How Paul Graham built Reddit

The unsung hero of one of the most useful sites on the internet

You’ve probably at least heard of Paul Graham. He’s the programmer-turned-investor who cofounded the very first SAAS company in 1995 (Viaweb, acquired by Yahoo) and then started Y Combinator, arguably the world’s most influential startup incubator, in 2005. He’s also a prolific author and essayist, the inventor of two Lisp dialects (Arc and Bel), and a painter, studying art at RISD and the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence — a true Renaissance man.

This is the story of how he started Reddit — and created Y Combinator in the process.

The Idea

Although the official founders of Reddit are Steve Huffman, Alexis Ohanian, and Aaron Swartz, Paul Graham was the guy who came up with the idea.

He was inspired by a link-saving site called Delicious, where the most saved links appeared in a ranked list. This wasn’t the site’s main function, though, and Paul saw an opportunity. There was clearly an appetite for a link-sharing site; someone just had to make it.

The Delicious website, circa 2005

Y Combinator is Born

In 2005, Paul gave a talk about startups to the undergrad computing club at Harvard. He says he was “so impressed with … the other people I met at that talk that I decided to start something to fund them.” A few days later, Y Combinator (YC) was born, funded by Paul and cofounders Robert Morris and Trevor Blackwell as well as Paul’s now-wife, Jessica.

Paul took this photo of now-wife Jessica on the walk where they came up with the idea of Y Combinator.

The People

2 of the undergraduates in the audience for Paul’s talk at Harvard were Reddit founders Steve and Alexis. They were actually seniors at the University of Virginia and had traveled by train to hear Paul speak. Paul says that since they'd “come so far” he agreed to go out with them for coffee, where they pitched their original startup idea.

Their idea was a way to order fast food from a cellphone before smartphones. “They'd have had to make deals with cell carriers and fast food chains just to get it launched. So it was not going to happen,” Paul says. “But I was impressed with their brains and their energy.”

They were invited to pitch for YC and failed, but Paul wanted to give them a second chance. He asked them to pivot to the idea that would become Reddit.

Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian in the early days of Reddit.

The Name

Did you know Reddit was nearly called Snoo? (As in, “What snoo?” aka “What’s new?”) But snoo .com was too expensive, so they settled for Reddit as a provisional name because the domain was available. Obviously, it stuck.

The name ‘Snoo’ didn’t get discarded, though. Steve and Alexis recycled it as the name of their mascot.

Reddit mascot, Snoo.

The Launch

Paul pushed Steve and Alexis to launch as quickly as possible, and Reddit launched about 3 weeks into the very first YC batch. It was only “a couple hundred lines of code.”

“The first users were Steve, Alexis, me, and some of their YC batchmates and college friends. It turns out you don't need that many users to collect a decent list of interesting links, especially if you have multiple accounts per user.”

The company expanded to include 2 more of the YC batch, Chris Slowe (Founding Engineer and current CTO) and Aaron Swartz.

“Slowly but inexorably Reddit's traffic grew,” Paul recalls. “[W]ithin a few weeks it was clear that there was a core of real users returning regularly to the site. And although all kinds of things have happened to Reddit the company in the years since, Reddit the site never looked back.”

The first version of Reddit, 2005.

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