your new girl­friend or some­thing.”

His heart was rac­ing. The panic wasn’t just a re­sponse to the re­porters on the phone, or sim­ply to be­ing in the same room as Pao. Rather, it was in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the mo­ments that would come once the phone was hung up, once the four of them took the el­e­va­tor one floor down. In just mo­ments, he’d need to stand in front of nearly the en­tire staff of Red­dit, only a tiny hand­ful of whom he’d ever met, and ad­dress them en masse. He’d need to be­gin to build these in­di­vid­u­als’ trust. He’d need to in­spire them.

He felt mois­ture be­gin to ac­cu­mu­late on the sur­face of his skin as he stood in the el­e­va­tor with Alt­man, Oha­nian, and Pao. When the doors opened on the fourth floor, he was a deer in head­lights: The en­tire staff was al­ready gath­ered. He stood and breathed deeply for a cou­ple min­utes as Pao spoke first, de­liv­er­ing pre­pared re­marks. Her words were a shock to many ju­nior staffers, who’d heard her re­peat over and over in the past 10 days that she would not re­sign. To Huff­man, her words were a blur. “This is al­most over,” he told him­self in or­der to cope. “Some­day, this will just be a mem­ory.”

Huff­man panned the crowd of un­smil­ing faces and re­al­ized that each of these people had been through a week of hell, too. Heck, a year of pur­ga­tory for some. He’d be their third CEO in nine months. He’d pre­pared a speech but didn’t want to read from a piece of pa­per. So he ad-libbed, in­tro­duc­ing him­self, de­tail­ing his his­tory, and ex­plain­ing what he wanted to see out of Red­dit. It was not a slam dunk. He came across as en­thu­si­as­tic—if a lit­tle ter­ri­fied.

Some em­ploy­ees were unim­pressed by his words, which in­cluded mul­ti­ple notes on is­sues that needed im­me­di­ate fix­ing. To oth­ers, they felt crit­i­cal, ar­ro­gant: the Ul­ti­mate Cre­ator of this thing telling ev­ery­one in the room they were screw­ing it up. “It just rubbed a lot of people the wrong way,” a former staffer said. “They were like, fuck this guy.”

To Huff­man, the crossed arms and dour ex­pres­sions were a shock. He’d just left Hip­munk, where his longtime em­ploy­ees of­fered up en­cour­age­ment and hugs. “That was not what I got at Red­dit,” he said.

Other em­ploy­ees saw in Huff­man’s words and tone a laser fo­cus on prod­uct, a spe­cific set of goals in mind. “You could tell there was mo­ti­va­tion, you could tell he was very in­tent on be­ing back, and he had the con­fi­dence that he was ready to do it,” said Stephen Green­wood, a video pro­ducer.

Huff­man took a few ques­tions from the gath­ered staffers, in­clud­ing one about Pao’s ban of hard al­co­hol in the of­fice and mora­to­rium on work events whose sole ac­tiv­ity or fo­cus was drink­ing: “So, are we al­lowed to drink now?” Sure, Huff­man said. His phi­los­o­phy was: “I’m not gonna work at a com­pany where we’re gonna treat you like chil­dren. We’re gonna treat you like adults, and in ex­change, I want you to act like adults and look out for one an­other.”

By the time Huff­man was done in­tro­duc­ing him­self and mak­ing his at­tempt to rally the team, Pao had al­ready left the build­ing. De­spite hav­ing an­nounced that she’d stay on as an ad­viser, she would not be seen at 101 New Mont­gomery again.

Huff­man grabbed his lap­top and logged in to Red­dit as u/spez, his longtime pri­mary ac­count. Al­ready, ques­tions were wait­ing for him. He typed a greet­ing into the com­ment box and then an­swered Red­di­tors’ ques­tions for the next 15 min­utes. Huff­man re­al­ized he wanted to im­me­di­ately make good on his goals, to meet the team, to make all that was wrong right. He swiveled his chair around and in­tro­duced him­self to the first staffer he saw. “Hey, I’m Steve.” The em­ployee looked at him and grunted, “Hmm.” Huff­man stared for a mo­ment, then turned back around to his com­puter. It took ev­ery ounce of re­straint he could muster not to fire the guy on the spot. In­stead, he tried again. He turned to the per­son at the next com­puter. “Hey, I’m Steve.” It worked. “I’m Jack,” said an engi­neer­ing team leader, Jack Law­son. They struck up a friendly con­ver­sa­tion. That af­ter­noon, Huff­man shook hands with and in­tro­duced him­self to about half of the 65 staffers. Turnover was high in the months fol­low­ing Huff­man’s re­turn: About 50 staffers left. But Red­dit also be­gan a sig­nif­i­cant hir­ing tear, and

it had more than 150 em­ploy­ees by the end of 2016.

Oha­nian’s new job’s best de­scrip­tion might have been “sales­man emer­i­tus.” His ti­tle was just “co-founder.” In flashy sneak­ers and T-shirts, Oha­nian had be­gun serv­ing as a jet-set­ting hype man. “He likes to travel, he likes to speak, he likes to talk about Red­dit. I think 70 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion just re­ally falls for his charms, and many of them are CMOs,” Huff­man joked, with a lit­tle grin. “That works out great.”

Zubair Jan­dali, Red­dit’s dy­namic chief of sales, had in­for­mally dubbed Oha­nian “chief bull­horn.” One of Oha­nian’s big suc­cesses was work­ing with the pro­duc­ers of the sci-fi tech dystopia show Mr. Robot. Dur­ing its third sea­son, which aired in 2017, they pulled off an elab­o­rate in­te­gra­tion in which there were nods to Red­dit on the show and, si­mul­ta­ne­ously, clues from the show un­folded in sub­red­dits on­line.

