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Reddit Founder to Penn State: Dream Big, Fear Failure

by on April 17, 2015 3:21 PM

You wouldn’t know that Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman is a massively successful Internet mogul just from looking at him.

In fact, with his boyish charm and casual style, Huffman might easily be mistaken for a Penn State student. And while Huffman was indeed on campus on Friday, he was there to share his experience with the next generation of innovators as part of Penn State’s IST Startup Week.

“But all career advice should have this disclaimer: what worked for me, what worked for other people, probably doesn’t apply to you,” Huffman said. “There are so many paths to success.”

And Huffman’s own path to success, by his own admission, is probably not the best one. After all, his first goal when he started the massively popular social news website Reddit was “just not to look stupid." 

He helped design a website that was designed to have a community of users generating content – an idea that now brings in over seven billion page views a month. But when Reddit first started, those users simply didn’t exist yet. So Huffman faked it until he made it, posting content himself and was pretending it was from other people.

“I just didn’t want my mom to be right when she told me to get a real job,” Huffman laughed.

But Huffman says that mindset was exactly his problem: he wasn’t dreaming big enough. He encouraged the gathered crowd of Penn State students and future entrepreneurs not to sell themselves short.

Huffman said that if you have an idea, then you have to believe in it. If you believe in it, then work for all the world like it’s going to be the next big thing. Because even if you’re wrong, having those big goals will help you make decisions with the big picture in mind.

Flash forward a few years: Huffman can now call Reddit the “front page of the internet” without sticking his tongue in his cheek. He’s successfully sold the business for a profit, even if (in hindsight) he should’ve asked for more money. And, after building the company and learning how to hire a management team, Huffman found himself bored in his work. 

That’s when got a call from a friend and the future co-founder of his second major startup, the travel site Hipmunk.

Except Huffman “really hated the idea” of breaking into the travel market. After all, he’d had nothing but trouble and frustration when trying to plan trips using the websites that are now his competitors.

“But anytime you’re frustrated with something, there’s an idea there,” Huffman says. “And shopping for travel just made me rage. It made me so angry." 

So Huffman pushed all his chips into the game, confident that everything he’d learned from running Reddit would make this new website a breeze. He was wrong.

Hipmunk was a different market, with a different business model, appealing to a different audience with a completely different kind of service. And Huffman readily admits he made some mistakes, had some flopped product releases and suffered from low company morale.

So Huffman did the unthinkable. He hired a product manager.

“I would get emails from people saying they did product and they wanted to work at my company,” Huffman said. “And I would think, ‘No, I do product. You’re not going to come into my company and do my favorite part of my job.’… but it turns out there are people who are way better at it than me.”

So Hipmunk retooled its vision. Huffman and his team set company-wide goals, and smaller monthly and quarterly goals. They started doing extensive testing and data analysis for every new product rollout. And they doubled their productivity in only about a month.

Through all of these highs and lows, Huffman has feared failure – hence his desire not to look stupid when he first helped started Reddit. But instead of letting that fear hold him down, he used it to push himself harder. 

“For many people, the fear of failure leads you not try to do anything,” Huffman said. “But the fear of failure can also cause you to be extra scrappy, and to accept no excuses for why you’re not going to fail. It can be a super powerful motivator.”


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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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