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TECHNOLOGY

What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About Reddit

Maybe one of the Internet’s top sites will finally attract the investor attention it deserves.

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BY Christine Lagorio-Chafkin - 22 Jun 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

When Reddit raised $50 million in 2014, in the wake of a major scandal that seemed like it might fundamentally alter the course of the company, it seemed shocking. Reddit hadn't raised funding in nearly a decade, and all of a sudden it was asking--just a month after allowing the spread of hacked celebrity nude photos--to be considered part of the Silicon Valley big league.

Three years later, Reddit is an entirely different company. No longer the scrappy bulletin-board site, it has grown into the fourth-most-popular website in the entire United States.

Now Reddit appears to be raising a new venture-capital round, which could total around $150 million, giving the company a potential valuation of $1.7 billion, as reported last week by Bloomberg. A Reddit spokesperson would not comment this week on the possible funding, saying only there was "no news." For anyone who has been even vaguely following Reddit, the funding news is not shocking. In fact, it's overdue. (Full disclosure: I'm writing on a book on Reddit to be published by Hachette Books in 2018.)

What happened? Almost two years ago, Steve Huffman, the founder who wrote Reddit's original code and infused it with its spirit (I've come to think of the underlying tone of Reddit as "magnanimous troll"), returned as the company's chief executive. Since then, Reddit has been in a state of rapid change. The most obvious factor in this transformation is that Reddit has gone from about 60 to approximately 150 employees. Several management positions have been filled--including that of CTO, for which Huffman brought on Marty Weiner, who was the first engineer at Pinterest.

The new crew is doing something Reddit barely accomplished during its first decade of life: shipping products. The company released its own app (better late than never!?), and a new tech stack. It is also reforming, more slowly, perhaps, its own ethos about responding to harassment, trolling, and hate speech by eliminating certain particularly vile communities and adding tools so users can ban others and tailor what they see on the site. Huffman has stated publicly that a homepage redesign is also on his mind.

Oh--and let's not forget this part--the metrics are proving all this is working. According to Alexa, the Amazon-owned web-traffic analytics source, Reddit is the fourth-most-popular site in the United States. More popular than Amazon, Wikipedia, and Twitter. And the site is engrossing: Users spend an average of more than 16 minutes there daily--more than any other top site; nearly four times as long as a visitor spends on Wikipedia. And this may be a conservative view. According to the site's co-founder, Alexis Ohanian, internal metrics show that 100 million individuals in the United States view Reddit each month. Imagine that: nearly one-third of all Americans. The site that once called itself the "front page of the Internet" as a form of wish-fulfillment now has a pretty good claim to it.

Reddit still has its albatrosses--namely that its darker corners attract bad actors--and that still makes it a tough sell to advertisers. The harassment and spam that the site is notorious for have been major targets of management, but they are still a massive problem.

Even as major corporations such as Coca-Cola, Duracell, and Toyota sign on to advertise on Reddit, the site's reputation as a troll haven full of fringe communities is something Huffman works on internally every day. He spoke about this very fact in November of 2016 in Brooklyn at an event hosted by The Next Web. He's talking about parts of the company's mission that he reiterates in the office:

The first is our most important one. I probably say this one every single day. It is to evolve. Reddit's 11 years old, it's not the same company it was 11 years ago. The context around us has changed. We've changed, that the scale has changed tremendously. The breadth and depth of everything we do has grown tremendously and we need to continue to evolve with it.

Still, Reddit has been almost comically undervalued its entire life. That's certainly a rarity when it comes to high-profile tech startups. But Reddit has never been a typical Silicon Valley company.

Founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman started the company in mid-2005 in Medford, Massachusetts, while participating in the very first class of Y Combinator, back when it was just an experiment in providing guidance and tiny amounts of seed funding to promising young founders. Reddit found its footing that summer on a mere $12,000. Paul Graham, one of the creators of YC, invested a bit more that fall of 2005, and a licensing deal with Cond Nast the following year gave the company a bit more runway.

By fall of 2006, Reddit was acquired by Cond Nast for an undisclosed figure I estimate to be in the ballpark of $10 million. By contrast, Google acquired YouTube that same year for $1.65 billion. Today, Reddit has more traffic than YouTube.

Reddit had decent traffic back then, too, but in terms of Internet-bulletin-board clout, it still played second fiddle to Digg (remember Digg?) for years. And for years it remained within Cond Nast, a strange Internet property the major media company tucked into Wired magazine's San Francisco office. There it was kept running, albeit with minimal investment. (In 2011, Reddit was spun back out a bit from Cond, placed under the parent company Advance Publications.)

Fast forward to 2014: As the company struggled through headlines it made about Gamergate and a celebrity-nude-photo leak, Reddit's then-CEO Yishan Wong raised the unexpected $50 million investment round, bringing in big names such as Peter Thiel, Marc Andreessen, Joshua Kushner, Jared Leto and Snoop Dogg. It also gave Reddit some room to stretch and grow, and find new footing.

What allows Reddit to thrive now was that 2011 move to place Reddit under the purview of Advance Publications, with a board who could make these fund-raising decisions. Plus, thanks to the fallout from the aforementioned scandals and the resignation of interim chief executive Ellen Pao, Huffman returned as CEO.

The new round reportedly would value Reddit at $1.7 billion, which would certainly put it in a different category--but not such an extreme round that it would negate the possibility of future fundraising. Consider that Vice magazine, which just got a fresh investment of $450 million, is valued at $5.7 billion. Of course, Reddit can at this point only aspire to have the sort of international ad-supported media platform that Vice has. But it absolutely trumps Vice in terms of having eyeballs on web pages. Once Reddit figures out how to more broadly and profitably sell those eyeballs to advertisers--something it has well in the works--the company could be worth a lot more.

In reporting the news of the likely forthcoming investment, Bloomberg wrote: "Reddit is one of the few relics of the mid-2000s internet that has not only survived but thrived in recent years." In that, it made one misstep: calling Reddit a "relic."

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