In July 2015, things at Reddit were bad. And that's putting it mildly.
Many of the website's top moderators were in open revolt as a result of events including the firing of a well-loved employee, Victoria Taylor. In protest, a lot of the main pages, known as subreddits, had gone dark. "The moderators had basically shut their communities down," CEO Steve Huffman said at The Next Web conference in Brooklyn, New York, on Wednesday.
Huffman had been away from the company he founded back in 2005 with his college buddy, Alexis Ohanian, for five years. In that time he'd learned to fly a plane and started another company, a travel-search site called Hipmunk. But after having scorched through two chief executives in the last year, Reddit was in dire straits. Its board needed drastic change. It needed Huffman to return to the helm.
"What precipitated my return at Reddit last year was that Reddit had no momentum," Huffman said.
As Huffman has said before, and alluded to again on stage at the conference, he couldn't just stand by and watch a revolt happen at the company. But his return would be far from an easy process. On July 9, Huffman stepped into Reddit's San Francisco headquarters, ready to meet with staff and the executive team. What he found was worse than he'd expected.
"The morale at the company was as low as I'd ever seen at any other company," he said. "I actually don't know if it could get any lower."
He discovered a team, he said, that "lacked alignment," and didn't "know its place in the world." When he sat down to meet with company leaders, he found that every individual had a major grievance to bring to the table.
For the next few months, it didn't get easier, especially with Reddit receiving heavy criticism in the press. Huffman said he began questioning what he was doing back at his old company, but forced himself to persevere.
"I was thinking about in my past having all these moments of despair when it seems like nothing is going right. And then always a month later, six months later, a year later, I look back and it's just a memory," he said. "I just kept repeating that to myself every day."
Fast forward 16 months. Reddit has launched a mobile app, built out internal teams to clean up the site's problems with spam and illicit content, and hired more than 100 staffers. It is moving into a shiny new headquarters in San Francisco within months. In short, it's a vastly different company from it was when Huffman returned that Friday in July.
There's still work to be done. But now that Huffman's team has built out new products and moderator tools, updated its ranking algorithm, and made other important moves, he's taking a moment to consider that perhaps the worst is now in the past.
"The last year has been incredibly long and difficult, but chipping away at it every day I think we've made a lot of progress and I'm very proud of it," Huffman said. "Now we are in a position where we can actually build our dreams."