He could have been studying, but instead, in a University of Virginia college library in 2005, Alexis Ohanian plotted out an idea for a user-ranked news site. "I thought: People should say at parties, 'I read it on Reddit.'" Today he jokes, "To the best of my knowledge, that has never really happened." But the news links site he created today is a hallmark of social aggregation. When he and co-founder Steve Huffman left the company in early 2010, they took with them lessons learned from managing a large, amorphous audience they'd empowered to rate the news to populate the site's homepage. With that, they created Y Combinator-backed Hipmunk, a radically simplified travel search site. This year, Hipmunk was a darling of the South by Southwest Interactive festival, taking top honors for the SXSW Accelerator's Innovative Web Technologies competition. Ohanian, along with Hipmunk co-founder Adam Goldstein, talked with Inc.com's Christine Lagorio about the lessons they took from Reddit in founding Hipmunk—why simple design, cute mascots, and massive amounts of user-respect drive their success.
Let's talk about Reddit. What exactly happened when you left?
Alexis Ohanian: I left Reddit right around the end of 2009 or start of 2010. Steve [Huffman, Reddit and Hipmunk co-founder] went and got married, I fled the country to go do some Kiva volunteering. In the years since Steve and I left, Reddit has exploded. It was growing steadily in traffic before, but as soon as they got rid of us, it skyrocketed. It's clearly causal (laughter). They trimmed the fat, so to speak. It's been great, though, because seeing it all happen, even from afar, has been really heartening, even though I can't take any credit for it. It makes me smile on a daily basis.
What role did Digg's site changes have in the recent traffic growth on Reddit?
Oh, tons. The Monday before Digg Version 4 came out, Reddit was doing about 600,000 uniques a day in traffic. The Monday after, it bumped up to about 950,000 a day, and that number has only grown. I wrote a blog entry about a month or two beforehand sort of criticizing what I thought was VC meddling, because it basically seemed to be breaking the model that Kevin [Rose, Digg founder] created. We benefited a lot from Digg in the early days, actually, because they educated people on the concept of social news. But we didn't want to do the same things.
How did you try to keep your Reddit users content?
We didn't run ads on Reddit for the first seven months. And when we finally did, we only did it on the comments pages, because we wanted users to be treated well. We knew users were volunteering so many of their hours to make the site great, we didn't want to screw them over with a bunch of obnoxious ads. Now, it's harder to find a business model from that. Fortunately, with Hipmunk, we can provide a great service, and still get paid [by airlines and travel agencies], because people get their flight, or the hotel they wanted, and we're still treating them really, really well. I loved the people giving us content. I'd hand-write notes to users that everyone would sign. We'd randomly make stickers and send them to users. Because the users were doing all of the work; we were just janitors.
What else did you learn from Reddit that you applied to Hipmunk?
As Bob Dylan so wisely pointed out, if you got nothin', you got nothin' to lose. And it's true. When you're out of college you have no expectations; like, you have no idea what holidays you are supposed to have off. You can just work hard and get paid, and as long as you can afford Ramen and beer, you have what you need. The barrier to getting an idea out to the world has never been lower. You can simply have a fabulous idea, and if you can build a website, you can have it out to the world. That simple. If you are a Russian 17-year-old and people end up using it to expose themselves, but it still becomes a worldwide sensation. And stories like his will become less and less unique in the decades to come. So, go for it.
Especially when programming languages are increasingly considered among basic languages to learn.
Yes, and that all of the tools to learn programming are available free online. It's exciting. Someone looking from the outside in—I gave up programming my sophomore year of college after I met Steve I realized there was no way in hell I was a programmer. I let that be in the hands of other people, and I'd just keep drawing logos.
Adam Goldstein: Reddit has this wonderful community, and it's due to the logo above all else (laughter).
The alien is really powerful, huh?
It's consistent in aesthetic with the way I think its users think, which is, I don't want to be distracted by a lot of stuff. I want to know what's going on and comment on what's going on, but I don't want to be bombarded with advertising. And so the aesthetic of the site I think does a great job of conveying that and keeping people engaged with it.
AO: With Hipmunk, at the end of the day, treating your users well is so important. It's part of the bigger trend: we should design our products and our services around being good to our users. I wish it wasn't such a novel thing. But it's worked really well for Reddit and it's worked really well for Hipmunk.
So, where did the Hipmunk name and logo come from?
AG: Those two are intertwined in many ways. We were having trouble finding a domain name of any appropriate kind, and I registered some absolutely atrocious names.
All right, let's hear them.
Oh, like BouncePounce.com. I did like it. I was like, dude, when you take a trip, it's like you're bouncing out of town, and when you want a good deal, it's like you're pouncing on the deal. BouncePounce! It's obvious. I also had Truevel.com, like "travel" with a U-E instead of the A, which I actually think isn't the worst one. It's like an umlaut. But it's also like, are you speaking English?
I was talked out of using one of these terrible names, and I am so glad, but I was explaining the dielemma to my girlfriend. She was like, you should start looking at names of small, cute animals, because then you'll be able to get a good logo. So I sat down at her computer, and squirrel.com, chipmunk.com, they were all taken. Then I started leaving off letters. Hipmunk was up for auction, and we got it for like $70. Then it was easy to create the logo. Alexis did it, although he's kind of getting famous for every logo he's done [Reddit, BreadPig, and Hipmunk] kind of looking like a bear.
How has the Hipmunk served you so far?
AO: Well, we never let ourselves be the focus of the site. We could just parade the mascot around rather than ourselves. And that's good advice, because you don't ever have to worry about your mascot going on a coke binge with hookers like Charlie Sheen. Not that Steve and I would do that, but I actually really like the fact that I can go to Reddit meet-ups and most people have no idea what I look like. I want people to associate their experience with this infallible animated creature. This Hipmunk can never do any wrong, ever. And it's perfectly acceptable to love it.
It's really easy to build a story around a founder. Everyone loves to talk about Dennis Crowley or Mark Zuckerberg, but people aren't using Facebook because Zuckerberg is on it. And they shouldn't be. The product, the service, is what people come for. Our ultimate goal with Hipmunk is to make people enjoy searching for their travel options as much as they enjoy traveling. It shouldn't be horrible. This brand exudes that. If you start with that, your branding and your marketing decisions become pretty simple.
What have you seen this week at South by Southwest that start-ups might be doing wrong?
I think it's very in vogue right now to describe your start-up as the X of Y. If you form your company's identity around a response to other companies, or an incremental improvement on other companies, I think it can cut down on your ambitions. It's hard for me to imagine Apple describing themselves when they were getting started as, like, the Mercedes of personal computing. You could describe Hipmunk, for example, as a "user-friendly Kayak" or a "Kayak with better visualization," but I just think of it as "we're like Kayak, but better."
Are you going to do car rentals in the future?
Stop reading our product plan! Yeah, we're thinking along those lines, and doing apps as well.
Any advice for newbies to SXSW?
New York is already a very social city, so this applies there, too. When start-ups are focusing so much on going to events and networking and not on building the best product or service they can, something is wrong. Build you product, and at the end of the day, you'll never have trouble getting coffee dates if you've built something great.