Steve Huffman co-founded Reddit in 2005, left in 2009, and returned as CEO in 2015. At the time, there was a massive user revolt--and a nearly sitewide blackout--going on. At first, it seemed every action he took made the company hemorrhage employees. Then he figured out the framework he would use to turn the business around. --As told to Christine Lagorio-Chafkin

My first few months back were really difficult. I didn't feel welcome. Some of that was expected: I was the third CEO in a year. Nothing was going right. There was a time I wondered: "Wow, what did I get myself into?"

There were 65 employees when I returned. My first actions--such as defining what behaviors were allowed on the site--were polarizing. People quit in my first few days. A lot more left within six months. By the end of the first year, about half remained. But somehow, we kept the site running.

Reddit was basically frozen in time. It hadn't really changed at all in quite a while, and the attitude at the company was one of fear: "We're afraid to make changes, because if we do we could break or kill Reddit." That was literally what employees told me--that if we change, we could die.

I was like, "I don't know if you realize this, but you are dying. That's why I'm here." I mean, the company was actively committing suicide.

Hiring, at first, was a challenge. We were in the press for all the wrong reasons. Our reputation was horrible. Users were in open revolt, and employees were ashamed to work here. We hadn't hired an engineer for almost a year. Yet the product was working--the site was growing.

So this became my pitch: Reddit is an incredible place. It works even when we're trying to kill it, so what would happen if we actually did a good job?

We've done the hard part of making this platform, where users create community and share funny and interesting and helpful and supportive things. So, what if we built a nice onboarding tool? What if we built decent mobile apps? What if we just did sensible Product 101 things? How amazing could this company be?

At its core, that's still my pitch.

For the first time in my career, I've really started to value values. I write them down--both what's great about Reddit and the areas where we need to close the gap to be what we aspire to be. (The first value is "evolve.") Being consistent about those things makes it clear who will be a part of your new culture and who won't.

Today, Reddit is a fun place again. We have almost 500 really smart, quirky, friendly people who love Reddit and believe in our mission. We'd have our culture without my writing it down.

But we'll write it down, just in case.

From the July/August 2019 issue of Inc. Magazine