Months later, in mid-2017, Oha­nian would visit South Korean con­sumer elec­tron­ics gi­ant Samsung in New York City to try to es­tab­lish the frame­work for a $10 mil­lion part­ner­ship deal, the very morn­ing af­ter his preg­nant fi­ancée was fea­tured wear­ing only a thong and a sil­ver belly chain on the cover of Van­ity Fair.

“Oh, that,” Oha­nian said when the cover was men­tioned in the Samsung lobby. It was a long and glow­ing story fo­cus­ing on his courtship and preg­nancy with Serena Williams. The preg­nancy had come to light the past April, when Williams made pub­lic what ap­peared to be in­tended as a pri­vate Snapchat pic of her­self in a swim­suit with a tiny mid­sec­tion bulge la­beled “20 weeks.” Oha­nian has said he’d been re­luc­tant to par­tic­i­pate in big, splashy, overtly per­sonal press, but was game to do what­ever Williams wanted—and she had al­ready de­cided to par­tic­i­pate in the story.

“You’ll al­ways be her as­sis­tant,” joked Oha­nian’s longtime as­sis­tant, Elis­a­beth Garvin. Oha­nian threw Garvin an al­most un­de­tectable side-eye, and joked about the mag­a­zine pho­to­graphs: “It killed a cou­ple birds with one stone. I’d been mean­ing to sched­ule both en­gage­ment and ma­ter­nity photo shoots for Serena. Now we have both—taken by An­nie Lei­bovitz.”

Two years af­ter those awk­ward din­ners, each of the men said he had fi­nally ac­cepted the other for the per­son he had be­come. Oha­nian de­ferred to Huff­man on busi­ness mat­ters—gone was his man­date of “let Alexis be Alexis.” Oha­nian grew to ap­pre­ci­ate his new po­si­tion: Mak­ing money and con­vert­ing traf­fic to money were clear goals, some­thing he’d never had be­fore at Red­dit. Huff­man had come to ac­cept Oha­nian’s wild, jet-set­ting life­style, and had even be­come prone to smile at his ap­pear­ances on mag­a­zine cov­ers and talk shows, which had ac­cel­er­ated thanks to his ex­traor­di­nar­ily fa­mous fi­ancée.

Per­haps most en­cour­ag­ing for their re­la­tion­ship, the pair had again be­gun to ban­ter like broth­ers. They were not to­gether in the of­fice a lot, but when Huff­man was asked how work­ing side by side was go­ing, he was so com­fort­able that he went straight for a joke: “Smells so good, I can’t con­cen­trate.” Oha­nian laughed, too: “People have given me re­ally great feed­back on that.” They’re not best friends, and they are per­fectly fine with that. They had, af­ter all, lived to­gether on and off for eight years. They had their fi­nances in­ter­twined for years. Their lega­cies were still tied to­gether, in Red­dit.

In the fu­ture, mak­ing de­ci­sions that are good for busi­ness is per­haps the big­gest change Red­dit faces—though Huff­man was poised to walk into that wind. Red­dit had im­prob­a­bly sur­vived a decade of man­age­ment lax enough that its com­mu­ni­ties spi­raled out of con­trol—and now ev­ery­thing, down to spe­cific con­tent, was un­der the mi­cro­scopes of mul­ti­ple teams at Red­dit: the friendly, in­ter­ac­tive com­mu­nity team; the se­cre­tive, ba­ne­n­act­ing trust and safety team; its engi­neer­ing coun­ter­part, dubbed “anti-evil”; and the pol­icy and le­gal groups.

In the sum­mer of 2017 came a mo­ment of epic re­lief for Steve Huff­man. Fi­nally, he had com­pleted a new fund­ing round. The process of putting to­gether the round—set­ting terms that could shape the fu­ture of Red­dit and its value to both ex­ist­ing share­hold­ers and em­ploy­ees—had been a slog. At least once dur­ing the year­long process, he’d grown so frus­trated that he’d come close to call­ing off the ef­fort. Now it was done, which meant time for a vic­tory lap.

On July 31, dozens of ar­ti­cles ap­peared in the tech press un­der head­lines read­ing some vari­a­tion of “Red­dit raised $200 mil­lion in fund­ing and is now val­ued at $1.8 bil­lion.” Just like that, six years af­ter Ad­vance Publi­ca­tions be­stowed upon its lit­tle ac­qui­si­tion the power to raise out­side fund­ing and grow like a startup, Red­dit joined a new ech­e­lon of Sil­i­con Val­ley elite. It was now a uni­corn, a pri­vate com­pany val­ued at $1 bil­lion or more, like Palan­tir or Pin­ter­est. There were only about 200 of these com­pa­nies in the world, and a hun­dred in the United States.

Some­thing else mirac­u­lous hap­pened over the sum­mer of 2017: Red­dit’s traf­fic grew to such an ex­tent that Ama­zon’s web an­a­lyt­ics arm, Alexa, the pri­mary site-rank­ing ser­vice, con­sid­ered it the fourth most pop­u­lar web­site in the U.S., be­hind only Google, YouTube, and Face­book.

Au­gust and Septem­ber 2017 went by with­out a single ma­jor com­mu­nity flare-up—the first time a late sum­mer and au­tumn had passed in five years with­out Red­dit nearly stran­gling it­self out of ex­is­tence. Huff­man’s past cy­cles of self- doubt seemed to have lifted. There was joy for him in ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the daily rhythm of Red­dit’s new home at 420 Tay­lor Street, the flow of staff paus­ing to chat on their way to their work­sta­tions. He could of­ten be found with his lap­top on a couch in front of the el­e­va­tors on the third floor, his feet in scruffy Adi­das soc­cer shoes, propped up, greet­ing any­one who walked by.

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